Why We Need to Lose Religion to Save America
By Lauren Becker
In 1784, the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia proposed “A Bill Establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion.” At first, the bill had wide support. The Episcopal Church, the dominant and newly independent American version of the Anglican Church of England, stood to benefit greatly from the extra taxes that would be collected to pay for its teachers. But other Virginians saw the bill as an attack on the principle of freedom of conscience and a threat to the liberties so recently wrenched from King George III. So James Madison sat down to write a Memorial and Remonstrance, a list of fifteen reasons why Virginians should oppose the bill and any other attempt to use the state to support the church. Remarkably, after wide circulation, the petition collected over 13,000 signatures. When the General Assembly gathered again in 1785, the bill died before it even made it to the floor.
The success of Madison’s petition set the stage for the passage of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. In 1787, when the Constitutional Convention met to create a new American system of government, the language of the Virginia Statute became the law of the nation and inspired the first secular republic in history.
This is our history — unless you’re one of millions of people that think America is a Christian nation founded on the Ten Commandments.
Right now, much of the country is convinced that America is in the midst of a vast moral decline. To slow the trend, many right-wing political and religious leaders and millions of conservative citizens are demanding a “return” to biblical teachings and a “re-emphasis” on the foundation of American virtue — which they believe to be the Ten Commandments. They imagine a link between secular government and societal decay and have therefore been hacking away at what Jefferson called the “wall of separation” between church and state. They believe that, if we do what God tells us to do, He will make it all better. For them, morality comes from God, so they look to faith to save the day.
Strangely, those on the other side of the debate have given up their historical support of church-state separation in favor of also calling for a “return” to God, though they have a very different idea of what that means. Left-wing liberal leaders now believe we all need a deeper spirituality that will help guide us out of our moral malaise and lead us to a kinder and more loving society. For them, morality comes from some kind of transcendent awareness, so they look to a higher power to save the day.
There was a time when the church-state debate was about the merits of a secular state versus those of a religious state. Should the state be neutral toward religion or should it support it? But thanks to a ferocious branding campaign, the term secular now equates with evil, so our leaders are left to babble about the values of conservative dogma versus liberal spiritualism.
At the end of the day, the issue has been framed so poorly that, no matter who wins the debate, we’re all going to lose. Everyone is so busy trying to figure out how to keep the faith, get it back, or just wear it on their sleeve, it’s no longer safe to ask the most important question: Is it wise to try to fix a nation’s problems with religion? Is it even possible?
There is a dangerous problem with the movement to base our national morality on the Ten Commandments, specifically, or even on religion in general. Of course it’s a good idea to have a strong moral foundation, but morals don’t need religion to be sound. In fact, history is replete with examples showing that morality does horrific damage when it is based on the authority of God. God’s laws are absolutes and the things that make people want to cling to absolutes are the very things that can sometimes make them dangerous: Absolutes shut down critical thinking. They do not allow debate. They allow no reflection. There is no moderation. There is no reason.
When people attach the authority of God to moral precepts, they turn good ideas into bad ideology and corrupt theology. “Love thy neighbor” gets hijacked by “The ends justify the means because God said so.” How many of our current crises can be traced back to an “end justifies the means” ideology?
Ideology is amenable to branding and particularly useful during political campaigns, but it is a disastrous basis on which to make decisions. It is a disastrous way to govern a country.
People who believe the United States can somehow be saved by a rebirth of religious piety miss the most profound lesson American history has to offer. The most unique and significant characteristic of our national experiment was not its dedication to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The genius of the American example was the method our founders used to conclude that those things should be the foundation of their new republic. They dismissed the political and religious ideologies of the day and used reason to come up with better ideas.
When the colonists came together to draft the Declaration of Independence, it was not because “God said so.” After all, how could they appeal to God while at the same time opposing his divine representative, King George? Instead, our founders appealed to reason — no less than twenty seven reasons — and painstakingly explained to George and the rest of the world why “these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States.”
When delegates to the Constitutional Convention gathered to form a more perfect union, establish justice, and ensure domestic tranquility, they didn’t write the authority of God into the administration of government. They studied world history and political philosophy, they compared dozens of governing systems, they reviewed centuries of human experience, and they reasoned — after much strenuous debate — that “We the People” would be the best guardians of liberty. Not God, not King, not Priest. We the People. They concluded that Ten Amendments would do far more to ensure the general welfare than Ten Commandments.
And so it was with Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance. When the General Assembly tried to pass a bill that would infringe upon religious liberty, Madison didn’t try to justify his disagreement with an appeal to faith. He didn’t fire back at his adversaries with a Commandment, with a “because God said so.” He looked to reason and found fifteen of them — more than enough to persuade his fellow Virginians to change their minds and choose the better way.
Our leaders and fellow citizens are right to claim that America has strayed from its original values, but our value system was never about Commandments. Liberty, equality, tolerance and respect, fairness, freedom of conscience and speech, distribution of power, and checks and balances — the civic virtues and democratic values that have sustained us are secular values born of human experience and free thought. They are the legacies of founders who understood that happiness is more dependent on freedom than on faith, that reason is a better judge than religion, and that revolutionary ideas work better than religious ideology.
America cannot be saved by a return to religion because America was not founded on faith. America is the child of reason. If we wish to return to our founding principles — if we wish to regain our moral footing and work towards a better day — this is where we should begin.
The reasons of 1785 are still relevant today and remain a compelling argument against the impulse to mingle church and state.
To review (with apologies to the most eloquent Madison):
- A person’s relationship with God is between that person and God so a majority of people should not be able to impose its religious opinion on individuals.
- Government gets its power from the people. Since people should not impose their religious opinions on one another, government should not impose religion on individuals either.
- We just fought really hard to win our liberties from England – why would we want to start giving them away again?
- If we expect to be free to worship God in our own way, we have to let everyone else do the same thing. A just God is more offended by inequality than by uncertainty.
- The president isn’t an authority on religious truth and the state is not the means of salvation.
- Are you worried that religion will fail without the support of the government? Isn’t your faith stronger than that?
- Anyway, religion flourishes when it’s oppressed by the state as surely as it turns corrupt when joined with it.
- History Lesson: the quickest way to destroy a peaceful society is to give its rulers the authority of God.
- Besides, how are we going to explain a State Church to a world of people expecting America to be the “land of the free”?
- If we start revoking liberties, all the good people who value freedom will leave and then what will we have?
- Relax. Remember: every time we try to make everyone believe the same thing, lots of people get killed.
- If we start acting like a backward theocracy, no one will like us and they won’t believe a word we say – as a church or as a state.
- It’s hard enough enforcing laws that we agree on. How are we going to enforce a law that no one likes? Besides, stupid laws only damage our credibility.
- Okay, this is a democracy. How many people really want the government to tell them how to worship God? Not enough.
- If we start to think it’s okay for the majority - the state - to take away our religious freedom, what freedom will we let it take away next?