Monday, February 25, 2008

Religious Freedom in America: for everyone but Atheists

The failed presidential bid of Mitt Romney, and to a lesser extent Mike Huckabee, brought to the fore the role of religion in American politics. We are a nation dedicated to freedom of religion, as the first amendment makes clear, and one that does not allow (at least de jure) religious tests for public office. However, this does not make someone's religious views irrelevant to their politics, or our voting decisions, as people like Rebecca Hagelin imply. Indeed, she and many Americans get the issue completely bass-ackwards.

First, she glosses over a very odd fact about American political life that should get far more press than it does in a country with 15+% of it's citizens professed to be without religion. In discussing the history of John Kennedy's political difficulties with his Catholicism, she writes:

With Catholics serving alongside Protestants and the adherents of other faiths (and no faith) for years, the furor almost appears quaint. You would think the “faith” issue was settled once and for all.

Whoa! Serving alongside those of no faith? Hagelin needs a little history lesson here. Recently, after over two centuries of elections, the United States finally has its first openly atheistic politician in Pete Stark of California. Yet at 75 and nearing retirement, Stark runs little political risk in coming out of the atheist closet. Other politicians are not so priveleged. So despite the near statistical certainty that some of them are also nonreligious, they are forced by the sheer anti-atheist bigotry of the American public, former presidents, and ironically enough Mitt Romney himself to make token gestures of faith to get elected. This amounts to a de facto religious test for office. Atheists are simply not allowed to be elected.

So no Rebecca, the issue is not quaint, nor is it settled, not by a long shot.

However, what Hagelin and many other Americans don't seem to understand is that freedom of religion and a lack of a religious test for office do not give one carte blanche to believe any fool thing one wants under the guise of religion and get a free pass from the voters:

"Like Kennedy, Romney had to tell voters repeatedly why his faith didn’t disqualify him for the Oval Office. Are we really still asking such questions in America?"

Well of course we are. In Kennedy's, and any Catholic's case, voters are right to wonder if the candidates loyalties are to the United States constitution first, or his religious leader. It is not only a voter's right to wonder if the Constitution or Papal edict would hold sway in such a circumstance, it would be a case of civil negligence not to so inquire. Likewise, the Mormon church has many bizarro beliefs, even by religious standards. Voters would be derelict in their duty to not ask those questions of Romney, just like they should wonder whether Mike Huckabee's embarrasing rejection of biological science would negatively effect the way a President Huckabee would govern, or even if it indicates a serious lack of mental health. Obviously Hagein is confused on this issue as she blatantly contradics herself:

"Of course, every voter should feel free to NOT vote for a candidate based on any reason -- their politics, their ideology, their position on this issue or that ... even their faith. But if a potential candidate is loyal to America, to say that he is unfit to run for office or unfit to govern because of his faith is just plain wrong -- and the Constitution makes that perfectly clear."

So we can feel free to not vote for someone because of their faith, but we can't think them unfit because of it? And of course screw the atheists, right Rebecca? Clearly she hasn't really thought this through, or even considered the reality of the political exlusion of atheists. She apparently is one of these right-wingers living in LA La land when it comes to who is and is not religiously discriminated against. How else can one explain comments like this:

"Al Smith lost, of course, and by 1960, such sentiments seemed to be changing. But the media just loves to beat people up over faith. "

That's right, the media just jumps all over people like Huckabee and Romney when they say idiotic things in the name of religion, but have someone say they don't buy all that religion BS, and the American electorate falls at their feet. Tell me Rebecca, what color is the sky in your world? Apparently it is purple.

"As talk-show host Hugh Hewitt says in “Article VI,” 95 percent of the electorate just wants to know whether someone is a good person, not what his theology is. Otherwise, Hewitt notes, we wouldn’t have elected Abraham Lincoln, who “wasn’t remotely an orthodox Christian.” Lincoln read the King James Bible and spoke openly of God, but he belonged to no specific domination.

...there’s a First Amendment in this country. People of all faiths are equal citizens of this republic."

There you have it, laid bare, the unstated religious test for political office in America. Belong to any denomination or none, but you MUST speak openly of God, period. Atheists need not apply. Hagelin apparently is so sheltered and unworldly that she doesn't even realize that atheists exist. She sounds like the bartender in The Blues Brothers, who when asked what kind of music they played, answered "We got both kinds. We got country, and western." To Hagelin, 15+% of the population simply don't exist. That is a distortion bordering on the grotesque for someone supposedly educated and publicly opining on political issues.

It's time we made the Hagelin's of the world recognize our existence at the ballot box until the day comes when an American can stand up and say: I worship no gods, vote for me. Until then, religious freedom is a fiction.


Ian said...

Religious freedom = Catholics and Protestants? I love it when people say their religion is Catholic.

As for religious freedom - atheists aren't alone. Buddhists and Hindus couldn't run for President either. And the American electorate would be far quicker to embrace an atheist than they would a Muslim. Granted, non-religious people make up a much larger proportion of the population. But I still think they have more religious freedom in America than do Muslims.

ScienceAvenger said...

But we already have our first openly Muslim congressman in Keith Ellis. Yet we still have no one able to run and win as an atheist. And while I grant your point that there is tremendous anti-Muslim bigotry in the U.S., there is still far acommodation towards them in the mainstream than there is for atheists.

Note how the media is always careful to label Muslims who promote intolerant violence as "terrorists" or "extremists". Not, the implication goes, like all those wonderful peace-loving rational REAL Muslims. Atheists by contrast consistently get blame for atrocities they DIDN'T commit, like the frequent implication, by otherwise reasonable people, that atheists are less moral and law abiding than believers, despite the stark contrast with actual data.