Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
One Final Surprise at the American Atheists convention | Righting America

by William Trollinger

The Christian Right works overtime to sell the story that America is in the midst of a life-or-death culture war, with Christians on one side and atheists and humanists and secularists on the other.

According to this Christian Right binary, the American Atheists would obviously be the headquarters for the enemy forces in the culture war. But the recent convention in Charleston bore little resemblance to this cartoonish narrative. Instead, many of the presentations we heard on August 19 were all about blurring the boundaries, all about atheists reaching out to non-atheists in order to work for a common good.

Perhaps the best example of this was the presentation given by the organization’s National Program Director, Nick Fish. Fish spoke about the Christian Right’s effort to eliminate the Johnson Amendment, a provision signed into law in 1954 establishing that tax-exempt organizations (including churches) can not endorse or oppose political candidates. With the encouragement of conservative Republicans, President Trump used National Prayer Day to sign an executive order designed to weaken enforcement of this regulation, and efforts continue apace to eliminate the Johnson Amendment altogether.

In his comments Fish pointed out that 72% of Americans – and 90% of evangelical pastors – oppose the effort to eliminate or weaken the Johnson Amendment. According to Fish, this is clear evidence that concern about breaking down barriers to the separation of church and state is not simply “an angry atheist issue.” Instead, a large majority of Americans agree on this issue, and atheists and the church community must work together to ensure that all people – those who are religious and those who are not – have the right to believe whatever they want, without governmental interference.

In his opening remarks at the convention David Silverman, American Atheists president, asserted that he has “much more in common with the believer who strives for social justice than the atheist who is a bigot.” Right. When it comes to American society, perhaps the salient division is not the Christian v. atheist/secularist/humanist binary as defined by the Christian Right. Perhaps the salient division is between those who support a common good for all Americans (which includes the separation of church and state), and those who don’t.