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Leap of the Faithless

07.11.2002 | CULTURE

This February, the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles sought to rescind the vanity license plates of Gainesville resident Steven Miles, after receiving a signed petition submitted by concerned Floridians who objected to their content. Though Miles had owned the plates for over 16 years, DMV officials said he would have to surrender them because they were "obscene and objectionable." The word that caused such an uproar? ATHEIST. The state couldn't offer a very good explanation of why this constituted an obscenity--"Apparently the standard is whatever happens to pop into the head of DMV at any particular time," Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, noted dryly--and eventually it had to relent and let Miles keep his plates. Still, one has to wonder if Miles' automotive accessories would have been deemed so objectionable prior to September 11.

History shows that patriotism has always been closely related to religiosity in the public consciousness, especially during wartime. From the Roman centurions who prayed to Mars for victory, to the World War II GI's who sang "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition," those who set out to fight have often simultaneously set out to find God, and preferably find Him on their side. Any era of anxiety produces a zealous search for, and fear of, the Almighty; note that the now-contentious "under God" phrase of the Pledge of Allegiance did not appear until 1954, at the height of the Red Scare. The fear and uncertainty that followed September's terrorist attacks led many people to seek answers in the comforting traditions of religion (although the baby boom predicted to begin this summer suggests that many others followed more biological urges), and we have heard no shortage of reports about this burgeoning interest in God. Magazines and newspapers' have brimmed with articles about America's supposed "return to faith," and politicians have tripped over themselves in the race to decry the Ninth Circuit Court's ruling on the Pledge of Allegiance.

The results of such conspicuous piety are not entirely benevolent:  in such an atmosphere, non-pious types must lay low or risk being mistaken for Al Qaeda. At an event celebrating the anniversary of the signing of the Bill of Rights last December, Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, pointed out that, "Before September 11, people said, 'What's wrong with listening to a prayer? You don't have to believe.' Now, I think, there's a cloud of suspicion if you don't sing 'God Bless America' or bow your head and pray."

Writing in the latest issue of Free Inquiry, a secular humanist magazine, Katherine Bourdonnay says, "I am an American, a native New Yorker, cousin of a fire fighter and an atheist. The first three pull me intimately into the circle of grief and horror that still surrounds September 11th. The fourth seems to exclude me from most, if not all, forums of public expression of sympathy and patriotism that have followed."

This is not to say that unbelievers were too visible beforehand. Census statistics say that, although 13.2% of the population identifies itself as "non-religious," the number of Americans who are atheist or agnostic is 1% at best. And few of these advertise it. The word "atheist" usually elicits as much sympathy as the word "intellectual," and produces much the same mental image: a smug, beard-stroking, tweed-wearing elitist. Sean Hannity of Fox News, who interviewed Steven Miles on his TV show, probably spoke for many of his viewers when he described his dislike of debating atheists: "it's sort of a sense of superiority I often get from people like you."

Fine. Atheists are pretty rare, and many people find them irritating. But free speech does not hinge on how many people want to say something, or on how many others want them not to say it. Any time a minority group is quieted by a shift in political winds, there should cause for alarm--especially when the media seems to be contributing to their lack of voice. Though the brouhaha over the Ninth District Court of Appeals decision on the "under God" clause of the Pledge of Allegiance has brought some attention to the unfaithful, this writer's survey of America's major newspapers (including The New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal) turned up only one substantial piece that mentioned atheists or agnostics within the last year (a Post article covering the Bill of Rights celebration cited above)., a Web site devoted to spiritual issues, has numerous articles about secular humanist groups in its archive. However, none are dated later than August 2001.

But the biggest reason for concern over the absence of atheists in the national dialogue is those who yelling in their absence, and what they are demanding. The Religious Right is making significant inroads in Washington, as they have for the past 25 years. Their sights are set on influencing places far beyond Capitol Hill, and their foreign policy wish list has support from some very foreign places indeed.

Conservative Christians--perhaps President Bush's biggest bloc of support in sheer numbers--are exerting considerable pressure on Washington to continue its support for Ariel Sharon's policies. This staunchly pro-Israel stance comes mostly from their literal interpretation of the Bible, a reading that leads many to believe the end is nigh, and that Palestine plays a vital role in the final act. Late last year, in a speech from the Senate floor, Sen. James Inhofe (R.-Okla.) spoke of the fierce fighting between Israeli Defense Forces and Palestinian militants less as an intractable regional conflict and more as a precursor to Armageddon. "This is not a political battle at all," he said, "It is a contest over whether or not the word of God is true."

Sen. Inhofe's comments, which probably would have been ridiculed a year before, now have significant political cachet. Not since the Cuban Missile Crisis have so many Americans been convinced that the world could be ending; the sentiment has been strong enough to prompt a Time magazine cover article about Armageddon. Many Christians feel that Israel is the "covenant land" promised by God to his people in the Old Testament. They believe this covenant can only be fulfilled after the Apocalypse, or the second coming of Christ, or the visitation of any number of multi-headed beasts described in the Book of Revelation. With 44% of Americans calling themselves "born again" or "evangelical" (according to the 2000 census), they have a lot of weight behind them.

They also have a lot of weight ahead of them. The Christian Coalition's annual convention--set for October 11-12 and featuring a "Christian Support for Israel" rally near the White House--has a guest list that reads like a Who's Who in Washington. Both the President and the Vice President will be presenting, as will Attorney General John Ashcroft, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay. It is with more than mere rhetoric that they named this gathering "The Road to Victory."

That victory may have more champions than just the United States. An article by Colum Lynch in the June 17 Washington Post detailed how the Religious Right is working alongside representatives of Islamic fundamentalist nations at the United Nations. The Bush administration has been appointing conservative Christians to many of America's slots in U.N.-sponsored conferences on health and human rights ever since George W. took office. These delegates are now in a unique position to explore alliances with Muslim groups, with whom they have ideological similarities concerning reproductive freedom and the rights of women and homosexuals. Ironically, this separates America's U.N. representatives from our European allies in the War on Terror (such as England) and forces them to work with "axis of evil" nations--going so far as to reportedly meet with Iranian officials over coffee at a recent U.N. conference on children.

Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, had kind words to say about the Islamic groups he has worked with at the U.N.: "We have realized that without countries like Sudan, abortion would have been recognized as a universal human right in a U.N. document." This is a rather astounding statement. As a nation, Sudan has two current distinctions (aside from a long, bloody civil war): it is one of the few countries that still tacitly condones slavery, and it is a former stomping ground of Osama bin Laden.

In a world that seems driven completely insane with religious fervor, it couldn't hurt to hear from some cooler heads that do not fear divine retribution, some voices that are not held in place by the intransigent nature of faith. Bourdonnay expresses it best in her article. She marvels that the faithless have bowed to public pressure and remained silent, "as if [atheists] somehow were the ones who flew the planes into those buildings. It was not the non-religious, but rather people of the most dedicated religious beliefs who did that."

It is indeed lonely to be considered unrighteous in this suddenly righteous nation of ours, but that does not mean those who proclaim themselves holy should be doing all the talking. American policy--both foreign and domestic--needs a depth beyond the idea that our fundamentalism is better than everyone else's.

About the Author
Matthew Callan blogs daily at MSN Sports Filter. He has contributed to the NY Press, NPR, and "Excelsior You Fathead", a biography of Jean Shepherd. His Freezerbox piece "The Lemon Pledge" was given honorable mention in the 2003 edition of "Best American Non-Required Reading," and his fiction has been shortlisted for contests in Zoetrope: All-Story, Bomb magazine, and other publications.
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