While millions of Americans have managed to minimize the impact of this year's 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, of wanting to establish "a new religion in America - the religion of secularism." In a recent speech, Mitt Romney declared that I'm "wrong" - despite my never having gotten into an argument with anyone about which religion is right or wrong or whether they all should be avoided.
In my previous job as a labor organizer, the subject was taboo, due to 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. 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?
Now, my 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 United States, 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 precondition for admission to the first, second, or any tier of candidates. Among the Democrats, you must have a favorite Bible passage or parable ready to cite. In the GOP camp, you better believe every word in the book as well.
On candidate resumes, church attendance is no longer enough. Now, would-be occupants of the White House flaunt their past roles as "Christian leaders" - although 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 nonreligious 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! And so it goes, with nary a 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.
It's enough to make even a nonbeliever 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 freelance journalist.
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