The Democratic National Committee’s conspiring to sabotage Bernie Sanders’ campaign is disturbing on many levels, but what makes me livid is that the DNC was hoping to portray Bernie Sanders as an atheist. What’s worse than the intended smear is the belief that branding someone an atheist is a smear.
So what if he were atheist? Does this make him less qualified? And why would the DNC consider encouraging the notion that atheism is shameful? Atheists deserve as much respect as anyone else. Thinking otherwise is bigotry.
Atheists belong to the category “freethinkers,” which ranges from the anti-religious, who perceive religion as harmful, to atheists, agnostics and deists, to those with unconventional religious beliefs.
An atheist is not a God hater or Satan worshipper. Nor is an atheist a worshipper of money, selfishness or valueless culture. Like Christianity and Islam, atheism covers a vast range of personalities.
Atheists may revere love, gratitude, generosity, respect, responsibility, and morality. Atheists may believe in the mind’s power to tap into deeper aspects of life.
What they don’t believe in is supernatural beings. Atheists may admire Jesus’ words but not believe he was resurrected. Atheists don’t envision God’s hand in suffering and war. Atheists are motivated neither by selfish hope for heavenly rewards nor fear of hell’s punishment but by the wish to help life and Earth. Atheists may be inspired by the music of hymns but not by their lyrics.
Hating atheists allows people to hate and feel divine about it. Yet if God is love, it shouldn’t matter if one worships God and another worships love.
A giant Independence Day ad in the Times Union submitted by Hobby Lobby featured cherry-picked quotes to suggest America was founded as a Christian nation. Quoting George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and others, the ad implied that Christianity belongs conspicuously in our government and schools. You get the feeling that non-Christians are expected to crawl in a box and lay low.
Yes, the nation’s founders believed in God and admired principles of Jesus. But the ad’s propaganda omits three-quarters of the truth:
Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin resolutely advocated freedom of conscience and complete separation of church and state. Some of them believed Jesus wasn’t divine. And while most believed that a moral society is prerequisite for democracy, none believed that any particular religion is prerequisite to possessing that morality.
Washington believed all religions are beneficial and even assured a Rhode Island Jewish community that the U.S. “gives to bigotry no sanction.” Franklin, a deist-Christian blend, stressed religious pluralism and good deeds rather than doctrine. He even wrote an additional chapter to Genesis, in which God teaches Abraham the value of religious tolerance.
The ad’s quoting of Thomas Jefferson is particularly misleading since Jefferson was repulsed by Christian theology and solely revered the words of Jesus himself. Jefferson made his own Bible by purging sections he deemed too supernatural or corruptive of Jesus’ message. With Greek-like open-mindedness, he remarked, “it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god.”
These secularist framers of the U.S. Constitution were Enlightenment rationalists. They believed human reason and deliberation, not heaven-sent authoritarian leaders, could create benevolent, effective government.
U.S. founders had no intention of repeating Europe’s bloody history in which power and religion had united to breed cruelty and religious wars. In essence, Christianity had been hijacked: Jesus’ priority of love and distaste for wealth and power had been displaced by church and royalty preoccupations with rivalry, control, wealth and dogma.
To separate church ideology from state weapons, power, and wealth, the word “God” was deliberately omitted from the U.S. Constitution, and Article 6 was included, stating “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
In 1791, the First Amendment was ratified, allowing for the free exercise of religion and forbidding the establishment of a national religion. In 1864, Abraham Lincoln shelved lobbyists’ petition to Christianize the Constitution, but Congress added “In God We Trust” to coins. In 1954, countering atheist communism and secular democracy, “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance.
Lincoln never attended church, and some feel it’s therefore unlikely he’d be elected if campaigning today. But for an officeholder, being a Christian is as much a liability as an asset. For what kind of Christian is she?
Does she believe radical Muslims are demons and the U.S. has a divine destiny to rule the world? Does she want to jump-start a holy war to usher in a vengeful Judgment Day?
Does he believe in hierarchy of males over females, adults over children, rich over poor, Americans as exceptional, white Christians as supreme, and humans overpopulating and abusing the subservient planet? Or does he believe in equality and mutual caring?
These labels — Christian, freethinker, Jew, Hindu, Muslim — just scratch the surface of one’s being. What matters isn’t the label but how the individual bends the ideology to fit his own brain. As Lincoln said, the Bible was quoted just as often to uphold slavery as to advocate its abolition.
In fact, it was freethinkers who could more readily perceive inequality as contrary to natural rights, rather than as divinely ordained hierarchy. As Susan Jacoby describes in “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism,” Thomas Paine, a deist, helped found the first American anti-slavery society.
Meanwhile, women were disparagingly called “atheist” merely for speaking in public. Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s 1848 Women’s Convention was branded “atheist” and she was called “infidel” for her Woman’s Bible, which criticized misogynist biblical verses. Some found religion squarely to blame for women’s subjugation.
Religious labels reveal little, for virtues and vices cross lines of belief. Yet other words are also merely surface deep. On the surface, we have neither an “established religion” nor “religious tests”. But why must successful presidential candidates always have great wealth and believe in war? Why, starting with our aggression toward Native Americans, have greed and war been considered appropriate characteristics of foreign policy, even while trampling beliefs of Christians, freethinkers, Jews, and all who believe in generosity and nonviolence? Is an ideology of wealth and war behaving as an established religion?
Kristin Christman is author of The Taxonomy of Peace. https://sites.google.com/site/paradigmforpeace
“This article was first published in the Albany Times Union.”