Not long ago, atheists in ‘God’s Country’ were shunned like lepers. Today, the non-believers are courted by the powers that be and nobody seems to mind. Is America losing its religion, and does it even matter?
Although America’s purported devotion to God may be a tad overblown, the roots of religion in US politics date back to its very founding. In fact, the creation of the United States was considered to be such an extraordinary event that the Founding Fathers – fiercely devout Christians all of them – were often carried away with religious conceit.
Just as Jews believe they are God’s ‘chosen people,’ Americans have long believed they are ‘exceptional’ citizens of God’s ‘chosen country.’ This much was evident as the Founders were in the process of drafting the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, undertakings they truly believed were guided by divine intervention.
To get a sense of those overzealous times, you could do no worse than the dripping self-righteousness expressed by James Madison in 1772: “A watchful eye must be kept on ourselves lest… we neglect to have our names enrolled in the Annals of Heaven.” Such lofty religious sentiments should come as no surprise considering that nearly half (24) of the Founders held seminary or Bible school degrees.
Today, it’s hard to comprehend the shift in religious traditions that have rocked ‘God’s Country’ in a relatively short period. A time-traveler from Colonial America to our present day consumer paradise would probably have a harder time coming to grips with the despoiled religious landscape than the shiny technological one.
Consider, for example, the rise of so-called “religious nones” – US citizens who no longer affiliate themselves with any specific religious denomination. Since 1991, this demographic has exploded some 266 percent; today, 23.1 percent of Americans now identify with this godless group. That puts them ahead of Catholics (23 percent) and Evangelicals (22.5 percent) for the first time. What is even more surprising, however, is that politicians are moving to capture this growing segment of the US electorate without any concern over a public backlash.
Just last month, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) made history when it embraced these secular nonbelievers for the first time, even passing a resolution that recognizes their contributions to the Democratic Party. The statement placed particular emphasis on those non-believers who contribute to “the arts, sciences, medicine, business, law, the military, their communities, the success of the Party and prosperity of the Nation…”
Conspicuously missing was any mention of morality, religion and God. And no, the sky did not fall. At least not yet. This begs the question: have Americans become so inured to secularism, materialism and consumerism that the prospect of atheists becoming a major political force does not create the slightest bit of discomfort?
In a recent Gallup poll, 60 percent of Americans said they would vote for an atheist. Although only socialists fared worse on the list at 47 percent, support for non-believing candidates is more than three times the 18 percent Gallup recorded in its first survey on atheist candidates back in 1958.
Meanwhile, there have been other examples of godless behavior in erstwhile God’s Country. In June, for example, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal from a group of atheists who’ve been trying to get the motto “In God We Trust” scrubbed from the US money supply. The judges argued that the government was not attempting to “force citizens to express trust in God with every monetary transaction.” How long that ruling will stand against America’s newly radicalized ‘woke’ contingency – who have had enormous success tearing down an assortment of other historic symbols and monuments – is anyone’s guess.
Despite the apparent onset of godless tendencies among Americans, there are still a number of religious traditions that remain intact, yet seem destined for the graveyard, and probably sooner than later. For example, no president of the United States has ever openly identified as an atheist, while just one member of Congress, Jared Huffman, a Democrat from California, of course, fashions himself as a “spiritual drifter.”
This proves that Americans still have a liking for leaders with some sort of religious brand awareness. In fact, the photo opportunity that US politicians seem to relish most is the one that shows them emerging from Sunday morning church services, basking in the light of heavenly favor like some modern-day Moses. Such images have some impact on voters, who view the God-fearing politician as someone who observes a higher authority and a higher moral code.
There is, however, a more cynical theory. God only knows how many politicians – following the pricey advice of some savvy PR firm – are careful to observe the Sabbath once a week, while they spend the remaining six days bombing foreign countries to smithereens and killing innocent civilians. Many voters are probably well aware of the hypocrisy behind the holy cover, yet are happy to play along with the charade anyways.
This leads us to the question: Will our politicians resort to disastrous decisions without the voice of God whispering in their ears? Can secular leaders be expected to make sound moral judgments without a belief in an Almighty and the promise of eternal salvation? The question becomes even more important when it is remembered that our leaders will be expected to make decisions connected to life and death, war and peace, good and bad. Yet, once we declare, together with Nietzsche, that ‘God is dead,’ does that automatically open the door to disaster? If the promise of an afterlife to non-sinners no longer exists, would it be incumbent upon our political leaders to avoid the use of nuclear weapons, for example?
For those who respond ‘yes,’ keep in mind that US President Harry Truman resorted to the use of atomic weapons against Japan in the closing hours of WWII, giving him the dubious honor of being the first and only world leader thus far to have used such weapons of mass destruction. Truman, who argued that his decision “helped to save lives,” was brought up in the Presbyterian church.
Thus, an argument could be made that it does not really matter if a political leader or political system is anchored on religious faith, that ultimately it comes down to the inherent wisdom and good sense of the rulers.
This leads to yet another question: Can American society, complete with every worldly temptation under the California sun, cultivate the sort of wise politicians – ‘philosopher kings,’ as Plato called them – that would preclude the need for a jealous God watching over our public servants, who don’t always have the best reputation for moral and ethical fortitude?
Whatever the ultimate answer may be, the United States is about to find out as more and more Americans reject religion – not only in their daily lives – but in politics as well.
Is it too early to say, ‘God help us’?
By Robert Bridge