A discussion on religion, politics, and history with the co-President of Freedom From Religion Foundation, Annie Laurie Gaylor.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has existed for 40 years. They have combatted the encroachment of religion in government. They have used protests, public awareness campaigns, and lawsuits as their tactics. Critics call the organization an attack on the traditions of America and a violation of religious freedom.
World Religion News talked with FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor about how the organization has become synonymous with the struggle over separating church and state.
World Religion News: Should there be any confusion about the separation of church and state?
Annie Laurie Gaylor: There’s a wall between church and state in the form of the famous metaphor, and I think it is pretty clear. The Establishment Clause is couched in absolute, and the government is not supposed to have a religious position or favor one religion over another or religion over nonreligion. It’s not to take sides it’s not to have a religion. We have a godless secular constitution.
WRN: But at the same time we have politicians who are quoting scripture to justify policy decisions, and we have an administration that is explicitly supporting one particular denomination of Christianity.
ALG: I think there’s a more in-depth answer than just that we had an unpopular president elected. He got fewer votes, but the Electoral College got him in, and we undoubtedly had Russian tampering. There’s more going on there than meets the eye.
But I think the reason so many people voted for him is that religion has dumbed down our country. We are reaping the harvest of our fixation with religion in the United States even though we have a secular republic and a secular constitution. From the beginning, some theocrats were inimical to our godless Constitution. There was the Christian Party in Politics that was very strong in the 1820s. For example, it worked to end mail deliveries on Sundays because of religion. We lost a lot of ground because there’s always been agitation by unhappy evangelical. We are kind of in the middle of an evangelical revival. Although they are a minority and that’s very important to remember right now.
“Religion has dumbed down our country. We are reaping the harvest of our fixation with religion in the United States even though we have a secular republic and a secular constitution.”
The non-religious are 24 percent of the population. I think we outnumber the radical religious right and most people did not vote for Donald Trump in this country. So not everybody is a theocrat. They happened to take over power of Congress and the White House. They are trying to take over the courts, and it is very dangerous.
WRN: That leads me to my next question. How can you get policy decisions made when conservative federal judges are more frequently siding with religious freedom and conservative Christian organizations?
ALG: They are not siding with religious freedom. They are reinterpreting the concept of religious freedom to mean the right to impose your religion on others, and a right to be above the law if you are religious. That is how they interpret religious freedom.
WRN: What do you say to those who might say this could produce a backlash effect? That the more you act, the more conservatives become more defensive, and they are likely to go out to the ballot box and elect people or push for their interpretation of religious freedom.
“A right to be above the law if you are religious. That is how they interpret religious freedom.” ALG: Well it doesn’t. I think that the pendulum can swing back and forth and we’ve seen it swinging back and forth. And right now I think this pendulum is swinging away from fundamentalism in the United States. But the fundamentalists had seized control of the Republican Party, and they’re not letting it go. They have been crafty in the way they have pushed their agenda. They have settled for somebody who is highly immoral to represent them. Donald Trump does not have the typical moral credentials you would expect the Christian movement to require of anybody much less the president. So it’s just a means to an end and that’s also immoral.
WRN: And you said you see the pendulum swinging back. Are there notable policies or people being elected or people running for office as examples?
ALG: Well we’re not a partisan group, and we are not politically active. You had mentioned winning court cases. We have won 15, 16 or 17 rounds at this point since last year — legal round, decisions or settlements. We just won another case against the very fundamentalist Governor Abbott in Texas who permanently banned our Bill of Rights nativity display in the Texas capital. And we’re waiting to see whether he appeals that. Of course, as Trump fills more court vacancies, we will start to see some changes. But right now we’re winning most of our cases. And they’re mostly based on strong precedent and long-established law. I think that the American public would be very unhappy to see all of that overturned.
“Right now we’re winning most of our cases. And they’re mostly based on strong precedent and long-established law.” WRN: How do you think your organization is viewed and are there any misperceptions about your organization?
ALG: There are common perceptions about atheists, agnostics and those of us who are for separation of church and state. We’re not taking away religion from anybody. We ask the government to be neutral and not take sides. However, many people believe that the government should promote their personal religious views and they have their blinders on.
Most people probably are not aware of the degree that men of the Enlightenment founded our nation. They were imperfect, but they understood that our government should be secular. People do not realize there’s no God in our Constitution. It’s a misperception. The religious right has promoted the idea that we’re a Christian nation that was established by God or that we had Ten Commandments in our Constitution. It’s the big lie told over and over again that it is untrue. And so that’s one of the things that we dispel.
WRN: Where do you think people should go for resources?
ALG: One thing that our public officials might do is actually read the Constitution. They take an oath to uphold it, and we get the impression many of them have never opened it. And of course, the Constitution does not reference the Bible. The Founders thought that was very important and it provides a chance to swear or affirm. No reference to the Bible. They did not pray during the Constitutional Convention. There are many excellent books out there. For example. “The Godless Constitution.” So we have many resources that are cited at FFRF.org. We have a frequently asked questions section under the legal link.
WRN: You mention the Governor Abbott decision. What are some other important issues you’re dealing with now?
ALG: We have an exciting case challenge happening in Congress. Dan Barker is co-president with me, and he was invited by our representative, Mark Pocan, to give an invocation before Congress, and the Catholic priest refused to let him do so [because he is Catholic]. That was our only loss actually in the last year. We lost at the federal level and are appealing. That is one to watch. We have an exciting, significant challenge of a housing allowance which was passed by Congress to privileged members of the clergy. So that’s where they get to deduct their housing allowance is paid as part of their salary and pay no taxes on it. We just filed with another group against the Ten Commandments monument on the Capitol there in Arkansas.
WRN: Is there any successful case that stands out to you?
ALG: Our win in district court declaring the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional. Then it was thrown out on standing. I think that’s the one I’m most proud of because we never fought harder to show our standing, show the injury when our president formally urges all citizens to set aside one day a year to pray. It was a beautiful decision from the district court.
My personal favorite is in Wisconsin in the ’90s overturning Good Friday as a state holiday because we got so many complaints within Wisconsin. We were continually getting complaints from college students who couldn’t get into the library there at the university. And that was a very nice, fast win. It meant a lot to me personally. I took my daughter to the library on Good Friday to celebrate.
WRN: And so you’ve mentioned that religion has led to a dumbing down of America and that a lot of people have entirely incorrect assumptions about the intersection of religion and politics. How do you think being nontheistic has changed in recent history?
ALG: We’ve grown from about 9 percent of the population to 24 percent. And with the Generation Z, we see huge numbers, 21 percent of them calling themselves atheists and agnostics. Here in the city of Madison, the city survey has shown that 54 percent of Madisonian consider themselves non-religious, which is twice the national average. So we’re seeing huge numbers of people who are no longer connected to religion.
That makes a lot of people with injury. That makes a lot of people who are offended to see governments who are speaking out for religion. They are speaking up and are not afraid to be identified as non-religious. Many people in the nation have never met an atheist or someone who’s not religious. They have probably met them, and they don’t know it. So that’s one of the reasons that we promote an “out of the closet campaign” similar to what the gays did.
WRN: How has that been working as a campaign?
ALG: We have many, many members who do identify themselves as non-religious. I don’t see that society has budged and researchers we’ve talked to are concerned about that. Usually when your numbers grow there’s more acceptance. So there does seem to be a particular kind of discrimination against nonbelievers. I would say that that stems from not only religion and the Bible but churches teaching that none of them can be good (Psalm 14). That’s quite a defamation of character that we have to overcome. It is totally unfounded and just based on religious bias.
WRN: Then will the religion change or are there other parts of religion, like the social aspect that will still influence communities?
ALG: I think the Bible is the least read bestseller. People accept it without thinking. I think as our country becomes increasingly secular, as it is becoming more like Europe, fewer people find any need to ground anything in the Bible. There are better books and better moral guides out there. I think most humanists and nonbelievers also feel one should have a moral compass inside oneself. We have secular laws to protect ourselves as well.
“I think the Bible is the least read bestseller. People accept it without thinking.” WRN: Is there a particular country as a good model?
ALG: The Scandinavian nations. Most are secular. People don’t think about religion, and they’re the safest and happiest. There’s been quite a bit of research on that. Even if you look at Britain and Canada, there are fewer believers and a less violent society.
WRN: So what is the first step in educating oneself to be a critical thinker?
ALG: Well, that’s well said. Yes to being a critical thinker, to think critically. We’re taught that when it comes to religion, we’re not supposed to examine it closely. Many of our members called themselves “freethinker,” spelled as one word. When you look that up in the dictionary that means someone who examines religion based on reason. We should be extending reason to the claims of religion. If they make claims and they’re not supportable, there’s no evidence for them, why should you believe them? And it’s a dangerous thing, and there’s hardly anything more divisive or destructive than religion. You see this in our lives every day. We see this around the world. And that’s why you know the Founders wanted to make sure we did not have religion in our government. They didn’t want people to be persecuted because they were the wrong religion or part of a minority religion. They didn’t want the government to be in the business of religion.