The Road to a Christian Iran
By Willem Sander van Boxtel
In the early hours of November 10th 2016, many of us atheists woke up to the dawn of at least another four years of religious rule in the world’s most major powerhouse. But for secular non-believers, Donald Trump is not the real danger. The real threat to the atheist democracy as intended by the American founding fathers, and as enshrined in the US Constitution, comes from the well-known evangelical heavyweight now known as Vice President-elect Mike Pence.
Admittedly, Trump could not have chosen a better running mate than Pence. Not only does Mike’s traditional conservatism appeal to more old-fashioned Republicans (if that phrase isn’t a tautology), but Pence is also a political insider in Washington, having served in the House of Representatives since 2000. While Trump attracted the shouty, white working class males in poorer areas of the US, Pence was the ‘obvious’ choice for megachurch-goers, born-again creationists, and evangelicals.
But Pence is a genuine danger to free society, despite his seeming devotion to the US Constitution, which by any stretch of the imagination is a thorough, solid foundation for a secular state, and I will explain why.
From Hopeful Origins to Religious Degradation
“...no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever…” - Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, 1787
The first amendment to the US Constitution states in remarkably clear words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, a secular principle if ever there was one. This was further supported by the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, drafted by 3rd President and key founding father Thomas Jefferson, who called for a wall of separation between Church and State. (Christopher Hitchens later turned this into a fabulous slogan: “Mr Jefferson, Build Up That Wall.”)
However, under the influence of anti-communist sentiment (communism was, and still is, falsely perceived as secular) and evangelicals like Dr (or, if you prefer, Rev) Martin Luther King, the States degraded into the religiously-dominated nation it is. I won’t pretend to know everything about how this happened. The peculiarity of the US as a religious state as opposed to most European nations, which are largely de-theising, seems a complicated situation that probably has many different sources.
But we are where we are. And where we are is a thoroughly worrying state. Any country where the “evangelical vote” is a major force in elections needs to do some deep self-reflection. The evangelical lobby is a potent power in the US political system, and Trump and Pence know this; and they were not the first presidential hopefuls to do so. Pewresearch.org compiled data from various sources to show how religiously affiliated (and, importantly, non-affiliated) voters have been almost unanimously divided over presidential candidates throughout recent years:
The picture is not a surprising one, and Mike Pence was very capable in drawing support from religious groupings. But what does an evangelical Vice President mean for the United States? Well, let’s look at Pence’s record and his conduct during the presidential race.
Pence’s Pitiful Politics
"I believe with all my heart that God created the heavens and the earth, the seas and all that’s in them. How he did that I'll ask him about some day." - Mike Pence, 2009
A quick google search for Mike Pence shows you what this man is all about, and makes the prospect of him being anywhere near power all the more daunting. Raised in a Catholic family, Pence turned hardcore evangelical during his university years and has based his politics around his strict religion. Though his efforts to sustain education for disadvantaged children are to be praised – we who value rational thought must also concede when the facts do not point our way – Pence has ruined his record on education by advancing “intelligent” design in schools, actively attempting to brainwash pupils with a fairy tale.
Pence’s blend of religion with politics has created a terrifying list of anti-secular and anti-rational policies in his state of Indiana, where he was previously Governor, and far beyond. I will name but a few:
- During a House of Representatives debate in 2002, Pence told the House: “… I also believe that someday scientists will come to see that only the theory of intelligent design provides even a remotely rational explanation for the known universe…” This was no Freudian Slip, as Pence went on to state that stem cell research, a vital part of biology that has already provided the basis for cures to some genetic diseases and traumas, and is still in its childhood, is“obsolete” (2009).
- Pence’s status as a religious adherent was further advanced during this broadcast ahead of the 2016 presidential election. “I’m a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order”, “All I know for sure today is that I need Him more than ever, and He’s really the centre of my life”, and “The strength of our nation has come from our communities of faith”, could have been spoken by someone like Jerry Falwell, Bill Donohue, or any other Christian extremist laughed at by any intelligent human being. But these words were spoken by the prospective Vice-President of the United States. Some food for thought about where the US is going. In the video, Pence also talks about repealing the Johnson Amendment, and actually says he does not want Churches to pay any tax! I need not explain to you, reader, what a preposterous and harmful idea this implies. Furthermore, Pence goes on to credit anything good that ever came out of America to religious faith, notably the civil rights movement, completely disregarding the unmissable work of admirable people like Philip Randolph and others, out-of-the-closet atheists who have been erased from American history books due to their non-religiousness. I think any atheist with a sense of decency could write an entire separate article about Pence’s completely false claims about religious opposition to slavery. (Where but from religion does “man must not create equal those whom God created unequal” come from, hmm?) I certainly could.
- Entire books could be written, meanwhile, on Pence’s bigotry as far as LGBT rights are concerned. Perhaps it is unfair of me, as a bisexual man, to moan about the general hatred monotheisms seem to have had – and still have – towards those of us who unknowingly went through the genetic and early developmental process of shaping our brains as gay, lesbian, or bisexual brains. But it is in the interest of all of us, straight, gay, transgender, or somewhere in between, to expose bigots like Pence for what they are. And what they are is not pretty. The prospective 48th Vice President has previous said: “Congress should oppose any effort to recognise homosexuals as a ‘discrete and insular minority’ entitled to the protection of anti-discrimination laws similar to those extended to women and ethnic minorities.” He advocated for “an audit to ensure that federal dollars were no longer being given to organisations that celebrate and encourage the types of behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus.” And he has recently continued to support conversion therapy for gay people, a waste of ‘federal dollars’ if ever there was one. Pence has further defended barring gay men from serving in the armed forces, saying it would “have an impact on unit cohesion.” What a promiseful prospect for a man who is supposed to be second-in-charge in Washington in a few months’ time….
- Pence’s refusal to acknowledge scientific fact is, of course, part of his religious faith – all three main monotheistic dogmas have a tendency to look away whenever rationality and science are presented – but he takes anti-science to a whole new level. In 2002, he argued that “condoms are a very, very poor protection against sexually transmitted diseases”, instead preferring abstinence. He joins the Catholic Church, arch-enemy of science #1, in making the lives of thousands all the more miserable by discouraging the use of proven anticonception methods.
The politics of Mike Pence
Atheists should be immensely worried about Mike Pence’s politics. Climate change denial and other anti-science views, which I have not even touched on, will be policy now, rather than just a shout from the sideline. I am not expressing party political views here, but when a high-profile Vice Presidential candidate maintains these ludicrous statements, insists on their validity, and then wins a general election, something is seriously wrong with voter sentiment and religious implications on politics.
“Human Decency Is Not Derived from Religion - It Precedes It.” - Christopher Hitchens
There is very little we can do now about the election results. Trump will be President, and Pence will be his second-in-command. But what we can do, and it’s what got me to write about this in the first place, is organise and oppose. We atheists need to provide stern voices of opposition to religious harm, and AtheismUK’s constitution mandates that we do. Make your voice heard, stand up to the anti-intellectual, pseudo-rational voices that were so prominent during the US election campaign, and will become the norm in Washington. Let us continue to fight for a secular state.
In a sense, the degradation of the United States into the religiously-dominated system it presently is, is a deeply sad affair. Though the US Constitution was not written by atheists, but rather by secularist, democratic deists and theists, the wording of the text itself leaves very little room for interpretation on religious matters. There shall be no state religion. There shall be no law in Congress promoting faith. And yet, what we have seen in this election, and in previous ones, was a clear manifestation of organised religion.
It is time to end this. Let’s hope an openly atheist presidential candidate will one day stand up and argue the case for a rational presidency. Someone who will say no, they don’t believe in any religious faith. Nor should this matter for a president. Indeed, as I have shown, religion is most often a counterproductive force. It drives incredibly powerful people to bigotry, hatred, anti-scientific beliefs, and a general disdain of rationality. It’s too dangerous to be let anywhere near public office.
Why does this all matter for the UK? Well, if not because of the “special relationship” between our two countries, then because the US is still a key ally in NATO, in coalitions against terrorism, and on economic grounds. We cannot allow religion to permeate international relations, but with Mike Pence as VP, there is no telling what will happen. I wish our atheist fellows all the best of luck in getting through the next few years, and I think all of us here will support them in their plight for a secular state; as we continue to do in the UK.