Growing up in America my religious affiliation was viewed as a defining characteristic of the type of person I was to become later on in life. Generosity and charitable giving were principle tenets in my church. There was a strong sense of community and I saw the faces of my teachers, neighbors, and friends in the pews next to me.
I attended church with my family every Sunday morning at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church and participated in the Youth Fellowship (PYF) in the evenings. Friendships were formed and belief in God and theology nurtured. We sang, laughed, prayed, and even found God’s grace through a weekend ski or camping trip. I don’t dismiss those years. Instead, I recognize and appreciate them for what they were. I was lucky that my religious experience growing up was one based on messages promoting love, grace, and inclusion.
Despite such a positive experience, my path towards atheism began early on. I remember being 16 years old and becoming more and more interested in liberalism and secular government.
At its core, liberalism looks at state power and the possibility of peace and good governance through individual state and global economies. Not only does the state play a central role in promoting economic equality but it also adheres to theories of social, economic, religious, and political freedom. Much of the post-WWII narrative centered around liberalism with the emergence of globalization, multinational corporations, international law and organizations, treaty organizations, and both the decolonization of Africa and dissolution of the Soviet republics into independent states in the 1990s.
Following decades of oppression and mistreatment, democracy and rule of law offered a pathway for people to break away from the confines of the religious state and old world order. Central to democracy is the concept of “the rule of the people”, not God, in which there is an explicit separation between the state and the private sector. Just as religion or a small, ruling class cannot dictate policy so too can the state not dictate what religion or belief system the people can and cannot follow.
What I came to realize was that under a democratic, secular government everyone is expected to be treated equally and that is not the case when it comes to religious dogma.
Turning away from a set a belief that had been part of my life since birth wasn’t easy. I even sat down for two months straight and read the Bible cover to cover in an attempt to reconcile my doubts. Instead, I emerged with a stronger sense of skepticism about religion as a whole and antipathy towards much of the sexist, racist, and violent messages that the Bible promoted. For me, if a text is considered sacred than everything in it must have equal weight. To pick and choose is hypocritical. Thus, if I wanted to be a true believer I would have to accept both the bad and good. I chose to accept neither.
As religion has taken a marked political turn and is no longer one of compassion and charity but of judgment and exclusion, my decision has been all the easier.
In the past two decades liberal policy has made great strides when it comes to equality and individual liberties (abortion, affirmative action, healthcare, same-sex marriage, and welfare). Nonetheless, with all change comes opposition and in this instance it is the Christian right.
The Christian right, a right-wing political movement strongly opposed to left-wing ideology, originated in the 1940s right when liberalism started to gain steam; but it didn’t truly enter the national stage until the 1970s with the establishment of the American Christian Cause by Dr. Robert Grant and Focus on the Family by Dr. James Dobson. Additional groups have since sprung up, mimicking the grassroots approach ACC and Focus found so effective. Notable groups include the Christian Coalition of America, which was established by Pat Robertson in 1989 to promote the traditional family in which the man is the head of the household while NOM (National Organization for Marriage) was established in 2007 specifically in an effort to halt the legalization of same-sex marriage.
What all of these groups have in common is the belief that they are needed to help preserve and fight for “Christian America”. Groups such as these have sought to inject Christian ideological teachings into public policy as a way to counteract the growth of secularism and liberal policy. For many, the progressive policies and legal strides that have been made, specifically those relating to sex, marriage, education, and the sciences (evolution and climate change), are an affront to America.
Usually I would just shake my head and chuckle. Such groups and the people who lead them represent the worst narrow-minded and fundamental extremism of the Christian right. But I do not chuckle – instead I shudder. It’s no secret that the election of President Barack Obama was a catalyst for bringing the Christian right out of the shadows and into the forefront of domestic politics. Racist and bigoted statements were not only made by the far right but serious contenders for America’s highest office as well. They participated in race baiting and Muslim bashing. Birtherism became a popular rallying cry at campaign stops. And the movement to reclaim America as a Christian land has not stopped since.
With a younger population becoming increasingly unaffiliated and atheism as one of the fastest growing groups in the world, the Christian right has strategically injected itself into some of the most contentious issues. One such issue is the targeting of the education system as a medium for indoctrination. There has been a growing body of legislation aimed at including creationism as a scientific theory alongside evolution as well as changes to textbooks that exaggerate the role Judeo-Christianity had in shaping America while simultaneously undermining the Constitutional concept of “separation of church and state”.
Similarly, the Bible has been used as a prop in the most recent rash of religious freedom laws that have sprung up in opposition to the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage. They are veiled attempts by the most hardened to protect their right to discriminate against gays and lesbians. Switch out the words “gays” and “same-sex marriage” with “blacks” and “interracial marriages” and you would see a very different response from some of our 2016 presidential contenders.
“We’re a Christian nation.” It’s a statement I have increasingly heard repeated on the national stage. Such a statement is inherently flawed when discussing not only the founding of America but its growth and progress in the past 250 years. We are a democratic nation and any statement that starts with “we are a Christian nation, thus we must…” should be immediately met with skepticism and scrutiny.