Our Day of Reason celebration in the Rotunda of the state Capitol has made the first Thursday in May a landmark on our annual calendar. While on the steps outside the National Day of Prayer rally proclaimed the nation to be the exclusive property of fundamentalist evangelical Christianity, we stood in opposition to that message, speaking for government that favors no religion over any other, for government that is strictly secular.
During a recent press conference in Turkey, President Obama said that "we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values." The religious right political movement exists to oppose this vision of America, and will never abate its efforts to have government declare a privileged position for Christianity. So it comes as no surprise that in May two bills were introduced in Congress for this express purpose.
H. Res. 397 is a resubmission of last year's bill that I wrote about in the February 2008 newsletter, to create ‘America's Spiritual Heritage Week.' Last year H. Con. Res. 888 died in the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, as the committee spent most of the year taking testimony from baseball players who had been accused of taking steroids. This year it may receive more attention and favor from lawmakers, although the bill contains many outright misrepresentations of history.
H. Con. Res. 121 calls for President Obama to declare 2010 as "The National Year of the Bible." Both bills have been referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform,
The question is, what should we advocates for secular government do about these bills? Last year my Representative, Betty McCollum, was on the committee. I wrote to her in opposition to H. Con. Res. 888, and in the February 2008 edition of this newsletter urged others to do so. I asked Rep. McCollum to keep this bill in committee, but I received only a noncommittal reply months later, stating that if the bill came to a vote on the floor she would keep my comments in mind. Clearly my carefully drafted letter had only been summarily skimmed by the staffer who responded, and never reached Representative McCollum's attention.
This year there are no Minnesotans on the committee. The Secular Coalition for America provides an editable form email that it will send on request to your representative to oppose the ‘America's Spiritual Heritage Week' bill (http://action.secular.org/t/5367/campaign.jsp?campaign_KEY=27204), but at this writing has posted no mention of the ‘The National Year of the Bible' bill. If a campaign to personally lobby members of Congress is to be effective, it must not only be large, it must be consistent and sustained.
The secular movement is unquestionably gaining strength and momentum. The Freedom from Religion Foundation has surpassed 13,000 members, the Secular Coalition for America has been formed to lobby Congress, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, American Atheists, and the Atheist Alliance International have all been expanding their activities. A glance at Atheist Weekly E-mail, which is distributed every Friday, shows that our own activities have grown explosively, and that atheists are now a firmly established community.
But we cannot match the numbers of the Christian opponents of the wall of separation, so we cannot rest secure in the loyalty of any legislator. Campaigns to inundate them with phone calls, letters and emails seem futile, because staffers insulate them from constituent correspondence, and because organizing atheists is as likely as herding cats. But our greatest obstacle to influencing such legislation as H. Con. Res. 121 and H. Res. 397 is that the Democratic Party considers us a completely secure constituency.
In December of 2007, the House passed by 372 to 9 a resolution acknowledging "the religious and historical importance of... the Christian faith; and the role of Christians and Christianity in the founding of the United States and in the formation of the western civilization." Symbolic victories like this are enormously important to conservative Christians, and there are few Congressmen who are not eager to at least pay them lip service. But if we are ever to become an effective political force, even symbolic bills must be important to us, too. Atheists are often smug in the superiority of their ideas, as if the battle of public and political opinion were certain to fall in line with the conclusions of science and reason. It is more likely that this culture war will only be won when we want victory as much as the opponents of secularism.