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"Most American secularists have few expectations..."

An Interview with AAI president Stuart Bechman about politics and religion and the United States presidential election

This interview was conducted and translated into German by René Hartmann for the MIZ Magazine, issue 3/08. The German translation is available.

MIZ: During the last years one could notice concerns that the USA could develop towards a theocracy. Are the atheists in the USA looking forward to the end of the Bush presidency?

Stuart Bechman: Absolutely. The Bush presidency has been considered a low point in church-state separation in the United States. Not only did Bush bypass the US constitutional prohibition of entangling religion and government in providing taxpayer funds specifically earmarked for religious groups, but he increased by one the number of sitting Supreme Court justices who have demonstrated a contempt for the wall of church-state separation in the US. At the same time, the Republican Congress during the Bush presidency has continued to promote and pass bills to provide and uphold special privileges to religious groups and encourage their proselytization within all branches of government and the military. The past eight years have seen the greatest assault on church-state separation in the United States in at least a generation.

MIZ: It seems that organized Atheism became stronger in the United States during the last years. Would you confirm that view?

Stuart Bechman: That claim appears to be true, from a number of sources. In 2004, we saw a doubling of the percentage of Americans who claimed no religion from 8 to 16%, and those who self-identified as atheists from 1 to 2%, in an annual national survey of religious identification. Similarly, we saw no fewer than 4 books on atheism and anti-theism reach the #1 spot in the New York Times list of books within a period of two years, after decades of such books being entirely invisible and unknown. We have also been seeing unprecedented membership levels being reached among national atheist and freethought groups over the past few years, and the first national lobbying organization for atheists and freethinkers established in our national capital in Washington, DC. Finally, the internet has fostered an explosion of hundreds of discussion lists, meeting groups, video sties and networks dedicated to the promotion of atheism. No one even as recently as 10 years ago would have ever predicted such a development.

MIZ: In the USA, many people do not have a very positive image of atheists. Surveys say most Americans would not accept an atheist in the White House. Do you think that this negative view of atheists is about to change?

Stuart Bechman: Despite the above developments - and partly because of them - I think this negative view is likely to remain prominent in American society for many years. Atheists have always been the favorite bogeyman of most religious groups, especially conservative ones. A US survey released a few years ago concluded that atheists are considered the most despised minority in the United States, even more so than homosexuals or Muslims. This view is easy for religionists to perpetuate because most people in the US do not personally know any atheists. The dilemma, however, is that whenever atheists attempt to raise our visibility in society, religious leaders raise the age-old fears of "immoral corruption" and decadence and direct that fear at the atheist community, driving many back into their closets. This has been a tried-and-true pattern of oppression in the past and will continue to recur until a critical mass of atheists are reached that are able to resist the religious hysteria and oppression and publicly demonstrate that they, too, can be moral, productive citizens without religious belief.

MIZSeparation of Church and State in the USA is much stricter than in most European countries. But where such separation exists, it is also often threatened by religious groups seeking political influence. Are there any recent developments in the U.S. which give reason for concern?

Stuart Bechman: I think that church-state separation in the United States is actually much weaker than in most European countries these days. While our laws and constitutional documents are perhaps clearer about the separation of church and state than many European countries have, these laws in the United States have come to be ignored or unknown to most of our electorate and blatantly disregarded and bypassed by our government representatives. For instance, while atheists or agnostics are elected to office and serve in the highest levels of many European governments without the slightest controversy, it is virtually unthinkable for such an event to occur in the United States, even at the local level. This is probably due to the incredible amounts of private money, from religious constituents as well as from conservative and religious think-tanks dedicated to eroding our laws of church-state separation. Accompanying that has been an attack on intellectualism from fundamentalist Christian sects that disdain any secular knowledge or learning as "liberal" and "elitist". As a result, we have seen a major push to rewrite our history to remove all references to our secular heritage and to reframe the founding of our country as nothing less than a Christian revolution. The most recent expression of this is a popular movement in the western US to spend government monies on promoting the phrase "In God We Trust" in all government buildings and public classrooms (already printed on all of our currency) as our national motto - despite its clear discrimination against those that hold different or no religious beliefs - and to frame this as a promotion of the United States' "real" heritage and values. We also find that over 50% of Americans are skeptical about the principles of evolution and believe in some form of Creationism or Intelligent Design. Early on in the most recent presidential campaign, Americans were confronted with no less than 1/2 of the Republican candidates running for president denying evolution to be true. Along with this "dumbing-down" of Americans, the US Religious Right reached new highs of political power with the presidential election of George W. Bush in 2000, and they have successfully used that accomplishment to deepen their entrenchment in US politics in a variety of ways, most unreported by the press and unnoticed by the general public. It is unlikely that they are going to give that up anytime soon.

MIZ: The so-called "new atheists" like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and others got much public attention recently. Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris spoke at the 2007 AAI convention, and AAI is presenting an annual Richard Dawkins award. But there is sometimes some criticism that a too explicit atheism could make atheists appear aggressive and unpleasant. What do you respond to such criticism?

Stuart Bechman: The stereotype of "militant atheist" is a longstanding one enthusiastically promoted by religious apologists and is often directed at anyone who is brave enough to actually be open about their atheism. It is a harsh reality that as long as religious groups and beliefs are in the cultural dominance, those who lack or reject such beliefs will be decried and belittled. It is also a reality and an effective tactic in the US to promote the idea that openly denying another's religious worldview is rude and insensitive, and anyone who is willing to do that is being aggressive. This value has been so successfully promoted that simply being open about one's atheism in the US can justify religious supporters to hurl verbal and sometimes physical attacks at atheists, no matter how "nice" the atheists might otherwise be.

But it is something that atheists must recognize as a tactic to keep them silent and invisible, and the best way to defeat such tactics is to continually strive to be as vocal and as visible as possible until they finally give up. I am reminded of a statement of the strategy that was attributed to Indian leader Mohandas K. Gandhi during the struggle for Indian independence: "First, they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. Then they attack you. Then you win." I think Richad Dawkins is absolutely right that to win public acceptance and equal standing for atheists, the most important thing that atheists can and should do is make their atheism visible and known to others.

On the other hand, no stereotype is without at least a grain of truth. Becoming an atheist in the United States has its own psychological baggage. Most anyone who successfully bucks the dominant social paradigm does so in part by developing some degree of an assertive personality as a self-defense mechanism. But they are also typically subjected to some estrangement and education by their family and community, and it's not uncommon for atheists to have been started on their journey by one or more traumatic experiences with religious acquaintances or family. These atheists have often missed opportunities and lessons that others regularly experience to fully develop effective interpersonal skills. With few models of kindness and civility to draw upon from their own experiences, the underdevelopment of these skills haunts many atheists and leaves many struggling to create positive interpersonal experiences with others, even within their own community. Addressing this stunting of personality by atheist groups could provide a great service to their constituents and help provide another tool to overcome the entrenched perception of the "militant atheist".

MIZ: How would you assess the U.S. presidential election candidates from a secular standpoint? What is their attitude to state/church issues, like, for example, prayers in public schools?

Stuart Bechman: The current US presidential election has been a great disappointment to most secular Americans. Despite the impending departure of the most blatantly pro-religious US president in memory, the candidates of the two major parties have seemed to embrace religious piety as the key to their campaigns.

Americans had already seen this embrace by the Republican Party in 2000 with the rise of George W. Bush. But this is the first campaign season where we have seen the candidates of the Democratic Party – historically the political party that has shown the most sympathy for church-state separation – aggressively incorporate it in their campaigns. Most secular Americans were absolutely stunned and dismayed when Democratic Party candidate Barack Obama gave a campaign speech endorsing the Faith-Based Initiatives program promoted by GW Bush and despised by American secularists. We are also seeing for the first time all major presidential candidates hiring "spiritual advisors" to help them reach religious voters. In August, an unprecedented forum of the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates was held at one of the largest megachurches in the United States, even hosted by the church pastor, and broadcast nationally without any rise of media controversy or questions over the appropriateness of such an event. At the same time, we continue to see national and state political candidates avoiding any affiliation with freethought groups. Both of the major presidential candidates and state and local officials were invited to stop by or just send a message to the upcoming AAI convention in Long Beach to welcome our attendees. None bothered to even respond.
Although other church-state issues such as the teaching of evolution vs. Creationism or the offering of prayer in public schools or taxpayer-funded religious-school vouchers have not been discussed this campaign season, most American secularists have few expectations that any of the current crop of presidential candidates will actively defend the wall of church-state separation.

MIZ: In Europe, John McCain is seen as a comparably liberal Republican. May he still get the votes from the religious right or can the nomination of Sarah Palin be seen as a move to get those votes?

Stuart Bechman: It appears that one reason that McCain chose Sarah Palin as his VP candidate was to strengthen his appeal to the Religious Right. And all indications are that it was a successful ploy. Prior to Gov. Palin's VP nomination, McCain's support from the US Religious Right was quite tenuous, and it was unclear whether they would even come out on election day. Now, that base has been re-energized and those voters appear not only to be enthusiastic for McCain/Palin but also coming back out and actively campaigning for their nominees this election season.

On the other hand, Governor Palin's hostility to secularism and her longstanding affiliation with the same fundamentalist Christian sect that was documented in the church-cult movie "Jesus Camp" is likely to motivate US secular voters to support the Obama/Biden ticket, despite Obama's disappointing stands to-date on church-state separation.

MIZ: Are there substantial differences between the Republican and the Democratic party with regard to religious and state/church issues?

Stuart Bechman: The difference appears to be one of degree. While neither party appears to be interested in promoting and strengthening church-state separation, the Republican Party appears to be positively excited about extending additional special privileges to religious, especially Christian, groups, giving them full access to government offices and employees and relegating non-religious Americans to an invisible and disreputable "second-class" status while the Democratic Party appears merely satisfied with painting its pro-religious temperament in the coat of religious ecumenicism.

MIZ: I learned that the AAI cannot endorse candidates because of its tax-exempt status. Are there secular groups in the U.S. that endorse a candidate?

Stuart Bechman: Since the United States implemented a federal income tax in 1921, non-profit groups registered with the government have been granted a tax exemption, and donations made by individuals to these groups are deductible from their own income tax payments. The tradeoff was that such groups were to remain neutral in regards to US political candidates and their campaigns.

Many religious groups and leaders have always chafed at this restriction and have historically ignored it when they could. In the 1980s, the Christian Coalition began publishing "voter guides" which were claimed to be educational and non-partisan but to outsiders appeared to be little more than promotional tracts for electing Religious Right candidates. This season, there have been not-so-covert calls by prominent religious think-tanks for churches to challenge this and to actively promote political candidates from their pulpit.

There is a clause in the US tax code that allows some non-profit groups to endorse or oppose political candidates. For this privilege, they have other restrictions placed upon them, such as donations made to those organizations are not tax-deductible to the donors. Many larger non-profits legally divide themselves into one of each kind of non-profit so donors can still get a tax deduction while allowing the non-profit to endorse candidates. Non-profits such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Planned Parenthood, and the Sierra Club are examples of such organizations, and they regularly endorse political candidates. And while most of the US secular groups are set up as normal non-profits and cannot endorse candidates, the Secular Coalition of America is set up as a "dual" non-profit and has the ability to endorse candidates, although to-date it has not done so.