We atheists are tiresome people. In '"Atheism: The Other Closet," which you can find at the American Atheists Web site (www.atheists.org), Dave Silverman advises unbelievers on how to "come out" to chagrined friends and relatives: "Mention bad religious people. Remember that Hitler was a Catholic, and that Jeffrey Dahmer said grace before he ate his victims. Mention also that one need only open a newspaper to find yet another story about allegations against priests for sexual misconduct, often with children."
Oh. Charmed, I'm sure.
Toleration of people like us–not of people who pray to a different God, but who deny God altogether–is the highest and hardest test of freedom of conscience in any liberal society. Even John Locke, the father of toleration, drew the line at atheists. At any given moment in any given culture, the vast majority (in America, well over 90 percent) are believers, and a fair number of the faithful see little reason the godless should be at liberty to corrupt the children of the righteous.
In May, the federal government and all but two American states declared an official Day of Prayer. The holdouts, moreover, were exceptions that proved the rule. Virginia honored the conscience of Thomas Jefferson, who, as President, refused to issue prayer proclamations (the executive, said he, has "no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents"). Minnesota honored the conscience of Jesse Ventura, the Governor who once wore pink tights and a feather boa to work, and who now says that atheists, too, are "citizens of Minnesota, and I have to respect that." He did, however, proclaim Feb. 15 Rolling Stones Day.
Last week, the House passed a bill permitting the Ten Commandments to be posted in public schools. Presumably, that will make the little darlings think twice about coveting their neighbor's ox, making graven images, forgetting the sabbath, or shooting up the place with a TEC-9 assault weapon.
Among presidential candidates, God is breaking out like hives. Elizabeth Dole says she has submitted to God completely, and Texas Gov. George W. Bush says he has recommitted his life to Jesus Christ. Vice President Gore, speaking intimately to seven journalists, said last month, "Faith is the center of my life. I don't wear it on my sleeve. I think the purpose of life is to glorify God." As though to help him underscore his sincerity, Elaine Kamarck, one of his senior advisers, told The Boston Globe, "The Democratic Party is going to take back God this time."
By rights, we atheists should be shuddering. Bad enough that seven states still bar atheists from public office (and Pennsylvania requires belief in a "future state of rewards and punishments"); increasingly, it seems, politicians of both parties are eager to demonstrate their inability to distinguish between a podium and a pulpit. I'm here to say, though, that the secularists are winning. What is going on is not so much an increase in political piety as God inflation.
Consider a trend. In 1958, only 18 percent of the American public, according to the Gallup Organization Inc., said they might be willing to vote for a well-qualified atheist for President. This February, the number was 49 percent. True, you have to assume that many of these respondents were lying, because 59 percent said in the same survey that they would vote for a homosexual for President. Still, what people feel obliged to lie about in opinion polls is itself revealing. Atheists are edging toward respectability.
Now another trend. I recently invented the Bless-O-Meter(r), which tracks Presidents' use of a casual God-bless-somebody to end a big speech. The surprise is how recent the practice is. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford often, but by no means always, concluded their big ceremonial speeches (inaugurals and State of the Union addresses) with flights of godly rhetoric. The Lord was invoked as a grandiose gesture, to elevate the speech above the routine. Thus Nixon's inaugural called upon his countrymen to go forward "sustained by our confidence in the will of God and the promise of man." LBJ's 1965 State of the Union ended, "So it shall always be, while God is willing, and we are strong enough to keep the faith," and so forth. There seemed to be an understanding then that to call on God was not a casual summons.
Indeed, one modern President abjured God altogether, ending speeches with a chaste "Thank you very much." This was Jimmy Carter, the most genuinely devout President of the postwar period. No doubt Carter was well advised, politically, to soft- pedal his piety, since liberals and urban Democrats tended to be suspicious of born-agains. But no doubt, too, he was a man who really and obviously believed, and who therefore had nothing to prove.
With Ronald Reagan, a change appeared. Reagan, of course, was notoriously nonchalant about public displays of religion. Yet he ended all his big speeches with some variant of "Thank you, and God bless you." God now became a standard sign-off, like Walter Cronkite's "That's the way it is" or Carol Burnett's ear-tug. Only occasionally, however, did Reagan enrich his rote "God bless you"–which, after all, is what you say when someone sneezes–with the more overtly sanctimonious "God bless America."
In came Bush the Elder, out went restraint. Every big speech ended with some variant of "Thank you, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America!" Sometimes the theme was further elaborated, as in Bush's remarks in January 1990 to the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce: "Thank you all. God bless you, and God bless Cincinnati, and God bless the United States of America!" Now, Bush may have been religious, but he did not act particularly religious, and no one believed he was particularly God-fearing, which was presumably why he ended all his speeches with screechy blessings upon America.
Bill Clinton, in seven State of the Union messages (one not officially called such) and two inaugurals, failed only once to God-bless. Being Clinton, he split the difference between Bush and Reagan, usually God-blessing America, but sometimes God- blessing only you all. So there you have it. What was, just 25 years ago, a gesture of high import is now a gesture of thoughtless routine.
Two conclusions seem pretty safe. First, the more genuinely devout the President, the less likely he is to fuss about God. Second, the transformation of God-blessings into political wallpaper suggests that, for most Americans, religious belief has become so denatured, and so sequestered from public policy, as to be an uncontroversial symbol, like the flag that serves as backdrop in every politician's official portrait. As the coin becomes common, it loses value. That's God inflation.
Today it is blessedly easy to forget that religion was once a fiercely divisive public issue, one that caused murders and riots. In 1844, a mob lynched Joseph Smith, and persecution drove his Mormon followers into the wilderness. Religion was once a subject that aroused serious heights of passion in serious people. Mark Twain wrote bitter and biting satires on religion. H.L. Mencken wrote of religion with an ostentatious contempt that strikes today's reader as gratuitous: "I do not admire the general run of American Bible-searchers–Methodists, United Brethren, Baptists, and such vermin." Religious ideas, Mencken said, run "to a peculiarly puerile and tedious kind of nonsense."
In 1999, no important public figure, and hardly any unimportant one, bothers to talk or write that way about religion. What would be the point? Outside of a loud but small claque that concerns itself mainly with abortion and homosexuality, people leave God at home or in church. Mainstream America is becoming like Japan, which is at once the most devotional and godless of countries. Temples and shrines are everywhere, even in homes, but the Japanese pay their respects, not out of religious zeal or belief in a living God, but as a way to touch base with tradition, to connect with community, to honor elders.
When Al Gore declares that he lives to glorify God, he means to pluck those same innocuous chords. If anyone really thought that Gore's faith would dictate his policies, his presidential prospects would be as bright as Gary Bauer's. When the House can muster the votes for the Ten Commandments, that is a sign not of piety's strength but of its denaturement.
We atheists, in fact, have cause to rejoice. Americans have struck a balance that, in the best-of-both-worlds department, beats even JFK's Harvard education with a Yale degree: In public life, God's name is ubiquitous but his influence is nil.
So say it often, Brother Gore. Say it loud: God bless you! And God bless the United States of America!
What the heck: God bless Cincinnati!