Allegiance, but not to God
by Ed Buckner
Expressing fealty to a god should not be a condition of citizenship. Love of
country is not, nor should it be, measured by a citizen's religious belief or
lack thereof. Many secular humanists, atheists, and agnostics have laid down
their lives for this country.
It has been 200 years since Thomas Jefferson's letter made famous the phrase
"a wall of separation between church and state" approved of by
"the whole American people," and yet there is still controversy over
the idea. There should not be. The choice, despite what some say, really is
between having a free country and having an officially religious nation. You can
have one or the other, but not both; and religious believers should join me in
choosing freedom, as the framers of our Constitution did and as logic dictates,
not just for my sake but for their own.
We all think we're right about religion and none of us can provide conclusive
proof of our position that will satisfy those who disagree with us. Given that
we all have irreconcilable differences, how shall we decide what religious views
the government should endorse? Shall we let all the factions fight to the death,
until only one view on religion is left alive? Even if we agreed to this, there
is nothing to suggest that truth would be the victor, nor that the winning view
would not be questioned among the victors soon enough.
Shall we let the majority decide? That really makes no more sense, than
deciding it by military might. Shall we let those "in
authority"-popes, preachers, educated people, rich people, aristocrats,
legislators, theologians or scientists-decide? Even if you'd agree to give power
to one such authority, how could we agree on which? The only alternative that
can work is freedom of religion, sustained by governmental neutrality.
John Adams, our second President and one of the framers of the Constitution,
wrote of himself and his fellow framers, "It will never be pretended that
any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in
any degree under the influence of Heaven . . ." and he also noted that our
government was "founded on the natural authority of the people alone,
without a pretence of miracle or mystery." Neither Adams nor Jefferson nor
any of the other framers intended to establish an anti-Christian or
anti-religious government; it was liberty that they sought, for Christians as
well as for everyone else.
What Jefferson said in a letter to his friend Benjamin Rush in 1803 is still
true today: "It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for
himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others; or their case may, by
change of circumstances, become his own." Whoever is in the majority today,
could, by next year or next century, find themselves in the minority. Minority
rights therefore should matter and be preciously guarded by those now in the
majority. Only by opposing a convergence between church and state, only by
insisting on a religiously neutral pledge of allegiance and government, can we
succeed in defending freedom of conscience for us all.
Jefferson also said in very plain and unmistakably clear language, "No
man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship."
Dr. Buckner is the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism at
the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York.