Why We Need to Lose Religion to Save America
May 1, 2014
On this National Day of Reason, it’s time to remember that revolutionary ideas work better than religious ideology.
It’s 1784 and James Madison has a problem: the General Assembly of Virginia has just proposed a bill that would establish a special tax to pay for “teachers of the Christian Religion.” The bill has wide support because the Episcopal Church—the dominant church—will benefit greatly from having taxpayers pay for its teachers. Madison, however, knows better. He knows the bill is an attack on the principle of freedom of conscience and a threat to the liberties so recently wrenched from King George III.
So what does he do? What does the future Founding Father, Father of the Constitution, Father of the Bill of Rights, and fourth president of the United States do? He sits down and writes out a list of fifteen reasons why Virginians should reject the bill and any other attempt to mix religion and government. Then he puts it in a petition and sends it all over the Commonwealth.
Remarkably, Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance and dozens of other petitions collected over 10,000 signatures. When the General Assembly gathered again in 1785, the bill died before it even made it to the floor.
The success of Madison’s petition set the stage for the passage of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. Then, in 1787, when the Constitutional Convention met to create a new American system of government, the language of the Virginia Statute became the law of the nation and inspired the first secular republic in history.
This is our history —unless of course you’re one of countless people who think America is a Christian Nation founded on biblical principles.
Right now, millions of American’s are convinced that our society is in the midst of a steep moral decline. To slow the decay, many right-wing political and religious leaders and their followers are demanding a “return” to the foundation of American virtue, which they believe to be the Bible and Christian doctrine. They believe that, if we just do what God tells us to do, He will make it all better. Alarmingly, they also believe that if we don’t do what God tells us to do, He will punish us. In their minds there is a causal link between secular government and societal decay, so— “to protect our country”—they’ve been hacking away at what Jefferson called the “wall of separation” between church and state. For them, goodness comes from God, so if we are to be a good country, we must be a godly one.
It’s 2014 and, like Madison, we have a problem. There is a dangerous problem with the desire to base our national morality on Christian beliefs—or any religious beliefs. Of course it’s a good idea to have a strong moral foundation, but morals don’t need religion to be sound. In fact, history is replete with examples showing that morality does horrific damage when it is based on the authority of a god. God’s laws are absolutes and the things that make people want to cling to absolutes are the very things that make them dangerous: Absolutes shut down critical thinking. They do not allow debate. They allow no reflection. There is no moderation. There is no reason.
When people attach the authority of God to moral precepts, they turn good ideas into bad ideology and corrupt theology. “Love thy neighbor” gets hijacked by “The ends justify the means because God said so.” Ideology is amenable to branding and is particularly useful during political campaigns, but it is a disastrous basis on which to make decisions. It is a disastrous way to govern a country.
People who believe the United States can somehow be saved by a rebirth of religious piety miss the most profound lesson American history has to offer. The most unique and significant characteristic of our national experiment was not its dedication to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The genius of the American example was the method our founders used to conclude that those things should be the foundation of their new republic. They dismissed the political and religious ideologies of the day and used reason to come up with better ideas.
When the colonists came together to draft the Declaration of Independence, it was not because “God said so.” Instead, our founders appealed to reason—no less than twenty seven reasons—and painstakingly explained to King George and the rest of the world why “these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States.”
When delegates to the Constitutional Convention gathered to form a more perfect union, establish justice, and ensure domestic tranquility, they didn’t write the authority of God into the administration of government. They studied world history and political philosophy, they compared dozens of governing systems, they reviewed centuries of human experience, and they reasoned—after much strenuous debate—that “We the People” would be the best guardians of liberty. Not God. Not King. Not Priest. We the People. They concluded that Ten Amendments would do far more to ensure the general welfare than Ten Commandments.
And so it was with Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance. When the General Assembly tried to pass a bill that would infringe upon religious liberty, Madison didn’t try to justify his disagreement with an appeal to faith. He didn’t fire back at his adversaries with a Commandment, with a “because God said so.” He looked to reason and found fifteen of them—more than enough to persuade his fellow Virginians to change their minds and choose the better way.
Our leaders and fellow citizens are right to claim that America has strayed from its original values, but our value system was never about Commandments. Liberty, equality, tolerance and respect, fairness, freedom of conscience and speech, distribution of power, and checks and balances—the civic virtues and democratic values that have sustained us are secular values born of human experience and free thought. They are the legacies of founders who understood that happiness is more dependent on freedom than on faith, that reason is a better judge than religion, and that revolutionary ideas work better than religious ideology.
America cannot be saved by a return to religion because America was not founded on religion. America is the child of reason. If we wish to return to our founding principles—if we wish to regain our moral footing and work towards a better day—this is where we should begin.
Madison’s reasons of 1785 are still relevant today and remain a compelling argument against the impulse to mingle church and state. The full text may be found here.
To paraphrase (with apologies to the most eloquent Madison):
- A person’s relationship with God is between that person and God so a majority of people should not be able to impose its religious opinion on individuals.
- Government gets its power from the people. Since people should not impose their religious opinions on one another, government should not impose religion on individuals either.
- We just fought really hard to win our liberties from England—why would we want to start giving them away again?
- If we expect to be free to worship God in our own way, we have to let everyone else do the same thing. A just God is more offended by inequality than by uncertainty.
- The president isn’t an authority on religious truth and the state is not the means of salvation.
- Are you worried that religion will fail without the support of the government? Isn’t your faith stronger than that?
- Anyway, religion flourishes when it’s oppressed by the state as surely as it turns corrupt when joined with it.
- History Lesson: the quickest way to destroy a peaceful society is to give its rulers the authority of God.
- Besides, how are we going to explain a State Church to a world of people expecting America to be the “land of the free”?
- If we start revoking liberties, all the good people who value freedom will leave and then what will we have?
- Relax. Remember: every time we try to make everyone believe the same thing, lots of people get killed.
- If we start acting like a backward theocracy, no one will like us and they won’t believe a word we say—as a church or as a state.
- It’s hard enough enforcing laws that we agree on. How are we going to enforce a law that no one likes? Besides, stupid laws only damage our credibility.
- Okay, this is a democracy. How many people really want the government to tell them how to worship God? Not enough.
- If we start to think it’s okay for the majority—the state—to take away our religious freedom, what freedom will we let it take away next?
#1 Hal (Guest) on Friday May 02, 2014 at 2:22am
While I agree with the Founders that no one denomination should have government sanction or support, that does not mean we as a country should be godless. Even John Adams remarked that the Constitution was only for a moral and religious people. Why? Because religion, in specific Biblical Christianity, teaches self-control. With a people exercising self-control you actually have maximum freedom. What we see today as we have moved to your secular godless society is the need for more prisons, laws and human destruction. Right now we are getting closer to being a police state, mainly because fewer and fewer people exercise self-control. 2 million people + in the U.S. are imprisoned. One in 8 young men under the age of 30 will be ex-offenders. We are also becoming a more coarse society in how people express themselves with crude profanity. Truth has been left behind by many of our public and corporate leaders. Personal responsibility is on the decline as more and more call on a very indebted government to take care of them. I just read where a 28 yr. old has put her vicinity up for auction. Homosexuality is now seen as acceptable, among other sexual perversions, and marijuana is now legal in at least 2 states. If you thought drinking and driving was bad, wait till we have stoned drivers on the road! Our society is decaying and not because we hav too much religion but too little. Please enjoy the increasing police state. Glad I’m 64 on not that long for the nightmare that’s coming!
#2 Hal (Guest) on Friday May 02, 2014 at 2:38am
The word was virginity. Too much help from my iPad.
You also forgot to mention that most of the Founders were Christians and favored Christianity though they did not want a state religion as in England.
You might be too young to remember but Stalin and Mao both had secular godless societies. 20 million Russians died under Stalin! Ditto for Mao! Hitler used a perverted form of religion to further his godless secular ends. North Korea has a godless secular society. No telling how many have starved or been executed there!
You are perhaps ignorant of what Jesus and the Apostles actually taught. You might try actually reading the New Testament before writing Biblical Christianity off. As one who lived in the New Mexico Christian Children’s Home because of my parent’s divorce, I know first hand the good Christianity brings with it. As a Volunteer Chaplain in a local State Prison, I see the destruction our increasingly secular godless society is producing. You might want to get out of your ivory tower and visit a local prison. It might open your eyes to reality!
#3 Mark Lambert (Guest) on Friday May 02, 2014 at 7:41am
Most of the Founders were Deists, which means they didn’t believe Jesus was the son of God. Many “Godless” societies around the world today, including most of Western Europe and Japan have many less people in prison so your causation does not equal correlation. Self-control can and has been taught without religion. Having a Santa Claus in the sky that will punish us for being bad while here on planet Earth is no way to try and impose self-control.
#4 mjoll on Friday May 02, 2014 at 12:36pm
Hal, your statement, “Homosexuality is now seen as acceptable…,” is the perfect example of why we cannot allow America to become a God-ruled nation. Thank you for chiming in with a demeaning put-down, based upon the words of your bible in the service of your loving God. It proves the validity of everything the article says.
#5 cewu (Guest) on Monday May 05, 2014 at 1:29am
That article just gave me PTSD.
#6 Marilyn (Guest) on Tuesday May 06, 2014 at 7:28pm
The writer of this article opens by introducing James Madison as the beacon for secularism as the foundational principle for the United States. In so doing he does Mr. Madison an injustice and makes himself a liar. Madison did not stand up for a government free of the influence of religion, but he stood against a state run religion, which is what would happen if the government were to tax the people in order to support religion. (Read the actual document Madison wrote.) To evoke the power of the founders’ names in order to abuse their principles requires twisting their words and ignoring their writings and the testimony of their lives to the point of utterly remaking them into the secularist’s own image until they no longer have any resemblance to the founders at all. In our fast blurb society it’s so easy to create quotes that do violence to a person’s true meaning—including the founding fathers—and it’s so easy to do when so few people take the time or have the time or bother to research the veracity of statements. The founding fathers, Madison included, prayed before their meetings and made many remarks indicating their firmly held belief that the Judeo/Christian ideals of morality were the only foundation that could sustain the kind of government they desired to create. Jefferson’s “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” opens its text with the following words, “Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free…” By these words it’s clear Jefferson had no intention of striking God as Guide and Compass from government or from American thought, else he would not have opened his document this way. Like the Madison document, Jefferson’s statute forbids the state from interfering with religion and from supporting it with tax money. The founding fathers would be appalled to see their words so twisted for the pursuit of something they never advocated and even warned against. In fact, the founders acknowledged the role the Bible and their faith in God played in guiding their thoughts on everything pertaining to the creation of the United States of America. By the documents they wrote, with their fortunes on the line, with everything they loved gambled, they wanted a nation where the common man could live in liberty. They hoped for a nation that would increase in its perfection, knowing full well that many of the things they dreamed of, such as the end of slavery, would not and could not happen immediately. The founders asserted that government could not demand that a citizen either be religious or not be religious—that is what they asserted because as Jefferson states Truth can fend for itself IF it is allowed to speak. And most vehemently they asserted that there should be no state run religion. Therefore, the idea that government or any other entity, be it this secularist organization or whoever it might be, can dictate that religion should be struck from American society and to use the founding fathers to promote such an idea is to do severe injustice to the founders and to their ideals and is a blow against liberty for all Americans. Every person must be permitted the liberty to make up his own mind about God and about religion and should not have any particular view dictated by government. If religion is struck from society, then that choice has been eliminated and freedom destroyed.