With the National Day of Prayer finally found to be an unconstitutional outreach of government into endorsing a religion by courts, there’s been plenty of grumbling about the separation of church and state, and a seemingly endless repetition of the “we’re a Christian country” mythos. Of course, if we actually look at what the founding fathers of the United States said, we find that not only did they outright reject the idea that the nation they built was in any way, shape or form Christian, but they even signed a treaty saying exactly that to Muslims of what is modern day Libya, a treaty approved by Congress and publicly distributed in the States with no protests. So when the very same government bows before Christian fundamentalists who see the first sentence of the Bill of Rights as nothing more than a minor nuisance to be drowned out by prayers and invocations to God, that’s a very serious problem because the government passed legislation which is constitutionally unsound, and a particular religious group insists that it keeps doing so out of its need for self-affirmation and validation.
According to the First Amendment, the government simply isn’t allowed to endorse any religious movement, a notion today’s religious zealots either ignore, or pretend that it doesn’t apply to them. That’s why they vote on a candidate based on how many times he invokes the right deity, judge how well someone was raised by how religiously devout and outspoken he is, and believe that anyone not as devout as them will destroy the nation because he doesn’t live trembling in fear of God’s wrath. But why is it so hard to explain why the separation of church and state isn’t only necessary, but that it protects them as well? Why do they insist on throwing out old fallacies and outright fantasies about the United States being founded on their principles and their faith, even when every ruling on the subject for the last two centuries has unequivocally stated the exact opposite? It’s not very hard for believers to simply ignore what they don’t want to see, then run around accusing others of doing the same. To believe that you’re under constant surveillance of a wrathful, supernatural voyeur watching over you every second of every day with no proof that this is actually happening already needs an immunity to a few very basic facts. But in the debate about secularism, there’s something more going on.
First, an important thing to note is that the opinions we hear from religious fundamentalists might not be their own but rather, a recitation of talking points given to them by demagogues and pundits. Unfortunately, when a person chooses to simply rehash talking points, he generally fails to bring anything more than a quote to the debate since talking points are based for inciting a loyal base and boiling down complex issues into a catchy soundbyte, not to actually carry on a serious discussion. This isn’t limited to religious fundamentalists by any stretch of the imagination and it’s equally bad when agnostics or atheists decide to wage a quote war against fervent zealots. Since talking points are all about firing up the base, they tend to lack the kind of facts that need to underpin an argument. And since they’re usually exchanged by people who already believe pretty much the same exact thing, they serve to create an echo chamber where nuances, exceptions and evidence are thrown by the wayside in favor of ideology. This is why we get those inane repetitions of “Judeo-Christian principles enshrined in the Constitution” while those who chant it can’t even quote the right document. These aren’t the kind of well thought out and persuasive ideas we’re told they are. They’re products of echo chambers, endless repetition against the facts, and sometimes, an obvious, outright parody of a pundit’s style. The only evidence these talking point debates use is wishful thinking.
But the most important issue preventing fundamentalists from grasping the need for separation of church and state is because secularism is so alien to them. Secularists see religions as a collection of beliefs which are bundled into different flavors, divided and named by tradition and cultural history. Fundamentalists divide their world into the one true belief dictated to them by God and everybody who’s wrong and whose views are totally irrelevant to the discussion because they don’t worship the right deity or don’t worship it correctly. They crave a government which will pander to them, acknowledge that their beliefs are right and true, and follow their rules in a quasi-theocratic manner, ignoring the real dangers of mixing politics and religion. But again, they ignore these dangers because they believe they’re absolutely right and that their brand of theocracy will work while a supposedly false belief will be doomed to fail. To put it bluntly, we’re arguing with people who believe they’ve been given a direct line to the creator of the universe, claim a monopoly on morality and ethics despite serious scientific evidence against their claim, and demonize those won’t obey them as amoral monsters. They’re people with strong, yet brittle beliefs in search of official affirmation so they don’t start doubting their faith. Why else do the people who pray every day for just about anything and everything need the government to bow with them and launch into a toned down Evangelical prayer in an official emulation of Sunday mass?
[ illustration by Fabricio Moraes ]