Protecting Humanism Against State-Sponsored Religion: An Interview With The American Humanist Association

What is the place of religion in government?

The American Humanist Association (AHA) has been dealing with this question for the last 70 years. The organization promotes Humanism, a collection of non-theistic views. They have lobbied against religious discrimination in the United States and abroad. Their operation has been expansive in ensuring those who do not practice a religion have protection from the law. The AHA also protects individuals who practice religion from discrimination. World Religion News spoke with Matthew Bulger, the legislative director of the American Humanist Association, to discuss the organization’s missions, their agenda with the current administration, and what the future holds.

World Religion News: What are the most important laws and policy issues you’re focusing on right now?

Matthew Bulger: We’re focusing on a variety of different issues. My organization has a bit of a broader mandate than many other nontheistic/church-state separation organizations. Our organization promotes humanism, which is a progressive philosophy of life. We tend to focus not just on church-state separation which is still, of course, one of our main issues, but on religious freedom concerns. We focus on pretty much every single issue under the sun.

Matthew Bulger - American Humanist Association

Matthew Bulger – AHA

At the moment our biggest issue we are very concerned about on the church-state separation front is the reintroduction of the Johnson Amendment repeal. We see language within the appropriations bill which seeks to weaken enforcement of the Johnson Amendment. The Johnson Amendment refers to a law prohibiting charitable organizations, which receive a preferential tax status, from participating in campaign politics. There are several attempts over the past few years to repeal it or to weaken its enforcement.

We saw the president issue an executive order calling for non-enforcement of the Johnson Amendment. Effectively it would cause houses of worship to be able to receive tax-deductible donations still and use them for political campaigns. This would lead to individuals being able to funnel money into political campaigns with very little transparency. We see it not only as a violation between the separation of church and state but as something that could seriously jeopardize our election process and the integrity of houses of worship. Houses of worship have been seen for a very long time in this country as institutions of communal unity, institutions that can fight societal wrongs without choosing one particular political party to support. We’re very concerned.

We’re also obviously concerned about religious freedom worldwide. This is an area where we’ve been able to work with Congressional Republicans and Democrats, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and other atheist organizations. We’re promoting a resolution at the moment called H Res 349. This is a resolution which seeks to oppose blasphemy laws. We’re currently seeking a Senate companion resolution which we’re hoping will be introduced sometime before the end of the month or at the very beginning of next month. We have a lot of hope for this sort of resolution because it’s something Republicans, Democrats, the religious and the non-religious can agree upon.

We [referring to both theistic and nontheistic organizations] tend to have a lot of disagreements on what domestic religious liberty means but when it comes to international religious freedom there tends to be broad agreement on the idea that people should have the freedom to affiliate with whatever religious tradition they choose to be with, pray as they see fit, not believe in any particular religion, and still be free from government oppression or societal discrimination.

Another big focus for us at the moment is opposing certain pieces of legislation. There are unfortunately many different bad bills out there on a variety of topics. On abortion, for example, there’s the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Act” which was introduced in the house and it’s passed the House. We’re also opposing legislation which seeks to allow for religious institutions or individuals to be free from following anti-discrimination laws. And we’re also supporting legislation like the “Do No Harm Act” which would modify the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” to prohibit it from being used as a safeguard from bad behavior for religious reasons, whether that’s discriminating against somebody because of your religious beliefs or things of that nature, things we don’t think the government should be excusing.

WRN: How are your efforts effected when President Trump is selecting more conservative judges that seem to favor religious freedom or side with religious organizations in court decisions?

MB: I think the appointment of any judge, regardless of their religious beliefs, who uses that belief as a basis for their determination on cases that come before them is a bad thing. I think it’s extremely important that we recognize the secular character of both our Constitution and our government and we don’t seek to jeopardize the religious pluralism that our country benefits from so much by creating laws or upholding laws on the basis of religious belief.

In terms of public focus on the judiciary, as opposed to the legislature, I don’t see that as much. I think people are obviously very concerned about what’s happening with religious right appointees to the judiciary. But people are also rightfully concerned about what’s happening in Congress, both in terms of the bad legislation they’re passing and important legislation they’re not working on. I think at this point in time we could have been doing a lot of work on the religious freedom front to make sure that as atheists or religious individuals are murdered around the world for expressing their religious beliefs or lack thereof that we do more to make sure we’re not subsidizing these governments [who allow or support those murders] either by giving them beneficial arms deals or foreign aid. Effectively, I think Congress has a lot of work to do in stepping up to the plate and requiring the executive and state department and all these other agencies to be a little bit tougher not just with their enemies but also with our allies when it comes to protecting human rights and religious freedom.

WRN: How do you see a positive evolution of this when we have an administration that seems very supportive of particular denominations of Christianity or using biblical scripture being to justify policy actions?

MB: Great question. I think using theology to justify politics is a bad thing both for the religious and for politics. A large number of evangelical Christian organizations I work with are concerned about this and it kind of speaks to why they oppose the repeal of the Johnson Amendment. They don’t want politicians using their religion as a basis for policy because if a policy goes the wrong way or if it becomes unpopular these religious institutions don’t want to be tied to that politician.

I think it tends to be exclusionary of a large segment of the American population who does not have the religious beliefs of certain legislatures, legislators, or the president when they make policy, that is, let’s be honest, explicitly pro-Christian and specifically pro-religious right. Not only does it divide the country, but it also prevents us from being able to work together in good faith on issues where there is agreement.

Yes, I think above all else the idea that our government is only a Christian government or that it’s a government which only represents Christian Americans not only alienates a huge number of Americans, it prevents participation in our civic society of the nontheistic and non-Christians who could contribute greatly to America but feel estranged from the political system and don’t feel like they’ll have the ability to make a change because they’re not of the correct religious type.

WRN: What political actions do you see people who are estranged take? Voting? Petitioning politicians?

MB: When some people are estranged from the political system they tend not to be involved at all and decide to focus on other things in their lives. Whether it is helping their family, or focusing more on their job. But I think for a subset of Americans when they’re told they don’t belong or they don’t have a right to comment on our political process it only gets them more fired up. It only encourages more participation in the political process.

That is one of the reasons why the Congressional Freethought Caucus was organized. This feeling that our politics were becoming explicitly more religious and explicitly more Christian and that policy was being derived from a religious perspective. There was a big backlash of politicians who are both religious and non-religious who believed our public policies should be generated from a secular mindset. Not one that is religious, not one that’s pro-atheist but rather one that doesn’t take religion or specific religious beliefs into account when formulating policy.

WRN: Why is the Congressional Freethought Caucus so historically important?

MB: I think it’s historically important not only because it serves as a breeding ground for the growing number of nontheistic Americans who are in the U.S. Congress but it’s also a good staging ground for defending against the excesses of the religious right. This is a place where not only humanists and atheists come together but also Christians, Jews, Muslims, and all other Christian denominations.

A big point of agreement among all these religious denominations is the idea that government should not favor any one religious sect or religion in general. It is something I’m not sure would have been founded a few years ago [the Freethought Caucus] if the current administration wasn’t so explicitly religious. There have always been members of Congress who do not maintain faith in a deity, but many of them felt it wasn’t necessary to discuss their religious beliefs or lack thereof until the president decided to do so himself and to make religion such a core component of our national dialogue in politics. I think people now feel they have an obligation to speak up for secularism and for religious minorities who think either they’re being attacked by the administration or the administration is marginalizing them.

The Freethought Caucus has the potential to do a lot of good not just in promoting the separation of church and state but in protecting religious freedom rights of all Americans. We’re not supportive of the idea people should not be religious. We think religious freedom is extremely important. A person has a right to their religious beliefs. We merely want to make sure the government is not forcing any particular religious beliefs on American citizens or even on American legislators.

WRN: What do you say to those who argue that the government cannot regulate religious beliefs at all. For example, the Masterpiece Bake Shop Supreme Court case where a Christian man did not want to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple.

MB: I think it’s extremely important that religious liberty is viewed through the lens of being a shield as opposed to being a sword. Religious liberty concerns should be about protecting one’s self from either government or society societal incursion into your fundamental religious rights or your ability to affiliate with particular religious tradition. To pray as you see fit.

But it shouldn’t be used as a tool to compromise the rights of other Americans. There’s the old saying, “your right to swing your fist stops at my nose,” and I think that’s a pretty good guide for determining where religious freedom rights should be. We obviously want to be able to work together and make sure we’re able to come to some conclusion where everyone feels like their rights are being respected. But at the end of the day, individuals cannot flout anti-discrimination laws or ignore regulations that apply to businesses of public accommodation. The law is pretty clear that you’re not able to discriminate against someone on a large number of different bases whether it’s their race, their religion, or their gender. Obviously, at the federal level, there are still no protections for sexual orientation or gender identity. Those are not covered classes under the Civil Rights Act in many different states. However, there is legislation and existing law which prohibits individuals who run businesses a public accommodation or rent to individuals or employ individuals that they might disagree with from using their gender identity or sexual orientation as the basis for discriminatory treatment. So we certainly respect the right of an individual to oppose gay marriage nor would we require a house of worship to perform a gay wedding. But we also recognize at the same time individuals cannot use their religion as a tool to worsen the lives of other Americans.

WRN: Could the actions of the American Humanist Association lead to a backlash from Conservative Christians?

MB: I don’t think the Freethought Caucus encourages that because the Freethought Caucus is not anti-religious. The Freethought Caucus merely is about protecting the religious freedom rights of all Americans. This is not an institution which seeks to harm religion rather it’s one that seeks to uphold the foundational values of this country which promotes religious pluralism and which seeks to protect both religion and government by prohibiting either of those two institutions from being entangled with the other.

WRN: That sounds like a common misconception about your organization. Are there any others?

MB: I think one misperception is that the Freethought Caucus is just for atheists or humanists. It’s not the Congressional Atheist Caucus it is the Congressional Freethought Caucus. Freethinking is something all Americans can do whether they’re religious or not religious. I think especially once you talk to people of different political beliefs and different religious beliefs who work on Capitol Hill; you’ll realize very quickly one side does not have a monopoly on rational thought or conscious thoughts.

So I think it’s important to note that while yes this caucus does seek to allow for atheists and humanists to come together to discuss their lack of religious belief, it’s also a place for religious allies who support the separation of church and state to be able to come together and discuss ways to protect both religious freedom and secularism. It is important people don’t think of this as an atheist caucus but rather recognize it’s freethought caucus which welcomes both religious and non-religious defenders of religious pluralism and secularism.

WRN: Who are politicians in office or are running for office that are examples of leaders who represent the values of your organization?

MB: The founders of the Freethought Caucus are pretty good examples. Both Representative Huffman and Representative Raskin come from religious backgrounds. Representative Raskin still identifies as a humanistic Jew. He’s not simply a humanist or an atheist. He is a humanist who still associates with a religious tradition. Representative Huffman is a humanist also as well who do not affiliate with any particular religious tradition. Both have taken pains to ensure they support the rights of Americans to hold different religious beliefs from themselves. They also at the same time want to support the rights of individuals to be free from religious discrimination and also to make sure our government is not creating policy which explicitly favors one particular religion or religion in general.

So that’s why you have people like Representative Raskin who is a founder of the caucus also pushing a resolution which seeks to end blasphemy laws worldwide. Blasphemy laws are something which leads to the arrests of thousands of different people over decades from varying religious traditions whether it’s Christians, Muslims, Jews, or Atheists. In recent years there has been an uptick in the number of atheists who have been arrested under blasphemy laws. But for years we’ve seen numerous Christians and Muslims being arrested for supposedly insulting a religious tradition, for speaking poorly of a religious tradition. And I think America has been fortunate to be seen as a leader when it comes to protecting religious freedom rights and I think protecting religious freedom rights is something the caucus is very interested in promoting.

WRN: What then should Americans be looking for when deciding which candidate to support in elections?

MB: That’s a great question. The important thing for voters to look for whenever they’re evaluating any candidate is to see how that candidate speaks about people who have different beliefs or values than them. I think it’s extremely important in this country to recognize not everyone believes in the same things as you do and it is extremely important you not only show due respect to people of different religious and political beliefs but you also recognize their right to hold those, beliefs in the first place.

Unfortunately, we have heard for years from religious right preachers who talk about how this is a Judeo-Christian country and people who are not Christian or Jewish are not really Americans. I think if you ever hear a politician talking about what a true American is and then putting a specific religious denomination outside of what it means to be a true American, that’s a person you should be concerned about. That is a person who’s going to use religion or religious bigotry as a weapon to deprive the rights of other Americans. I think another good way is to look at organizations like the Freethought Equality Fund which is a sister organization of the Center for Freethought Equality and explicitly endorses humanist candidates for public office as well as religious allies for public office.

Another important thing to look at whenever evaluating a candidate for political office is how they speak about their religious traditions if they choose to speak about them at all. I think it’s extremely important to recognize that no one grows up in a vacuum. You know a politician’s religious heritage is obviously going to shape their values. However, they should recognize that their personal religious beliefs shouldn’t necessarily be the same thing as their public policy positions. I think a good example of this is someone like Senator Tim Kaine who went on a mission trip when he was younger, is extremely religious himself when it comes to his own personal beliefs ,but has made numerous statements about not allowing his religious positions on issues like abortion or other issues to cloud his thinking on when it comes to what he votes for his entire state on issues like access to contraception or access to abortion services. Those are the important priorities that a person should evaluate when they consider a candidate for higher office.

WRN: If someone is reading this and wants to become more involved in supporting your organization what steps could they take?

MB: Certainly. There are several different organizations that work on this issue. Obviously, there’s the American Humanist Association and anyone that’s interested in being a member of the A.H.A. can go to our Web site at AmericanHumanist.org. The American Humanist Association also has a sister 501(c)(4) organization, the Center for Freethought Equality which has lobbying responsibilities and is able to do a little bit more on the national political level. That is another organization that I would recommend people look up and potentially join. And then, of course, there is the Freethought Equality Fund which is a PAC affiliated with the Center for Freethought Equality which as I mentioned before endorses candidates for public office, both religious and nontheistic. And I think is a good way for many Americans to see some candidates who don’t perhaps get as much news time as some of their more religious counterparts.

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