Atheism Aside: Separation Supporters Should Seek Solidarity
Fight theocracy, not faith
The battle to preserve the wall of separation between church and state is being waged by many individuals and groups who hold varying positions on religion and its role in society. But all First Amendment advocates can find common ground in regards to religion’s role in government. We agree that the government should be neutral toward religion. And no matter what our personal beliefs are, we can, and should, join forces to preserve America’s freedom of religion.
Some view separation of church and state as an “atheist” agenda item, but many people of faith are also involved in the church-state movement. These people realize that a secular government protects their right to worship as they see fit. Keeping the government out of the God business helps all of us to be free to hold whatever religious belief — or nonbelief — we wish, and will prevent taxpayers from having an obligation to finance religious institutions.
Unfortunately, the anti-religion rhetoric of some groups that work to defend the separation of church and state can often frighten the faithful, and turn them against our message. Not only is it contrary to the goal of increasing public support for separation, it’s simply unnecessary. Regardless of our perspective, we all benefit from separation of church and state. This is why atheists and theists must join forces, working together to put an end to the government’s entanglement with religion.
Those who oppose separation portray church-state activists as being anti-religion, but the fact is, most of us just want to put an end to government advocacy of religion. But we cannot do this on our own, and we cannot waste time debating theism, when we need to devote our energies to ensuring democracy rather than theocracy.
When talking about church-state separation, we need to use diplomatic language, and refrain from judgment. People of faith need the freedom to pursue what they feel is a personal relationship with God. Nonbelievers deserve the same consideration to be free from religious pressure. Both atheists and theists can agree that the government should not play a role in how citizens relate to the divine.
Another area of common ground we may share with each other is agreement that the government should not impose itself in church business. Yet, the creation of new policies, such as Federal Faith-Based Funding, sets a dangerous precedent. Currently, this program operates without oversight, leaving taxpayers in the dark. As more and more citizens demand accountability of how these funds are used, the government will be forced to follow its own guidelines, requiring grant recipients to adhere to civil rights and equal-opportunity laws, which may compromise religious beliefs. When the wall of separation is breached, religions suffer, losing their autonomy, and easily becoming embroiled in bureaucracy.
The only way to ensure equality and fairness for all citizens is to maintain a secular government. Sadly, some people don’t understand that “secular” means “neutral.” They are misinformed, by political pundits or by preachers, that secularism implies atheism. But neutrality is not hostility. A secular state is a neutral state, one that neither promotes nor inhibits religion. The government should not tell people that there is no God, any more than it should tell people that a god exists. Belief or disbelief in God must remain a personal decision, not a government decree.
It can be difficult to discuss church-state separation with some, for they feel that law originates from the divine. We need to reinforce the fact that the laws of the United States are based on the Constitution. Those who support separation must send the message that we’re not trying to exclude religion: we’re trying to prevent the government from favoring one faith over another. We must reach out to the religious, explaining how mingling religion with government has a price. The government should not tell us what to believe, or when and how to pray. The state should not dictate church operations.
Beliefs are irrelevant in the church-state realm. All Americans must set aside their personal views and join with one another to maintain the wall of separation. We must work together to preserve our Constitutional rights, and get our government out of the God business. No matter how you answer the “God question,” you should surely cherish your right to determine your own decision without pressure from politicians.
If our Nation’s Founders had intended for the Federal government to endorse a particular faith, they would have included it in the Constitution. Instead, they chose to keep religion and government separate, to ensure freedom of conscience for all citizens, reinforcing this ideal in the First Amendment. It is up to us, regardless of belief, to work together to preserve our right to religious liberty.
Janice Rael is the Founder and Vice-President of the Delaware Valley Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which serves the greater Philadelphia region: http://www.dvau.org. This piece was originally published in January 2007 on DangerousTalk.net.