Over two hundred years ago, a most radical political experiment was undertaken by the men now known as the Founding Fathers of the United States. The preamble to our Constitution begins with three words that today do not strike us as being in any way unusual, but at the time were anything but ordinary, indeed historically unprecedented. “We the People” meant something altogether new and different in world history: for the first time, a government was being founded not according to the dictates of some king or imaginary celestial being, but by the people themselves.
The founders were, as we all are, products of their time, the Enlightenment. To understand the ideas they embraced, we must first realize that these were all very learned men who had studied and absorbed the prevailing philosophical/political ideas of their time. The ideas and ideals of the Enlightenment, which they understood and enthusiastically endorsed, contained such then radical notions as individual rights and freedom of thought and speech. These ideas, first articulated some seventy-five years previously by the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), eventually found their way into the founding documents of this country.
To be sure, most of the founders were religious men. However, few if any were what today would be called fundamentalists; the idea the Bible was literally true from cover to cover would have been laughingly dismissed by them. The Enlightenment had shattered this false visage forever, at least to all thinking individuals. In other words, biblical morality was becoming obsolete; the founders recognized the inherent contradictions between Bible-based ethics and a free people. Many of the founders were quite critical of religion in general, and of Christianity in particular. As proof of their secular intentions, note that the words “god” and “Jesus” are conspicuous by their absence from the Constitution. Indeed, the only references to religion are exclusionary. This is certainly a perplexing oversight if, as today’s Christian Right maintains, the founders intended this to be a Christian nation. The 1797 Treaty of Tripoli puts the final nail in the coffin of that notion: “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” This treaty was written during the presidency of George Washington, passed by Congress without a single change of wording, and signed into law by President John Adams.
Today, all this seems to have been forgotten not only by our nation’s leaders, but by the overwhelming majority of our fellow citizens as well. Few political leaders would dare run for office today unless they had a very visible association with a religion in their communities. These leaders always speak of the “virtues” of religious faith, giving the impression that religion is a universally accepted positive and essential force in the moral fabric of our society. Churches are a ubiquitous presence in every American city; in some of them, it is literally unsafe to be known as an atheist. As a result of this concerted brainwashing effort, Christianity continues to be seen as the foundation of our nation’s laws. The supposedly liberal mainstream media will cover the most absurd religious stories without a critical word being heard. Meanwhile, dissenting voices critical of these stories or of religion in general are rarely heard in our supposedly “open” society.
In 1960, many Americans were worried that John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism would make him a pawn of the Vatican. However, Kennedy made it clear that he was his own man and would not be making any political decisions based on his religious affiliation. Today, the reverse is unfortunately the case: Kennedy, were he alive today, would need to proclaim his Christianity loud and clear if he expected to be elected. Today, almost no political candidate dares to question the tenets of any religion, particularly Christianity, as so many of the Founders did.
Along with this rise in religiosity, America has also borne witness to the worst political and religious scandals in our nation’s history. The United States, which is the most religious of all the industrialized nations, also has the highest crime rate. The past half century has also seen illegal wars that were not declared by Congress, as the Constitution mandates, but instead illegally by the Chief Executive who took his oath of office promising to uphold the Constitution. The balance of powers has been altered in ways that would shock the Founders; each succeeding administration seeks greater control over the lives of its citizens. The same Democrats who rightly condemned George W. Bush as he removed our civil liberties have been strangely silent as Barack Obama has continued these policies and even expanded on them. Recent administrations have seen America become more and more estranged from our former allies overseas as our leaders imperialist religious agenda becomes increasingly all-encompassing.
Concurrent with the rise of religious fundamentalism has been a startling decline in our educational system. For years, the Christian Right wing has waged a relentless war against public education. Their goal is quite simple: either change the curriculum to reflect their viewpoints, or else destroy public schools altogether and replace them with religious schools that indoctrinate students in fundamentalist religion. Even though the public has seen through the various voucher schemes, proponents continuously re-introduce them. With congress now solidly in control of Republicans, the issue will surely be re-introduced.
Right-wing Christians also make every effort to introduce their textbooks into the school curriculum. Their hostility toward evolution is well-known; they want biblical creationism taught in its place, even though voters have soundly rejected this blatant attack on science. As with the various voucher schemes, all this indicates that the Radical Religious Right is not at all concerned with education—what they want is to proselytize and to gain converts. That, however, is the role of the church, not the state. Fundamentalist Christian history textbooks are every bit as anti-rational and even immoral. Not merely content with “proving” that the United States was intended to be a “Christian Nation” (meaning of course a fundamentalist Christian Nation), many textbooks go further. For example, an Arizona textbook author named Cleon Skousen wrote a textbook entitled The 5,000 Year Leap in which he says “For the purpose of order, the man was given the decision-making responsibilities (by God) for the family; and therefore when he voted in political elections, he not only cast a ballot for himself, but also for his wife and children.” If this were not enough, the book also opines that the United States would be better off had it not intervened in the Holocaust. Another book by Skousen (1913-2006) entitled The Making of America insists that slave “gangs in transit were usually a cheerful lot” and that “slave owners were the worst victims of the system.” Skousen was a most enthusiastic supporter of far-right causes and was asked to be a founding member of President Ronald Reagan’s “Council for National Policy,” an ultra-conservative think tank. A devout Mormon, Skousen defended the church’s stand against admitting blacks in the early 1970s. calling his opponents “communist dupes.” He later worked to nullify anti-discrimination laws, making any honest person wonder just how racist he was. He was such an extremist that most conservatives refused to associate with him while he was alive. For example, a 1971 Mormon journal stated that Skousen’s views were “perilously close” to Naziism. Today however, the Republican party has gone so far to the right that Skousen’s extreme rhetoric has been accepted by some of the country’s leading Republicans. Right-wing political commentator Glenn Beck said that “The 5000 Year Leap” was “divinely inspired.” With Beck’s support, sales for the book skyrocketed in 2009. Ben Carson, one of the candidates running for president in 2016 is a big Skousen supporter, as is former Texas governor Rick Perry, another 2016 Republican presidential hopeful. That such an extremist as Skousen could be taken seriously by anyone, let alone by men who want to run the country, should make every thinking American shiver in his tracks.
Then there is Christian fundamentalist David Barton, who is one of the Right’s leading revisionist historical speakers even though he has no credentials as a historian, told the Texas Board of Education in 2010 that Martin Luther King Jr. did not deserve to be mentioned in history textbooks. Is this the type of history we want our children learning?
Despite this, right-wing pundit Glenn Beck said that The 5,000 Year Leap “changed my understanding of the United States government and our founders. It is the clearest, simplest, most direct way to teach what happened and why we were founded the way we were.” This is but one example of how extreme, dishonest, and immoral the Religious Right has become.
Our religiously saturated United States has seen a rise in mass shootings, utterly pointless homicides, and an unparalleled use of drugs as more and more people attempt to escape from the uncomfortable reality around them. Rather than address these issues and their underlying causes, most Americans turn away and turn to watching sports activities for solace. The situation is eerily reminiscent of the decline of the Roman Empire almost two thousand years ago. As their society fell apart due to the corruption and intellectual stagnation caused mainly by the introduction of Christianity, more and more Roman citizens turned to the arena as an escape. The situation in America today shows that history can repeat itself; the ridiculous attention and salaries paid to our athletes and entertainers attests to the intellectual bankruptcy that is rapidly turning America into a third-world nation.
Philosophy has degenerated into a series of intellectual exercises in our colleges and universities, where the goal of most “higher” philosophical study is not to analyze and solve problems, but rather to find the best ancient religious system that will enable us to escape reality and help us to feel better. Contemporary philosophy tells us that language is mere convenience (the legacy of Wittgenstein), that logic is meaningless and pointless (thanks to Derrida), and that a retreat from reality into a cocoon-like mystical trance (take a bow, Kant and Hegel) constitutes evidence of a superior morality and value system.
Meanwhile, the arts have likewise degenerated as subjectivist wishes and desires co-exist with what is perceived to be the futility of existence. Paintings and the visual arts depict waste and bodily functions (thank you, Mapplethorpe) while “music” that is devoid of melody and substance is being mass produced by self-proclaimed gangsters whose “artistry” consists of rhythmically uttered obscenities spoken rather than sung (the legacy of the rappers). Literature and poetry uncritically accept the ideas articulated by the ancient Eastern mystics who stated that “life is suffering” (courtesy of Siddhartha Gautama). Only rarely do the arts focus on love, idealism, and the enjoyment of life; when they do, they tend to be dismissed as irrelevant to the “real” world. Equally rarely do these “artists” display mastery of their craft. Destruction, rather than construction, is the prevailing artistic order of the day.
Religious conservatives love to point out that all this is the result of the removal of their god from the public sphere. In fact, quite the opposite is the case. The moral and artistic decay of America that they complain of took place at precisely the moment when “In God We Trust” became our national motto and political leaders began to be outspoken in their religious views.
The inevitable result of America’s new-found religiosity has been the corruption of the political process and the increasing dissatisfaction of the citizenry who often proclaim that the system is corrupt, but no one can do anything about it. The “American Experiment” has failed; today, most Americans view the future as bleak, rather than filled with promise as we once did. The optimism that used to be so typical of the American character has largely vanished.
What has gone wrong?
To find the answer, we must look outside the box; we must critically examine the social mores and values that most Americans and take for granted. From my perspective as an atheist and historian, the key to unlocking the mysteries of our country’s decline lies in religion. The further we move away from the Founder’s ideals, the more we as a nation are turning toward fundamentalist religion; we are looking backward rather than forward. This can only be to our detriment and to that of our country, for Christianity, despite its adherent’s claim that it is a religion of love, in fact is a philosophy of death.
Why do I say this?
There are numerous reasons, but the primary one is the emphasis that Christianity places on an imaginary next life. Like all religious claims, eternal life cannot be objectively proven, and thus should be dismissed by all thinking individuals; subjective “truths” are not the same thing as objective facts. While Christians wax poetic about the “hope” that their religion offers them, these hopes are not based on this life, but on a fictional after life. This is nothing more than wishful thinking, and all the faith in the world cannot make it true. Those who refer to their death as “eternal life” are rather like the boy who whistles as he passes a graveyard; just as the boy is trying to cover up his fear of ghosts, likewise these Christians are trying to cover up their fear of death. The point is that any belief system that focuses on death (even though they call it eternal life) are in fact embracing a philosophy of death.
Christianity as a philosophy of death can take many forms. One of the most obvious of these can be seen in our Puritan past. Puritanism has been a significant force in this country since its inception. At different times, Puritan ideology has dominated our culture. The Salem witch trials of 1692 are an obvious example, but it has re-surfaced many times since them. The dawn of the twentieth century was another epochal period of Puritanism. This was the era of colorful characters such as Carrie Nation (1846-1911), the “barroom smasher,” Anthony Comstock (1844-1915) the Christian moral crusader, and Billy Sunday (1862-1935), who turned from a baseball career to fundamentalist evangelism. Ella Boole (1858-1952) was another colorful character. While almost forgotten today, this matronly-looking lady waged a merciless fifty year war against not only “demon rum” but also such “sinful” pursuits as card playing and theater going. It goes without saying that she was a Christian fundamentalist, but she was far from an isolated figure; she had the support of many fundamentalist preachers of the day. Older Americans may still recall how Sundays were almost universally set aside as “the Lord’s day” and how any deviations from sanctimonious piety were considered to be the devil’s work and condemned in no uncertain terms.
While most of us today look back on those times and dismiss these people as quirky manifestations of our history, they were not viewed that way in their time. Carrie Nation, for example, may have been little more than a religious kook, but it was a minority group of such kooks who were able to pass the Prohibition Amendment and make it the law of the land. Today’s fundamentalists have moved on to other issues, but they would do well to remember the lesson from that failed experiment: that legislation simply cannot dictate morality, however you define it.
Few of today’s fundamentalist leaders are as grim and remote as those of earlier times; to the contrary, they tend to be charismatic (in the traditional meaning of the term) and give the impression that they are extremely nice and harmless with everybody’s best interests at heart. Nonetheless, they are infinitely more dangerous than their predecessors; they have slowly worked themselves into positions of power and authority; the demands they make cannot be dismissed by any politician, no matter how absurd and even evil they may be. Powerful religious factions have all but taken over the Republican Party. The administration of George W. Bush was perhaps the best example of a politician (our country’s Chief Executive, no less!) who as a Christian fundamentalist based all his foreign policies on Armageddon theology. As fundamentalist religion has become increasingly mainstream, the wall of separation between religion and government, one of the historical pillars of the American Experiment, has increasingly come under attack and, in some cases, breached. Lest you believe all this to be mere hyperbole, consider the following:
The greatest spokesman for the war in Vietnam was a Catholic Prelate named Francis Cardinal Spellman (1889-1967). Spellman was an intimate of the Vatican’s inner circle and used his influence to persuade American political leaders such as Joseph Kennedy (1888-1969) and Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957) to toe the official Catholic line, which meant promoting the most reactionary political and religious conservatism. Spellman exerted an influence on the American political system that we are only now beginning to understand in all its multi-faceted dimensions.
The leaders of this type of religious conservatism have, since Spellman’s time, not only been outspoken in their desire to transform this country into a Christian theocracy, they introduce legislation reflecting that ideology. No matter how unpopular their views are with most Americans (school vouchers are a case in point) and no matter how many times the courts have ruled against them, they persist and refuse to give in or even to compromise.
We truly are at a crossroads as a nation. Every citizen must decide for him or herself whether to embrace a philosophy of death or one of life. You must decide which you prefer: freedom or a religious police state; reality or fantasy; hatred, intolerance, ignorance and conformity or progress, open-mindedness, intelligence and individuality; the freedom to think and make decisions for yourself, or to have others do it for you; to live in a backwards, fear-based third-world country or in a modern, technologically and morally advanced society.
For atheists, the choice is easy.