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Prospects for Humanism under George W. Bush

by Paul Kurtz


The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 17, Number 1.


George Bush was installed as president of the United States by a brazen judicial coup d'Útat. Only the black caucus in the House of Representatives has had the courage to openly protest, but to no avail. Surprisingly, most Americans have accepted the authority of the Supreme Court, even though its partisan behavior was egregious.

Some humanists supported Ralph Nader in the last election. He complained that there was little real difference between the Republicans and Democrats and that the United States was already ruled by a one-party corporate state-the "Republocrat" Party. The key issue is money in politics and the influence of financial contributors and lobbies on governmental policy and the legislative process. Most humanists at the last moment voted for Al Gore, considering him the lesser of two evils.

The elevation of Bush to the presidency by court dicta has sent chills through the humanist community, largely because so much of Bush's ideological agenda is in line with that of the Religious Right. Would Bush bring warring factions together in a spirit of compromise, or would he seek to impose his "compassionate-conservative" right-wing agenda on the country? The razor-thin Republican majorities in the House and Senate will make the latter difficult. There are some indications that Bush and the Republican leadership in Congress are willing to negotiate differences, though the nomination of hard-line conservatives to key cabinet posts is an ominous sign.

As I see it, the overriding issue in America today is the dizzying growth of corporate power by means of mergers and acquisitions. It is doubtful that the Bush administration will enforce the Sherman Antitrust Act. Texans Bush and Dick Cheney are often characterized as nominees of the oil companies. Already the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Michael Powell, has said that his agency would deregulate the media industry, which could lead to more concentrated ownership and less diversity.

Republican efforts to repeal estate taxes and lower income taxes-predominantly of benefit to the wealthy-are now being marketed to the public as a way to stimulate the economy and to forestall an economic downturn. It may also be viewed as a payoff to the ruling Úlite.

No doubt, for every dismal generalization about politics in America, a positive counter-generalization can be found; there are so many contradictory tendencies in this pluralistic nation. It is still an open democratic society in which there is upward mobility. Yet two million people are in its prisons, and capital punishment is justified by appealing to the Old Testament idea of retribution. The United States is the only major democracy to apply this vindictive rule. Indeed, as governor of Texas, Bush approved of forty executions last year, and he refused to pardon anyone.

Religiosity pervades our culture. Bush believes that the greatest philosopher was Jesus; he believes that both creation and evolution should be taught in the public schools, though he would leave it to the local school boards to decide; and he affirmed that the Ten Commandments should be posted everywhere!

Some Democrats seek to out-God-bless the Republicans on the religiosity score. Both Gore and Joseph Lieberman aped the professions of religious piety of their conservative counterparts during the campaign. Neoconservative prelate John Richard Neuhaus has for years been arguing that God had been excluded from the public square-"It is naked," he complained. In our view this is as it should be in a secular democracy. 

Well! The Lord's name has now been brought back with a vengeance-with pious declarations of "God bless America" everywhere. Gore and Lieberman stated repeatedly that the U.S.A. is a "religious country," committed to "God's purposes," and part of our "Judeo-Christian tradition." Lieberman, an observant Jew who does not drive or work on the Sabbath, declared that the Constitution does not defend freedom from religion (as humanists had assumed), but only freedom for religion. And Gore agreed with him. There is also a united effort by Republicans and Democrats alike to defend "faith-based charities"-a blatant break with the principle of separation of church and state. If allowed to be implemented with no court rulings to the contrary this could change the religious landscape of America and Balkanize us into ethnic-religious enclaves. This is all the more so if funding for private religious schools is made possible, as Bush wants.

What especially concerns secular humanists-on the Left and Right-is that a future conservative Supreme Court may seek to reinterpret the First Amendment's anti-Establishment Clause: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of a religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." This is interpreted by conservative Justices William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas to mean that it will not allow any one sect of religion to be officially established over others-it would not defend the rights of unbelievers! Humanists are now apprehensive that the Justice Department will make life miserable for atheists, agnostics, rationalists, and secular humanists, particularly because Senator John Ashcroft (Mr. Biblical Virtue himself) has been appointed attorney general. 

One has to be careful that these fears of apocalypse under a new right-wing Anschluss may be exaggerated; for the United States in a sense is a universal culture, in which every doctrine has always contended. Yet the mood of the country, the media, of political and economic life, is today predominantly spiritual-paranormal-religious; and there are few if any signs that public opinion is about to change on this basic point. 

The U.S. Constitution states that no test of religious belief is required of a candidate-perhaps not de jure, but a de facto belief in God does seem to be obligatory if one is to get anywhere as an elected official. A basic criterion of American patriotism today is tied up with whether one believes in a supreme being. In this process religious dissenters, rationalists, and humanists are marginalized and demonized.

Most humanists look ahead to the Bush administration with genuine apprehension. We wonder whether and to what extent the culture wars will exacerbate or whether there will be a new mood of "harmony" and "unity"-perhaps a sign of an authoritarian rather than a democratic society. We need to gear up for an all-out battle to defend the open society and the rights of dissenters from a possible reign of intimidation.


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