UPDATE: Please be sure to read the comments. Renee pops in and clarifies – she was providing a rough transcript of the talk she attended, not necessarily her views. I’ve left the rest of my post unedited, but substitute any references where I imply I’m replying to Renee with references where I imply I’m replying to the people at the talk. 🙂

I was reading a post Renee put up at Howard Empowered that provided me an opportunity to talk to someone of faith who might actually be interested in listening to what a godless heathen might have to say. In particular, this passage:

Now when the colonists first came to America, they came for religious freedom from Catholicism. They were not very tolerant of other Protestants. Eventually they progressed to where they were tolerant of other Protestants. Some more time went by, and they finally accepted and tolerated Catholics. Some more time went by, and they finally tolerated Jews, and Hindus and Buddhists and other faith traditions–nonwestern religions. And finally America accepted Atheists and Secularists. And one of the historical ironies, once the Atheists and Secularists were accepted, they decided now would be a good time to kick Christians out of the public square.

I think liberals of faith would agree: the growing acceptance of different religious traditions is a good thing. That seems to be the gist of Renee’s post, with one exception – the claim that atheists and secularists have been accepted by America. That clearly isn’t the case, and in fact Renee’s post is an example of that very fact.

Allow me to explain. For starters, it was just (just?) 19 years ago when a then-soon-to-be President – and father of our current President – had this to say:

No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered as patriots. This is one nation under God.

19 years ago is a long time, but still much more recent than the “anti-God” court cases that Renee later mentions. Could a man say the above and still get elected President? It happened in 1988, and I think it would still happen now, given public attitudes towards atheists.

Asked whether they would disapprove of a child’s wish to marry an atheist, 47.6 percent of those interviewed said yes. Asked the same question about Muslims and African-Americans, the yes responses fell to 33.5 percent and 27.2 percent, respectively. The yes responses for Asian-Americans, Hispanics, Jews and conservative Christians were 18.5 percent, 18.5 percent, 11.8 percent and 6.9 percent, respectively.

When asked which groups did not share their vision of American society, 39.5 percent of those interviewed mentioned atheists. Asked the same question about Muslims and homosexuals, the figures dropped to a slightly less depressing 26.3 percent and 22.6 percent, respectively. For Hispanics, Jews, Asian-Americans and African-Americans, they fell further to 7.6 percent, 7.4 percent, 7.0 percent and 4.6 percent, respectively.

Atheists are viewed as less American than Muslims and gays, two of most vilified groups in American society right now. Many polled believe athiests partake criminal behavior or drugs, or are amoral materialists. Seven states still prohibit atheists from holding public office. So I’d say we aren’t accepted, sadly.

The issue behind “separation of church and state” is not one that endeavors to push evangelicals out of the public square. It’s about inviting all faiths – or non-faiths – into the public square. It’s about discussing ideas – informed by religious belief or not – without bias for or against those ideas because of what faith they come from. It’s about these kinds of values.

Most registered voters in Ohio – 59 percent – say they want candidates for governor to keep their religious beliefs to themselves, according to a newspaper poll published Sunday.

“I just don’t think (politics and religion) have anything to do with each other,” said Barbara Wardlow, 70, of Clarksville, who participated in the poll conducted by The Columbus Dispatch.

Overall, 90 percent of respondents said religion is important in their lives, and 66 percent said it’s important that candidates have strong religious beliefs. But only 41 percent said they wanted candidates publicly discussing those views.

Even though most Ohioans want politicians to keep their religious views to themselves, it’s very disheartening to see that 66% feel that it’s important that candidates have strong religious beliefs. To them I say – what is a “value” that has meaning in a secular government? That one believes in Christ, or that one believes the government should look out for those who are unable to look out for themselves? Is it about believing in transubstantiation, or about believing in equal rights for African-Americans and homosexuals?

It’s not about pushing evangelicals underground. It’s not about removing evangelicals from the public discussion. It’s about ensuring our government is religion-neutral. It’s about protecting both government and religion from the kind of tyranny both have seen in the past from this kind of mixing.

So, let’s say you do allow a “little bit” of Church and State mixing. Inserting a little “under God” in the Pledge in 1954 can’t hurt, can it? Well, yes it can (Exhibit A: George H.W. Bush’s quote above). Do you think the Rod Parsleys of the world are going to stop there? And whose God is it, exactly? After all, apparently Methodists (including Dubya and Strickland) aren’t real Christians.

It’s easy for those of us without faith to spot transgressions on the separation of church and state, but it may not be so easy for those of us with faith. So, let me suggest a “smell test”. Change all “God” references to “Allah” references. You still OK with it? If not, you are starting to understand how atheists, Buddhists, pagans, and the like feel in modern America.

Religious liberty in America may be better that it once was, but it’s not as good as it should be, and there are movements in America who wish us to move in the wrong direction, far beyond where we started from. Just remember this – until an atheist, or Muslim, or Buddhist can run for office and have their religion be ignored in favor of their policy positions, we have a religious tolerance problem. And, in fact, since 1989 more than 200 exemptions to the law have been written favoring religious charities over secular charities. So, you may or may not agree, but religious-run child care facilities don’t have to meet the same standards and regulations a secular child care facility does. As is often the case when Denny Hastert opens his mouth, don’t believe him when he says “Radical courts have attempted to gut our religious freedom and redefine the value system on which America was built.” If anything, secularists are trying to carry on the traditions of Thomas Jefferson – a man who believed in the Divine (yet was attacked by his adversaries as being an atheist), but felt that God and Government should be held at arm’s length. And Jefferson’s writings clearly show he felt that being free to disbelieve was a part of “freedom of religion”.

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