I am quite aware that most members of Minnesota Atheists regularly vote for Democratic Party candidates. It is obvious from chatting at our social events that most of you saw the November elections as a downer. Republicans took control of the House, erased the Democrats’ super-majority in the Senate and cast serious doubts on the 2012 reelection of President Obama.
But for advocates of the separation of church and state, there were bright spots in the 2010 election worth celebrating. Despite Tree Party triumphalism, three Senate candidates they backed, who campaigned against the Establishment Clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment, all lost. They probably cost Republicans a majority in the Senate.
These three Tea Party extremists displaced Republican regulars who were favored to defeat their Democratic opponents. In Delaware, Christine O’Donnell won the Republican nomination over Mike Castle; in Nevada, Sharron Angle beat Sue Lowden; and in Colorado, Ken Buck won over Jane Norton. In each case, the Tea Party candidate used the Republican nomination as a platform from which they could promote the conservative vision of America as a Christian nation, and attack church-state separation. Each, as the saying goes, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
During a nationally televised debate, O’Donnell demanded of her opponent “Where in the constitution is separation of church and state?” When he answered that it was in the words “Congress shall make no law respecting an Establishment of religion,” she responded mockingly: “That’s in the First Amendment?”
Angle reportedly called “the tenet of the separation of church and state” an “unconstitutional doctrine.” Perhaps she meant extra-constitutional? That would have been just as wrong, but not so flagrant a token of ideology-driven ignorance. Under repeated questioning she later refused to correct or retract her words.
Ken Buck followed suit in Colorado. “I disagree strongly with the concept of separation of church and state. It was not written into the Constitution,” he said at a forum for Republican Senate candidates. The First Amendment, he argued, “doesn’t mean that we need to have a separation between government and religion”.
Tea Party-backed Republican House candidate Glen Urquhart of Delaware attacked separation of church and state as a “liberal” concept invented by Adolf Hitler. Apparently most of his electorate knew, however, that Thomas Jefferson wrote of the “wall of separation between church and state” nearly 140 years before Hitler’s rise to power.
The Tea Party movement has generated a great deal of passion over the burgeoning federal debt, but its affection for extremists on the religious right is losing traction with voters.
Nevertheless, I do not expect the Tea Party crowd to back down from their religious attack on secular government. Sarah Palin went on a tour to promote her latest book, America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith and Flag, in which she rails against John Kennedy as an enemy of her god-fearing political base. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign was plagued by anti-Catholic bigotry, which he confronted in a famous address to Southern Baptist leaders. That speech has become a classic defense of the separation of church and state: I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute--where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishoners for whom to vote--where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference--and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.
To Palin, of course, this is heresy. She writes that Kennedy’s speech “essentially declared religion to be such a private matter that it was irrelevant to the kind of country we are,” and that Kennedy “seemed to run away from his religion.” Kennedy advocated a vision of America in which everyone can rest secure in their beliefs because government does not favor any religion, but Palin’s followers want leaders who will transform America into their vision of a Christian nation.
The switch of the majority party in the House of Representatives shuffles the chairmanships of the committees that investigate proposed legislation and formulate House policy. Predictably, this will bring some paleo-Republican crusaders against science into positions of power. One worth noting is Illinois Republican John Shimkus who has been appointed to head the Subcommittee on Environment and Economy. Shimkus attracted attention in March of 2009 when he opined during a committee meeting that we should not worry about global warming, because God promised after the deluge that he would never again destroy the earth with a flood.
Shimkus stood by those remarks in a post-election interview for politico.com, reducing the consequences of global warming to coastal flooding. “I do believe in the Bible as the final word of God, and I do believe that God said the Earth would not be destroyed by a flood,” Shimkus said. He also wants to pass legislation to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. “We have to send a signal to EPA, while we appreciate their work in keeping our environment clean, they have to be careful they don’t do it at a cost of higher energy that makes us less competitive in the world markets.”
Shimkus further proclaimed the triumph of climate change denialists: “The climate debate has, at least for two years, has ended with this election. The real focus (of the subcommittee he now heads) will be on energy security.”
Denialists fight the battle against climate change on the political battlefield rather than through research because it is too arcane for the general public to evaluate. The scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change has not been diminished by the astro-turfed war on science that has been heavily funded by business interests. In the field of science, reputations and careers are built on being right. If they actually doubted the truth of man-made climate warming, the institutions funding and conducting research would be running from it, in droves.
Last month my telephone has been ringing off the hook, as every charity to which I ever donated has tried to put the pinch on me for a year-end gift. Salvation Army bell-ringers assault me with a sarcastic “Merry Christmas” as I walk into my grocery store, to make me feel guilty for not dropping my coins into their kettle.
The harassment is worse during Christmas, but it is an irritation throughout the year. I will not, on principle, donate money to any charity that promotes religion, even if it is only in their name, but there are even too many secular organizations that do good work for me to support. I am frustrated that in America, help to the needy and even funding for medical research is dependent upon how good supporting organizations are at competing for a share of American charity. Would it not be better if there were an organization that evaluated the severity of the need addressed and the adequacy of the effort to meet it by each of these organizations, so that my charitable donations can be given where they will have the greatest impact?
That is the function of Foundation Beyond Belief, which distributes charitable donations to worthy secular charitites. It was founded a couple of years ago by author and atheist activist Dale McGowan, a former Twin Cities resident. Minnesota Atheists is a founding member of FBB, and we are recognized for donations by our members. Contributors can specify their donations for particular charities, and can easily set up automatic monthly contributions. If you are interested, please visit foundationbeyondbelief.org for further information.