September 2018 Chuch & State Magazine | Books & Ideas

Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic: Atheists in American Public Life by R. Laurence Moore and Isaac Kramnick. W. W. Norton, 209 pp.

In the early 19th century, politicians and religious leaders used “atheist” as a catch-all term for rhetorical strawmen who were intent on dismantling the law and destroying American democracy. The perception of atheists as un-American resulted in several state laws barring them from holding public office or testifying in court. These laws were created in the name of “protecting social stability.”

In the beginning, there was uncertainty. As America rose from the ashes of the Revolutionary War, its fate was unclear. The idealists in the young country dreamed of becoming a beacon for democracy with a strong national identity, but the European nations in power expected it to fail. The nervousness surrounding America’s success influenced the laws created in those early years. Anything or anyone considered a threat to the stability of the new American culture was vulnerable to legal sanctions. And atheists – those who did not believe in God – were seen as a serious threat.

Now, more than 200 years later, America is a world power, democracy has prevailed and atheists have not destroyed American social stability. So, why is it that Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Pennsylvania continue to retain provisions in their state constitutions that require their public officials to hold a belief in a higher power?

In their new book Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic: Atheists in American Public Life, coauthors and Cornell University professors R. Laurence Moore and Isaac Kramnick work to answer this question. Starting with the country’s birth and ending with the Masterpiece Cakeshop Supreme Court case, Moore and Kramnick explore the history and current reality of atheism and non-belief in America.

The book’s first chapter, titled “The Invention of Religious Liberty,” tells a story that we at Americans United are well acquainted with: the ori­gins of church-state separation. Puritans, Bap­­tists, Quakers and Deists all played an important role in the founding of America, but one religious leader stood above the rest when it came to religious liberty and support of non-believers: Roger Williams.

Williams, a Puritan minister and founder of Rhode Island, called for a “wall of separation” between churches and governing bodies. To Williams, believers and non-believers were equally capable of serving in government. It was their skill as  civil servants – not their private religious beliefs – that mattered. According to Moore and Kramnick, he was far ahead of his time.

The Founding Fathers agreed with Williams’ wall of separation, and religious liberty was included in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. Their First Amendment protected believers and non-believers alike, allowing Americans who do not believe in a higher power to live their lives unharmed by a sectarian government.

However, the political tides turned in the decades after America’s founding. The dawning of the 19th century brought with it the second Great Awakening. Membership in church congregations boomed, especially among the Baptist and Methodist communities who led the movement, and suddenly the First Amendment was less popular in public and government opinion.

In Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic, Moore and Kramnick illustrate this paradigm shift with a ruling from New York Chief Justice Joseph Kent. In 1810, atheist John Ruggles was put on trial for blasphemy in New York state. He had been yelling anti-Christian state­ments in public. The jury convicted him despite the fact that New York did not have a law criminalizing blasphemy. In his ruling, Kent wrote, “we [Americans] are a Christian people” and asserted that Christianity was part of American common law.

Kent was obviously unconcerned with the words of the First Amendment when he wrote his opinion for this case. Yet, his writings reflected the political and social attitudes of the time: to be an atheist was to be un-American.

These attitudes leaked into the legal system, as Moore and Kramnick cite. For most of the 19th century, state laws prevented atheists from taking the witness stand in court. Government officials alleged that all atheists were anarchists who wanted to destroy the American republic, and so they could not be trusted to give truthful testimony. By the end of the century, most states found this view unreasonable and repealed these repressive laws. But other anti-atheist legal sanctions had longer-lasting legacies, as Moore and Kramnick tell us.

Religious tests for public office was an idea born in Great Britain, where social and political privilege was given to those who belonged to the Anglican Church. Members of minority religious groups could not hold public office, for they failed the test. This oppression of civil rights allowed the government-sponsored Anglican Church to retain power.

Perhaps recalling this religious discrimination, legislators added Article VI to America’s federal Constitution in 1787. It make it clear that in the United States, no religious test can be required for a position in the federal government. When the article was enacted into law, 11 of the 13 states required religious tests in their constitutions, most of which required a specific religious affiliation such as Protestant. But after Article VI was adopted, seven of the states removed the requirements completely. The remaining four dropped their test for a specific religion, but kept the requirement that public officials must believe in God.

These states were joined by four more as the American republic expanded, each requiring a belief in God in its constitution. Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Pennsylvania moved to bar atheists from public office. In their book, Moore and Kramnick include citations from all eight state constitutions that require a belief in God. Here are two examples:

Maryland: “No religious test ought ever to be required for any office of profit or trust in this state, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God.”

Tennessee: “No person who denies the Being of God, or of a future state of rewards and punishment, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.”

The words of these constitutions plainly discriminate against those who do not believe in a deity. For many years, atheists in these eight states did not have the civil right to obtain positions in public office, despite their First Amendment right to freedom of non-belief.

These state constitutional provisions contain a blatant violation of separation of church and state, as the Supreme Court agreed in the 1961 case Torcaso v. Watkins. Roy Torcaso, an atheist, was appointed a notary public by the governor of Maryland. When it came time for his confirmation, he refused to declare a belief in a higher power. The state subsequently revoked his appointment. When the case made it to the Supreme Court, the judges ruled unanimously that Maryland’s requirement was unconstitutional and violated Torcaso’s right to religious freedom. In the ruling, Justice Hugo Black made it clear that states could not require a religious test, yet all eight states have retained this section of their constitutions.

Moore and Kramnick write that even if these tests can no longer be enforced, their inclusion in some state constitutions remains dangerous. The states in question are sending a message to atheists, telling them that they are out of place, or have no standing, in the eyes of the U.S. government. 

Legal barriers such as these perpetuate a myth that was proudly and self-righteously declared in the 19th century: not only are atheists un-American, but their lack of belief in a higher power makes them “dangerous” to American culture.

The truth is, most American atheists simply want to live their lives in peace. Not only are they not dangerous, but they can make as positive contributions to their communities as those who choose to believe. For atheists and everyone else, I highly recommend reading Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic: Atheists in American Public Life

Moore and Kramnick’s work dives into the lives of history-makers such as Thomas Paine and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whose stories and whose skepticism of traditional religion is often excluded from textbooks. The authors tell of the fall of our country’s unofficial motto “E Pluribus Unum,” the rise of “In God We Trust” in its place, and the ongoing battle to switch it back to the former. And they credit the work currently being done by the atheist and agnostic communities to dispel the myth that atheists are un-American, once and for all.

The book is academically written but accessible and full of important knowledge for atheists and theists alike. Those who are interested in learning more about atheists in American public life, and how they have affected the course of church-state relations, will find Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic an enlightening read. 

Emily Midyette is a senior at Law­rence University in Appleton, Wisc., majoring in biology and minoring in religious studies. She spent the summer working as an intern in Americans United’s Communications Department.

Here are two other books members of Americans United might find of interest. (These reviews were written by Church & State editor Rob Boston.)

• Rob Schenck is an evangelical minister who was for many years active in Religious Right organizations. While never as well-known as figures such as Jerry Falwell, Tony Perkins or Pat Robertson, Schenck and his twin brother Paul carved out a niche for themselves as radical anti-abortion protestors. They also attacked LGBTQ rights and promoted posting the Ten Commandments in public buildings. (Full disclosure: I once debated Schenck on the Fox News Channel.)

It appears that Schenck has had a change of heart. His new book, Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope, and Love (Harper, 324 pp) is a kind of mea culpa. A few years ago, Schenck began reexamining his past actions and came to regret many of them.

Costly Grace is primarily a memoir. Schenck, who was raised as a largely secular Jew, details his conversion to evangelical Christianity as a teenager and his spiritual journey through various forms of Christianity over the years. Schenck is frank in discussing how he became ensnared in far-right politics, and readers who wonder how the Religious Right can justify turning the gospel message of Jesus into a political manifesto will find this part of the book especially interesting.

At the end of the book, Schenck says a few words about where he stands now. Greatly enamored of the views of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was murdered by the Nazis, Schenck now turns his back on politicized Christianity. He refers to his prior life as “my period of darkness, of succumbing to politics and power….”

 Writes Schenck, “[I] saw how expansive God’s grace is and how universal his invitation is to it. I no longer believe you’re excluded if you’re homosexual, or if you’ve had an abortion, or if you perform them. I no longer believe Muslims are dangerous marauders, or that Demo­crats and liberals are apostates. I no longer believe that Jesus is a Republican or that Ronald Reagan spoke for God and Jimmy Carter didn’t.”

Reading Costly Grace, one gets the impression that Schenck’s journey is still under way. One hopes he continues on the path of tolerance and acceptance.

• John Dayton, a professor of education, law and policy and editor of the Education Law & Policy Review at the University of Georgia, has penned an important new book on education-related law. School Law for Everyone: The Essential Guide (Wisdom Builders Press, 307 pp), is a useful tome that parents, teachers and even older students will find useful as they seek to navigate tricky questions of what public schools can and can’t do when it comes to religion.

Dayton’s book isn’t entirely about the role of religion in public schools; it covers the waterfront of education-related law. But readers will find that the sections on free speech and church-state relations are meaty and well explained. There’s a Q&A, a list of essential legal terms with definitions, a list of relevant legal cases and suggestions for further reading and classroom activities.

Anyone who seeks a better understanding of the rights of students when it comes to religious issues in public education will ben­­efit from reading School Law for Everyone.

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