By Adam Lee | 10 June 2011
The propagandists of the religious right shout it aloud as their battle cry: “America is a Christian nation!” And in the trivial sense that ours is a nation populated mostly by Christians, this is true. But in the sense they mean it, that Christianity was intended to occupy a privileged place in the law — or worse, that Christianity was intended to be the only belief professed by Americans — it couldn’t be more false. Although religion in general, and Christianity in particular, play a dominant role in our public life, ours is a secular nation by law. And befitting that heritage, America has always played host to a lively tradition of freethought, unorthodoxy and religious dissent, one that dates back to our founding generation.
To name just one example, Thomas Jefferson rejected miracles and special revelation — he famously created his own version of the New Testament, which kept only the moral teachings and parables and cut out all the miracle stories — and encouraged his contemporaries to “question with boldness even the existence of a God.” He himself was a deist, not an atheist, but this subtle distinction was lost on his contemporaries, who hurled accusations at him every bit as vicious as today’s TV attack ads. For instance, in the presidential campaign of 1800, the Gazette of the United States editorialized as follows:
At the present solemn moment the only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is ‘shall I continue in allegiance to GOD—AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; or impiously declare for JEFFERSON—AND NO GOD!!!’
Jefferson’s political opponents denounced him as a “howling atheist” and a “French infidel,” and paranoid rumors circulated that, if he became president, he would order all Bibles to be confiscated. Of course, in the end Jefferson was elected to two successful presidential terms, and the feared wave of atheistic persecution failed to materialize.
But stories like these aren’t just historical footnotes. Just as freethinkers have always had their place in our nation, the strategy of slandering and demonizing them for political gain is likewise alive and well, as I found out for myself in 2008.
In that year’s North Carolina Senate race, Elizabeth Dole, the Republican incumbent, was running against Democratic challenger Kay Hagan. In the waning weeks of the campaign, Hagan attended a fundraiser at the home of Woody Kaplan and Wendy Kaminer, advisors to American Atheists’ Godless Americans Political Action Committee. The Dole campaign found out about this and tried to make political hay out of it, releasing a campaign ad which said:
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