The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume
Most secular humanists I know were dismayed by the election of George W. Bush
to a second term, and doubly so because of the wide margin of his victory (if we
assume the official figures are correct), and by the fact that conservative
Republicans solidified their control of the Senate and House. Mr. Bush says he
has a mandate to fulfill his agenda; we await the details of what he plans to
accomplish in his second term. Perhaps it is too much to ask, but we would be
heartened if the President adopted the role of statesman and moved his
administration more toward the center of the political spectrum. The United
States is beset by horrendous problems, not least including a growing deficit
and the misbegotten, tragic war in Iraq. The President and Congress need all the
help they can muster from all Americans. It would be a worthy goal to try and
bridge the great divide that separates us.
James Madison, the father of the Constitution, worried that factions might
engender conflicts within the new American Republic. One reason why he
introduced the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which forbade
lawmaking respecting an establishment of religion, was to avoid religious
factionalism. Surely, we are on the brink of religious factionalism today; yet
there is still time to appeal to the good sense of the American people and to
turn back the prospect of religious warfare in the public square.
This magazine has never endorsed political candidates nor supported political
parties per se. We are deeply concerned, however, with defending the core moral
principles of American democracy. We are especially apprehensive that the Bush
Administration will continue to cater to its base, the evangelical Right. If it
does so, then a radical transformation of democratic values and principles is
likely to occur, and factional conflicts engendered by religious hostilities may
engulf the public square.
The first reaction of many secular humanists to the Bush victory was to want
to flee the country. That is surely not a realistic option; instead, we ought to
stay and attempt to persuade our fellow citizens of the importance of defending
traditional American ideals as we interpret them. We have hardly reached the eve
of the last days, as had the Weimar Republic facing Nazism in pre-World War II
Germany. Hopefully, there is still time to modify the agenda of the Bush
Administration. In any case, we ought not to give up trying to do so.
Which issues divide Americans? There are many, but I will focus on five of
the most urgent:
First is the failure of the evangelical Right to recognize that there exist
alternative moral conceptions of virtue and value and differing principles of
fairness. We deny that all morality must be faith-based; surely throughout
history, men and women have sought to ground moral values on rational
considerations. This has been recognized in both secular and religious
traditions. An appeal to reason enables human beings to modify their value
judgments in the light of their consequences and also to more peacefully
negotiate differences with others. No one party has a monopoly on righteousness;
those who insist that their principles are absolute are apt to feel entitled
thereby to tyrannize others.
Second, in the present context of American society, we are concerned about
continued assaults on the First Amendment and especially its principle of the
separation of church and state. The fact that America has until now withstood
efforts to establish a specific religion, whether Christianity or
Judeo-Christianity in general, is a credit to the American experiment in
democracy. We are also disturbed about the dangers to our civil liberties
implicit in the Patriot Act and Homeland Security. In our view, the “War on
Terrorism” has been used to frighten the public. We do not deny that there are
terrorists, but we question excessive paranoia about them. The departure of John
Ashcroft is welcome news. Whether his replacement, Judge Alberto Gonzales, will
be an improvement remains to be seen.
Third, we are disturbed that the Bush Administration will most likely insist
on appointing reactionary, strict-constructionist judges to the federal courts.
Such judges may drastically re-interpret the Constitution and trample on the
rights of dissenting and nonreligious Americans. Need I reiterate that Hindus
and Buddhists, Jews and Sikhs, Muslims and secular humanists, atheists and
agnostics are still citizens? Similarly, we fear that the expansion of federal
funding for so-called “faith-based charities” will only exacerbate the trend
toward establishing monotheism as the generic religion of the country.
Fourth, we deplore the demeaning of the scientific, naturalistic, and secular
contributions to American culture with which our nation’s history is so rich.
These developments are virtually synonymous with modernism. They are responsible
in no small way for the democratic movements of our time and for the extension
of equal rights, liberties, and educational opportunities to all citizens.
Science and technology have played a central role in improving the conditions of
life, in enhancing health care and longevity, in decreasing drudgery and pain,
and in making possible the bountiful abundance of consumer goods, economic
well-being, and leisure for all sectors of society. To seek to restrict
scientific research on allegedly moral grounds (as in the ban on stem-cell
research) is short-sighted and destructive of what could be enormous benefits
Fifth, we are troubled by the unilateral pre-emptive foreign policy of the
Bush Administration, though we support the effort to build democracy in the
Middle East, as difficult as that may now seem. This means a defense of human
rights, civil liberties, and secular, non-theocratic states. It is sheer
hypocrisy to support the separation of mosque and state in the Islamic world at
the same time that the separation of church and state is being weakened at home.
We grieve for the mounting numbers of American men and women killed or wounded
in Iraq, but also for the massive loss of innocent civilian lives there. We
believe that the United States should participate in helping to build a world
community and that it should be a cooperating partner in the United Nations in
matters of collective security. The departure of Colin Powell and the
re-appointments of Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld in Bush’s second term
are not good signs that the needed changes are likely to occur. With the ending
of the Cold War, many hoped that a peaceful and prosperous world would result.
Instead, a new and awesome arms race seems to be developing.
A Pivotal Battle over Moral Values
According to exit polls, a significant portion of the voters indicated that
their support of President Bush was based on “moral values.” When you ask which
values, there is clearly room for disagreement among Americans, but there is
also some common ground—especially our shared belief that America is the land of
opportunity and that to realize this entails freedom and equality for all. In
talking about morality, the Religious Right has focused primarily on sexual
issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage. The morality of their position
is surely arguable. A majority of Americans still believe in reproductive
freedom, the right of a woman to control her own body without being forced to
carry a pregnancy to its full term. This is justified by an appeal to “freedom
of choice,” a basic American value. Similarly, same-sex marriages were banned in
eleven states, no doubt because they offended moral sensibilities; but this also
raises the moral question of the denial of equal rights to some citizens. At one
time, interracial marriages too offended the sensibilities of many Americans and
were banned in numerous states. Hopefully, a compromise can be reached by
recognizing civil unions for same-sex partners (even President Bush at some
point said he believed in this), thus guaranteeing them equal rights under the
law in matters such as visitation, property, insurance, and the like. The basic
principle at stake here is, of course, “the right of privacy,” which is a basic
American right, and which I submit that the Religious Right, which claims also
to believe in individual liberty, ought to respect.
On the scale of moral values, secular humanists emphasize “life, liberty, and
the pursuit of happiness” as basic to the scheme of American values. Indeed,
most Americans strive for personal happiness in their own lives. One might think
that high-profile preachers who emphasize obedience to God’s commandments and
eternal salvation would therefore renounce the search for happiness. Yet I do
not see Pat Robertson, Tim LaHaye, or Jerry Falwell abandoning pleasures, even
luxuries, in their lives. On the contrary, they willingly enjoy the goods of
modern life that our consumer economy affords them. I do not see them giving up
their fine cars, good homes, jets, fine clothing and jewelry, and the other
accoutrements of good living. Nor do most believers in the pews renounce the
finer things of life when they can afford them. The tastes for such things seem
to me to be thoroughly secular values, which might shock Jesus if he were to
return from ancient Palestine, a land of deprivation and sorrow.
Contemporary American culture extols the virtues of the self-made person, the
indomitable spirit of the individual entrepreneur, of the adventurer or
explorer, of trailblazers like Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, and
others. Most Americans seek good jobs and hope to succeed in their careers. This
highlights the value of individual freedom and autonomy and the achievement
motive, all of which express thoroughly secular, humanistic, and libertarian
Still other humanistic values are widely cherished, including the
encouragement of creativity and the attainment of excellence. Indeed, our
universities and colleges strive to provide opportunities for students to
realize their creative potentials. Self-actualization is thus a noble goal.
Surely, it is not immoral.
May I point out again that there is an historic philosophical and cultural
heritage implicit in Western civilization, which encourages morality based on
principles of reflective intelligence, prudence, and reason, not simply faith.
This approach has been appealed to by Aristotle, Aquinas, Spinoza, Kant, Mill,
and even Confucius in ancient China. The need for moral inquiry is not
sufficiently appreciated by many evangelicals, who likewise face moral dilemmas
in life. We often are confronted with difficult choices, not necessarily between
good and bad or right and wrong, but between two goods or two rights, both of
which we cannot have, or between the lesser of two evils. In such situations,
whatever a person’s moral grounding, some reflective wisdom is essential in
helping us to make wise choices. I wonder if President Bush took an introductory
philosophy or ethics course at Yale, and if so, whether he learned something
from it? If he had, we all would be better off.
There are any number of complex moral issues about whose solutions morally
earnest people can honestly disagree. These concern questions of war and peace,
capital punishment, euthanasia, assisted suicide, infanticide, animal rights,
the distribution of goods and services in society, and more. On these issues,
religious as well as secular persons may end up on either side of any question.
For example, Mr. Bush, fundamentalist Baptists, and Muslims favor capital
punishment, while the Catholic Bishops of America, liberal Protestants, Jews,
individual Catholics, and many secularists are opposed. We see a similar
diversity regarding questions about “the moral justification of euthanasia or
assisted suicide.” Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants are usually
opposed, while many liberal religionists and secularists may support “death with
dignity” or the principle of informed consent as stated in a living will.
Economic and political policies engender heated controversies in society, but
they also express profound differences in moral values. There are those who
support laissez-faire policies, believing that the government should play little
or no role in the private sector, while others believe that the government has
an obligation to be concerned with social welfare. Those committed to
“Evangelical Capitalism” believe that tax policies favoring the wealthy reward
those who deserve it, a status that is in some sense divinely decreed. This
often simply masks hypocrisy, greed, and corruption. Laissez-faire policies,
evangelical capitalists believe, are powerful incentives for economic growth.
Others appealing to “principles of fairness” support progressive taxation, a
rising minimum wage, and universal health care. They oppose the elimination of
estate taxes and preferential treatment for dividends and capital gains.
Many people, religionists and secularists alike, believe in extending moral
caring beyond our own society to all members of the global community; others are
adamant that our primary concern should be our own country. Secular humanists in
particular have advocated the development of a new planetary ethics, in which
each and every person on the planet is considered to have equal dignity and
The Christian Phalanx
The evangelical Right has attacked the Council for Secular Humanism and Free
Inquiry ever since the day of our formation in 1980. The reason why we decided
to create Free Inquiry was to respond to the unremitting attacks on secular
humanism by the so-called “Moral Majority,” which had just been founded by Jerry Falwell and his right-wing cohorts. It has been an eventful quarter of a
century. We have been in the front lines of the culture wars throughout our
history, blamed for every defect in American society. We were among the first to
point out the dangers of extremist religion in the United States.
In the first issue of Free Inquiry, we stated that “the fundamental premises
of the modern world and the Enlightenment are either being forgotten or
completely ignored. The commitment to scientific evidence and reason of the
method of knowing, belief in the value of individual freedom and dignity, and
the view that superstition can be eradicated by increased education and
affluence—all of these are replaced by positions that are often blatantly
In a subsequent issue of Free Inquiry, we announced the formation of the
Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion. In that statement, we
observed that “we are confronted . . . with a situation of imbalance. Tens of
millions of people are exposed daily to exhortations about religion and the
Bible.” And we went on to say that “fundamentalist religion may become a
powerful political voice.” In our view, “the proper mode of response is to
appeal to the good sense of the American people . . . to defend pluralism and
the right of dissent.” We also stated that “ we submit that it is necessary to
go one step further and question the validity of the Bible, openly and
publicly.” That statement turned out to be prophetic. Little did we imagine at
that time that the evangelical Right would have such an inordinate influence
upon the Bush Administration and that so many aspects of its agenda would be
adopted. It was these “Evangelical foot soldiers” who were bussed from the
churches to the polls and proved to be the key factor in the re-election of Mr.
On November 9, 2004, Jerry Falwell announced that he had launched a new
“Faith and Values Coalition.” Its board is chaired by Tim LaHaye, the embittered
archfoe of secular humanism. This new coalition has announced a three-fold
platform: “(1) the confirmation of pro-life, strict-constructionist U.S. Supreme
Court Justices and other federal judges, (2) the passage of a constitutional
Federal Marriage Amendment, and (3) the election of another socially-,
fiscally-, and politically- conservative president in 2008.” Would Jesus have
supported this socially-, fiscally-, and politically- conservative agenda? How
presumptuous to imply that he would be a Republican!
We are thus confronted anew with an emboldened Christian phalanx. The term
phalanx is adopted from ancient Greek culture. As depicted in the film
Alexander, infantry troops were marshaled in close formation in a phalanx to do
battle. The definition of phalanx is “a body of heavily armed infantry in
ancient Greece formed in close, deep ranks and files; a body of troops in close
array.” Thus, we face the continued effort by a religious army in our midst to
assault American democracy. Clearly, the Christian phalanx played a key role in
the election of the Bush Administration. Leaders of the Christian Right are
continuing in their efforts to do nothing less than control the United States.
The gauntlet has been laid down.
We need to formulate a new plan of action and response, and we need the help
of our readers in this battle. We need to define and defend the naturalistic
outlook based on science and humanistic values based upon reason. These go back
at least to the Renaissance, to the emergence of modern science, and to the
progressive development of American democracy. If the Religious Right continues
to expand its influence, then we are clearly faced with a clear and present
danger to our liberties.
We need to enlist a broad coalition, not only of humanists, secularists,
rationalists, and skeptics, but of all like-minded citizens from various walks
of life. We are hopeful that America can come together and form a new consensus
in support of the ideals of American democracy before it is too late.