Spurred by the American Family Association’s “Bigotry Map,” a Pennsylvania newspaper investigated the supporters of an Americans United chapter and discovered the obvious: They aren’t bigots.
The Philadelphia Weekly’s Josh Kruger interviewed Janice Rael, the president of our Delaware Valley chapter, about her nefarious intentions for Christianity, and found that she didn’t have any. The truth is a bit more mundane than the AFA made it out to be.“We believe in true religious freedom through a separation between church and state,” Rael told Kruger. “We defend the First Amendment. We host a lot of speakers, such as authors and clergy members, who support separation.”She proceeded to point out a fact that the AFA ignored by designating AU an “anti-Christian group:” Our executive director, the Rev. Barry W. Lynn is, well, a pastor. He’s an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. Lynn, of course, is no stranger to having his faith called into question by Religious Right (see: Rep. Louie Gohmert); nevertheless, he is indeed a Christian.
But that shouldn’t be a surprise to people actually familiar with AU’s mission and work. “We simply want the government to be neutral [in relation to the various faiths] and not to favor one over another,” Rael said, adding, “I would ask the AFA why they think that government neutrality is hostility to their faith.”
Kruger also interviewed the Pennsylvania Nonbelievers and the Lehigh Valley Humanists, two regional secular groups. The Pennsylvania Nonbelievers earned a spot on AFA’s map for being atheists; although the Lehigh Valley Humanists escaped AFA’s notice, it’s safe to say fundamentalists wouldn’t be fond of their mission, either.
According to the AFA, atheists are “critical of those who express their faith in public” and humanists “believe science triumphs faith in issues of morality and decision-making.” But there’s more to both philosophies, as representatives of these secular groups pointed out.
Brian Fields of the Pennsylvania Nonbelievers told Kruger that, “What I found interesting about the AFA’s selection [is] it’d be hard to find a less bigoted group of human beings than humanists.”If atheists and humanists aren’t bigots, then what do they really want?
The Lehigh Valley Humanists’ Diane Cormican had the answer. “We speak out against bigotry [that’s perpetrated] in the name of religion,” she said. “While acknowledging that many churches sponsor valuable programs and charitable giving, we don’t think religion is necessary for doing so. We want to be recognized and accepted as compassionate, moral and contributing members of our communities, regardless of our lack of religion.”
That goal is more than compatible with the principle of religious liberty; in fact, it’s at the heart of religious liberty, no matter what the AFA has to say about it.
That’s exactly why AU works with humanists and atheists to advance the cause of church-state separation – along with Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, unaffiliated spiritual seekers, agnostics and so on. If you understand why this country needs a wall of separation between church and state, we want you on board – no matter what you believe (or don’t believe) about a deity.
The AFA’s latest stunt poses no real threat to AU, or to our work on behalf of the First Amendment. It poses no substantial threat to our allies, either. But its claims are worth examination.
By placing groups like our Delaware Valley chapter on its “Bigotry Map,” the AFA’s tipped its cards. Its goal is not to identify “anti-Christian bigotry” but to eliminate competition in the marketplace of ideas. The AFA likes to tell people that this is officially a Christian country, but the truth is that they know it isn’t. It can’t be as long as groups like ours exist.
The AFA and groups like it aren’t enemies of bigotry. They are enemies of religious pluralism. And we’re pleased to be on the other side of the fight.