Introduction: The Great Disappointment
I would expect this from Reagan, both Bushes and even Clinton, who could pander with the best of them. If McCain/Palin or Romney/What’s His Name? had prevailed in 2008 or 2012 respectively, yes, of course, this position would have been no surprise. But, how many Barack Obama enthusiasts, those with hope for a new era, those who knocked on doors, contributed money and otherwise promoted his watershed election would have expected Obama to back prayers at government meetings?
What a grievous letdown.
It’s bad enough that Obama continued and even expanded the ghastly faith-based office in the White House that distributes tax monies to religious organizations. It’s awful that he can’t conclude a speech to the American people without intoning a ritual, “God bless you and God bless the United States of America.” That’s gross, particularly in that we have no way of knowing if God ever does bless us. What would happen if he/she/it did, even once? We have no idea – and nor does Obama. For that matter, there is zero evidence that there is a god. It’s just weird that a president of a modern country in 2013 talks like this. Sure, the fundamentalists want god-talk in their politicians, but this is America. In this land, with a secular Constitution, a significant (20%) segment of the population would be grateful if he’d stop it.
Still, my greatest disappointment with our president is that he has chosen to align with Congressional Republicans and the Religious Right in an action that could tear down what’s left of the wall separating religion from the business of governing.
In 2012, the town of Greece, N.Y. was found to have violated the 1st Amendment’s ban on an “establishment of religion” by a federal appeals court. Specifically, Greece’s practice of having Christian prayers at monthly town council meetings was judged to be “an endorsement of … a Christian viewpoint.” The town appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which accepted the case.
At the present time, case law handed down by the highest court has established these guidelines:
- Governments must not be seen to “endorse” religion.
- Public property must not be used to display the TenCommandments, Nativity scenes or religious statues.
Even the Family Research Council (FRC), the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and other fundamentalist, Republican/Tea Party extremists were surprised by their new ally—the Obama administration. Barry Lynn, long time leader of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, termed the administration’s position “doubly disappointing” while observing that “a town council meeting is not like a church service, and it shouldn’t be treated like it is.” (Source: Sarah Jones, “Prayer Push: Clergy Demand Sectarian Invocations Before Government Meetings Despite Legal Risks,” Americans United – Wall of Separation, Aug 22, 2013.)
Official prayers reminiscent of a church service in public schools have been unconstitutional for decades, in part because judges have ruled that such rituals marginalize non-Christians or non-believers. But, that fact matters little to Republican politicians who know that Americans overwhelmingly support public references to God. Furthermore, no less than 60 percent of voters favor the clearly unconstitutional National Day of Prayer. This flagrant violation of the Constitution, wherein religion is promoted by the state, came about because religion-based interest groups persuaded the Congress half a century ago to proclaim an annual day of prayer. This was seen as a way to give a one-finger salute to godless Commies, with whom we were having a cold war.
Today, the same salute by Christians goes to secularists who resist religion in the public square. At last count, no fewer than 85 House and 34 Senate members, along with 23 state attorneys general, are lined up with briefs supporting government prayers.
As the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) has noted, prayer in government is running amok. One absurd situation involves a “prayer caravan” involving 29 public schools organized by the Cullman County, Alabama school superintendent. What justification does this public official offer for violating the separation standard? In his own words, he does so because “the bible admonishes us to pray without ceasing.” Lovely.
And why does the Alabama governor support the superintendent’s prayer caravan? Because “I personally believe that one of the problems we have in this country is taking God out of, not only our lives, but out of government.”
Have there been studies to determine if any god is in or out of any government, with or without politicians praying? I have not seen such research. Wouldn’t it be interesting to examine the methodology that might be created to explore such a presumed relationship.
If the president and other government leaders were more committed to the Constitution they promised to uphold than they are to popular prejudices, flagrant violations like Greece’s council prayers, national days of prayer and Alabama school caravans wouldn’t have a prayer of being sustained by any court in the land.
If the Constitution were being written today with the entire Republican Party devoted to both religious determinism and anti-scientism, there probably would be no recognizable First Amendment, no separation provision between the state and religion. And the result might well be battles between Christian sects and varied religions and, of course, the godless secularists. This is the norm in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world.
One U.S. Supreme Court justice, Antonin Scalia, is an outspoken advocate for a more theocratic America. He wants U.S. politicians to promote God because “God is the divine authority behind government, the source of its moral authority.” No, Scalia never explains how he knows this, or if he believes we are the only country so favored by the invisible deity.
A recent article cited a book written by David Domke and Kevin Coe called, “The God Strategy” that describe the pandering to faith-heads since the Reagan presidency. Whereas Johnson, Nixon and Carter invoked God only 61, 26 and 25 percent of the time, respectively, in their talks to the nation, Reagan did so 96 percent of the time. And Reagan’s successors have sustained this cynical tradition: Bush I (91 percent), Clinton (93 percent) and Bush II (95 percent). The figures are not in for Obama but I’m guessing he’s got a disgraceful 100 percent percentile rating. (Source: Mugambi Jouet, “Hey Candidates: Atheists Vote, Too—So Stop Pandering to God! Politicians from Obama to Bush just can’t resist the God strategy,” Salon, August 23, 2013.)
Maybe Secularists Should Not Be So Surprised
In his first inaugural, Obama made these unsupported claims:
- “God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.” When did God do that, I wonder? Is destiny not uncertain for every country, every human being? Besides sounding good to the uncritical Christian, what the hell was Obama talking about?
- “Let it be said [that] with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”
Are “eyes fixed on the horizon” the best strategy? What about events and other variables nearby, like the steady erosion of Constitutional safeguards? Those are not coming from any horizon. And what’s new or useful about thinking, “God’s grace is any more on us” than anyone else. Hey, didn’t the Nazis have “Gott mit Uns” (literally “God with us”) on the Wehrmacht and SS belt buckles?
Maybe the Gestapo focused their eyes on the horizon, too – a quasi-religious horizon that somehow looked like a 1000-year Reich.
Of course, all Obama really wanted to suggest, without saying it aloud (as that would be too brazenly obvious an association of the Deity’s support for his election), was that he was God’s choice for president and God would be part of his administration. If that were the case, some high level Cabinet shuffling might be in order, given how things are going to hell in his second term.
What To Do?
The best way to turn the theocracy tide is for citizens to express their contempt for pandering and demagogy.
Obama is no more a favorite politician or servant of God than anyone else in public life and he probably knows that. Unfortunately, he does not think most Americans know that, so he acts accordingly with god-talk and support for prayers at government meetings, tax funds for faith-based charities, disaster aide for religious buildings and so on.
Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-presidents of FFRF, constantly urge politicians who pander with prayer to “get off your knees and get to work.” Robert Green Ingersoll once put it this way: “Hands that help are better than lips that pray.”
In another context, near the end of his famous 1890 address entitled, “God in the Constitution,” Ingersoll offered these words on the topic:
In 1776 our fathers endeavored to retire the gods from politics. They declared that ‘all governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.’ This was a contradiction of the then political ideas of the world; it was, as many believed, an act of pure blasphemy — a renunciation of the Deity. It was in fact a declaration of the independence of the earth. It was a notice to all churches and priests that thereafter mankind would govern and protect themselves. Politically it tore down every altar and denied the authority of every ‘sacred book, and appealed from the Providence of God to the Providence of Man. Those who promulgated the Declaration adopted a Constitution for the great Republic.
I wish Obama would read that speech. It might bring him to his senses, no matter the political cost, if any.