Religious Beliefs and Politics

August 13, 2012

One of the explicit goals of CFI is to end the influence that religion has on public policy. Obviously, we are adamantly opposed to any politician who seeks to impose her/his religious views on other Americans. That said, not everyone who is religious is a theocrat, and religious beliefs, by themselves, do not disqualify someone for office. Under our Constitution they cannot.

If you think my remarks are occasioned by the billboards American Atheists will be putting up in Charlotte on Monday, you’re right.

Before going any further, let me hasten to say that I think American Atheists overall does a good job in promoting the cause of secularism and advancing the rights of nonbelievers. In particular, Dave Silverman did a fantastic job in coordinating the Reason Rally. CFI and the Council for Secular Humanism have worked with American Atheists in the past and we hope to do so in the future. But precisely because American Atheists is a friend and ally, we’re concerned about what they say, as it can reflect on all of us who are working toward a truly secular world.

One problem I have with the wording on the billboards is that it doesn’t match up with what AA says they’re doing with the billboards. The stated purpose of the billboards is to show “the foolishness of mixing religion with politics." However, the billboards don’t highlight any remark by a politician in which s/he tries to base public policy on a religious belief. The billboards do show a Mormon wearing sacred underwear and do reference the (minority) Mormon practice of baptizing the dead. But no Mormon politician says all Americans must wear sacred underwear or baptize the dead. The billboards also state that Christians promote hate and call it love. But no example is given of a statement by a politician that's relevant to this assertion. So where’s the mixing of religion with politics? One might be forgiven for thinking that it’s American Atheists who are, in this, instance mixing religion with politics.

The billboard message is essentially an attack on the absurdities and contradictions of Mormonism and Christianity. Fine. I don’t have a problem with that in principle, although I’d probably take a different approach, but why is this attack on religious beliefs being coupled with references to American politics and being placed on billboards in the city hosting the Democratic Convention? One could be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that AA is suggesting that religious individuals shouldn’t hold public office because their beliefs are not only unjustifiable but absurd.

I don’t think that’s what AA means to say, but because their message is ambiguous the billboards lend themselves to this interpretation.

In any event, let me be clear about CFI’s position. As indicated, we want religion out of government. Completely. Moreover, to the extent a politician indicates s/he is relying on religious doctrine to support a public policy position, s/he can be legitimately questioned about her/his beliefs. But the mere fact that someone describes themselves as a Jew, Mormon, Christian, Muslim, or whatever doesn’t disqualify them from any office. We have spent a long time and expended much effort in arguing that atheists shouldn't be excluded from office; I don’t think we should now start arguing that people with religious beliefs should be.

Note: This post has had one minor change to its original wording.