Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Christian Nation Myth

There were four candidates in the 1912 US presidential election.  In Nonbeliever Nation, David Niose uses that election as a benchmark to show that the impact of the religious right on the 2012 election was not really part of the American tradition.  He quotes each of
the four candidates.

Woodrow Wilson, whom he describes as the most religious of the four: 
"Of course, like every other man of intelligence and education I do believe in organic evolution.  It surprises me that at this late date such questions should be raised."
Theodore Roosevelt:
"Thank Heaven I sat at the feet of Darwin and Huxley."
William Howard Taft:
"I do not believe in the divinity of Christ," he wrote in an 1899 letter, "and there are many other of the postulates of the orthodox creed to which I cannot subscribe."

Eugene Debs:
"I don't know of any crime that the oppressors and their hirelings have not proven by the Bible."

Niose argues that secularism was the position of most politicians, Democratic, Republican and other until the rise of the Moral Majority in the late 1970s.  They, he writes, have skewed politics back into the idea of the US being a Christian nation.  In contrast to the 1912 candidates he offers some quotes from 2012 Republican hopefuls.
"Today, a full-century after the era of Roosevelt and Wilson, we routinely see presidential candidates assure voters that they are doubtful of the theory of evolution, pandering to a large segment of the electorate that believes the world is just a few thousand years old.  Rick Perry, for example . . . lucidly conveys America's intellectual decline by expressing his views on evolution this way:  "God may have done it in the blink of the eye or he may have done it over this long period of time, I don't know."  Evolution "is a theory that's out there,"  Perry explained, but it "has some gaps in it."  The Texas chief executive is by no means an anomaly, as other major political figures, such as Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Mike Huckabee, have made a point of emphasizing their refusal to accept evolution theory, and even former president George W. Bush favored teaching creationism, disguised as so-called intelligent design, in public schools."
 Niose is arguing in the book that, in fact, a significant portion of the US population does not believe in a diety, but they have not identified themselves as secular.  Thus statistics suggest that the US is a much more religious nation than it really is.  This includes the 20% that answer "none" or "don't know" when asked what religion they are.  It also includes those people who do not practice a religion or believe in a religion, may still identify with the religion they grew up with, and might say "Catholic" or "Methodist" if asked. 

He points out that just 15% of the US population would be 50 million people, which would be more than the combined total of Methodists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Presbyterians,  Jews, Mormons, and Muslims.

His goal is to get secular Americans to identify as such to demonstrate a) that the US is NOT a Christian nation, as argued by the religious right, and that there are many secular Americans, and b) to get make secular Americans a potent political force to counter the power of the religious right.  Secular Americans aren't out to attack other religions, but to stand up for their own rights and to prevent the fervently religious from using government to enforce their own religious beliefs on others. 

I'm only about a third of the way into the book, but I thought I'd share this much for now.  It's a topic that I wrote about last November when my attention was caught by the tornado survivor who responded on national television to Wolf Blitzer's question about thanking the Lord for surviving, by saying, after a pause, "Well, actually, I'm an atheist."  I realized how prejudiced the US is against atheism when I found myself surprised that they hadn't cut that part out of the broadcast. 

David Niose is identified as the President of the American Humanist Association


  1. I am a U.S. citizen in "the land of the free." But, in my heart I know I am not free to say what I really don’t believe. I am scared to admit I am not a believer in a "higher power.” Sometimes I wonder how this came to be.

  2. I know. Upon coming to the UK from Alaska (USA), I found people here largely non-religious even with a god-mandated head of state; conversely, in the USA, with its constitutional safeguards against religious establishment -- quite unique in its day -- people are largely religious.

    I mark it up to mandatory religious education here. We even have state-funded religious schools! I joke that Americans need only take up this model and they'll find themselves quickly disestablished of the need for god(s).

    Worth a go perhaps?

  3. Yes, but how to reverse this god-bothering business which is more and more in our faces -- seems every day the Sarah Palin knock-off Brigad/Teabagger doubling-down gets more strident and mean (and better funded by the Cock brothers)... but, the more idiotic they appear, the better for the Humanist side. Right?

    There has got to be a tipping point -- that this book was even written suggests sanity is out there. Hard to see in all the stats about the general American population being so stupid -- highest percentage in the world
    believe you have to believe in God to be moral!

  4. Anon, it appears that David Niose's goal is to help people like you find a safe way to say what you have to say. Thanks for saying it here.

    Jacob, I have toyed with the thought that since kids tend to rebel against school in general, that kids going to Christian schools probably do the same. But they don't get taught the critical thinking skills that would make it easier. But neither do most public school kids. The high rates of teen pregnancy among the fundamentalists demonstrates the conflict between nature and religion

    Barbara, I believe that as one ideology gains strength if it keeps going to extremes, it will be pulled back into balance by the reaction against it. Many on the Right are so isolated from the rest of humanity that they are now speaking their minds publicly without realizing how crazy they sound to others. And the cell phone video camera along with social media means the whole world has a good chance to see them do it. Probably people are more ignorant than stupid.

  5. Yes, quite right -- an arrogant ignorance, though. Not through lack of trying on the "left" to expose them to facts. The bubble enclosing them is impermeable. I was raised by such people: I rebelled big time -- so your point is well taken. Know hope, as Sullivan says.


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