What America Needs Now Is a Secular President, Like George Washington

By Donald Ardell Ph.D. | 2 May 2019

(Credit: Gilbert Stuart / Wikimedia / Public Domain)

“Religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony & irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other source.” (George Washington, letter to Sir Edward Newenham, June 22, 1792.)

Curb your enthusiasm for progressive candidates who flaunt their religious faith. This essay explains why god-talkers, however otherwise attractive, are likely to prove hazardous to the kind of nation JFK envisioned:

“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute… where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace.” (September 12, 1960 at the Greater Houston Ministerial Association)

Obviously, all progressive candidates are preferable to the typical far-right, divisive fundamentalists like Mike Huckabee, Mike Pence or just about any Republican in Congress, on the Supreme Court or in the cabinet of Donald Trump. However, the progressive candidate who is vocal in parading his religiosity, even though he checks all or most of the well regarded liberal boxes — gay, youthful, smart and well educated, kind, attractive, funny, a war veteran, maybe even a vegan and so on — should still be viewed skeptically as a likely hazard to the preservation of what remains of our secular Republic.

This is not an idle concern. Without mentioning any midwest mayors who may at the moment appear almost too appealing to be true, the worry about devout believers should be assessed by enthusiasts for science, rationality and especially strict separation of church and state. Extreme caution seems advisable about one who claims that theology informs his policy positions.

In some ways, secularists might be encouraged by an attractive Democratic presidential contender who displays Christian piety, as the first thought might be a sense that this increases his prospects of electability. We have seen instances when a certain devout liberal, like the elders in the play Bye Bye Birdie, who seems perfect in every way, questions Trump’s religion, moralistically scolds the hypocritical Vice-President for being part of a porn-star presidency and employs biblical references to support his positions. Unfortunately, the public interest in a secular democracy is not well served by politicians sparring over who is a good Christian or number one believer. Who cares, or should care? Let the faithful have these discussions, if so inclined, but keep such in churches and in religious households, not candidate forums or political campaigns.

Personally, I confess that I would prefer an attractive Democratic candidate who decorates his speeches with Christian babble primarily as a strategy for winning segments of the Religious Right, from one who really believes such nonsense. I never thought I’d adopt or at least adapt Barry Goldwater infamous remark from the 1964 presidential campaign to justify such expediency (i.e., “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue”). However, given circumstances extant in 2019, I have no such compunctions, so here goes:

“Fake piety in defense of liberty is not such a terrible vice, if done to prevent another term for Donald Trump. Speech that diminishes the supernatural but damages the chances for reason in government is no virtue.”

Expediency aside, here are a couple examples of current rhetoric by the otherwise glowing candidate that sets off my theocracy-alert sensibilities:

On CNN at a Town Hall meeting, he said: “My feeling is that Scripture is about protecting the stranger, and the prisoner and the poor person and that idea of welcome. That’s what I get in the Gospel when I’m in church.”

Actually, I much prefer someone who feels that way all the time, about everybody, and not only when he’s reading a Gospel and/or in a church.

The otherwise ideal candidate also criticized the vice-president in a manner that simply seems spiritually weird:

“The Vice-President’s perspective has a lot more to do with sexuality, and, I don’t know, a certain view or rectitude.”

I find it challenging to connect Pence with sexuality, especially given his over-developed focus on rectitude, moral correctness and righteousness.

When a candidate showers quotations from holy books and inflicts what he or she considers revealed wisdom from religious dogmas and teachings, the clear message is that his policy views are informed, guided or reliant upon matters spiritual, or faith-based. This in turn adds to the widespread delusion and hopes of the religious fundamentalists that America is a Christian nation.

James Madison believed that religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise, every expanded prospect.

I wonder if an otherwise attractive candidate would agree with either President Madison, or with President Kennedy’s previously cited commitment to an absolute separation of church and state.

In a Washington Post article the other day, David Niose offered this take on an otherwise attractive candidate for president:

“There is a reason that progressives have toned down the religion in their ranks over time — and that reason is called progress. Science and empiricism, together with values recognizing the dignity and worth of all individuals, are understood to be the legitimate grounds for progressive policy dialogue.” (David Niose, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s Progressive Christianity is Nothing to Celebrate, Either, in Hemant Mehta’s Friendly Atheist, April 21, 2019.)

What America needs now is a candidate somewhat in the mold of Courtland Palmer, described as follows in a funeral oration by Col. Robert Green Ingersoll:

“He investigated for himself the questions, the problems, and the mysteries of life. Majorities were nothing to him. No error could be old enough, popular, plausible, or profitable enough, to bribe his judgment or to keep his conscience still. He was a believer in intellectual hospitality, in the fair exchange of thought, in good mental manners, in the amenities of the soul, in the chivalry of discussion. He believed in the morality of the useful, that the virtues are the friends of humanity, the seeds of joy. He lived and labored for his fellow men.”

Alas, neither George Washington, John F. Kennedy, James Madison nor Courtland Palmer is available but plenty of others are who would advance a political agenda that kept separate and distinct the governmental business of all the people from the fractious spiritual agendas of Christianity and other religions.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Donald B. Ardell is a lifelong promoter of REAL wellness based on reason, exuberance, athleticism and liberty. He is a life member of Freedom from Religion Foundation and publisher of the REAL Wellness Report. He’s also an Robert Green Ingersoll enthusiast who lectures on both wellness and “The Great Agnostic.” He is a champion triathlete, having won more than a dozen national and seven world titles in the sport. His website is donardell.com. His latest book is entitled, “NOT DEAD YET: World Triathlon Champions 75+ Offer Tips for Thriving & Flourishing in Later Life,” available on Amazon.com.

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