[U.S. Attorney General] Barr gave a fiery speech denouncing the threat to America posed by “militant secularists,” whom he accused of conspiring to destroy the “traditional moral order,” blaming them for rising mental illness, drug dependency and violence.
Consider for a moment how inappropriate it is for Barr, of all people, to have given such a speech. The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion; the nation’s chief law enforcement officer has no business denouncing those who exercise that freedom by choosing not to endorse any religion.
And we’re not talking about a tiny group, either. These days, around a fifth of Americans say that they don’t consider themselves affiliated with any religion, roughly the same number who consider themselves Catholic. How would we react if the attorney general denounced Catholicism as a force undermining American society?
And he didn’t just declare that secularism is bad; he declared that the damage it does is intentional: “This is not decay. It is organized destruction.” If that kind of talk doesn’t scare you, it should; it’s the language of witch hunts and pogroms.
It seems almost beside the point to note that Barr’s claim that secularism is responsible for violence happens to be empirically verifiable nonsense. America has certainly become less religious over the past quarter-century, with a large rise in the number of religiously unaffiliated and growing social liberalism on issues like same-sex marriage; it has also seen a dramatic decline in violent crime. European nations are far less religious than we are; they also have much lower homicide rates, and rarely experience the mass shootings that have become almost routine here.
Nonetheless, William Barr — again, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, responsible for defending the Constitution — is sounding remarkably like America’s most unhinged religious zealots, the kind of people who insist that we keep experiencing mass murder because schools teach the theory of evolution. Guns don’t kill people — Darwin kills people!
So what’s going on here? Pardon my cynicism, but I seriously doubt that Barr, whose boss must be the least godly man ever to occupy the White House, has suddenly realized to his horror that America is becoming more secular. No, this outburst of God-talk is surely a response to the way the walls are closing in on Trump, the high likelihood that he will be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors.
Trump’s response to his predicament has been to ramp up the ugliness in an effort to rally his base. The racism has gotten even more explicit, the paranoia about the deep state more extreme. But who makes up Trump’s base? The usual answer is working-class whites, but a deeper dive into the data suggests that it’s more specific: It’s really evangelical working-class whites who are staying with Trump despite growing evidence of his malfeasance and unsuitability for high office.
As a field, apologetics bears quite a few problems. It’s actually not easy to say exactly which might be its worst. But I see this one as a big problem: apologists’ processes never actually land where apologists insist they do. Almost every apologetics argument can be negated right out of the gate through the identification of its logical fallacies, manipulation attempts, or basic cognitive biases. Of the few remaining, they don’t whisk us away to the Happy Realm of Jesus-is-Real. Instead, apologists land themselves in the Iffy Realm of SOMEONE-Might-Be-Real and then simply declare they’ve reached their destination.
In the past, I’ve called this the Unicorn Test: any given apologetics argument not knocked out of the running through illogical reasoning accidentally demonstrates the validity of not just Jesus, but also of Santa Claus, Zeus, Space Princess Cassidy, Thor, Wonder Woman, leprechauns, Harry Potter, the state of Wyoming, and Russell’s Teapot. Substituting other names for “Jesus” in their arguments reveals the truth.
Christians have a really tough time moving from the claim that gods are not, in the main, logically ridiculous to demonstrating that their particular god simply must exist–while simultaneously demonstrating that these thousands of other deities absolutely do not. Apologists take as a given that once they demonstrate that gods in general might exist, they’ve already conclusively demonstrated those other points–and thus clinched their sale.
Reason – logical thinking by intelligent minds – proves clearly that the compassionate, all-powerful god of religion cannot exist. Simple logic clinches it, as follows:
When a woman is dying of breast cancer, or a child is dying of leukemia – and relatives pray desperately – why does the alleged god let most victims die? If the god cannot save them, he isn’t all-powerful. If he could, but doesn’t want to save them, he’s heartless, not all-loving. He’s a monster.
The same logical conclusion applies to tsunamis, hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, plagues, epidemics, famines, floods, and other horrors that kill multitudes. If a god could stop the tragedies, but won’t, he’s evil.
And the logic applies to cruelties of nature. Why would a loving god design hawks to tear rabbits apart, boas to crush pigs, cobras to kill children, etc.? Only a fiend would devise a system of ruthless predator-killers.
Reason cannot disprove the existence of an evil god, but it wipes out the benevolent father-creator claimed by most churches. The only intelligent conclusion is that such a loving god cannot exist.
Valerie Tarico: Many people seem to walk away from their religion easily, without really looking back. What is different about the clientele you work with?
Marlene Winell: Religious groups that are highly controlling, teach fear about the world, and keep members sheltered and ill-equipped to function in society are harder to leave easily. The difficulty seems to be greater if the person was born and raised in the religion rather than joining as an adult convert. This is because they have no frame of reference – no other “self” or way of “being in the world.” A common personality type is a person who is deeply emotional and thoughtful and who tends to throw themselves wholeheartedly into their endeavors. “True believers” who then lose their faith feel more anger and depression and grief than those who simply went to church on Sunday.
Tarico: Aren’t these just people who would be depressed, anxious, or obsessive anyway?
Winell: Not at all. If my observation is correct, these are people who are intense and involved and caring. They hang on to the religion longer than those who simply “walk away” because they try to make it work even when they have doubts. Sometimes this is out of fear, but often it is out of devotion. These are people for whom ethics, integrity, and compassion matter a great deal. I find that when they get better and rebuild their lives, they are wonderfully creative and energetic about new things.
An immense Latin cross stands on a traffic island at the center of a busy three-way intersection in Bladensburg, Md. “Monumental, clear, and bold” by day, the cross looms even larger illuminated against the night-time sky. Known as the Peace Cross, the monument was erected by private citizens in 1925 to honor local soldiers who lost their lives in World War I. “The town’s most prominent symbol” was rededicated in 1985 and is now said to honor “the sacrifices made in all wars,” by “all veterans.” Both the Peace Cross and the traffic island are owned and maintained by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, an agency of the state of Maryland.
Decades ago, this court recognized that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution demands governmental neutrality among religious faiths, and between religion and nonreligion. Numerous times since, the court has reaffirmed the Constitution’s commitment to neutrality. Today, the court erodes that neutrality commitment, diminishing precedent designed to preserve individual liberty and civic harmony in favor of a “presumption of constitutionality for longstanding monuments, symbols and practices.”
The Latin cross is the foremost symbol of the Christian faith, embodying the “central theological claim of Christianity: that the son of God died on the cross, that he rose from the dead, and that his death and resurrection offer the possibility of eternal life.” Precisely because the cross symbolizes these sectarian beliefs, it is a common marker for the graves of Christian soldiers. For the same reason, using the cross as a war memorial does not transform it into a secular symbol, as the courts of appeals have uniformly recognized.
Some of my colleagues suggest that the court’s new presumption extends to all governmental displays and practices, regardless of their age. ‘A more contemporary state effort’ to put up a religious display is ‘likely to prove divisive in a way that a longstanding, pre-existing monument would not.’” I read the court’s opinion to mean what it says: “Retaining established, religiously expressive monuments, symbols, and practices is quite different from erecting or adopting new ones,” and, consequently, only “longstanding monuments, symbols, and practices” enjoy “a presumption of constitutionality.”
Cross not suitable for other faiths
Just as a Star of David is not suitable to honor Christians who died serving their country, so a cross is not suitable to honor those of other faiths who died defending their nation. Soldiers of all faiths “are united by their love of country, but they are not united by the cross.” By maintaining the Peace Cross on a public highway, the commission elevates Christianity over other faiths, and religion over nonreligion. Memorializing the service of American soldiers is an “admirable and unquestionably secular” objective.
But the commission does not serve that objective by displaying a symbol that bears “a starkly sectarian message.” The First Amendment commands that the government “shall make no law” either “respecting an establishment of religion” or “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Adoption of these complementary provisions followed centuries of “turmoil, civil strife, and persecution, generated in large part by established sects determined to maintain their absolute political and religious supremacy.”
Mindful of that history, the fledgling Republic ratified the Establishment Clause, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, to “build a wall of separation between church and state.”
Government may not favor
The Establishment Clause essentially instructs: “The government may not favor one religion over another, or religion over irreligion.”
In cases challenging the government’s display of a religious symbol, the court has tested fidelity to the principle of neutrality by asking whether the display has the “effect of ‘endorsing’ religion.” The display fails this requirement if it objectively “conveys a message that religion or a particular religious belief is favored or preferred.” To make that determination, a court must consider “the pertinent facts and circumstances surrounding the symbol and its placement.”
As I see it, when a cross is displayed on public property, the government may be presumed to endorse its religious content. The venue is surely associated with the state; the symbol and its meaning are just as surely associated exclusively with Christianity.
To non-Christians, nearly 30 percent of the population of the United States, the state’s choice to display the cross on public buildings or spaces conveys a message of exclusion: It tells them they “are outsiders, not full members of the political community.”
“For nearly two millennia,” the Latin cross has been the “defining symbol” of Christianity, evoking the foundational claims of that faith. Christianity teaches that Jesus Christ was “a divine Savior” who “illuminated a path toward salvation and redemption.” Central to the religion are the beliefs that “the son of God,” Jesus Christ, “died on the cross,” that “he rose from the dead,” and that “his death and resurrection offer the possibility of eternal life.” “From its earliest times,” Christianity was known as “religio crucis — the religion of the cross.”
Christians wear crosses, not as an ecumenical symbol, but to proclaim their adherence to Christianity. An exclusively Christian symbol, the Latin cross is not emblematic of any other faith.
The principal symbol of Christianity around the world should not loom over public thoroughfares, suggesting official recognition of that religion’s paramountcy.
The commission’s “attempts to secularize what is unquestionably a sacred symbol defy credibility and disserve people of faith.” The asserted commemorative meaning of the cross rests on — and is inseparable from — its Christian meaning: “the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the redeeming benefits of his passion and death,” specifically, “the salvation of man.” Because of its sacred meaning, the Latin cross has been used to mark Christian deaths since at least the fourth century. The cross on a grave “says that a Christian is buried here,” and “commemorates that person’s death by evoking a conception of salvation and eternal life reserved for Christians.”
As a commemorative symbol, the Latin cross simply “makes no sense apart from the crucifixion, the resurrection, and Christianity’s promise of eternal life.” The cross affirms that, thanks to the soldier’s embrace of Christianity, he will be rewarded with eternal life. “To say that the cross honors the Christian war dead does not identify a secular meaning of the cross; it merely identifies a common application of the religious meaning.” Scarcely “a universal symbol of sacrifice,” the cross is “the symbol of one particular sacrifice.”
Every court of appeals to confront the question has held that “making a . . . Latin cross a war memorial does not make the cross secular,” it “makes the war memorial sectarian.” The Peace Cross is no exception. That was evident from the start. At the dedication ceremony, the keynote speaker analogized the sacrifice of the honored soldiers to that of Jesus Christ, calling the Peace Cross “symbolic of Calvary,” where Jesus was crucified. Local reporters variously described the monument as “a mammoth cross, a likeness of the Cross of Calvary, as described in the bible,” “a monster Calvary cross,” and “a huge sacrifice cross.”
The character of the monument has not changed with the passage of time.
Not a universal symbol
Reiterating its argument that the Latin cross is a “universal symbol” of World War I sacrifice, the commission states that “40 World War I monuments . . . built in the United States . . . bear the shape of a cross.” This figure includes memorials that merely “incorporate” a cross. Moreover, the 40 monuments compose only 4 percent of the “948 outdoor sculptures commemorating the First World War.” The court lists just seven freestanding cross memorials, less than 1 percent of the total number of monuments to World War I in the United States. Cross memorials, in short, are outliers. The overwhelming majority of World War I memorials contain no Latin cross. In fact, the “most popular and enduring memorial of the post-World War I decade” was “the mass-produced Spirit of the American Doughboy statue.” That statue, depicting a U.S. infantryman, “met with widespread approval throughout American communities.”
The Peace Cross, as plaintiffs’ expert historian observed, was an “aberration . . . even in the era in which it was built and dedicated.” Like cities and towns across the country, the United States military comprehended the importance of “paying equal respect to all members of the Armed Forces who perished in the service of our country,” and therefore avoided incorporating the Latin cross into memorials. The construction of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is illustrative. When a proposal to place a cross on the Tomb was advanced, the Jewish Welfare Board objected; no cross appears on the Tomb. In sum, “there is simply ‘no evidence . . . that the cross has been widely embraced by’ — or even applied to — ‘non-Christians as a secular symbol of death’ or of sacrifice in military service” in World War I or otherwise.
The Establishment Clause, which preserves the integrity of both church and state, guarantees that “however . . . individuals worship, they will count as full and equal American citizens.”
“If the aim of the Establishment Clause is genuinely to uncouple government from church,” the clause does “not permit . . . a display of the character” of Bladensburg’s Peace Cross.
— This is an edited and condensed version of the dissent, written by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in the Bladensburg cross case
The last few decades sure have been bad ones for organized religion. Conservative Christians have decided that the sum total of the Bible is about reestablishing the sex and gender mores of the 19th century. Liberal protestantism is so unassuming that hardly anyone even remembers it exists. The Catholic Church has been responsible for the deaths of millions in Africa thanks to its mindless belief that God hates condoms. Much of Islam has been taken over by the toxic Saudi strain. Israel has turned into an apartheid state. Hindus in India are apparently now dedicated to creating a religiously pure state. And even Buddhists have been acting badly lately.
Meanwhile, science keeps churning out new wonders. Cell phones. The internet. Cures for cancer. Robotic prosthetics. Solar panels on rooftops. Talking computers. Antidepressants. Google Maps. Cheap genome sequencing. Virtual reality. Machine learning. Meatless meat. Missions to Mars. Electric cars. Fiber optics.
A secretive organization that has courted political leaders and built international influence while undermining the constitutional division of the church and the state in the process is at the center of a new five-episode documentary series called “The Family.”
Since 1953, the National Prayer Breakfast has remained a fixture in American politics that has boasted attendance by every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower on the first Thursday of every February. It has been hyped as an opportunity for the political elite of Washington, D.C., and visiting international dignitaries to put aside partisan differences and reflect on a higher purpose.
While the annual event is purportedly hosted by members of Congress, it is actually organized and run by an evangelical Christian organization called The Fellowship Foundation, or “The Family,” as it is referred to internally by its members.
The series, which debuts on Netflix on Friday, takes a look at the group that operates with its own higher purpose — quietly building its influence on global politics “in the name of Jesus.”
“The Fellowship isn’t about faith and it spreads very little. It’s about power,” said Jeff Sharlet, whose books, “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power,” and “C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy,” inspired the Netflix series.
“Internally, it is spoken of primarily as a ‘recruiting device’ with which to draw ‘key men’ into smaller prayer cells to ‘meet Jesus man to man,’” according to Sharlet. “Practically, the Prayer Breakfast has functioned from the very beginning as an unregistered lobbying festival.”
Citing 2006 documents, Sharlet estimates the number of dedicated organizers who handle recruitment at just 350. Those organizers, however, have built a network of prayer cells that the late Christian Right leader Chuck Colson pegged at 20,000-strong, calling it, “a veritable underground of Christ’s men all through government.”
Sometimes that has meant aligning with politicians who stray from Jesus’ example. In 2009, former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford gave a press conference outside of C Street emphasizing his religious pedigree upon resurfacing after disappearing from his state for days to visit a mistress in Argentina.
So, while President Donald Trump may not have the most pious of track records, Sharlet says the Family has embraced the unique opportunity provided by the most fundamentalist Cabinet in recent American history to advocate evangelical policy.
“The Fellowship believes God uses who He wants, and that power itself is an indicator of who He has chosen — it’s a theology of more power for the powerful,” Sharlet explained.
“The fact that Trump, with his “art of the deal,” is especially well-prepared to embrace this transactional theology — Trump puts the Christian Right’s people in power in return of their support — seals the deal.”
And so the personal question that I struggle with a good deal. OK, this is really highly personal, it’s just me. But I often feel sad about being seen as an “enemy” of the Christian faith. People tell me I am all the time – both people who despise me and people who are rooting me on. Yet the views I put out there for public scrutiny are almost NEVER things that I’ve come up with myself, that I’ve dreamt up, that I’m trying to push on others with no evidence or argument – just crazy liberal ideas I’ve come up with to lead people away from the faith.
So why am I an enemy?
Of course I know why, and my views were given additional support last week, at the international meeting of New Testament scholars I attended in Marburg. I was talking with a German scholar about advanced training in biblical studies in Germany these days, and he told me that in German theological schools (in his experience), students simply are not as a rule very interested in the historical study of the New Testament per. The kinds of historical issues we deal with on the blog are simply not pressing matters for them. These are not why they are in theological training, either to teach or to minister in churches.
Instead, he indicated, the ONE question / issue that most of these students have is: “How can I be Christian in this increasingly secular world?”
Of course they are interested in historical knowledge – but it’s not what’s driving them. Instead it is an existential question about faith. That makes so much sense. It is what was driving me at that stage too. But when this fellow scholar told me that, I realized even more clearly why I get so much opposition, even in some learned circles.
Most of the people who are in the business of studying the Bible are committed to faith. That’s what generates their interest. And these days it is very hard. Christians are under attack. From science, from philosophy, from the neo-atheists, from a society/culture that increasingly doesn’t care. And the problem with someone like me is that I’m not helping the cause. On the contrary, I’m not just someone from the outside taking potshots at this faith. I’m someone who came from within it, and left it, with good reasons, and who argues views that are taken by people in the wider culture to be “evidence” that the faith has no good rational basis. Even though I disagree with that assessment (since I know full well that people can be devout believers but still agree with everything I say) (not that anyone agrees with everything I say) (sometimes *I* don’t agree with everything I say…) – even though I disagree with that assessment, I get it.
Christians – even Christian scholars – want to cling on to their faith, to cherish it, and promote it, and what they see as negative assaults on the basis of their faith is threatening, especially – this is the key point – if it comes from someone who is *outside* the community of faith but who used to be inside it and understands the views of those who are still inside it extremely well, but who now rejects these views. And says things that can lead others to reject them as well.
Crediting the Nixon campaign with the flight of Southern conservatives from the Democratic Party dismisses the role Southerners themselves played in that transformation. In fact, Republicans had very little organizational infrastructure on the ground in the South before 1980, and never quite figured out how to build a persuasive appeal to voters there. Every cynical strategy cooked up in a Washington boardroom withered under local conditions. The flight of the Dixiecrats was ultimately conceived, planned, and executed by Southerners themselves, largely independent of, and sometimes at odds with, existing Republican leadership. It was a move that had less to do with politicos than with pastors.
Southern churches, warped by generations of theological evolution necessary to accommodate slavery and segregation, were all too willing to offer their political assistance to a white nationalist program. Southern religious institutions would lead a wave of political activism that helped keep white nationalism alive inside an increasingly unfriendly national climate. Forget about Goldwater, Nixon or Reagan. No one played as much of a role in turning the South red as the leaders of the Southern Baptist Church. …
It was religious leaders in the South who solved the puzzle on Republicans’ behalf, converting white angst over lost cultural supremacy into a fresh language of piety and “religious liberty.” Southern conservatives discovered that they could preserve white nationalism through a proxy fight for Christian Nationalism. They came to recognize that a weak, largely empty Republican grassroots structure in the South was ripe for takeover and colonization.
We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world – its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is, and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence, and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it.
If you investigate the material basis of religious belief, you immediately confront a phenomenon that operates on many different levels. In particular circumstances and particular settings a faith may function as a guide to morality, or an aesthetic, or a social network, or a collection of cultural practices, or a political identity, or a historical tradition, or some combination of any or all of those things.
You don’t have to be a believer to see that religion genuinely offers something to its adherents (often when nothing else is available) and that what it provides is neither inconsequential nor silly.
What these persons fail to understand is that it would have been redundant to include such a phrase [separation of church and state] in the Constitution. The document as a whole embodies the view that government is not to meddle in religious matters. The federal government is given very specific, limited powers only over various secular matters. It has no powers relating to religion. The government is secular both in its origin (the consent of the governed) and its function. The government and religious institutions are completely separate and have nothing to do with each other. To insist that the Constitution doesn’t mandate separation of church and state because it doesn’t contain that phrase is more preposterous than a person who is not named as a beneficiary in a will insisting he has a claim on the estate because the will does not specifically exclude him by name.
— Dr. Ronald Lindsay, The Necessity of Secularism: Why God Can’t Tell Us What to Do, December 2014