The United States is again bombing extremists in an area of the world its military had been banished from, albeit diplomatically and according to sovereign self-interest, just two years before. These extremists are also religious ideologues, though the U.S. is not bombing them because they are. It is bombing them because they are not acting in accordance with basic human rights as agreed upon by the community of nations and are threatening the stability of the region. The western world, stung as it was by images of its militaristic reaction to ethnic cleansing in the Balkans juxtaposed with its inaction in the face of genocide in Rwanda, cannot help but do something when it appears another human tragedy is at hand. Of course these events occupy the same backdrop as the senseless lofting of indiscriminate rockets from Gaza and the puzzling—some would say equally senseless, or at least questionably productive—Israeli military reaction. It is another conflict with religious undertones that turns sections of cyber social networks into ranting dins of inequity. In such an environment every second seems like a poignant time to once again affirm the Founders’ brilliant design of the world’s first and best secular republic and to confront the conceivable destructiveness of religious ideologues of all kinds to such a meaningful but tenuous concept.
In response to a cyber “friend” I barely know who claimed with intense hyperbole that Islam was out to destroy western civilization, I pointed out that conflating the actions of a few extremists with hundreds of millions of Muslims’ mundane daily activities was at best prejudice and at worst bigotry. It also verges on hysteria. It is, I said, like claiming Christians were out to overthrow the U.S. government because of the actions of a few Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas or that “Christian Terrorism” is an international crisis due to acts of inhumanity in the bombing of women’s clinics or the killing of their doctors. This was judged as “silly” and was clarified with this: “Is it not Muslims, who adhere to the religion of Islam, who are the major cause of ALL the strife in the world? Please don’t try to lump a few deranged assholes who bomb clinics etc. into a worldwide war on the West.” I read and re-read the last sentence. I altered the word order, removed words, and rolled the reconstructed sentences over and over in my mind. Then something stood out with a clarity my “friend” could not seem to comprehend.
“Please don’t try to lump a few deranged assholes who bomb…into a worldwide war on the West.” Exactly. But clarity like this escapes the mind of one who knows his particular religion is somehow better, more pure, more peace-loving—more inclusive?—than any other on earth. It is a disturbing realization when one considers the anecdotal evidence of seemingly increasing numbers of like-minded and equally ignorant people willing to scream into the personal echo chambers of their self-adjudicating networks. The din is often accompanied by slanders of those who might dare to disagree.
It is believed that those who separate the actions of extremists from those of mere adherents have somehow missed the meaning in all that is going on in the shadowbox world of religiously tinged warfare. They are accused of burying heads, being politically correct, failing to understand what is really happening in the world, being leftist or liberal or socialist but certainly weak. They are even accused of turning a blind eye to god’s word. This is how ideologues attack the objective arguments of those who disagree with them. Though it serves no useful purpose in actual debate, it does highlight the most important thing about the arguments of ideologues. That is that they are, by nature and definition, ideological.
One should never trust an ideologue to critique the actions of another, or for that matter of anyone at all. They cannot objectively evaluate or even remotely understand the position of anyone not sharing their view. It is what makes such individuals’ commentary on social and broadcast media so cancerous to civil discourse. An observer with equal distrust—perhaps even moderate disdain—for any such claims may be essential in sifting the irrationality of religious superiority complexes. A secular worldview is likely required. None other can illuminate with such clarity the moral equivalence of the abortion clinic bomber and Sunni executioner, or the desire for human dignity both in Gaza and in Tel Aviv. Or, for that matter, the dream of a restoration of the Caliphate or the declaration of a Christian nation within the borders of the world’s most deliberate and purposefully secular country.
Recently there was a story about a Department of Defense entity removing the Gideon Bibles from lodging rooms around the world. With dripping sarcasm, someone remarked that she thought this was a Christian nation. To my reply that it is actually a secular republic filled with citizens of many and no faiths, she retorted, with emphasis, “THAT is the problem.” I’m often shocked by such clear desire for religious governance, or at least official religion, by a citizen of the first modern country ever to specifically dispose of it. Shocked too that in desiring religiosity in the public sphere some invoke the names of the very men who, fleeing from such repression, specifically attempted to prevent it. I was challenged by this citizen to stop reading the “NEW history with all the TRUTH removed” [emphasis in the original] and to understand that the Constitution was built on “Christian principals” (sic).
One could argue over the bias of history for eternity, but this citizen’s point of referring to the originals is a good one. The Constitution of the United States is the first document to very carefully invoke a wholly secular form of government. It was crafted by deists, theists, and certainly one or two atheists. Perhaps the majority of the Founders would identify as Christian, but what makes the Constitution a singular achievement in the history of humankind is that its authors purposefully made their own religious beliefs irrelevant.
This transcendent document mentions a god just once. It is on the signature page where stating the date “in the year of our Lord” was a simple reference to the widely accepted Gregorian calendar. The oath of office for the Presidency in Article 2, paragraph 1.8, does not end with “so help me God,” though those who rise to that office are never forbidden from uttering it and have often done so. Article 6, paragraph 3 states, “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” These are interesting omissions and commissions for a group of men supposedly attempting to create a Christian nation.
While the Bill of Rights may reflect what some would call Christian principles, it was the best, perhaps most succinct, codification of basic humans rights—without regard for the religion of the individual—the world had seen to that point. As written and agreed to by these men of varying beliefs and the representatives of citizens of the several states, the very first enumerated right in the bill required by compromise at ratification is this: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” That is a most powerful statement of intent. The first sentence in the Bill of Rights is the authors explicitly stating for all time that they had no intention or desire to form a Christian (or any other kind of religious) nation. Any other reading of the Constitution or the history of the formation of this republic is simply devoid of fact.
So as U.S. ordnance falls on religious ideologues for their apolitical and immoral actions undertaken in an attempt to bring a new tyrannical religious order to a small region of the globe, as we watch a millennia-old conflict play out with modern weaponry and ancient hatred, we ought to consider the consequences of the ever free but insidiously dangerous speech of religious ideologues everywhere, including those here in our midst.
It remains the civic duty of those who live under the Constitution’s liberties to uphold the first right—undeniable in its wording, born of the Enlightenment, and etched into being at the document’s inception. It was crafted by brilliant and careful men who knew exactly what they were doing, who fully grasped their context in histories yet to be recorded. Had they wanted to declare a religion official or supreme, it was well within their power. Had they a desire to ensure governance by Christian principles—or any other faith-based law—they could have made it so. Had they wanted to ensure only “god-fearing men” would rise to prominence in the public trust, they were uniquely positioned to require it. That they did none of these when they had the power to do them all is a sign of their great intellect and benevolence.
We are, apparently to the chagrin of an increasingly loud sector of social and broadcast media, a nation of citizens of many faiths and no faith at all. That is not “the problem.” In fact it was foundational to revolutionary ideals. It is the primary reason the birth of the United States was such a momentous event in world history. For the first time, authorities recognized a people’s innate ability to govern themselves without being bound to the supernatural. Secular self-governance is, so far, the only solution worth living under. We ought to be vocal in opposition toward anyone who wishes it should somehow be different. Forcefully living under anyone’s idea about what constitutes religious purity stands against the most fantastic experiment in governance the world has yet known. It stands against the precepts of basic human rights. The next time someone pines for a Christian nation or laments the mythical loss of their particular god from the public sphere, ask them what’s wrong with the First Right. Then explain that you prefer Liberty…in full.
 The debate described here played out on an acquaintance’s social media page. After writing what is captured here in the following paragraphs, this acquaintance deleted the post and all content. In times past in the public square, one could stand on a stump, state an opinion, and then actually face the acceptance or dismissal of the crowd. Now we state our opinion in our own circle of presumably like-minded “friends.” When someone goes rogue from the socially acceptable bolstering of stated opinions, we simply delete their statements as if they didn’t exist. It feels somehow disquietingly Orwellian. It is perhaps instructive that there is no such thing as a “dislike” button on any of the ubiquitous platforms we use for “social interaction” in these times. I cannot help but think there is great danger there for the future of informed discourse, and I am increasingly disappointed in our ability to engage each other with anything resembling objective reasoning.