If a 2013 US politician were to say any of the following about religion in a public forum, let’s say his or her Face Book page or Twitter feed, could they win an election?
“Say nothing of my religion. It is known to my god and myself alone.”
“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
“I know it will give great offense to the clergy, but the advocate of religious freedom is to expect neither peace nor forgiveness from them.”
“Christianity neither is, nor ever was, a part of the common law.”
“History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.”
I would say that such statements from a politician today would make election impossible. Thus, Thomas Jefferson, the author of the US Declaration of Independence, the third president of this great nation and a committed secularist, would not find a home in American electoral politics today.
What, then, of a politician who would make these even more radical statements regarding religion?
“Strongly guarded as is the separation between religion and & Gov’t in the Constitution of the United States the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies, may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history.”
“The experience of the United States is a happy disproof of the error so long rooted in the unenlightened minds of well-meaning Christians.”
“Notwithstanding the general progress made within the two last centuries in favor of this branch of liberty, and the full establishment of it in some parts of our country, there remains in others a strong bias towards the old error, that without some sort of alliance or coalition between Government and Religion neither can be duly supported.”
These statements were made by James Madison, author of the Constitution of the United States. If anyone would understand the intent of the authors of this great document, it would be Madison as he wrote it.
In today’s political rhetoric, the Tea Party Coalition in specific, the Republican Party in general and some members of the Democratic Party who wear their religion on their sleeves and support things like “faith based initiatives,” all work against the ideas and principles of the founding fathers and the secular vision, born in the enlightenment philosophy on which they based the constitution and their vision of a total separation of church and state.
Tea Party members like to dress up in Jefersonian costumes and claim that the founding fathers, atheists like Thomas Payne, James Madison and Benjamin Franklin, agnostics like Jefferson and even the religious secularists like John Adams actually support their notions that America and our constitution was somehow based on religious principles in general or in Judeo-Christian theology in specific. They, as the religious will do, make their claims without evidence and seem to ignore the vast amount written by these great men on the subject of how religion only makes government worse.
Attack of the Theocrats! How the Religious Right Harms Us All—and What We Can Do About It by Sean Faircloth
As I do with most books I read, I got this one from Audible and I listened to it using the Audible app on my iPhone. The book starts with a forward written and (on the audio version) by Richard Dawkins. If you enjoy audio books, you will certainly enjoy Dawkins section even if you disagree with him on all issues. His professorial speech is a complete pleasure to listen to and, in this forward, we get not Dawkins the new atheist firebrand but, rather, are treated to a love letter from him to US founding father and enlightenment giant, James Madison. Dawkins expresses his profound respect for Madison and states that the US Constitution is the most important document to emerge from the enlightenment. His praise is unequivocal and his love for the system designed by Madison, Jefferson, Payne and others is profound.
Dawkins concludes his excellent forward with a warning about how this great nation has been sliding further and further away from the secular principles of our founders and closer to the theocracy they decried.
Sean Faircloth, the author, narrates the rest of the book and while he is a really good writer and an important former member of the Maine State Legislature, a good reader he is not. I, therefore, recommend getting a printed or text only (Kindle maybe) version of the book, unless, of course, you are a huge fan of Dawkins and want to enjoy his excellent forward.
The US Founding Fathers
The book starts with an examination of American history with a special focus on founding fathers, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Including some of those I’ve include above, the author presents us with quote after quote from these two great Virginians that state, without compromise, an unexceptional separation of church and state.
The book shows how James Madison, as president of the United States, vetoed every bit of legislation that even went as far as mentioning religion or a religious institution. Madison, author of the constitution clearly understood the intent of its author and would not even allow for purely ceremonial acts to be passed, even if they provided no funding at all to a church. Acts like naming a day for a congressman’s church in his home district were vetoed.
The author even demonstrates how Madison and Jefferson opposed adding anything akin to “In God We Trust” to our money or any other symbolic acknowledgement of religion by our government in any way whatsoever. Statements that would destroy an individual’s political career today were common practice when the founding fathers ruled this nation.
As a member of the Maine legislature, Sean Faircloth led his state in child protection and passed a number of important pieces of legislation protecting children. In “Attack of the Theocrats,” he demonstrates how religious exemptions from such laws causes tremendous suffering on behalf of children in states that provide such exemptions.
Faircloth reminds the reader of truly despicable cases in which children, subjected to a “faith healing” regimen by their parents, suffered and died horrible deaths, suffering tantamount to the most horrible torture one can imagine forced onto children who, with standard medical treatment, would have overcome their illnesses and have lived happy and healthy lives. Any non-religious parent, under US and laws in all fifty states, who subjected their child to such horrors would be arrested for abuse and/or neglect but, in more than 30 US states, their is an entirely faith based exemption to these laws, regulations that protect our most vulnerable, specially for those who elect the non-scientific, non-medical view that faith healing is the right approach. Children die because of these unconstitutional exemptions.
The author also shows how religious based day care centers, in most US states, can use an unconstitutional religious exemption to avoid health, safety and other laws designed to protect child welfare. Most egregiously, he describes an Alabama based child care center in which an 18 month old died from being left for hours in a hot car who had its license revoked for child welfare law violations. Two weeks after being closed down, the same center reopened with the same leaders but with a religious statement allowing them to continue without inspections and other actions by the state to protect the children in their care.
Other Religious Exemptions
Before I read “Attack of the Theocrats,” I held the belief that US law regarding religious institutions was fair and kept the government out of faith based institutions as they should. I hadn’t realized, though, just how much religious institutions abused these freedoms and have used both federal and state law to promote their fundamentalist agenda, whether their beliefs are compatible with the constitution or not.
Under the laws governing the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS), a religious based institution can provide “clergy” with a tax free housing allowance. This sounds innocuous enough, priests and ministers can live in a rectory or parsonage, nuns can live in a convent, what’s the problem?
The problem is that vastly wealthy churches, mega-churches if you will, provide their “clergy” with massive housing allowances, allowances on which they do not need to pay taxes. These clergymen live in massive mansions, in tremendous luxury and can even take the their mortgage interest tax deductions on the money they spend on mortgage payments even though the income, their housing allowance, came to them tax free. Fundamentalist ministers also ordain their families so they can also live in luxury tax free.
The Fundamentalist Industrial Complex
Beyond the housing exemption, businesses, even those that provide secular services, owned by churches are tax exempt. Thus, a mega-church can open a fitness center, a beauty parlor, a day care center, a restaurant, an amusement park and virtually any sort of business and operate it without paying taxes. Churches accept tax deductible contributions, use them as investments to build businesses and then compete with all other corporations on an entirely uneven playing field.
The fundamentalist industrial complex hurts us all by increasing the federal deficit by not paying their fair share on their non-religious activities.
Meanwhile, these businesses are also exempted from US fair hiring and other discrimination laws. They can hire and fire based on faith alone and, although they are providing non-religious services, they are separated from normal state and federal laws that protect us all. They use religion to find these exemptions, skirt our laws and avoid paying taxes.
The Top Fifty
“Attack of the Theocrats” includes a list of the most theocratic American politicians and their specific efforts to bring their religious beliefs into our law. Of the fifty, 46 are republicans, many also in the Tea Party Caucus and 4 democrats with similar ideologies. He shows how these people work against the rights of women, gay people, people with disabilities and most other minorities.
He also brings up one of my favorite questions, “how can one claim to be a libertarian while also promoting religious concepts based in an ancient text instead of evidence or reason?” One of my specific intellectual questions to ask many of these so-called liberty minded people is how can they read the works of Ayn Rand, the philosopher quoted often by religious fanatic Paul Ryan and not hear her message of atheism and that government has no place legislating morality.
Rand, not a favorite of mine, wrote of total freedom from government and she raises the rights of the individual above all. Much of what Rand wrote is entirely compatible with the views of our founding fathers but Paul Ryan and his republican cohorts promote anti-constitutional laws taking away or limiting the rights of women, gay people, religious minorities, atheists and many other Americans. The tea party types cherry pick a few quotes from the founding fathers they find acceptable to their theocratic views and ignore the meat of their message.
I generally liked this book, excepting the quality of the narration by its author. The audio book sounds choppy due to the staccato reading style of the author so, as I wrote above, you might want to avoid the audio version of this book.
In most other areas, though, I found this book both enjoyable and informative. Clearly, the author represents my own opinion on these matters which helps but I found that I learned a lot from this book, a lot of things that effect people very badly that are not just allowed but encouraged by the US government.
“Attack” is not, however, an opinion piece. Everything the author states is well sourced with quotes from impeccable sources, like James Madison himself. While I agree with the sentiment, the facts of this text are unquestionable and I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in American history, our founding fathers, secularism, religion or any of the other subjects discussed in this terrific volume.