I read that Senator Obama wants to establish Faith Based funding initiatives. It makes me nervous when I start hearing elected officials in the government start talking about issues of faith for a number of reasons. As an atheist I feel uneasy contemplating the fact that a recent Pew poll (7/18/08) indicates 92% of my fellow Americans believe in an invisible being who watches over them, providing them with personal attention and guidance. If that isn’t enough to worry about now I have to worry about another President with an imaginary friend. It reminds me of a time when I was very young living in a college dorm and was puzzled after over hearing one of my roommates telling another that she had been praying whether she should get a phone installed in her room. She never got a phone, so presumably, her God never got back to her on that issue, but I remember thinking how awful it would be if I had to pray for guidance every time I needed to make a decision. How much can a President get done if he has to consult his invisible friend every time he has to make a decision?
It has never been easy being secular in America or really in any part of the world, and I believe that is probably because we are a fairly young species and have not outgrown many of the superstitions our ancestors created to deal with the dark and scary natural world in our not too distant past. I don’t know why some of us, like me, have no capacity for believing in those superstitions, while others, like my college roommate, can’t seem to function without them. I do know that the early settlers in America did not have it much easier.
After surviving years of tyrannical collusion between the ruling classes and the ruling Churches in Europe settlers to the “New World” were eager to escape the tightness of that yoke, so they brought their individual and unorthodox religions (from the view of the Official churches of Europe) with them to set up their own church states in America.. Back in 1779 when Thomas Jefferson, an early secular thinker, first proposed a Virginia state Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, the Episcopal Church, acting as the official “established” religion of the state quashed the act. The American colonies were at that time divided by their different ideologies both secular and religious. The Catholic Church, for instance, was the official Church of Maryland, and was so deeply entrenched that one could not hold office or even vote unless one proved allegiance to Mother Mary. Meanwhile other state required varying degrees of proof of ones affiliation with Lutherans, Methodists or Calvin Baptists. After the war for independence The Act for Establishing Religious Freedom was finally passed in Virginia in 1786 after James Madison wrote Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments. In Memorial Madison wrote:
If Religion be not within the cognizance of Civil Government, how can its legal establish be said to be necessary to Civil Government? What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny: in no instance have they been seen the guardians of liberty of the people. Rulers who wish to subvert public liberty may have found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate it [liberty], needs them not.
These principles, first proposed by Jefferson and Madison in Virginia would become the bedrock for separation of church and state in the American Constitution. It has never been easy to be secular in America but our founders worked long and hard to make sure our government would remain a secular government free from the influence of any religious doctrine. We must, as American citizens, hold our elected officials to the standard our hard won constitution demands. We must oppose giving federal funding to faith-based organizations without holding them accountable for nondiscrimination and religious liberty protections dictated by the constitution.