OP-ED: Secular U.S. founding should lead us forward

Sean Vitka

The Constitution is secular.  Get over it.  You’ve got the Bible, Jesus, the Crusades – and whatever else you want to be proud of.  I don’t jump to claim things on behalf of atheism. I don’t jump to claim there is a God.  The people who assert that our Founding Fathers were driven to freedom because of their religion somehow forget that the Puritans had nothing to do with writing the Constitution.  And just because some people can derive their interpretations of freedom from religious contexts, it doesn’t dilute the fact that many, many more have historically derived their justification for oppression with religion.

“But there were people who wrote the Constitution who believed in God!”  Aside from the fact that this exclamation seems to come mostly from people who mistakenly believe that Jefferson, Franklin, Washington and company were religious (which is empirically untrue; they were deists at best), it’s also virtually irrelevant.  There is no mention of God in the Constitution.

In the Nov. 5 issue, Matt Haemmerle cited in his article, “Founding Fathers and their forgetful children,” the religious roots of the Constitution as a reason to trust that the Islamic dictatorships will also figure out this whole “democracy” thing.  Not only is that a bastardization of religion’s role in developing the Constitution, but it also misses the myriad of other reasons why America shouldn’t “trust” Islamic populations to forge the foundations of a democracy.  One reason that is often ignored is that no nations want a foreign country to shove anything down its throat.  It seems simple, and it parallels the biggest reason for the American Revolution – our rejection of foreign economics.  No, we don’t control every aspect of the Afghani and Iraqi governments, but considering the American-induced death toll in both countries, can you blame them for feeling that way?

This strikes a fascinating and terrifying trend in America: the increasingly polarized interpretation of religion’s role in the development of freedom.  Haemmerle’s argument disregards people like myself for being “forgetful” of religion’s positive influences in the development of things like civil rights and autonomy.  Has he ever heard of the Spanish Inquisition?  How about the very idea of hell?

Atheism isn’t marked by disbelief or rejection – but by unbelief and skepticism.  Accordingly, I’m not trying to say religion was irrelevant for the people who wrote the Constitution or never had any positive impacts, but neither am I willing to sit back and listen to Haemmerle perpetuate this frightening interpretation of the Constitution as some kind of religious doctrine.  Sure, religion can promote and discourage freedom, more often the latter, if only because of how powerful its institutions are.  This doesn’t mean their roots are entwined.

Worse, the opposing understanding leads to more extreme views, in all religions.  One month ago, Glenn Beck said the increase in atheism and “non-believers” has caused the current status of America. More than a loon, he represents more than half of America, who in 2003 admitted they trusted atheists less than any other group.  Nearly 50 percent said they would object to their children marrying an atheist – 46 percent saying that atheists could not share their vision of society.  Two years after a group of fringe zealots murdered 3,000 Americans at the precipice of a war that shared Haemmerle’s shameful failure to understand Islamic politics, and shortly before another war in Iraq began with startlingly religious influences (President Bush: “[God told me] ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.'”), Americans decided that atheists were the least trustworthy.

Before anyone starts whining about people not “trusting” the religious fundamentalists with American lives and money, there needs to be an audit of America’s own revisionist interpretation of the history of freedom in this country. If the majority cannot wrap its head around atheism and what it means, we probably shouldn’t be trying to dictate the political future of Islamic states.  The only thing that “must be overcome,” as Haemmerle says, is this trend toward our own developing religious extremism and intolerance.


Sean Vitka is a senior economics major from New York City. He can be reached at [email protected].