07/05/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Private Faith in Public Life

I had the honor and pleasure of meeting Arianna Huffington at a recent event in Austin, Texas, sponsored by the Texas Freedom Network (TFN), an organization dedicated to fighting right wing extremism in the Lone Star State. The discussion focused on the lunacy of the current Texas State Board of Education (SBOE), which is attempting to rewrite the facts of American and world history to conform to a particularly virulent brand of conservative ideology. Decisions about text book content made in Texas reverberate across the country as a consequence of the way publishers accommodate the biggest purchasers of school books.

The subject of School Board extremism is close to my heart and the target of a series my blogs in January (two examples are: Descending Again into Darkness: An Extraordinary Revolution of Willful Ignorance; Bible Belt Bravado: The Beat Goes On; So I was delighted to meet in addition to Ms. Huffington two sane candidates for the SBOE, Rebecca Bell-Meterau and Judy Jennings. These candidates are our front line soldiers, the infantry in the trenches fighting our ground battle against the worst of right wing excess.

How did we arrive at this sad state of affairs in which such excess has become the norm? In her comments about SBOE abuses, Ms. Huffington offered one explanation by noting that uncertain economic times foster irrationalism and fear, and a penchant for conspiracy theories. As job losses rise, government becomes a frequent target for displaced wrath as people search for scapegoats. Extremist school boards and Glenn Beck are born.

I agree completely that economic decline contributes to a significant uptick in political extremism, the very kind we are seeing in the SBOE in Texas. Economic insecurity is fertile ground for the likes of Beck, O'Reilly, Hannity, Limbaugh and Palin. But I disagree with the thesis that job insecurity and recession are primary causes of the growing irrationalism we are witnessing in local and national politics. The state of the economy clearly exacerbates any tendency toward extremism and paranoia, but the rising fanaticism of the far right is caused by something much more sinister and insidious: the intrusion of private faith into public life.

A Christian Nation

Let us establish without doubt that we are not a Christian nation. The facts supporting that conclusion are unambiguous, overwhelming, and indisputable. The Declaration of Independence in 1776, the Articles of Confederation of 1777, the U.S. Constitution (1787), and the Federalist Papers (1787-1788) are purely secular documents. I have previously reviewed each in detail (Religion in the Affairs of Man: Mixing Theology and Politics; Searching for references to god in any of these documents is akin to looking for a BP executive at a Greenpeace rally. Nowhere to be seen.

Our national obsession with God in politics is a recent phenomenon, and would seem completely alien to any of our founders. "In God We Trust" was first placed on United States coins in 1861 during the Civil War. Teddy Roosevelt tried to remove the words from our money in 1907 but was shouted down. Only in 1956 was that phrase adopted as the national motto by the 84th Congress. The clause "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance was inserted only in 1954 when President Eisenhower signed legislation to recognize "the dedication of our Nation and our people to the Almighty."

For the first 180 years of existence, the United States never included God in its motto, on its currency, or in any document creating the republic. We were born a secular nation and remained one for nearly two centuries.

We really need to stop this ridiculous argument about being a Christian nation. If there should be any doubt, let us listen to the founding fathers themselves. This from Thomas Jefferson in an April 11, 1823, letter to John Adams: "The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter." He went on to say in his concluding paragraphs, "But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding..."

Jefferson even earlier said that his statute for religious freedom in Virginia was "meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mohammeden, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination."

The final word, however, belongs to John Adams, who said when signing the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, "the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."

The religious right claims, incredibly, to know more about the intent of our founders than the founders. For in spite of this overwhelming incontrovertible proof that we are not a Christian nation, codified in the words and deeds of Adams, Jefferson and their brethren, the "State of the First Amendment 2007" national survey revealed that nearly 70 percent of Americans believe our founding fathers intended the Unites States to be a Christian nation. Even more astonishing, 55 percent believe that the Constitution formally establishes a Christian nation. Here we find the essential core of what ails us: a fundamental misunderstanding by the majority of who we are as a country.

How can the majority of Americans believe something that is so evidently false, so easily verified as untrue? Because faith has triumphed over reason, and religion has corrupted our political discourse. Since religion is based, by definition, on faith rather than facts, no mechanism exists to arbitrate between competing ideas, and no claim no matter how absurd requires proof.

Once faith becomes dominant in public life, anything goes, because nothing is subject to verification. You simply need to believe. As soon as logic and facts are removed from the debate, conflicting ideas cannot be evaluated based on relative merit, but are supported as inherently right, immune to any reasonable counter-arguments. Without logic, in the absence of facts, nobody has any basis on which to claim to legitimacy compared to another. All have equal claim to the truth, with no mechanism to prove or disprove the claim. So based on faith alone Americans can ignorantly claim we are a Christian nation, unperturbed by the inconvenience of contradictory facts. Faith requires no proof. Faith is immune to history. The dominance of faith over reason is the only rational explanation for how so many people can believe something so clearly and verifiably false.

Consequences of Ignorance

From this false belief that the United States is a democratic theocracy flows the dark forces of extremism that create a rogue SBOE locally and Palin/Beck nationally. Economic insecurity is only the kindling that burns bright in the flame of religious intolerance. In this environment of religious fervor, rationalism is considered a problem to be conquered with belief. Science is a liberal plot. Intelligence is an ominous sign of elitism. The great divide in our society is not between rich and poor, or Catholic and Protestant, or Christian and Muslim, but between those who rely on faith to define the past and those who depend on reason and fact. The divide that matters is between those who believe we are a Christian nation and those who know we are not: efforts to solve societal problems in a theocracy are not often compatible with methods used in a democracy.

We have lost our common language because we no longer have a shared story of our nation's origin. Civil political discussions are simply not possible when the majority of Americans are ignorant of our founding principles, or when facts lose all relevance, or when history is rewritten as myth. A Chinese speaker can communicate effectively with an Englishman through an interpreter because while the two speak different languages many of the ideas being shared are common to both parties. That allows an interpreter to bridge the gap by finding different words to express the same thought. That is not true in a conversation between a theist and a humanist. Not only are the languages of faith and reason different, but so too are the fundamental ideas. There is no role for an interpreter here because language cannot jump the abyss of incompatible ideas. Somebody who believes in god cannot possibly comprehend a world in which god does not exist. Somebody who understands god as a myth cannot pretend to grasp a world controlled by some unseen higher power. So we keep shouting incomprehensibly at each other in a growing cycle of incivility. With no common tongue and incompatible world views the decibels and vitriol of our protests and proclamations are the only measure of success.

Yes, both sides are guilty of shouting, but that reality misses an important point of volume. There is no symmetry here, no "let's split the difference, there are two sides to every story." According to a 2008 survey from Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, more than 78% of Americans identify themselves as Christian. Only 4% are self-proclaimed non-believers (broken into the survey categories of atheists at 1.6% and agnostics at 2.4%). A yelling contest is not exactly equitable. The humanist cry is lost like a frog croak in a hurricane.

Yet in spite of these massive, overwhelming, deeply embedded majorities, Christians often speak in the dialect of victimhood. Many feel under attack by secular humanists threatening them with gay marriage, abortion, Darwinism and moral decay. This idea of Christians as modern victims is the perfect example of how the two sides can never communicate. From the perspective of a tiny 4% minority, any claim by a 78% supermajority that the views of a few are a threat to the many is simply surreal. That would be like claiming absurdly that the frog croak is drowning out the thundering winds of the hurricane. For humanists the idea is too ridiculous to contemplate, but quite real to theists.

The barrier separating us is defined by the unbridgeable gulf between god and rationalism. This is not a culture war, not a war borne from economic uncertainty, but a cosmic battle between theism and humanism. Humanists are losing, outgunned, out spent and in retreat. But even with that bleak reality, all is not lost. With the likes of Rebecca Bell-Meterau and Judy Jennings taking the field of battle, we can slowly turn the tide toward the shores of rationalism. Tip O'Neill's adage that "all politics is local" has never been more important or more obviously true as we battle school boards district by district. Our secular soldiers can take on their Christian counterparts; but they will need our persistent and dedicated support to ultimately claim victory over the forces of darkness.