Secondly, I don't equate religion with immorality. I think we can all agree that whether someone is outwardly religious or not has little to do with whether that person is actually morally good or bad. I know that sometimes I give the impression that I believe religion is simply bad; that is a rhetorical excess on my part. I think sometimes religion has a bad effect on people. That's different than saying religion is inherently bad. I'm not Richard Dawkins.
And third, I'm conceding, right out of the starting gate, that religion has played a significant role in the history of this country, that religious freedom was and remains integral to the idea of what it is to be an American, and that many of the Founders of our nation were deeply religious people. I do not, and never have, proposed that government turn a blind eye to religion, pretend that it does not exist, or act as though religious institutions do not play significant roles in the lives of Americans. I am myself, to a significant extent, the product of some of those religious institutions -- I was raised in the Catholic tradition, received some of my education at Catholic schools, and I have little but gratitude for the teachers and others affiliated with those institutions who tried to convey their knowledge, ethics, and life skills to me. So I recognize and affirm that religion can be a powerful force for good.
So, with that background, I agree with one of Governor Romney's remarks about religion and civic life very enthusiastically:
We separate church and state affairs in this country, and for good reason. No religion should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion.This is not particularly controversial, as a statement of theory and as an ideal. But the rest of the paragraph certainly feels like he takes dead aim at me and people like me:
But in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America - the religion of secularism. They are wrong.I disagree that those of us who take seriously the idea of separation of church and state believe that there is no place for people to acknowledge God. We say there is no place for the government to acknowledge God. Individuals may do so all they like -- when they speak as individuals and not as representatives of the government. This means that when people discharge their official duties, they ought to give some thought to how people who have different beliefs than themselves would take their references to the divine. A Jew, asked to listen politely while a government official publicly prays to Jesus, is somewhat excluded from that prayer. So is a Muslim or a Hindu or a Buddhist -- or an atheist.
Must I also add that atheism is not a religion? It is the absence of religion. Atheism is to religion as vacuum is to matter. Secularism is also not a religion, it is the disregard of religion. A secularist regards religion in the same manner that he regards a movie -- a story of variable entertainment or intellectual value, but definitely not something to be confused with reality. To base one's civic life on religious teachings view political priorities through a Biblical lens makes as much sense to a secularist as it would to organize one's life around the solipsistic "philosophy" underlying The Matrix.
Romney, on the other hand, seems to believe that the Founding of the nation was a religious act:
The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'Under God' and in God, we do indeed trust. We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders - in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places. Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our constitution rests. I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from 'the God who gave us liberty.' ... Americans acknowledge that liberty is a gift of God, not an indulgence of government.First of all, the sorts of references that Romney makes to historical references to God, for the most part, were not enacted by the Founders, but generations later, during the Civil War and later. "In God We Trust" did not become the motto of the nation until the Civil War, and it did not appear on currency until then, either. "Under God" did not find inclusion in the Pledge of Allegiance until the 1950's. And I don't think that there were a lot of menorahs on public display anywhere in America until at least the 1960's, at least in most places.
Secondly, we come back to a point that I brought up a couple of weeks ago -- do our rights as human beings come from God or do they come from the fact of our humanity? Religionists could respond to that by saying "There's no difference between those two positions," but they do not and commenters here did not do that, either. Instead, they are quick to take the position that these sorts of rights -- religious liberty, free speech, due process, and so on -- come from God, period, full stop.
For myself, I find such an assertion meaningless, because I believe that there is no God. It makes no more sense to attribute rights to God (meaning Jehovah) than it does to attribute them to a pantheon of Greek or Norse deities, or to the Tooth Fairy, or to Colonel Sanders. All of those propositions are equally ridiculous to me. (To paraphrase Robert Green Ingersoll, when you really understand why you don't believe your rights were given to you by the Tooth Fairy, you will also understand why I don't believe they came from Jehovah. Until then, keep on thinking about that one.) So, if Romney wanted to make the claim that we have these rights because we are human, and we are human because that's how God made us, that would have been one thing and it would have made some level of sense to me.
But he -- and pretty much every other religionist I've spoken to recently about the subject or who has commented here or in e-mail to me -- has failed to make that point, at least in terms that were clear to me. Instead, the impression I'm left with is that the creation of Man was one thing God did, and the bestowal of rights in him was something else that God did; a separate act. God could have made Man and not bestowed rights upon him; and by implication, there may well be people who were not blessed with those inherent natural rights. Romney returns forcefully to this point in the last section quoted above: "Americans acknowledge that liberty is a gift of God, not an indulgence of government."
Surely, a man as smart as Governor Romney is has taken a good look at the early history of the nation and he has at least been exposed to the way that the Constitution was created. To be sure, Ben Franklin asked that sessions of the Constitutional Convention begin with a prayer. But I'm not talking about an invocation of divine authority (an authority whose existence I do not acknowledge) but rather about the political activity that was going on in Philadelphia that summer. To understand that activity, you've got to look at it in context.
The United States of America existed before the Constitution of 1787. Its existence as a formally-organized, independent political entity began on July 4, 1776; it existed as a nation in the hearts and minds of its citizens more than a year before that; we commonly think of the Revolution beginning on June 17, 1775 at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Certainly from the time of the Declaration of Independence to the ratification of the current Constitution on June 21, 1788 when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify it, the United States were governed by the Articles of Confederation. So for twelve years, there was a different form of government here, the form of government originally set forth by the Founders. As many students of history know, the Articles of Confederation set up a very weak national government and a close look at the relationship of that government to the several states reveals that as a functional matter, the national government had no real power whatsoever -- which of course is why the Constitution of 1787 was drafted in the first place, and despite some misgivings of the anti-Federalists, it's worked out pretty well.
A close look at the Declaration of Independence, and at the pre-1787 constitutions of the several States, is revealing. I don't mean the single oblique reference to the "Creator" in the Declaration (as if that single reference proved anything about the political thought going on or the objective existence of such a Creator); rather, I'm referring to the reason why the Declaration was written in the first place.
See, the Founders were revolutionaries and Enlightenment-era radicals. Before you get your dudgeon up about my exclusion of God from the motives of the Founders, think for a moment about what that really means. They believed that government existed not because it was the command of God that it exist, but because it was the result of a social contract. Human beings form social contracts from the state of nature to provide for their common benefit and protection. They agree to submit themselves to the rules that this government will create, because they recognize that it is ultimately to their benefit to do so, even if it means giving up a measure of their individual autonomy and if that government will compel them to do things they don't want to do in the short run.
Thus, the government is the guarantor, not the grantor, of the rights of its individual citizens. The government is only a legitimate repository of the power delegated to it by its citizens so long as it protects and advances and protects the rights of its citizens. When it stops doing so, the citizens ultimately have a right to opt out of that government and form a new one better able to protect their interests. This is not a step to be taken lightly nor as a result of petty grievances, but at some point, when it becomes clear that the government has become tyrannical, then a revolution is justified because the government, and not the people, has failed to fulfill its end of the social contract.
This should all be familiar to those of you who remember high school civics, and it certainly should be familiar to lawyers who have studied Constitutional law in some depth. But God, you will notice, is not a party to the social contract. Only humans are. Where humans got their rights from (in an ontological sense) is not a matter which Constitutional law addresses any more than it addresses where they got their fingers. But you should also see that these rights are not dispensed by the fiat of the government, whether that government be a king, a parliament, the military, or a cleric.
Here's how the Founders thought about individual rights and the government: the government must respect our individual rights because we never gave it the power to trample on them in the first place. Power flows up from the people to the states, and then from the states to the Federal government. Rights not enumerated in the Constitution are reserved to the people and to the states -- a proviso which finds enumeration in the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the Constitution.
So, for Romney (or Napolitano, or others) to suggest that our system of government is founded upon God-given rights is to ignore the political theory underlying the Constitution; it conveniently sidesteps some very high-level political thinking going on amongst these very smart, and some of them very religious, men who put together the framework of our nation. Romney (and Napolitano) should and probably does know better. However, it suits his political purposes to shade the truth and play to an emerging state religion of Christianity blended with militaristic patriotism.
Finally, and this is what really pissed me off the most, Romney engages in a classic political maneuver -- the sidestep. The theological differences between evangelical Christianity and the teachings of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints are deep and profound to those who hold that one or the other are true. Both Mormons and Baptists hold that Jesus was the son of God. But while one might say that assigning the name Jehovah or Elihu to God doesn't matter much, I suspect it does matter to some whether Lucifer was Jesus' misbehaving brother and whether they all came from the planet Kolob.* This isn't like Lutherans and Methodists politely agreeing to disagree on whether local churches should be governed by councils of lay members or by the presiding ministers.
How, then, to deal with the fact that most Christians would think such beliefs are, well, really weird? Direct that anger and suspicion elsewhere. And who do Christians mistrust more than people of different religions? People with no religion at all. People, in other words, like me. Romney says, by way of exclusion, "Hey, at least I'm not an atheist!"
Any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me. And so it is for hundreds of millions of our countrymen: we do not insist on a single strain of religion - rather, we welcome our nation's symphony of faith.What about me, Governor Romney? Am I who doubts any less an American than you who believes? Does my denial of that God who you worship render my music an unwelcome instrument in this "symphony of faith"?
Nor would I separate us from our religious heritage. Perhaps the most important question to ask a person of faith who seeks a political office, is this: does he share these American values: the equality of human kind, the obligation to serve one another, and a steadfast commitment to liberty?
A commitment to "the equality of human kind, the obligation to serve one another, and a steadfast commitment to liberty" require no subscription to any religion at all. As I've suggested in the past, one way religion has been (mis)used is to rationalize reasons for failing to live up to those ideals. That's not to say that secular ideas cannot be similarly misused, by the way, but it is to say that those sorts of civic virtues (equality, fraternity, and liberty) are in no way religious -- if one's religion motivates one to behave in fulfillment of those virtues, great, but religion isn't the only way there or, if I may be so bold, not even necessarily the best way there. Particularly on the whole equality thing, Governor -- doesn't Mormonism teach that the servants of Lucifer were cursed with darkened skin?
No people in the history of the world have sacrificed as much for liberty. The lives of hundreds of thousands of America's sons and daughters were laid down during the last century to preserve freedom, for us and for freedom loving people throughout the world. America took nothing from that Century's terrible wars - no land from Germany or Japan or Korea; no treasure; no oath of fealty. America's resolve in the defense of liberty has been tested time and again. It has not been found wanting, nor must it ever be. America must never falter in holding high the banner of freedom.
The nobility of America, and the men and women of this nation who fought and sacrificed for the cause of liberty, is not reasonably subject to debate, as far as I'm concerned. Sure, some of us have been less than noble from time to time; we're no different than anyone else in that respect. But as a whole, we Americans are an astonishingly decent and moral people. Some of us are that way because of our faiths; some of us are that way despite our faiths; some of us are that way and have no faith at all.
But I notice that in this description of our great good works, you do not reference God as the motive force. Rather, it is our goodness and our commitment to freedom which has motivated us to do these great things. While faith in God and belief in liberty are not inconsistent, they are also not the same thing.
And do not forget, Governor, that some of those men and women who fought and sacrified were not believers. Were their sacrifices, including their lives, any less valuable or worthy of praise than those of the believers?
That's why Romney pissed me off. He demonized me and my fellow atheists. We're not bad people and we don't like it when people call us bad. You don't need God to be good. But you do need to understand the political ideas that underlie America in order to present a compelling case for your suitability to lead it. Romney either doesn't understand any of this, or worse yet, is willing to disregard it in order to pander to a segment of the electorate.
I'll not vote for Mitt Romney, either in the upcoming Presidential primary, or the general election if he is nominated. I urge you all to do the same.
* For you non-Mormons out there, take a moment to think about why it's ridiculous to propose that Lucifer was Jesus' brother and that God did not come from the planet Kolob. I can't think of a reason why a reasonable person, who accepts the basic concept of theism, should reject that world view and instead adopt a different one.