A Nation of Disbelief:
Remarks on State-Funded Religious Initiatives at the National Press Club


-- Washington, DC July 10, 2001 1:00 pm
My name is Theodiclus Lock, and I publish the column Further Than Atheism. While reporting on the political climate here in Washington this spring, I've noticed that many supporters of the President's so-called faith-based initiatives insist that the United States is a Christian nation or, at least, a nation based on religious belief. The truth is, the United States is not a religious nation. The United States is constitutionally, culturally, historically, fundamentally a nation of disbelief.

Think back to the first Americans: they maintained hundreds of disagreeing systems of belief -- then came the Europeans. The first European settlers of the American continent came here to escape the persecution of governments that acted as if they had the right to impose religious belief on their subjects. The trend continues today, as the United States swells with immigrants representing every version of belief and disbelief that exists in the world today. They come here because the Constitution of the United States of America promises the right to disagree, the right to disbelieve. We celebrate this Constitutional right not just because it is enshrined in the Constitution, but because we agree it is just.

Every American, religious or not, is a disbeliever. We may hear wild claims about the existence of some Moral Majority, but the fact is that no single religious or moral agenda has anything close to majority support. When it comes to the important issues of religion and morality, every single American is in the minority, and that means that every single American disbelieves what most other Americans think about religion and morality. The right to disbelieve is just about the only thing that most Americans agree on.

You may not hear them say it, but our nation's politicians are strong in their disbelief. On issue after issue, representatives exercise prerogatives motivated by intense disbelief in the principles and contentions of others. Senator Jim Jeffords recently expressed his disbelief in strong terms when renouncing his membership in the Republican party. Trent Lott, Tom Daschle, John Ashcroft, Joseph Lieberman, and George W. Bush all are disbelievers. For each of them, success depends upon the ability to exercise principled skepticism.

This is not a bad thing. Indeed, the health of our democracy is based in the freedom to reject the ideas that others hold dear. How curious, then, that so many of these same politicians support efforts to take away this freedom from everyday citizens! The President and his allies have said publicly they'd like to give churches State license: State license to demand prayer for a publicly-funded meal, to demand hosannas for a taxpayer-provided bed, to demand spiritual re-education sessions in exchange for publicly-funded medical treatment. The plan is to target the most desperate members of our society and give them a sermon they can't afford to refuse.

Don't let a conservative fundamentalist minority fool you: the separation of Church and State is not just about protecting the right of atheists to disbelieve. It's about protecting the right of all Americans to disbelieve whatever they want to disbelieve. The fact that President Bush has failed to gain much support for his church-based, state-funded initiatives shows that the American public understands that when it comes to freedom, it's all or nothing. We either all have the freedom to disbelieve, or none of us do.

So, the next time you hear President Bush give one of his speeches calling for publicly-funded religious initiatives, just remember -- whether you're a born-again Christian or an atheist, a Catholic or a Buddhist monk, a Mormon or an Orthodox Jew, you're a disbeliever too. Never forget that the only thing keeping you free to hold on to your own breed of disbelief is the right of every other American to disbelieve you.

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