Religion, Secularism, and US Law: A Chat with Andrew Seidel, FFRF

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Andrew Seidel, Director of Strategic Response at FFRF, speaks to Conatus News about religion, secularism, and United States law.

Andrew Seidel, Freedom From Religion Foundation, FFRF, secularism, religion

Andrew Seidel of the FFRF [Image: Patheos]

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: FFRF is sometimes criticised for taking on small issues. Why sweat the small things? Are ‘small’ issues used as wedges for larger ones?

Andrew Seidel: I’ve given a whole talk on this topic. Several actually–under different titles, but always something along the lines of ‘Sweat the Small Stuff.’ FFRF sometimes gets flack for taking on small issues, as if it doesn’t matter to fight for the smaller things. But if you don’t fight the small things–the small violations–they are always used to justify larger violations.

This is particularly important in our system because we are in the common law system. So when a court decides an issue, it is going to look at what courts have said before; it looks at small violations and then uses them to uphold larger violations. You can walk through court decisions going back in time and see small violations being used to justify the government endorsing one religion over another or to justify other state-church violations.

‘Small violations [are]used to justify the government endorsing one religion over another or to justify other state-church violations’

Examples of these small violations are often what courts call ceremonial deism. The little things that are ubiquitous to public religion: ‘In God We Trust’ on currency. Saying, ‘Under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance. Things like that. The Supreme Court saying, ‘God save the United States in this honourable court’ before the sessions. These get trotted out repeatedly to support more significant violations, even governments putting up religious displays or offering a prayer before a legislative session every day.

We are prosecuting a case where a judge has a prayer before his session of court and trotting out these same arguments and saying, ‘We have been doing this for decades and centuries. It is not that different from the United State Supreme Court saying, “God save the United States in this honourable court.” ‘

I think it is less a wedge strategy than that old story of the frog that slowly gets boiled.

Jacobsen: Better to nip problems in the bud, basically.

Seidel: It always reminds me. James Madison wrote a great line. In Virginia, they proposed a three penny tax that would support Christian preachers. James Madison wrote something called the Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.

It is the greatest defence of state-church separation that exists from that era. It is 15 or 16 points. In it, Madison wrote that it is ‘proper to take alarm at the first experiment honour liberties.’

Then he goes on to say that the men of the colonies–the free men of the British colonies of America–didn’t wait until all of the violations of their rights had entangled themselves in precedent and basically become confirmed over long periods of time, making them so much harder to challenge.

Andrew Seidel, Freedom From Religion Foundation, FFRF, secularism, religion

That idea is entirely visible in our Supreme Court jurisprudence. One of the biggest cases to come down was in 2005. It was a really bizarre set of cases. There were two separate 10 Commandments monuments. One was in Texas. There were a couple in Kentucky county courthouses. The Supreme Court decided both of those cases 5-4 on the same day. The Kentucky commandment monuments had to come down. The Texas monument could stay up. The one judge who switched his position was Justice Breyer. He changed his position because he said that in the Kentucky cases it was apparent that the county boards intended to promote religion.

The displays were recent and had been challenged as soon as they went up. In Texas, it had been up for something like 60 years without being challenged. Obviously, according to Breyer, nobody thought the monument was meant to be religious—that is, nobody thought it was a constitutional violation—so it could stay up. As far as legal reasoning goes, it is as deficient as you can get. It is one of the worst and most illogical reasons and decisions that I have ever seen.

And yet, it is one of the decisions that govern religious displays across the United States now. If they have been up for a while, they get to stay. Which brings us back to the Madison quote. If the Ten Commandments display in Texas had been challenged at the time, Breyer would not have been able to make that decision.

Jacobsen: How do the FFRF and similar organisations–though they may not be as robust as to focus on the legality of things–make arguments on propriety?

Seidel: Just because something is legal does not at all make it appropriate; especially when talking about a representative democracy, religion is the most divisive force mankind has ever developed.

I think if you marry religion to power, especially power in a democracy or a representative republic where the power comes from ‘we the people’, you’re going to see huge swathes of the population alienated.

It can be used as a weapon for many politicians, who use it to pander and divide deliberately. The thing that has always struck me is that it is so unnecessary. There is absolutely no reason to ever have religion in the government in any way, shape, or form.

‘There is absolutely no reason to ever have religion in the government in any way, shape, or form’

To me, the questions always been, ‘Why?’

I think the answer is often simple: to manipulate. Sometimes, it is done deliberately to divide the population. Other times, it is done to motivate the ‘base’, as they call it; other times, it is because the person is a ‘proud believer.’

There is no argument in there that suggests that it is proper—let alone in keeping with the values of inclusiveness and equality that America supposed to hold dear—to marry religious power and governmental power.

One of the things FFRF is fighting to protect is the Johnson Amendment. This is a rule here in the United States that says that tax-exempt nonprofits can’t get involved in partisan politics. I am going to Capitol Hill to keep it in place next week, but we always talk about how important it is. Not just because it is an important common sense rule, not only to make sure charitable donations go to charitable work and not political campaigns, but also because churches really have the ability to alter elections.

If a preacher says, ‘You’re going to hell if you vote for a particular candidate’, then it is difficult for a true believer in the faith to go against that command. We’re talking about severing the power religion has and the power government has in everyday life.

‘If a preacher says, “You’re going to hell if you vote for a particular candidate”, then it is difficult for a true believer in the faith to go against that command’

Jacobsen: Are there any instances in the history of the United States in which governmental or state legal power was abused to benefit the non-believing community alone in a similar way others have done for a particular religious sect–often Christian–in the United States?

Seidel: It is a good question. I cannot think of a genuine example of that happening. Now, there are a lot of people on the Religious Right here who say that fighting for a secular government is the same thing.

They argue that we are fighting for an atheist government.

I think it is important to separate those two things or distinguish between them. The example I use to try to explain this to people is coaches at public schools who are praying for their students. We get a lot of complaints about that actually.

So imagine, before a game, the team gathers together. In a Christian government, the coach says, ‘Okay, we’re going to pray.’

Now, if the government were endorsing atheism, the coach would be saying, ‘Okay kids, church is stupid. Nobody pray. Go home and burn your Bibles.’

‘If the government were endorsing atheism, the coach would be saying, “Okay kids, church is stupid. Nobody pray. Go home and burn your Bibles.” ‘

We have never had that. With a secular government, the coach would huddle the team up and simply say, ‘Okay kids, go out and play the best football game you can play. Here is the plan.’ Just doing their job and not referencing religion at all. That’s it. That’s what we’re fighting for.

The FFRF does not favour atheism or favour privileging atheism and non-religion above others. We are just fighting for a secular government.

Edward Gibbon, who wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, said, ‘The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.’

Jacobsen: I’ve always liked that quote.

Seidel: I love that quote. It is a rough draft of my book, but I have always liked that one.

Jacobsen: As a footnote to that, you and I can agree that any non-believer who desires some superior status to the religious would likewise receive condemnation because our aim is equality.

Seidel: Yes, that is often lost on people. The FFRF is not fighting for privilege. We are fighting for equality. I think you said it well.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Andrew.

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About Author

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Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.

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