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EVANGELICAL ATHEISM ON THE MARCH

August 15, 2012

Neither Left Nor Right, but Catholic

EVANGELICAL ATHEISM ON THE MARCH

By Stephen M. Krason

     Many readers of this column have heard about the (at least for now) successful effort of the Freedom From Religion Foundation to pressure the City of Steubenville, Ohio, to change its new city logo because it included a representation of the chapel with cross of Franciscan University of Steubenville, where I have been a long-time professor. This was included, amidst other symbols, because the university is a major institution—and employer—in this long economically struggling, former steelmaking city and has brought international attention to it.

     This is by no means a singular effort by the FFRF. At the same time, they are confronting the city of Wyoming, Michigan because of a church image included in its logo. Last year, residents in Athens, Texas rallied against the FFRF’s attempt to have a pro-atheist banner included with the yearly Christmas crèche on the courthouse lawn after failing to get the courts to order the removal of the crèche. The FFRF’s modus operandi seems to be to claim that they are acting after a local citizen—who always remains anonymous—contacted them about such offending practices. More likely, they are monitoring local communities around the country to see if they can call them to task for the slightest expression of religion in the public arena. The FFRA even goes after the federal and state governments, challenging, among other things, faith-based programs in federal prisons, the National Day of Prayer, and a state-funded prison ministry program in New Mexico. They also lost an important Supreme Court case in 2007, which ruled that taxpayers—absent any legal harm—do not have standing to challenge the constitutionality of executive branch actions in the courts.

     That case, Hein v. FFRF, was interesting, given the fact that the Court’s 1968 precedent of Flast v. Cohen helped set the stage for such legal campaigns and intimidation by outfits like the FFRF, the ACLU, and the like by carving out an exception to normal standing requirements for challenging the constitutionality of legislative enactments under the establishment clause. They have been further encouraged by the federal civil rights laws, which allow those who have been adjudicated to have had their civil rights violated—which, somehow, is held to be what happens in establishment clause cases even though no one has his religious liberty threatened or suffers a legal harm—to recover attorney’s fees from the losing side. This club hanging over their heads seems to have made the Steubenville city officials especially reluctant to put up a fight. Besides using this to buttress their efforts to force all vestiges of religion from the public arena, is this also a ready means for fund-raising by groups like the FFRF?

     On the heels of perceived abuses, there was an unsuccessful effort some years ago in Congress to alter this provision of the civil rights laws.

     Groups like the FFRF can best be called evangelical atheists. They act as they do to spread the “gospel” of atheism; they see themselves as an engine of secular salvation for people by freeing them from the constraints and “superstitions” of religion. They represent the legal arm and populist side of the New Atheism advanced by such intellectuals as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. The New Atheism, however, is nothing more than the old atheism, a repackaging of age-old arguments against religion that have been refuted and discredited by sound apologetics, theologians, and philosophers for centuries. It is a latter-day expression of the old Enlightenment project to fashion the “autonomous man,” who sets his own standards and morality and is answerable only to himself. They somehow think that this is essential for human dignity—even though the clear, repeated experience of a rampantly secular age has been the subversion and evisceration of human dignity.

     At this point the objectives of evangelical atheists seem to be three-fold: First, eliminate any remaining sliver of religion from the public forum, and finish the task—begun with the post-World War II Supreme Court public school religion cases, but first advocated by church-state separationists in the late nineteenth century—of refashioning America into a rankly secular state. Second, make atheism “mainstream” so that it gains full respectability in all aspects of American life. The recent decision by the minor-league baseball team, the St. Paul Saints, to accede to the Minnesota Atheists’ request to have an “atheists’ night” promotion is an example of that. The club even went to extent of covering the “S” in all of the Saints’ signs and logos around the ballpark that evening. Finally, the evangelical atheists want to reshape morality and practice along the lines of secular belief. Religious pluralism has long since given way to moral pluralism—where anyone’s moral beliefs are going to be treated as equally valid as everyone else’s—and what we see now is the law protecting such moral pluralism even when it means bludgeoning others into accepting it. Consider, for example, forcing Christian photographers and bakers to provide their services for same-sex “weddings.” “Civil rights” has too often become nothing more than a cover for protecting moral outrage.

     In other words, even moral pluralism has “advanced” to the next stage: accept secular morality and the secular worldview, or else. More, you have to give it your imprimatur. The HHS mandate pursuant to the health care reform law is, at bottom line, nothing more than that. Religious liberty must step aside; the imperatives of the sexual revolution—the centerpiece of  the secular moral “renewal”—must be accepted by everyone.

    While many might dismiss as insignificant the St. Paul Saints episode, it is perhaps the harbinger of yet the next level of the atheist—and, more broadly, secularist—crusade. If the club had resisted the request for the special promotional night, it is likely that the atheists would have filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights or sued. Probably the FFRF would have taken up their case. So, it’s not just the public “endorsement” of religion that troubles evangelical atheists, but even a nod given to it by private entities (if a ball club has a night for different churches or if fans with a church bulletin get discounted admission, so must a group of atheists). The secularists have desacralized the public sphere and now must move on to the private sphere. That is necessary, of course, to complete the project of secularization of American culture.

     Even this will not be enough, however. Since apparently all that an atheist or other secularist has to do to get anything pertaining to religion removed from the public arena is say it “bothers” or “offends” him, isn’t it logical that the facades of churches and crosses above them will be targeted. After all, they are part of “public space.” Already, we hear of episodes like a church forbidden to erect a live nativity scene outside its building because it sits on the town common. After that, will attempts even be made to outright stop churches from teaching certain precepts or even limit worship in different ways? Already we see church tax exemptions threatened because of public statements or even sermons of their clergy on public issues of moral import and prayer groups banned in private homes because of zoning restrictions. Do these fears sound far-fetched? So would all the developments we have been talking about, circa 1935.

     The history of America as a religious culture is beyond dispute. While atheists now try to force their secularism on us, in early America they were often banned from public office and not permitted to give testimony in court. After all, how could someone be placed in a position of public trust or be depended on to tell the truth if he did not believe himself to be answerable to God for his actions? To equate belief with unbelief and to try to forge a “naked public square” where religion has no role, as the Supreme Court has done, would have been incomprehensible to our Founding Fathers. The implications of the outright triumph of secularism are grave. As John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” I go into more detail about this in my book, The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic; simply stated, a democratic republic like the U.S. demands traditional religion. As Tocqueville said, he dreaded what would happen in such a country without it. That’s why outfits like the FFRF need to be opposed at every turn, and why even the logos of small cities must be fought for.

Stephen M. Krason is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies at Franciscan University of Steubenville and Co-Founder and President of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.

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