"Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by
the rulers as useful." - Seneca the Younger, 4 bce - 65 ce.
There is a drumbeat of whining among right-wing extremists that there is a war on Christianity, not just in the Mideast, but in the United States, as well. The Internet is abuzz with forwarded material complaining about the latest outrages: efforts to prevent the Ten Commandments to be displayed in public buildings; children not being allowed to pray in school; crèches being banned from public grounds; crosses not being allowed on federal lands; etc. A Pew Research Center poll reveals that 57% of Republicans do not believe in evolution, and, where these benighted souls reign, schools are being forced to teach the religious doctrine of “intelligent design.” Fox News complains of threats to Christianity and arouses the Tea Party masses to fury over each perceived insult to total Christian dominance of our country. These alleged secular outrages are merely the weak manifestation of the will of a small minority trying not to lose the freedom of their religion – or of their lack of religion.
Most of those who settled in America came from European countries in which the kings owned people’s bodies and the priests owned their souls. Kings and priests were mutually supporting against the people and both derived their wealth by taxing the people. Kings ruled by force; priests ruled by fear. Both kings and priests used torture and fear of eternal damnation to keep subjects in line. To attack the king was treason; to dispute the priest was blasphemy. Both were punishable by death. In England, lowly testicular (not divine) inspiration resulted in the establishment of the Church of England, which was supported by the state. That church brutally opposed Catholicism, and Catholics returned the favor. Wars resulted.
In these same European countries, the Jews were first told, “You cannot live among us!” They were either put in ghettos or driven out. When it was found that these people were energetic, intelligent, and prosperous, the Jews were told, “You cannot live among us -- as Jews!” They were forcibly converted to Christianity. When the Inquisitors suspected that the conversions were not sincere, they tortured the Jews and said, “You cannot live!” This led directly to pogroms and, finally, to the Holocaust. The latter was conducted by God-fearing Catholic and Lutheran Germans. The anti-Jewish policies built upon centuries of religious hatred. Himmler even based the organization of the SS upon the Jesuit hierarchy with which he was familiar as a devout Catholic.
Europeans have been coming to America for centuries to get away from such church oppression. Settlers in America wanted no part of it, but they frequently started their own forms of oppression. The Salem witch trials were an example of this. Our founding fathers recognized the problem and attempted to protect everyone from religious oppression. In The First Amendment to the Constitution its framers attempted to do this. However, just as is the case with the Second Amendment, people are now trying to infringe upon it. The Constitution is our protection against tyranny of the majority. Christians are in the majority in this country. The minority can resist the efforts of the majority only by invoking the Constitution. Without the Constitutional protections, majority rule is like two wolves and a sheep voting about what is to be on the menu tonight.
Here is what these founding fathers wrote about what they had done to protect us from oppressive religion:
“We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this land the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition….” ~George Washington, letter to the members of the New Church in Baltimore, January 27, 1793.
“The Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” ~1797 Treaty of Tripoli signed by John Adams.
“The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history .… It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven…. It will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.” ~John Adams, “A Defense of the Constitution of Government of the United States of America” 1787-1788.
(The Constitution, by the way, has almost no mention of God, Jesus, Christianity, the Creator, or religion, other than to state in the Bill of Rights “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” or using the convention of the time for giving a date as "in the Year of Our Lord.")
“When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obligated to call for help of the civil power, it’s a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.” ~Benjamin Franklin, letter to Richard Price, October 9, 1780.
“Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.” ~Thomas Jefferson, letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787.
“The civil government functions with complete success by the total separation of the Church from the State.” ~James Madison, 1819.
“Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person’s life, freedom of religion affects every individual. State churches that use government power to support themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of the church tends to make the clergy unresponsive to the people and leads to corruption within religion. Erecting the ‘wall of separation between church and state,’ therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society….” ~Thomas Jefferson: in a speech to the Virginia Baptists, 1808.
It may seem no great oppression to a fundamentalist to have a huge cross atop a mountain in a city like San Diego. What if it were a swastika? I find the cross beautiful. However, what is not beautiful is the message sent to people of other faiths when it is on government property. It says, “We dominate and rule – there is nothing that you pitiful non-believers can do about it!”
Religious folks can display their religious symbols and biblical texts on church property, or upon private property. There is no need to place them in or on government buildings and property. Children can be taught a particular religion at home, in private schools, or in churches. There should be no need to brainwash them at public school, or to alter the texts of science books to reflect a mythical instead of a scientific view of our origins. Why does the Pledge of Allegiance still have to have the burdensome phrase “under God” in it as it has since Knights of Columbus succeeded in having it added in 1954 to protect us from godless communism? Why, for God’s sake, does even our money, the very symbol of evil Mammon’s “treasures upon earth,” have “In God We Trust” on it? What is enough to give the majority a feeling of comfort and security that they rule the roost?
I suspect that they are concerned that their children, upon reaching the age of reason, will believe more in science than in religion. Although they have little to fear in that regard, Newt Gingrich wails, "I have two grandchildren …I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle…, by the time they're my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American." Radical Islamist secular atheist -- what is that? The statement illustrates and uses for political purposes the angst of believers that they cannot protect their children from science, reason, and godlessness in the world. Not to fear, our education system still turns out a majority of people who seldom give serious thought to anything beyond cars, television, video games, sports, clothes, food, booze, and sex.
Only seven percent of the members of the National Academy of Sciences (“the wise” of whom Seneca wrote) believe in God according to a Nature magazine survey. However, science can be difficult, and most of our children lack the persistence to study it. I know a woman who has been a judge and a government attorney, but she believes that the world is only 6,000 years old because she was reared in a religious home and because she once failed a college biology course. Right-wing religious fundamentalists should take heart in the fact that no matter what advances there are in science, their children will continue to believe the medieval myths learned at mother’s knee rather than the science taught at some other joint.
Religious people just need to understand what the founding fathers intended and to get the message: “Secular folks are not trying to destroy your religion. We just want our constitutionally guaranteed freedom from your religion, especially in our government.”