News and Notes

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By George Kane

Head shot of George, smiling in jacket and tie.

I have for many years held that it is more important to listen to media commentators who are direct ideological opponents than those with whom I am likely to agree. To that end I try to arrange my weekday schedule so that I am in my car driving off to a restaurant for lunch during the half hour following 11:00. That way I can listen on KKMS 980 to Jay Sekulow Live, a production of Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice. It is the best opportunity that I’ve found to stay up-to-the minute on events related to the separation of church and state. I’m sure that it is not good for my blood pressure, as the purpose of the program is for Jay Sekulow and his son Jordan to roil the passions of their conservative Christian audience against strict separationists. It doesn’t matter if I only catch 5 minutes of the program, as that is all that it takes to understand the events covered that day. The program is little more than two minutes of news followed by a succession of callers venting about it.

Last week their great outrage was the decision to build, two blocks from Ground Zero, a 15-story Muslim cultural center that would include a theater, a gym, a swimming pool and a prayer room that the Sekulows call a ‘mosque.’ Now, I have written several times before that Islam is the greatest threat around the world to secular government; but I think that this issue points up how widely divergent the positions on Islam are between atheists and conservative Christians.

Atheist organizations in the United States, including Minnesota Atheists, are convinced supporters of both religion clauses of the First Amendment, the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. Around the world, Islam poses an enormous threat to secular government, particularly in the demands by Muslims for nations to adopt Shariah law, and in the resolutions in the United Nations to criminalize blasphemy. But in the United States, Establishment Clause violations by governmental bodies endorsing Islam are extremely rare. Unlike the American Center for Law and Justice and other conservative Christian groups, we recognize the right of Muslims to practice their religion. Muslims do not lose that right because militant Jihadis claim their religion as justification for violence against the US. As atheists, we recognize that if government is allowed to suppress religious exercise, it will also be allowed to impose religious orthodoxy on non-theists.

The ACLJ seeks to use the instruments of government, not to deter or identify people committed to terrorist violence, but to limit the religious practice of Islam. They want New York City government and the Landmarks Commission to stop the construction of the Muslim cultural center two blocks from Ground Zero because any evidence of Islam on “sacred ground” would be “offensive.” They were likewise outraged when a Muslim group offered to buy a convent on Staten Island that the Roman Catholic diocese had put up for sale, even though no action by government was involved, because it would show “churches retreating and Islam coming in.” Since atheists are secularists, we must always be mindful of Thomas Jefferson’s admonition, “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg”

The ACLJ is likewise outraged by President Obama’s choice of Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court seat vacated by John Paul Stevens. In their eyes, it is bad enough that, while the Dean of Harvard Law School, she tried to exclude military recruiters from campus to enforce a school rule barring recruiting by organizations that discriminate against homosexuals. But they are infuriated that she accepted a $20M grant to establish a Center for Islamic Studies. At this center, I presume that the course of study would include Shariah, under which homosexual conduct is an offense, but this is education and not recruiting. Should Harvard refuse to train lawyers to practice in nations where, in full or part, Shariah is in force?

The Secular Coalition for America, ironically, has also announced its opposition to the appointment of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. They point to instances in which Kagan has articulated positions that indicate a weak commitment to the separation of church and state.

By now most of you have heard that the 6-story tall “Touchdown Jesus” statue at the Solid Rock Church in Monroe, Ohio burned to the ground after being hit by lightning. The statue, officially named the “King of Kings,” stood across the street from a Hustler porn shop, which was unscathed by the storm. Evangelicals are so quick to draw a connection between a distant disaster and God’s wrath over pornography in America, how can they dismiss the obvious symbolism of this lightning strike?

The Mormon Church was found guilty by California’s Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) of 13 violations of state campaign finance reporting law in the Yes on Prop 8 campaign that amended the state constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage. A spokesman for the Mormon Church, Don Eaton, said in an interview prior to the election, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints put zero money in this.” Yet an independent investigation revealed that the Mormon Church distributed contributions amounting to more than half of the $45 million dollar Yes on Prop 8 campaign. It contributed non-monetarily to the campaign as well by sending Mormon campaign volunteers as part of the Church’s “mission” program, and provided free use of church properties throughout the California. Yet the FPPC found only that Mormon leaders “failed to timely report making late non-monetary contributions” of $36,928, and fined the LDS organization only $5,539 dollars.

I attended Eric Harmon’s presentation on “Bondage and the Bible”, an outreach by Minnesota Atheists to the black community that we publicized at the Juneteenth celebration. It was attended by a few fundamentalist Christians who argued for biblical inerrancy, although not very well. Harmon handled them very well, although the wealth of biblical citations from which he drew did little to stem the venom and ad hominem attacks from the fundamentalists. Whenever such confrontations arise, I wonder whether there is any point in engaging the argument. I am sure that nothing could be said that could shake the fundamentalist’s conviction. In the audience, however, there may be some whose affiliation to the fundamentalist may be shaken by exploring his thoughts.

That night’s fundamentalist leader justified the biblical passages that approved of slavery cited by Harmon by asserting that they referred to the Jews, whom God was punishing for disobedience. But he accepted that the admonition for slaves to obey their masters referred to other slaves in later times, and that they, too, were receiving punishment from God. Under prodding by Harmon, he stated that Martin Luther King should not have led protests for civil rights, but should have accepted God’s will. Harmon said afterward that he saw the other blacks in the audience glare in astonishment at the fundamentalist at that point.

But in a public meeting, in an attempted outreach, one cannot say what most needs to be said. I wanted to tell the fundamentalist that his moral views are deplorable.

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