In light of Newt Gingrich's recent announcement about his presidential ambitions for 2012, the Secular Coalition for America is asking the former GOP Speaker to adjust some of his recent rhetoric in order to more accurately portray the secular American government envisioned by our Founders. The following is an open letter to Newt Gingrich.
Dear Mr. Gingrich,
On Feb. 26, The New York Times reported that during a recent speech in Columbus, Ohio, you warned a crowd of more than 1,000 people that the United States of America -- the first nation ever founded on religious liberty and the separation of church and state -- was becoming too secular a society. "In America, religious belief is being challenged by a cultural elite trying to create a secularized America, in which God is driven out of public life," The Times reported you as saying.
On your own website you've written that "people of faith have been systematically marginalized in America through a sustained effort by the left to change our common culture and give secular values the authority of law."
Now that it appears you're considering a run for president, your words deserve an increased level of scrutiny. Here's the reality: Your statements are completely at odds with American history and the U.S. Constitution. Let me explain.
Your assertion that a "cultural elite [is] trying to create a secularized America" implies that the United States is not already a secular nation. The United States not only is a secular nation, it was founded as one -- and it's our secular heritage that has made our government endure and serve as a model for others all over the world.
I hope you won't suggest that Thomas Jefferson, author of our Declaration of Independence, or James Madison, father of our Constitution, were part of an anti-American "cultural elite."
We have no state religion, our Constitution derives its authority not from a higher power but from "We the People," and our public policies are decided by elected officials, not imams, priests, or preachers. We pledge allegiance to the flag, not to the Church, and references to "one nation under God" were only added -- quite inappropriately -- during the hysteria of the McCarthy era.
You often reference America's exceptionalism, Mr. Gingrich. As we watch history unfold in northern Africa and the Middle East, it's important to remember what made us different from other nations in the first place. Rather than the divine right of kings, or some other autocratic model, we base our government on democracy, equality, and reason - the very "secular values" you denounced. Chief among these is the sentiment first expressed by Thomas Jefferson in his "Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom," and cemented in the Constitution by his indispensable ally James Madison, "that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever." That's why our Constitution - the basis of our entire government -- makes no reference to any god or religious figure, and mentions religion only twice: to guarantee its free exercise for all Americans (the First Amendment), and to ensure that there be no religious test for public office (Article VI). These provisions were described by Jefferson as "building a wall of separation between church and state," a principle that has been repeatedly upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
You yourself have been very vocal in denouncing the possibility of a theocratic regime in Egypt headed by the Muslim Brotherhood and advocating instead for a democratic secular alternative. I agree. That same principle applies to America. Would you rather have our 300 million citizens of extremely diverse backgrounds subjected to the laws of a Christian theocracy? And if that's so, which denomination should dictate our laws? As a recently converted Catholic who is presumably familiar with the ugly history of discrimination against Catholics, you more than others should be mindful of the importance of treating all views equally before the law.
Our population may be majority Christian, but as stated by the Treaty of Tripoli, signed by President John Adams in 1797, "the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." It was an unprecedented and conscious decision not to acknowledge a deity in our constitution, other than by expression exclusion as a test for office.
Men like Jefferson, Madison, and Adams understood that the most effective way to protect every American's right to believe as they chose was to create a secular government that recognized all religious opinions equally -- by keeping them out of government.
Those of us who share the founding values of Jefferson and Madison are not a "cultural elite." In fact, there are secular Americans in every state, age range, and income group -- and millions of them will assuredly cast a vote in the GOP primary election. In fact, people who do not identify with a religion are the only demographic to grow in every single state during the past twenty years. These beliefs are not simply those of people on "the left," as you wrongfully claimed, but are shared by many on the right as well, including libertarians in the mold of Barry Goldwater, who once said "I am a conservative Republican, but I believe in democracy and the separation of church and state."
I'm proud to speak for the values of the 16% of Americans who profess no religious belief, but we also share common cause with the millions more who identify with one religion or another -- but don't want either their church or their government encroaching on one another's territory. The percentage is much higher among young people. Secular Americans believe that laws rooted solely in religious bias -- such as those that block stem cell research, allow religious parents to deny their children proper medical care, or prevent gay Americans from marrying someone they love -- have no place in our government. Go to our website to see numerous examples of religious bias in law.
You should keep secular Americans in mind when you claim that "people of faith have been systematically marginalized in America." There is, in fact, much evidence that the opposite is true: it's Americans who profess no religion -- atheists, agnostics, humanists, and freethinkers -- who, despite being as large a portion of the population as African-Americans, find themselves the most marginalized, socially and politically, by people like you.
This voter discrimination is obvious by a quick glance at Congress: while 16 percent of the country could be described as nontheist, only a single member of Congress -- Rep. Pete Stark of California -- is openly nontheist. Rhetoric such as yours does not help to create increased inclusion for the millions of American nontheists who are just as moral as their religious counterparts.
Secular Americans do not want to deprive you of your constitutional right to worship whatever religion you choose. We simply want to make sure that your religious views do not tread on anyone else's -- and we know that the best tool for preserving religious freedom for everyone, believers and nonbelievers alike, is secular government.
If you want to prove yourself worthy of our nation's highest office, it would very wise for you to not only acknowledge America's rich secular heritage -- but affirm our historic and constitutional responsibility to defend it.
I hope you will vocally join the cause of the Jefferson and Madison that made our nation truly exceptional.