Texas Governor, and possible GOP presidential candidate, Rick Perry has endorsed ‘The Response’ a prayer event scheduled for August 6 in Texas. “As a nation, we must come together and call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles, and thank Him for the blessings of freedom we so richly enjoy,” Perry wrote on the event’s official Web site. Perry’s critics are concerned about his distinctly Christian approachto public prayer as well as his association, through ‘The Response,’ with several problematic pastors, among them John Hagee, controversial for his comments on Israel, the Roman Catholic Church and Islam, and C. Peter Wagner, who has suggested that the Catholic veneration of saints is an evil practice. Should politicians be judged by the religious company they keep?
The secular constitution of the United States, so clearly and farsightedly laid down by the Founding Fathers, is one of the glories of the Enlightenment, and the envy of many (including in my own country of Britain). It was designed – with good contemporary reason – to protect the religious against oppression by other religions, and it is astonishing that such a historic treasure needs vigilant defense against undermining from within – from historically illiterate politicians.
One could hardly imagine a more calculated insult to the Founding Fathers than Governor Perry’s statement. His remark would have been unconstitutional even if he had merely asked the nation to call upon God. Calling upon Jesus compounds the error by adding an affront to American Jews, Muslims and Hindus, to say nothing of the growing population of agnostics and atheists who outnumber all three of them put together. Suppose a Muslim American happened to be elected to a governorship and said, “As a nation, we must come together and call upon the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to guide us through unprecedented struggles . . .” The fact that the majority of Americans call themselves Christian in no way undermines the Founding Fathers’ intentions: quite the reverse. They were well aware that, in their own time too, most Americans were Christian. They wanted freedom to practice religion, but not a whit or a whisper of compulsion, or imposition of one religion over others.
Secularism, it shouldn’t need emphasizing, is not the same as atheism. Secularism is the belief that religion is private, and should not intrude upon the governance or politics of the nation. Many of the staunchest secularists of history have been religious including, perhaps surprisingly to those without much understanding of the issue, Barry Goldwater, that favorite icon of right-wing Republicanism. I’ve quoted this before, in The God Delusion, but it certainly bears repeating. Senator Goldwater said the following in 1981:
“There is no position on which people are so immovable as their religious beliefs. There is no more powerful ally one can claim in a debate than Jesus Christ, or God, or Allah, or whatever one calls this supreme being. But like any powerful weapon, the use of God’s name on one’s behalf should be used sparingly. The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100 percent. If you disagree with these religious groups on a particular moral issue, they complain, they threaten you with a loss of money or votes or both. I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in A, B, C, and D. Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me? And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate. I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of conservatism.”
Mr Goldwater may have been wrong on many things, but his understanding of the founding principles of this great country was all-of-a-piece with his traditional conservatism, and this splendidly outspoken manifesto could have been penned by Thomas Jefferson himself. Governor Perry would call himself a conservative, but he is a traitor to the very Constitution he pledges to uphold.
More On Faith and secularism:
Susan Jacoby: How the religious right distorts history
Gregory Paul: Atheists fed up? Believe it!
Susan Thistlethwaite: Jesus: please fix Texas because Governor Perry can’t
Full panel debate: Perry’s Pastor Problems?
Richard Dawkins | Jul 13, 2011 10:12 AM