"My country is the World. My Religion is to do Good."


Reflections on The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine


As a Guide for Today's Government-Religion Separation Struggles


Joyce Chumbley


[December 2003]


When Thomas Paine wrote in 1792, "my religion is to do good" (Rights of Man, Part 2), he could claim years of study and reflection on the role of religion in society. Paine had seen one set of choices about that role made by the American revolutionists. However, different and darker outcomes during the tumultuous years of the French Revolution led him, finally, to challenge the system of religion altogether and its frequent oppression of the people. He let rip in what has become perhaps his most controversial work, "The Age of Reason, Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology" (1794-1796).
Paine said in Age of Reason that, "in America I saw the exceeding probability that a revolution in the system of government would be followed by a revolution in the system of religion." In a few important ways that revolution appears to have happened, such as in some loosening of religious dominance over people's lives and in a growing tolerance among various faiths. But in the winter of 2003-2004, what Paine called the "adulterous connection of church and state" prevails in the US perhaps as never before.
Because Paine's ideas still inspire us, it seems a fitting time to address that "adulterous connection" as we in the United States currently traverse the winter season with its multiple religious/ethnic observances overtaking our public awareness. Among those observances are Christmas of Christianity, Hanukkah of Judaism, Kwanzaa of African American and Pan-African origins, and Eid Al-Fitr of Islam, each with its own official US postage stamp!
Thomas Paine, himself, acquired a "good moral education" from his Quaker and Anglican parental traditions. As an adult, he formed his own moral system and evolved into an acceptance of the Deist philosophy, which had been developed by intellectuals of the time, such as Newton and Locke, and adopted by American associates, such as Franklin and Jefferson. Deism is the belief that a God created all existence but, then, as a force, assumed no direct control over natural phenomena and gave no supernatural revelation.
According to Paine and the Deists, unaided reason could allow humanity to know there is a God and that certain duties toward all of creation would flow from such an awareness (the true theology). Conversely, Paine insisted that the Bible and church dogma are incredible imaginings (even propaganda) devised by certain humans to serve their vested interests (the fabulous theology). In other words, Paine was appealing for reason, for open-mindedness, and the questioning of all things religious. And because of those outrageous notions he was vilified during his time, through succeeding centuries (including Theodore Roosevelt wrongly calling him "that dirty little atheist"), down to today when he and his important work are far less well known than they deserve because of that lingering stigma.


Early Laws To Maintain "The Wall Of Separation" Between Church And State -- The Framers' Intent


Before 1700, many of the Puritan colonists came to the New World to escape religious oppression and persecution. But they sought religious freedom only for themselves and, in turn, became intolerant persecutors and theocrats. An exception, Roger Williams, who founded the Rhode Island colony in 1636, was banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635 for his ideas about religious tolerance and freedom. However, by the time that remarkable group of people assembled to seek independence from England and to create a new nation, their enlightened notions of dissent, which translated to equality, democracy, and liberty, came to predominate. No state religion would be established to rule and dictate to government officials or the general public. The framers of the Constitution wrote: "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." (Article 6, Section 3)
Thomas Jefferson, as legislator and governor of Virginia, led efforts to separate the church and state. He wrote the first draft of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1777. (NOTE: In 2002, some members of Thomas Paine Friends gathered in Fredericksburg for the 225th anniversary celebration of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.) At first, the statute was bitterly opposed by the well-entrenched gentry, but it finally passed in 1786, thanks in part to the political skills of James Madison. It has not only been copied by other states but was also the basis for the religion clauses in the Constitution's Bill of Rights.
As if to spell out what Jefferson called the "wall of separation" between church and state, the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, signed at Tripoli in 1796 and ratified by the President and Congress in 1797 (attributed to George Washington and John Adams), says: "The Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion." (Article 11) The "rights" of the Bill of Rights were based not on religious belief but on secular notions of human rights, as Thomas Paine articulated in Rights of Man.
The Constitution of the US was ratified in 1789 (the Bill of Rights in 1791) without a single reference to "god." Most of the framers and major statesmen of the day were Deists or at least not orthodox Christians, including the first presidents. It is said that at the time only about 4% of the populace was actually church-involved. As the country absorbed more European settlers in the next century, though, church membership increased to over 20%, and threats to undo the secular, inclusive founding documents arose.
The initial part of the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights has to do with religion, and its two clauses set forth two principles: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion [the Establishment Clause, which guarantees the separation of religion and government and that government will not establish or endorse any religion]; or prohibiting the free exercise thereof [the Free Exercise Clause, which prohibits the government from interfering with people's right to practice any religion, or no religion at all]. Under the First Amendment, we have freedom from religion and freedom of religion.


19th Century Fervor To Join Church And State


During the Civil War (in a typical wartime frenzy of high patriotism and high religiosity), Protestant denominations organized the National Reform Association (1863), whose primary mission was amending the Constitution to "declare the nation's allegiance to Jesus Christ," to "indicate that this is a Christian nation," and to "undeniably" put the "legal basis" of the land on "Christian laws, institutions and usages." Fortunately, neither the "Christian Amendment" nor a god-infused revision they proposed to the Preamble of the Constitution, ever succeeded in obtaining either the approval of Congress or any state. (Skeptic Tank) A century later, though, the "Christian Amendment" was revived after the Supreme Court ruled in 1962 and 1963 that official prayer and Bible reading in the nation's schools were unconstitutional because they violated the Establishment Clause. In what seemed like a firestorm, governors from all over the country (except New York) called for the Constitution to be amended, and some members of Congress eagerly tried to comply, without success. Then, in 1998, a variation of the "Christian Amendment" resurfaced again as the Religious Freedom Amendment and, once again, was averted.
The very same NRA mentioned above also produced a member, James Pollock (former governor of Pennsylvania), who demonstrated that what can't be obtained through an open, legal process can sometimes be achieved through stealth, with enough fanatical determination. So it was with the Christianizing of US money. Since 1837, all currency in the US had been covered by statute, and the inscriptions prescribed were entirely secular: "Liberty," year, eagle, "United States of America," and value. But in 1864, when Pollock was Director of the Mint, an amendment was added to a coinage act that read: "mottos and devices of said coins shall be fixed by the Director of the Mint." After producing a two-cent piece with a new motto and getting no objection, Pollock urged the passage of another amendment, in 1865, to mint all coins in the future with that motto, "In God We Trust." The first major production of a godded-up coin was the Lincoln penny of 1909 (perhaps in a vain attempt to redeem the president who belonged to no Christian church and was suspected of being a Deist). Although the new motto was not included when paper money was first printed, that oversight was remedied when in 1955, during the Communist witch-hunting McCarthy era of the Cold War, a bill passed in Congress "Providing for the inscription of "In God We Trust" on all United States Currency and Coins." Accompanying the bill was florid language about how "as long as this country trusts in God, it will prevail." (Congressional Record 6/7/55) The next year, 1956, the religious forces pushed the House of Representatives to pass a resolution establishing "In God We Trust" as a national motto.


And Now Down To Today's Assaults On Separation Of Church And State


It has been seen that Congress cannot be relied upon to support and defend the Constitution and the separation of government and religion. Its members have too many other conflicting agendas, and Congress rushes to make bad law under pressure from the loudest advocates. Sometimes the "religious wars" become so heated and complex that even experts on the various issues get confused. But over the years, the US Supreme Court has generally upheld the principles, although often late and through much struggle.
A titanic struggle between Congress and the Supreme Court from 1988 to 1998 illustrates. In Employment Division v. Smith (1988), the Court upheld the denial of unemployment benefits to two members of the Native American Church who, under Oregon's anti-drug laws, had been fired from their jobs for using peyote (a hallucinogen which has been an integral part of Native American religious practices for centuries). The Court reasoned that since peyote was prohibited for everyone, Native Americans were not being discriminated against. An uproar ensued, of course, not because Native Americans were, once again, being abused or because of the double standard in which peyote is illegal while mind-altering alcohol is a thriving industry, but because new restrictions on religion might even be applied to the mainstream. Within days of the ruling a coalition of religious groups formed. Pressure on Congress was launched to craft special legislation which would, under the guise of the free exercise clause, effectively exempt or distance religious groups from certain societal rules common to everyone. The result was the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA, 1993).
RFRA was wildly popular among nearly all religious groups across the theopolitical spectrum, conservative to liberal, because it served all their interests. Those groups on the Right saw it as an opening for making government more "religion friendly"; the Left feared an even more reactionary response if RFRA failed, as perhaps did some of the exemplary "separationist" groups that supported it, such as Americans for Religious Liberty and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The American Atheists claims to be the only group to go on record opposing RFRA.
Before long, a challenge to RFRA came from a First Amendment case in Texas. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Antonio wanted to demolish most of a 70-year old church situated on a hill in the small community of Boerne, so that it could build a larger church to accommodate its congregation. City officials refused permission, though, because they considered the church a "historical structure" which fell under local zoning regulations. The Church sued under RFRA for restriction of religious exercise, and the case, City of Boerne v. P. F. Flores (Archbishop of San Antonio), went to the Supreme Court in 1997. Right away, the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion went into action against the challenge to RFRA. Nina Totenberg, Legal Affairs Correspondent for National Public Radio, reported that members of the huge religious coalition were saying that Boerne could be the most important church-state case ever. In a surprise ruling, the Supreme Court (6-3) struck down the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act as unconstitutional, saying that Congress overstepped its legitimate authority when it enacted the legislation. RFRA gave "special rights" to religious groups and believers, placed government in the unconstitutional position of facilitating and favoring religion over non-religion, and discriminated against those in a community who were engaged in non-religious activity. In an often-quoted passage from the decision of the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote:

If the historic landmark on the hill in Boerne happened to be a museum or an art gallery owned by an atheist, it would not be eligible for an exemption from the city ordinances that forbid an entanglement of the structure. Because the landmark is owned by the Catholic Church, it is claimed that RFRA gives its owner a federal statutory entitlement to an exemption from generally applicable, neutral civil law. Whether the Church would actually prevail under the statute or not, the statute has provided the Church with a legal weapon that no atheist or agnostic can obtain. This governmental preference for religion, as opposed to irreligion, is forbidden by the First Amendment.

As a result of that stunning (supposed) defeat for the religious groups, a clamor for Congress to respond resumed. Ernest Istook (R-OK) brought forth the Religious Freedom Amendment (RFA) in the House of Representatives, with the strong encouragement of Religious Right groups led by the Christian Coalition and the support of William J. Murray, son of atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair and one of the original plaintiffs in the 1963 Supreme Court case which outlawed state-sanctioned prayer in public schools. The bill's stated purposes were:

To secure the people's right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: Neither the United States nor any State shall establish any official religion, but the people's right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage, or traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed. Neither the United States nor any State shall require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity, prescribe school prayers, discriminate against religion, or deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion.

When acted on in the House, the RFA had a majority but failed to attain the necessary two-thirds vote required to amend the Constitution.
An added note in the spiraling development of this story is that in 1994 (after Smith of 1988) Congress amended the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) to provide for the traditional use of peyote by Indians for religious purposes. In 1997, the US Department of Defense approved the use of peyote for the religious ceremonies of American Indian soldiers. In 2002, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) proposed a change in their regulation regarding peyote use to conform with the AIRFA Amendment, although some parts of the proposed regulation have not been acceptable to the Native American Church (or the Native American Peyote Religion), and so the struggle for religious freedom goes on, unabated.


The Supreme Court will hear two government-religion First Amendment appeals in 2003-2004. One case is a variation of the school voucher issue (which was upheld as a constitutional policy last year). In 1999, Joshua Davey of Spokane, Washington qualified to receive a state-funded scholarship for high-achieving students of modest means. But Davey, a devout Christian, was informed that he could not use the funds (less than $3,000) to study for the ministry at a Washington college. State of Washington officials said that it would be unconstitutional for the government to subsidize religious instruction but that the denial of funds would not infringe Davey's right to seek a theology degree. Last year, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals did not agree. (Meanwhile, Davey has completed his theology degree without the funds and has abandoned the ministry for a law career.) The case, Locke v. Davey (Governor Gary Locke), has been argued by the American Center for Law and Justice, a law firm founded by Reverend Pat Robertson, on behalf of similar scholarship programs elsewhere and the school voucher issue. Among the opposition, Reverend Barry Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, has said, "A grand total of 37 states prohibit spending tax dollars on clergy training. That's the way it should be in a country that believes that religion is voluntary and should be paid for by its supporters."
The other First Amendment case before the Supreme Court in this term is a bomb that has had a fuse burning since 1954 -- the Pledge of Allegiance. The Pledge was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist preacher turned socialist turned advertising executive. It read: "I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." It was introduced in public schools the year it was written but was amended for Flag Day in 1924 with the words "to the United States of America" so that immigrant children would know what country they were saluting. In 1942, the federal government officially adopted the Pledge and instructed people to place a hand over their heart while reciting it. It is said that Bellamy didn't like the amended version and would have been horrified if he had lived to know what happened in 1954. As with the money, the Pledge originally was entirely secular. In 1954, however, Congress added the "under God" phrase in an attempt to distinguish "God-fearing" Americans from the "godless" Communists. Some folks, especially those who learned the Pledge the 1924 way, just remain silent for "under God." There is a coercive element, though, at work in the classroom for young people which has been construed as "unconstitutional indoctrination." The case, Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, was brought by atheist Michael Newdow of Sacramento, California on behalf of his 8-year-old daughter, and the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals concurred with his complaint. In October, a surprise development followed the announcement that the Supreme Court would review the case. Justice Antonin Scalia, perhaps the most overtly religious member of the Court and most outspoken about it, recused himself from the case. It seems that Michael Newdow had requested the move because last February Scalia gave a public speech in which he suggested that the case had been wrongly decided in the federal appeals court. That speech, argued Newdow, meant Scalia could not hear the case with the open mind required by federal law.


From major court cases to everyday life in the US, there are constant and insidious attempts, especially by Christian sectarian individuals and groups, to impose certain religious beliefs and practices on the general populace. Examples abound, and here are a few.

In the schools: religious conflicts in 1830s+ from new Irish and Italian Catholic immigrants forced to read and recite the Protestant Bible and prayers in public school . . . the famous 1925 "monkey trial" in which John Scopes was charged that he had broken the Tennessee fundamentalist-inspired ban on the teaching of evolution . . . Jehovah's Witness schoolchildren in the 1930s required to salute the American flag, which would have violated their religious beliefs . . . official Christian prayer and Bible reading in the nation's public schools in the 1950s, objected to by Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and atheist parents and students . . . a mandate that public schools teach "scientific creationism" -- the biblical version of the earth's creation . . . devotional activities conducted within captive audience settings -- in the classroom, on sports fields, and at graduation exercises.

In the public square: state sponsored displays of crèches and crosses or the Ten Commandments (as in the recent spectacle of the now suspended Chief Justice Roy Moore and his Decalog monument in the Alabama federal court house) . . . prayers before official sessions of Congress, state legislatures, and city/county commission meetings ("The establishment of the chaplaincy to Congress is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as Constitutional principles." James Madison, 1789) . . . "God save the United States and this honorable court" stated before each session of the Supreme Court . . . post 9/11 bumperstickers across the nation reading "God Bless America" . . . oaths that still include "So help me God" . . . Sundays as days of rest and Christmas as a national holiday.

In domestic policy: "school choice" vouchers (tuition subsidies for public school students to attend private schools) that are most often used for religious institutions (taking taxpayer funds away from the public school systems in violation of religion-government separation), with no evidence that better education overall is being achieved . . . the right to die being denied, for example, in the Florida case of Terri Schiavo, a woman who, by gubernatorial order and legislative mandate, is being kept alive in an irreversible, "persistent vegetative state," according to a consensus of the medical community, because of the pressure from a religious campaign including prayer vigils, power rallies, and a media frenzy . . . federal Medicaid benefits and Temporary Aid for Needy Families being tied to religiously-inspired "personal responsibility" requirements, such as, the Texas Workforce Commission is using to threaten the cut-off of assistance if compliance with such rules can not be proved . . . racial/religious profiling of Arabs and a wave of anti-Muslim roundups and deportations by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a Bureau of US Homeland Security.

In foreign policy: a fundamentalist ideology that trumps science and health in the US response to the "immoral" AIDS epidemic in Africa, including an abstinence-only policy, restriction of condoms, blocking efforts for affordable access to essential medicines, and emergency relief funds promised but not delivered . . . a war on "wicked" drugs and godless revolutionaries that amounts to a war on farmers in Colombia, with the toxic spraying and widespread destruction of crops, land, livelihoods, and lives, led by US "military advisers" . . . a noxious union of Evangelical Christians and American Zionists driving US-Israel policy toward a possible ethnic cleansing of Arabs from Palestine, followed (according to the Dispensationalists) by a biblical rapture, with the return of Christ, a conversion of the Jews, and eternal life for the saved (made possible by US taxpayers) . . . and, of course, the invasion and looting of Iraq (called a "crusade" by George W. Bush until his handlers intervened).

In the war zone: the project of Reverend Franklin Graham (son of Billy Graham) to convert the Arabs of Iraq after the country is "liberated" (on hold, apparently) . . . troops who were to get drinking and washing water from a Baptist chaplain if they agreed to be baptized . . . a pamphlet given to Marines in Iraq by the evangelical group, In Touch Ministries, asking for their pledge to pray every day for George Bush.

In the Bush Administration: Lieutenant-General William Boykin, Deputy Undersecretary for Defense at the Pentagon, speaking publicly about the US as a Christian nation devoted to God, battling against Muslims equated with Satan (and now he is in charge of the "manhunt" assassination program in Iraq) . . . Education Secretary, Roderick Paige, announcing that he believes it is important for schools to teach Christian values . . . a religiously-motivated doctor, David Hager, appointed to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Advisory Committee for Reproductive Health, who refuses to prescribe contraceptives for unmarried women and believes that reading the Bible and praying are appropriate antidotes for premenstrual syndrome . . . US Attorney General John Ashcroft ordering that the naked marble breasts of the "Spirit of Justice" statue be covered.

The Faith-Based and Community Initiative (FBCI) program is perhaps the most pervasive and dangerous challenge by the Bush Administration to government-religion separation. It was created as a wholesale attempt to transfer social safety net programs to the religious sector. When Bush's initiative stalled in Congress amid controversy over constitutionality, he sidestepped lawmakers with executive orders and regulations to give religious organizations equal footing with nonsectarian ones in competing for federal contracts. By presidential fiat, federal agencies (for example, HHS, HUD, ED, DOL, DOJ, VA and others) have had to open their programs to partner with religious groups. Tens of billions of taxpayer dollars have been granted, through the agencies' budgets, for 100 or more programs. While many religious denominations have had long and honorable traditions of social service work (Catholic, Lutheran, Jewish groups, to name a few), which has been done with taxpayer funds under government contract, those funded groups in the past have agreed, by strict guidelines, to serve the community at large and to impose no religious participation requirements. Now, the old restrictions on proselytizing, coercion, and manipulation seem to be gone. In an Iowa prison project, for instance, inmates can get televisions, private bathrooms, and computers in return for Christian counseling. Even the non-discrimination requirements have been jettisoned, as the newly anointed groups are exempted from civil rights laws on whom they serve and whom they hire. (See the FBCI website, especially for the booklet, "Protecting the Civil Rights and Religious Liberty of Faith-Based Organizations.") To get a job at the Orange County Rescue Mission near Los Angeles, an applicant must sign a statement declaring, "I have received the Lord Jesus Christ as my personal Savior."
The faith-based initiative is predicted by its opponents to be a disaster, creating more harm than good. Already, its director, James Towey (dubbed "Faith Czar"), has created an uproar by making the bureaucratic decision that "fringe religions" will not be eligible for funds. Then, he ignorantly accused Pagans of not caring for the poor, to which they responded by giving him a nationwide democracy-in-action response. Perhaps even worse than Towey's bias, though, is the possibility that some of the funded groups that have little or no experience in providing services will waste money and damage vulnerable people. Already, a watchdog group, the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy, has mobilized to assess the expanded role of faith-based organizations in the US social welfare system. Claiming to be independent and nonpartisan, the Roundtable will evaluate effectiveness in delivering services. With George Washington University Law School, the Roundtable will track and analyze legal and constitutional developments and will provide news and reports to the public in cooperation with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Constitutional challenges are sure to come. If the federal circuits and Supreme Court have not been packed with right-wing ideologues by then, perhaps this new onslaught can eventually be sorted out.
One "faith-based" initiative that didn't get funding or Bush's imprimatur in the last election cycle was a tax reform plan proposed by Alabama's Republican Governor Bill Riley. As a practicing Christian, Riley applied his religious convictions to his job and developed a fair-share plan that would have increased taxes on rich and big corporations and high income earners, given a tax break to the poor, and targeted the new state revenue to Alabama's habitually underfunded and underperforming public schools. Although the 90% Christian Alabama was split on this controversial measure, Susan Pace Hamill, a law professor at the University of Alabama, wrote an elegant defense, "An Argument For Tax Reform Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics." (www.law.ua.edu/directory/bio/shamill.html) But corporate and right-wing organizations flooded the airwaves with fear-based ads. The November 2003 referendum was trounced, 68% to 32%. As a reporter on the story observed, "for all the moral high ground Christians claim . . . they hate taxes more than they love Jesus."


There will always be the threat of constitutional amendments, legislation, and bad decisions by judges, presidents, and even the people. To maintain freedom of religion and freedom from religion, vigilance must be applied. Abortion, decriminalized in 1973 through Roe v. Wade, is under constant attack. The "Christian Amendment" will undoubtedly appear again. In 2003, the Federal Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, was introduced in the House and Senate (SJRes26, HJRes56). It is based on religious dogma and texts, not on human rights criteria. If passed, this intrusive, so-called "marriage protection" legislation would deny certain USers and families the right to participate fully in American society and to enjoy its benefits and freedoms. It would jeopardize hard-won domestic partner benefits offered in more than 10 states and 100 municipalities, and it would force states to discriminate against a targeted group of their own citizens. Also, the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act (HR 235) proposes to revise the federal tax code to allow houses of worship to endorse political candidates and contribute to their political campaigns. Introduced by Walter Jones (R-NC), it gives the Republican Party an opportunity to turn America's well-networked conservative churches into Bush Campaign Centers.


Because freedom to follow a chosen religion is constitutionally protected, the US now has more than 1,500 religious groups, with 360,000 churches, mosques, temples, gurdwares, and synagogues. As of 1992, attending members of Christian churches (Protestant and Catholic) reached nearly 60%, with Jews and Muslims about 2% each and followers of various Eastern religions about 3%. More than 90% of USers profess a belief in God. (ACLU) The range of this nation's experiment in multireligious expression has been studied and captured recently in a CD-ROM called "On Common Ground: World Religions in America" by The Pluralism Project (Harvard University). Through text, image, and sound, 300 communities and 18 regions of the country are explored for their religious landscape, and 15 religions are covered in depth. (The Deism of our country's founders is not one of them!) In an accompanying book, "A New Religious America," author Diana Eck says, "The United States is the most religiously diverse nation in the world." She gives extensive evidence of that claim and goes on to ask how USers will deal in a positive way with that growing pluralism when more people realize it is actually happening. In spite of our so-called "Judeo-Christian" heritage, however, she points out that now "There are more American Muslims than there are American Fundamentalists, Jews, or Presbyterians." Will there be greater cultural conflict or liberal tolerance?
While the diversity of religious practice in the US may be growing, there is also a major shift occurring in allegiance to specific faith traditions. Pollsters are finding that more and more people identify themselves as "spiritual but not religious." (Sounds a bit like Thomas Paine, doesn't it?) It may be that exposure to various religions has encouraged seekers to sample a range of paths and practices, and/or it may be that social progress has outstripped religious dogma in certain areas of human rights and tolerance (regarding equality of opportunity for women and gays, for example). An American Religious Identification Survey (2001) concluded that 29 million people in the US would claim "no religion" (atheists, agnostics, nonbelievers, and perhaps the "spiritual" group), outnumbered only by the 51 million who would call themselves Catholic and the 34 million Baptists. The success story is the relative sense of religious harmony in the US, a tribute to the framers who built freedom and tolerance for religion into the national psyche and kept religion out of the hands of government.
Throughout the relatively short history of the US, religion has played a role in movements to abolish slavery, promote civil rights, and oppose war. For some people in those movements, their religion provided the moral rationale that inspired them to speak truth to power and to act for the common good. Recently, for example, an antiwar Catholic priest, John Dear, in a little New Mexico town, stood up to a National Guard unit harassing him with their "Kill, Kill" chants, by stopping them in their tracks and telling them, in the name of God, to go home, in effect, to become conscientious objectors. In life's less dramatic but daily struggles, as well, many religious organizations and their members have served on the frontlines to feed the hungry, give shelter to the homeless, comfort the sick in body and mind. For some people, religion gave meaning to life, led to the abandonment of self-defeating behaviors, provided fellowship and community, fostered a sense of compassion, and brought inner peace. However, maybe a supportive community, a fulfilling job, a close connection with nature, a good education and a well-developed mind (including the study of such works as Rights of Man) might have achieved the same ends. What must be acknowledged is that many God-worshipping USers have actually supported slavery and war and have vehemently opposed civil rights, while at the same time all kinds of non-believers have participated in progressive struggles, including the movements for workers' rights, universal education, and a safe environment.
Without at all disparaging the sincere, well-meaning efforts of the many religiously-motivated people who have dedicated their lives to social service, one might ask, in the spirit of TP's Age of Reason, "Why hasn't that effort produced better results?" One reason might be that religious organizations are often beholden to the very establishment forces which oppose change. Churches have gone a long way to support in practice the Puritan notion that those parishioners who are wealthy have advanced their success through hard work and God's grace and that good fortune is evidence of moral worth. As a corollary, hardship and disaster relief may have become the staple of religious social services because that inherently valuable work doesn't challenge the policies and conditions often producing the distress. While the values of compassion, justice, and equality are being preached, religious traditions often actually condone practices that are controlling, censoring, punishing, discriminating, and diminishing in the name of someone's interpretation of what God wants of creation. A self-appointed morality police has even delivered religiously inspired violence at abortion clinics and gay rights events. (Poster: "God Hates You, Sodomites, Abortionists!") The Christian Identity and militia movements, too, seemingly would even welcome a theocratic fascist state of Amerika.
Most opponents of the separation of government and religion believe that the principle is anti-religious, that it has forced their cherished religious expressions out of the public square and denied them freedom of religion, and that it will lead eventually to the banning of God altogether (secular = atheism). The more venomous accusations are that God-hating Leftists are anti-American, promoting non-Western traditions and threatening the Christian white race with their debased humanistic belief system, which has led to the moral degeneration of society. The "separationists," on the other hand, generally conclude that history has shown the marriage of government and religion to be, as Paine said, an "adulterous connection." They struggle to avoid equating political controversy (public issues for all) with sectarian religious belief (private choices for individuals). They acknowledge that some aspects of popular culture may be profane and crude, but poverty, exploitation, and abuse are obscene, as well, and a challenge for us all. Ironically, they attempt to practice the Golden Rule more faithfully than the doctrinarians by insisting that no set of religious doctrines impinges on the choices of others.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the US seems to be swamped in trivial distractions, selfish materialism, criminality at every level of society (from the streets to the board rooms), and a gross disparity between the haves and the have-nots. With a government in pursuit of its own power and wealth, the social structure for the people is being shredded, leaving us with unemployment and worker exploitation, inadequate health care, deficient education, addictions, homelessness, poverty, and despair. When the people speak out in dissent they are often accused these days of being unpatriotic or terrorists, and, sometimes, they are attacked by an increasingly militaristic police. The US is reviled and ridiculed around the world for its arrogance, greed, and cruelty. And, yet, the current leadership of the US gives the appearance of being the most religious ever. In fact, some of their number even claim to be embarked on a divinely inspired mission.
Who are these holy warriors? Some of them are well-known, outspoken, and officially ordained: Reverend Jerry Falwell, who said in response to recent church-state separation setbacks, "I'm training [at his new law school] junkyard dog lawyers who believe in God and the Bible and the Constitution and are not afraid of the ACLU" . . . Reverend Pat Robertson, who, with his own college, vast Christian Broadcasting Network, and megacongregation, said recently that he wants to "nuke" or "eviscerate" the State Department because he has disagreed with some of its policies . . . the Korean, Reverend Sun Myung Moon (owner of the Washington Times newspaper), who runs his own Unification Church and has said that he intends to make his church the basis of a worldwide theocracy over which he will rule. Moon has vast business holdings around the world, with financial and operational links to the Bush family, as well as ties with many major conservative organizations and has been a major source of funding for right-wing causes.
The cultivation and imposition of ideas usually takes lots of money. Some of the missionaries of the new theocracy are wealthy individuals who operate behind the scenes, such as Howard Ahmanson (Newport Beach, CA) and Richard Mellon Scaife (Pittsburgh, PA). They have used their personal fortunes to underwrite programs, organizations, and think tanks. Some leading incubators of the ideas now heavily influencing government policies are the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. And there are many "missionary" organizations that are regularly involved in social-political activism, for example, the Christian Coalition, with its influential voter guides, and the Traditional Values Coalition. A recent project of the TVC, which claims to represent 43,000 churches, is to discredit the researchers of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the US and persuade the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to revoke their federal grants. Those organizations, like religious institutions, of course, enjoy tax exempt status, and contributors are entitled to charitable deductions for their support.
Some of the current missionaries come from the top echelons of government and business. An exclusive and secretive organization for high-level policy makers and corporate executives is the Council for National Policy (CNP), whose focus is on economic growth (especially privatizing the commons), social traditionalism, religious activism, and anti-secularism. Some of their proceedings were exposed during the 1990s by the Institute for First Amendment Studies (an excellent source, from 1989 to 2001, about right-wing ideology and its leaders, sadly, no longer in operation). Within such organizations as CNP, like-minded individuals have built the networks and synergies that exist today. For example, corporate executives from Diebold (the highly dubious touch-screen voting machine company) have donated funds to politician members of CNP who are also involved with the Christian Reconstructionist movement, which promotes the idea that only Christians ought to have the right to vote. Another highly secretive Washington-area corps for Christ gathers at a place called "Ivanwald" in order to plan for a world in the Lord's honor. The group, called "The Family," includes several members of Congress and the current Administration, generals and CIA operatives, CEOs of oil and defense industries, and an occasional foreign dictator. Exposed in a March Harpers magazine piece by Jeffrey Sharlet (www.harpers.org/JesusPlusNothing.html), The Family operates under the administrative direction of Doug Coe. It sponsors the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington every year. In February 2003, George W. Bush was keynote speaker for its 51st annual event.
Whether or not George W. Bush is actually a believer or merely the creation of a public relations campaign is anyone's guess. But there are claims that he felt directed by God to run for president, that he had a premonition of some national disaster occurring during his tenure, and that he believed himself destined to battle evil enemies as the commander in chief. From the beginning, his administration has been wrapped in the trappings of religion, his recourse to righteously smug God-is-on-our-side talk during the few times he has spoken unscripted in public, the formal speeches (some prepared by writers directly associated with the evangelical community) filled with snatches from the Bible and old gospel hymns (often used inappropriately out of context to equate divine power and US military might), the well reported prayer and Bible reading sessions at the White House, the widely seen photographs of Bush with a halo-like glow around his head. The carefully created image is of someone anointed and directed by God to fulfill this divine mission. However, for all of Bush's religious posturing, the pleas of genuine religious leaders around the country and world to avoid an attack on Iraq seemed not to have phased him a bit. As the old song says, "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition."
Whether or not Bush is a charlatan and really just a would-be imperial corporatist, who is merely conning the public with his god act, isn't as important as whether or not the two-hundred-plus-year American experiment to separate government and religion will be irreparably damaged. Since Bush was selected as president there has been a massive assault on that principle. His ascendancy has seemingly opened the floodgates for theocratic activists to rush in from everywhere with their cherished issues and programs. Billions of taxpayer dollars are being appropriated to support or cope with this spreading adulteration.


There is, on one hand, the agenda of those apocalyptic zealots who really want to turn the US into Biblical America, with everyone forced to believe as they do. Then there are the opportunists who just use religion as another tool to gain power and wealth (prophets for profits). Sometimes it is difficult to differentiate since both use authoritarianism and violence as prime strategies. The power cultists oppose a secular value system because with it the element of an overriding all-powerful authority, which they represent, would no longer prevail. Authoritarians can't tolerate people thinking and acting for themselves, locating truth inside themselves without the benefit of official doctrine. Throughout history, they have tortured and massacred heretics, sinners, and "evil-doers," supported war and conquest, established their Orwellian rule by keeping the people fearful, distracted, ignorant, and overwhelmed with hopelessness. And so it is with the so-called neoconservative cabal that seems to be currently controlling the US government. The neocons are compared more and more these days with the Jacobins of the French Revolution, the group that plunged the country into a Reign of Terror, a state policy of suppressing all opposition by violent means. It was during their time and in that place that Paine was inspired to write The Age of Reason. Then, as now, whenever blind faith (in whatever "god") is used as a rationale for policy decisions rather than choices based on reason and facts and evidence informed by ethics and morality, a downfall is ensured.
In our time, Paine's practical spirituality rooted in reading the book of life or the book of nature might find resonance in the principles of Earth Literacy (www.eoncity.net/earthlinks/earthliteracycompanions/whatisel.htm) and Deep Ecology (www.deepecology.org) in which humans learn to live in accordance with fundamental organizing principles of life on this planet. Beyond organized religion, too, moral human behavior can be learned in the study of ethics, character and values, critical thinking, secular humanism, and even from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In a statement worthy of Thomas Paine's Age of Reason, Audrey, the librarian (Boston), has said, "Go out, do good, shut up about it."
Maybe at this time of year, next year, we'll get official US stamps for the Bodhi Day of Buddhism, the Winter Solstice Sabbat of Wiccan/Pagans, and even Human Rights Day!



The author is the copyright holder of this essay and grants permission to reprint the article in whole or in part with the following attribution: This essay by Joyce Chumbley was written for Thomas Paine Friends, Inc., and originally appeared in the newsletter, BULLETIN of Thomas Paine Friends, volume 4, number 4, December 2003.

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