Mel Massey review: In Freedom We Trust

'My conclusion was that this exhaustive and high energy review of the continuing effort in the United States of America to conflate the state and Christianity is well worth reading, particularly for the secularist whether declared or ‘instinctive’. It sensitizes the reader to the importance of the language of the political religious discourse and the passions it raises and provides a wealth of reference material.'

In Freedom We Trust  

An Atheist Guide to Religious Liberty

By Edward M. Buckner and Michael E. Buckner

Prometheus Books 2012

ISBN 978-1-61614-644-3

           ISBN 978-1-61614645-0 (eBook), pp. 281

Reviewed by Mel Massey

Mel Massey  is a retired lawyer (International Corporate Law) living in Ottawa, Canada, with his artist wife, Joan. He engages in a medley of activities including writing short stories, volunteer work with charitable agencies, skiing and hiking. He is thinking of putting together a collection of short stories but wonders whether the fun stuff will get in the way.

Friday 26 April 2013

In Freedom We Trust, cover  
  • Paperback: 250 pages
  • Publisher: Prometheus Books (December 18, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1616146443
  • ISBN-13: 978-1616146443

I admit that it was with trepidation that I agreed to review this book. I considered it would likely be an opaque screed harpooning some aspect of life in the United States. Those folk already monopolize our news. They rule our airwaves, particularly at their election times.  

‘American’ topics can be singularly boring to non-Americans possibly excepting theologians and political scientists. They frequently involve navel gazing into specialist notions like the concept of American ‘exceptionalism’, the Monroe doctrine, the extraterritoriality effect of American laws and detailed exegesis of the Constitution of the United States, Bill of Rights etc. etc.

While these may be subjects for talking eggheads on late night shows from the ‘States, does one want to read more online about the preoccupations of the wealthiest, most militarily powerful and most heavily indebted country in the twenty-first Century? After all, Canada lies north of the ‘longest unguarded border in the world’?

Happily, I am able to report that I found In Freedom We Trust to be interesting and potentially relevant to Canadians and to the potential of church and religious issues forming part of governmental policy explicitly or implicitly. It is a lively read and the authors’ passion for their subject comes across loud and clear. Moreover, the book’s format is agreeable and clear, the chapters short and punchy, with a wealth of reference material. It is a good place to start if the topic is of interest.

The book has two focuses; (a) showing that the Constitution and overall legislative scheme of the United States does not support Christianity or any religion or religious belief including a notion of ‘God’, and (b) arguing that the American State/government should not prefer nor support however directly any religion or schema involving religious based belief.

The authors admit of only two exceptions to the famous Jeffersonian 1802 dictum (and interpretation of the Constitution) that there exists “. . . a wall of separation between Church and State…” That US President was of course referring to the First Amendment to the Constitution which says:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech…”.

These exceptions are the words “In God We Trust” stamped on US coins and the Pledge of Allegiance intones that the United States of America is “one nation under God”. The book discredits these references as being included under “McCarthy-inspired” and anti-communist laws in the 1950s designed to distinguish the USA from the godless communists.

However, any real critique of the book’s argument that the United States’ laws definitively establish a separation of church and state would plunge one into the intricacies of Constitutional exegesis, complicated by references to the Mayflower Compact (1620), the Declaration of Independence and other historic and convoluted documents. This I am not qualified to undertake.

However, overall,  In Freedom We Trust makes a convincing argument that the formal documentation establishing the United States definitively separated government from religion and that state continues today with a few minor inconsequential derogations.

By way of an aside (and if Canadians believe they are somehow immune from the Church/State controversy), the preamble to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the introductory sentence to the Constitution of Canada's Charter of Rights and Constitution Act, 1982 reads:

“Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law . . .”

While Section 2, partially cures the notion that Canada is a theocracy by stipulating that “Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: . . .(a) freedom of conscience and religion . . ."  Some would say the way is open in Canada for religious infiltration into governmental matters and responsibilities.

It is reported (Colin Campbell, MacLean’s Feb. 6, 2006) that Prime Minister Harper wrote in Faith Today (January 2006) that while separation of church and state is an American not a Canadian constitutional doctrine, "It does not mean that faith has no place in public life or the public square."

I started to appreciate just how fraught the debate over religious and secular matters is when I realized that In Freedom We Trust devotes an entire chapter ‘The Naked Public Square’ (p143), to the selfsame public square. This shorthand references the debate over whether separating the religious from the secular will banish religion from public life. In his brief note, the Prime Minister refers to an intense debate through the code words ‘public square’. Evidently, you are lost if you cannot decipher the nomenclature and/or do not recognize the issues in play.

In the same vein Doug Thomas writes in his Blog (April 2, 2013); “Some time ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper observed that separation of church and state is an American constitutional concept and does not apply to the Canadian constitution. He went on to say that separation of church and state in Canada has meant, traditionally, that the government will not interfere with religion. The sad thing is that he is right.”

What I gleaned is that secularist principles do not in any way prohibit the practice of any religion or discussion of religious principles, ideas and ideals. What is not acceptable is any official favoritism inclined towards any religious belief or institution. Even ‘toleration’ of religion is not good enough (p.117-121) because such official sanction implies that it can be removed — rendering a religious expression unacceptable “that would imply that some have the choice to allow others to disagree — and if it is a mere choice it can be taken away” (p.121).

On such a strict standard even the Canadian government’s recent creation of an Office for Religious Freedom would not cut the mustard. The CP report says, “A Ukrainian-Catholic has been picked to lead a new federal office with a mandate to promote religious tolerance globally, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Tuesday followed through on an election promise made almost two years ago.” (CP Feb. 19, 2013). Toleration troubling even if it is shorthand for government’s even-handed approach to religion. According to the book’s author’s governments must adopt a strict ‘hands off’ approach to religious matters.

This leads me to the other point of substance. In Freedom We Trust most strongly propounds and extols secularist doctrine and practice. Why precisely should the separation of church and state (whether doctrinally as in the USA or traditionally and from habit in Canada) be of concern? Does it amount to form over substance — only a matter of ‘style’. The answer is a resounding NO.

Once a government adopts a rationale for action that cannot be tested by reasonable criteria of efficiency, humanity, ethics and general morality it loses its claim to be fair and universally representative. Actions and legislation which are grounded in or adopt religious have irrational and unimpeachable validity — no one can argue with the Godhead. In such cases, right and wrong, fairness and justice become mere quanta of religiosity. Only the high priests of that religion (and of the approved sect) would be qualified to explain, criticize or suggest amendments to doctrine handed down from ‘on high’.

As Michael Behiels sums it up in iPolitics (Aug. 15, 2012) “In pluralistic and increasingly secular democratic states it is imperative to maintain a clear separation of church and state. If one religious group, majority or minority, uses powerful state institutions to impose its religious beliefs on the rest of society, then this becomes a recipe for a very disruptive and very damaging political civil war.”

The book says that all religions and even atheism/secularism requires a non-partisan and disinterested government for their survival. Once a religion or religious creed is favoured in legislation the existence of every other religion including atheism is potentially compromised. There is no debating belief and non-believers (in that religion) need not apply to be included in the debate.

However, do we need such an exhaustive examination of such a basic concept? Do we have to examine  with the same lens — education, blasphemy/heresy, morality, history, use/abuse of language, Sharia law, public holidays — virtually every topic that can fit into the book’s 200 pages?

One can test this point of view by inquiring whether North American civilization is based on the Ten Commandments. Is religion necessary for the creation and maintenance of morality? Is the Bible right in its prescriptions for our (or any) society?

This book tackles each of these (and related) questions. The authors correctly question which of the Ten Commandments should be ‘legalized’, those which are not already reflected in legislation.

One example; “Thou shalt not covet neighbor's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor's” . This commandment is clearly subverted by every commercial designed to arouse jealousy and envy.

  • ‘Living up to the Joneses’ may be an ugly faith, can envy be legally prohibited?
  • Another; the ‘Sabbath’ has gone by the board as a commercial opportunity.
  • Fidelity to a single God and the prohibition against ‘graven images’ of any sort are evidently irrelevant.
  • On the other hand, murder is (still) illegal and (formal) lying attracts sanctions.

There is also something puerile (but sometimes also deadly!) about the everyday sanctions which pertain in some theocracies. Would we want religiously sanctioned morality? Should members of Pussy Riot have received prison sentence in Russia for blasphemy? Is death by stoning an appropriate sanction for showing disrespect (intentional or accidental!) for a religious text or violating marriage vows?

Blasphemy and Heresy

The chapter Blasphemy and Heresy (p. 177 et seq.) makes for disquieting reading. It highlights the savage reprisals taken in some societies against those who are perceived to have uttered or committed religious blasphemy. The concentration of examples, involving Islamic persecutions in several countries as well as intolerance in Reformation Europe is cringe-worthy. It seems that there is no limit to the violence perpetrated by persons acting in the name of religion, from immolation to death by stoning.

These are deadly and instructive lessons on the end game of religious intolerance, one the hapless targets of Islam justified sanctions (such as Salman Rushdie) appreciate in full! Of course, the point is that giving the state (or any official body) the power to decide what constitutes blasphemy opens a Pandora's box of subjectivity. Exactly what constitutes blasphemy and how should it be punished? As such, the analysis falls in line with the rest of the text; conflation of religion and law will likely prove fatal to liberty.

As for governing society according the precepts of the Bible; In Freedom We Trust provides exhaustive examples of the absurdity of attempting to translate biblical precepts into working laws (‘Gods Laws’ ch.16).

The book provides many examples of how American politicians wrap themselves and their notions in the trappings of religion. It provides numerous examples;

  • Rick Santorum (p.47); “We are a people of western civilization founded upon the Bible”, as evidence that his positions founded on the bible were correct.
  • Newt Gingrich (p.50); “There is no attack on American culture and destructive and more historically dishonest that the secular Left’s relentless effort to drive God out of America’s public square.”
  • Sara Palin (p.51); “morality itself cannot be sustained without the support of religious beliefs”.
  • We could also note Clinton’s prayer breakfasts when he was attempting to duck out of the Lewinsky affair.

These examples sensitize the reader to some of the psychological and political games politicians play in attempting to cloak their ideas and themselves in religiosity, of rightness and righteousness. One might consider people would be ashamed to conflate politics and religion, but that’s now par for the course South of our border and could be with us in Canada absent continuing vigilance.

My conclusion was that this exhaustive and high energy review of the continuing effort in the United States of America to conflate the state and Christianity is well worth reading, particularly for the secularist whether declared or ‘instinctive’. It sensitizes the reader to the importance of the language of the political religious discourse and the passions it raises and provides a wealth of reference material.

The ubiquitous and dangerous live wire tendency to confuse religion and governance in the United States is relevant to Canadian discussion, particularly at this cycle of the liberal/conservative merry-go-round. The ruling Conservatives include an important and influential religious element (see Jeffrey Simpson's The Office of Religious Freedom, more Conservative slice and dice (Globe and Mail 23 February 2013, for a jaundiced commentary on the Harper government's latest attempt to do, or appear to do, some good in this fraught domain.