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While millions of other Americans have somehow managed to minimize the impact of the 2008 presidential election campaign on their collective consciousness, the candidates from both parties have had a transformative effect on me. They’ve made me a militant atheist.
It’s not a label that would have fit comfortably in the past. In fact, I’ve long been in the closet with all those other secular humanists who never cared enough about organized religion, one way or another, to complain about it in public — much less join an atheist group.
But now I stand accused, by a prominent neighbor in Belmont, Massachusetts, of wanting to establish "a new religion in America — the religion of secularism." In his major speech earlier this month on my least favorite presidential debate topic, Mitt Romney declares that I’m "wrong", despite my never having gotten into an argument with anyone, ever, about which religion is right or wrong or whether they all should be avoided.
In my previous job as a labor organizer, the whole subject was taboo, due its potential divisiveness in groups striving for workplace and class solidarity. Unless you’re guilt-tripping a Catholic institution into living up to the standards of past papal pronouncements about the dignity of labor or trying to get some local minister or rabbi to bestow their blessing on the fast disappearing practice of collective bargaining, what’s God got to do with having a union anyway? Being a socialist as well as a trade unionist seemed like baggage enough for me in America. Why call attention to the fact that you’re also part of that tiny fraction of the population that doesn’t believe in angels and auras, holy ghosts or trinities, great spirits, supreme beings, or deities of any kind?
Unlike some angry ex-Catholics in Massachusetts (and elsewhere), I never had a personal axe to grind, or civil suit to pursue, based on my own youthful (and thus involuntary) immersion in the Church. It’s true that I once got slapped by a priest, a monsignor, no less, and in the sacristy of all places. But that act of clerical hubris was, in his mind (if not mine), well-deserved punishment for a routine altar boy error. There was no fondling involved and, thus, no lasting damage to my psyche; the price I paid, as a child, for regular attendance at Sunday Mass, whether beside the altar or slouched in a pew, was boredom. After being subjected to a truly unedifying stream of sermons, offering scant relief from the incomprehensible Latin of the rest of the service, was finally able to escape religion (or so I thought) when I left home for college at age eighteen.
Now, four decades later, my subsequent, scrupulously maintained detachment from all matters spiritual is under siege. The other side, as the brave Moslem apostate Ayann Hirsi Ali points out, just won’t leave us alone, here or abroad. In the U.S., while still far from being a theocratic state, the "live and let live" tolerance of an earlier era has given way to in-your-face proselytizing-or, in Romney’s case, demonizing. On the presidential campaign trail, ritual professions of Judeo-Christian faith have become a pre-condition for admission to the first, second, or any tier of candidates, in either party. Among the Democrats, you must have a favorite Bible passage or parable ready to cite. In the GOP camp, you better believe every word of the book as well.
On candidate resumes, church attendance is no longer enough. Now, would-be occupants of the White House flaunt their roles as "Christian leaders",though ex-minister Mike Huckabee’s application of that label to himself, in Iowa TV ads, seems designed to call attention to doctrinal differences with Romney. This must be hard for our former governor to take. After all, he’s an ex-bishop in the Mormon "stake" that erected a huge mausoleum-like temple, with a controversial steeple, that towers over everything around it just a few blocks from my house (yet he implies that I’m plotting to impose my non-religious views on him?).
Meanwhile, religiosity plays a big role in Hillary Clinton’s latest makeover, just as United Church of Christ membership is Barack Obama’s first line of defense against rumors that he may be a follower of the Prophet Mohammed! (Obama also keeps his original pastor in Chicago at a safe distance, to avoid being linked to that black preacher’s social gospel militancy). As Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans for the Separation of Church and State, told The Boston Globe Dec. 19: "I’ve never seen such a religion-drenched primary on both the Democratic and Republican sides."
The only sane word-from anyone running–about why, as John F. Kennedy argued, separation of church and state should render all of this discourse irrelevant for the duration, has come from libertarian Ron Paul. On Dec. 18, he was asked by Fox News Channel what he thought of Huckabee’s latest TV buy in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. In this new ad, the former Arkansas governor wishes voters a "Merry Christmas" and declares that "what really matters" at this time of year–in addition to turning out for him next month–is "the celebration of the birth of Christ." Paul criticized Huckabee for "using a cross like he is the only Christian, or implying that subtly." Then, in a display of literacy unique among the candidates, the Texas Congressman cited Sinclair Lewis’ famous prediction that, "when fascism comes to this country, it will be wrapped in the flag, carrying a cross."
It’s all enough to make even a non-believer pray-for a moment of respite, a day of deliverance, or, better yet, a year of abstinence from any further public declarations by the candidates on the unfathomable mysteries of their faith.
STEVE EARLY is a longtime labor activist and free-lance journalist who lives, but not does not worship, in Arlington Heights, Mass. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com.