In a new book entitled In Freedom We Trust: An Atheist Guide to Religious Liberty, father-son team Edward and Michael Buckner make a compelling case for maintaining the fundamental secular nature of our country, and how that benefits people of faith and of no faith alike. The Buckners also explore the history of past political leaders being labeled “anti-religion” by opponents (before it happened to Obama, it happened to Jefferson!)
Edward M. Buckner is retired President of American Atheists and (before that) Executive Director of the Council for Secular Humanism, and Michael E. Buckner is Vice President of the Atlanta Freethought Society.
RUSH TRANSCRIPT: Edward Buckner and Michael Buckner[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: From Interfaith Alliance, this is State of Belief Radio. I’m your host, Rev. Welton Gaddy.
When it comes to the seemingly-endless debate over the fundamental nature of our nation, too often the conflict is reduced to two opposing and self-interested sides. I part with many progressives who paint all religious conservatives as bent on establishing a theocratic Christian nation, where all are forced to yield to their interpretation of the bible out of a raw thirst for power. No, I think many people of faith genuinely believe that our nation is in trouble, and that the answers lie in the place they themselves sincerely look for answers – in their faith. I am not, however, so naive as to not recognize there are self-serving political and religious leaders eager to abuse these sincerely-held beliefs for their own crass ends.
In the same way, I absolutely reject the simplistic interpretation of the call from some non-believers to maintain our secular traditions and Constitution as somehow demonstrating a “hatred for America” and a “hatred for God.” Enough of that. It’s noteworthy that there are many people of faith sincerely participating in this call – myself among them. Does America have enemies? Sure we have enemies. But are they the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, People for the American Way? Not even close. Totally different genre.
An outstanding examination of the importance of maintaining our secular traditions comes in the form of a new book, “In Freedom We Trust: An Atheist Guide to Religious Liberty.” The authors of this very fine volume are Edward and Michael Buckner, and it’s my pleasure now to welcome both Ed and Michael to State of Belief Radio. Welcome![DR. EDWARD BUCKNER, GUEST]: We’re delighted and honored to be on the show with you, and are big supporters of your institution. [WG]: Well, thank you… [EB]: We’re glad to hear words of praise for our book from anybody anytime, but it particularly helps when it comes from somebody that we already have a great deal of respect for. [WG]: Well, thanks so much. Now, I started to ask, as the first question, I know you’re a father-and-son team; I started to ask which is the wiser. But instead of doing that, let me just ask which is the father and which is the son? [EB]: Well, I’m Ed Buckner, I’m the older; and he’s the wiser, I’ll freely admit. [MICHAEL BUCKNER, GUEST]: This is Michael Buckner, and I don’t know about that… But we each have our strengths and weaknesses in this… [WG]: I’m not surprised at that. Well look, your book… [EB]: Maybe one of the first things I ought to do is just comment very briefly on the subtitle of the book, because it has been misunderstood by a few people. [WG]: OK, alright, go to it. [EB]: Its subtitle, as you already eloquently read is “An Atheist Guide to Religious Liberty.” It should be stressed that that’s because it’s coming from an Atheist, not because it’s for Atheists, or not exclusively for Atheists. We’re Atheists; we make no pretense to the contrary. But our book is not a pro-Atheist book, it’s a pro-secularism book. And that means that it’s something that’s in everyone’s best interest, whether they’re Fundamentalist Christians or Atheists, or “more reasonable people,” as they would style themselves, in between. [WG]: Well you’ve just opened the door to the first question that I wanted to ask anyway. Your book covers ground that we address regularly here on State of Belief, and it is indeed important ground. So I want to ask you right off to summarize, from your perspective, why maintaining a secular government and society is so important to Atheists and to people of faith alike? Now, whichever one wants can begin… [EB]: Well, let’s let Michael do that one since I already blabbed! [WG]: Alright… [MB]: OK, well, to begin with, maintaining a secular government is important to protecting everyone’s freedom of religion and religious liberty, liberty of conscience. I think it’s also important to note that fundamentally, having a secular government is the best way to maintain civil peace. In past times, establishment of religion and attempts to enforce uniformity were often justified in terms of maintaining national peace; but of course the record of history shows that it tends to have the opposite effect. Dad, you wanna say anything about that? [EB]: Well, I certainly agree with my son – I don’t agree with him on everything in life, but I agree with him in pretty much everything in this book, and secularism is… One way of putting it that religious decisions are too important to let the government make them. We don’t advocate having a government that is pro-Atheist, or that excludes religiosity. The Founding Fathers of this country – and yeah, they were all guys, there weren’t many women that were allowed to speak in public in those days – but the Founding Fathers didn’t establish an anti-Christian or an anti-theistic Constitution or form of government, and we don’t think they should have. They established, instead, a government that is neutral. Now, it can’t be perfectly neutral, because life is never quite that perfect; but that should be the ideal, that should be the goal: that we keep government out of making these crucial decisions, whether our conclusion is, as ours is, that there is no God and there is no religion and we’re on our own, or whether our conclusion is that of Theists and religionists of all sorts. [WG]: You know, both of you know that there will be people who argue about that, and you made the statement just a moment ago, Ed, and you say it very clearly in the book: secularism is not anti-Christian. I, as a Christian, I believe that secularism isn’t anti-Christian; but I’d like for you all to elaborate on that a bit, because so many people disagree with you. [EB]: Well, the alternative is to let the government decide what counts as a good Christian. I don’t know why any Christian would want to put any government in charge of making such distinctions – whether it’s good Christian, or good Muslim, or good whatever else it is. If you want to protect your liberty, you don’t want majorities or governments making decisions about these things, or having power over you. You don’t want toleration; you want genuine liberty. [WG]: Right. [MB]: Yeah, surely nobody wants the United States Congress to be getting involved in these most important affairs of their Church, especially not these days. [WG]: Yeah. Well, how do you – I want to get specific now – how do you see public policy being impacted by this mischaracterization of the United States as a Christian nation? What is the impact of that? [EB]: Michael, do you want to go first? [MB]: Yeah, fundamentally, I think, the impact is to use Christianity, really as a weapon for the imposition of various political values, many of which are pretty secular themselves and really have nothing to do with a religion. The New Testament, especially, is not all that big on wealth, but the Republican Party these days has something of a reputation as the defender of the rights of the 1%. So this claim that we’re a Christian nation can be used to, sort of, bash anybody who disagrees with whatever the agenda is as being un-Christian, and therefore, the second false claim, that this means that these people are immoral. [EB]: And I would add to that – Michael of course is correct, but I would add that – it has certainly been a tool used for oppression and deprivation of rights not only of Atheists – certainly, we’ve come in for our share of that, too – but also of minority religious points of view; minorities within Christianity, as well as minorities of other religions. [WG]: You know, I would say, in answer to the next question that I’m asking you, “Who loses when we start to define ourselves that way?” – I think Christianity loses when we define ourselves that way. [EB]: Well I think everybody does. [WG]: Yeah, I do too. Talk about that, because I think a lot of people don’t get that. [EB]: Well, it goes back to this notion of who do you think should have the power to define these terms and these ideas that are so important to you: your Atheism, your Christianity, your understanding of what the Prophet Mohammad has told you, etc. If you want to give that power to the government, or to the majority in the community, then you have to understand that you’re taking a huge risk. As long as you’re in the majority on that particular question or that particular religious view, then you’re reasonably safe. But it’s mighty fragile, because these opinions change over time. And there are things that often cannot be directly addressed by evidence, and therefore they’re much more subject to abuse by government. Government has huge power; religion has huge power, at least in emotional terms. And when you mix the two together, individuals – no matter what their religious beliefs are – are at great peril. [WG]: Yeah. [MB]: The one thing that needs to be emphasized is that if you slice the question finely enough, everybody winds up being a member of a minority, one way or the other. You know, the majority may agree with you about the existence of a God, or even believing in Jesus Christ; but then when you start getting it down to the denominational level and to some things that a lot of people think are really important, all of a sudden you’re going to find yourselves outvoted. I trust that most Christians would not change their views on their basic religious beliefs because they got outvoted by a majority vote. [WG]: Right. That’s a very good point. I’m speaking with Edward and Michael Muckner, co-authors of “In Freedom We Trust: An Atheist Guide to Religious Liberty.” Now, Mike and Ed, in the book, you write about how the attacks on Barack Obama’s faith are nothing new in this country; in fact, you point out that Thomas Jefferson was intensely criticized by some in his time for refusing to allow more religion into the founding documents. Talk about that, please. [EB]: Well, it was more than just that he was attacked on that ground; he certainly was – he was accused of being an Atheist, incorrectly, but he was accused of that for political reasons. He also had to come to terms with fairly violent attacks on the US based on religion. I mean, it was actually before he was president, but during his era, that the first attacks against the US that were done at least in part in the name of Islam occurred off the Barbary coast. Our seamen – and this had certainly been happening for a long time before that – our seamen, our ships were attacked, and our sailors were imprisoned and turned into slaves. Now, the people that were doing this probably had profit motives more than they did “prophet” with a “ph” motives, but at least in some cases they did use Muslim, Islamic ideas as an alleged basis for this. A treaty that was agreed to before Jefferson’s presidency but during his era, a treaty with Tripoli, made it very plain: it passed unanimously in the US Senate, it was agreed to in the Washington administration and was ratified after Adams became president, and it said, “The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” It said that to reassure the Bayan people of Tripoli that we weren’t going to go to religious war with them. The treaty wasn’t very effective, and in fact we, once Jefferson did become president, we had a substantial war, and settled it by military means, not necessarily the best thing to do, but it worked in that case. So this history of religious conflict, and misuse of religious ideas for political and economic purposes goes way back – it certainly goes back before the founding of this country, but throughout American history. [WG]: Michael, I want to turn to you with this observation: in light of what your dad just said, it is ironic that some conservative historical revisionists like David Barton insist that Jefferson was one of the prima advocates for a Christian nation! But really, no amount of talking about the founders’ original intent seems to resonate with most everyday Americans. So when you talk to people, how do you convey the importance of these issues to life in 2013? [MB]: Well, of course it’s absolutely bizarre to claim that Jefferson was an advocate of a Christian nation. He was the one who coined the whole phrase of a separation of Church and State, though he was certainly not the only Founding Father and leader of that era to talk about the importance of separating religion and government, which is how Madison put it. It’s also bizarre because Thomas Jefferson himself, while he was not an Atheist, had views that were distinctly different from what most people think of as Christianity: he would flat-out state that, you know, while he revered Jesus as a great moral teacher, he did not believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, that Jesus was the Son of God or that Jesus died for our sins. Well, these ideas are even more important than they were then, because for one thing our country is even more diverse now than it was in Jefferson’s day. I mean, in Jefferson’s day you had Catholics and Protestants and a few Jews, and to that we add even more varieties of Christians – we have, you know, Orthodox Christians from Eastern Europe now, we have Mormons, we have homegrown groups like the Mormons and Jehova’s Witnesses, and we have people from all over the world. We have Muslims, we have Hindus, we have Buddhists, we have an increasing number of people who don’t profess any particular religion at all including open Atheists. And we all have to get along, and we all want our rights to be protected. And therefore it’s all the more important to maintain that wall of separation between religion and government. [WG]: Well, that’s well said, and it gets right to the heart of my concern, and I think it would be the concern of anybody that reads your good book, and understands it, and wants to do something about it, because right now, it seems like everybody feels like they’re not getting a fair deal in relation to religious freedom. I mean, ironically and, astonishingly to me, there are many Christians who feel like they’re under attack in this nation, which just blows my mind. But how do we move beyond everybody feeling like they’re being denied what is rightfully theirs by the Constitution, so that we can come together an protect each others’ rights. How do we get there? [EB]: Well, there seems to be – we fought over it for over 200 years, so I don’t suppose there’s any easy path to get there, but I would say, don’t read David Limbaugh’s book and take it very seriously on Christian persecution, and just understand how bizarre it sounds to say, “This is a Christian nation; the great vast majority of us are Christians, and by the way, we’re persecuted by everybody else!” That, on its face, is silly. But the things we’re arguing about are not silly, and in fact, there has to be some understanding that you have to allow somebody to disagree with you before anybody’s liberty is protected. That’s not just related to religion, but related to other matters as well. If you insist that the only way you can be happy is if everybody agrees with you on every thing – you’re not gonna be happy! It’s just not gonna happen. So we have to find ways to peacefully disagree with each other, to have elections to decide things but not to have wars to decide things, and to keep religion out of the government sphere altogether. [WG]: Well, the truth is, we’re not doing any better with our views about government than we are with our views about religion. We’re just carefully and methodically tearing democracy apart by a kind of rabid partisanship that’s about “me” but not about “you.” Let me ask you a question – we’ve got to go, but I just am curious to know: in dealing with these issues, so important issues, in such a fine way as you’ve done – I’d like each of you to tell me, are you optimistic or are you pessimistic about the direction we’re going related to this issue? [EB]: Well, as the old guy, I’ll go first, and then we’ll let youth take over. I am guardedly optimistic. I certainly don’t think it’s automatic, or that progress is guaranteed. I honestly think America is an exceptional nation not because of its connections to any particular version or variety of God, but because of its invention of secularism – it’s not quite true to say that we invented it whole cloth, but the American government is really the first important government in the history of the world that is not based on a religious idea. And that’s very important to religious people, and there are – I mean, I think the Interfaith Alliance has something to do with this, there are lots of institutions and organizations that are working hard to educate people. I’m of course eager to have people read our book – you don’t even have to buy it, you can actually go to the library, there are lots of libraries now that have the book – but I”m guardedly optimistic, and boy, I hope my son is gonna say the same thing, more or less! [MB]: Yeah, I’m definitely, fundamentally I am optimistic. I think our, as I said, Americans are becoming more diverse in how they think about God, not less; and I think that people will realize that the only way to religious liberty, therefore, is to respect the beliefs of others. To be optimistic is not to be complacent, of course; we all have to work for these things, but yeah, I think in the long run, I just don’t think it’s gonna be demographically possible for any religious view to maintain some kind of stranglehold on political and social power in this country. [WG]: The title of the book is “In Freedom We Trust: An Atheist Guide to Religious Liberty.’ It’s just out from Prometheus Books; it’s a thoughtful, carefully-written and important examination of an issue that’s in the headlines a lot these days, but that’s not getting anywhere near the kind of rational analysis that’s provided in the pages of this new volume. The authors are the father-son team of Edward M. Buckner, retired president of American Atheists and, before that, Executive Director of the Council for Secular Humanism, and Michael E. Buckner, vice-president of the Atlanta Freethought Society.
Gentlemen, I greatly appreciate both of you taking time to be with us today on State of Belief Radio.[EB]: Well, we’re delighted and honored to be with you and your many, many listeners, and thank you very much for allowing us an opportunity to talk. [MB]: Thanks for having us.
State of Belief is based on the proposition that religion has a positive and healing role to play in the life of the nation. The show explains and explores that role by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America – the most religiously diverse country in the world – while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.
Each week, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy offers listeners critical analysis of the news of religion and politics, and seeks to provide listeners with an understanding and appreciation of religious liberty. Rev. Gaddy tackles politics with the firm belief that the best way to secure freedom for religion in America is to secure freedom from religion. State of Belief illustrates how the Religious Right is wrong – wrong for America and bad for religion.
Through interviews with celebrities and newsmakers and field reports from around the country, State of Belief explores the intersection of religion with politics, culture, media, and activism, and promotes diverse religious voices in a religiously pluralistic world.
Author of more than 20 books, including First Freedom First: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy leads the national non-partisan grassroots and educational organization Interfaith Alliance and serves as Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana.
In addition to being a prolific writer, Dr. Gaddy hosts the weekly State of Belief radio program, where he explores the role of religion in the life of the nation by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America, while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.
Dr. Gaddy provides regular commentary to the national media on issues relating to religion and politics. He has appeared on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show and Hardball, NBC’s Nightly News and Dateline, PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly and The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, ABC’s World News, and CNN’s American Morning. Former host of Morally Speaking on NBC affiliate KTVE in Monroe, Louisiana, Dr. Gaddy is a regular contributor to mainstream and religious news outlets.
While ministering to churches with a message of inclusion, Dr. Gaddy emerged as a leader among progressive and moderate Baptists. Among his many leadership roles, he is a past president of the Alliance of Baptists and has been a 20-year member of the Commission of Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance. His past leadership roles include serving as a member of the General Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Chair of the Pastoral Leadership Commission of the Baptist World Alliance and member of the World Economic Forum’s Council of 100. Rev. Gaddy currently serves on the White House task force on the reform of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), Dr. Gaddy served in many SBC leadership roles including as a member of the convention’s Executive Committee from 1980-84 and Director of Christian Citizenship Development of the Christian Life Commission from 1973-77.
Dr. Gaddy received his undergraduate degree from Union University in Jackson, Tennessee and his doctoral degree and divinity training from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.