Atheists Need Religion Too

David Stokes

5/18/2008 12:01:00 AM - David Stokes

Mitt Romney spoke about the relationship between religion and politics again last week, continuing and clarifying the argument he made in December while still a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. The occasion for his recent remarks was his receipt of the prestigious Canterbury Medal awarded by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.  The award is given to recognize “Courage in the Defense of Religious Liberty.”

The Becket Fund, a Washington, D.C. based non-profit organization is named after Thomas Becket (1118-1170 A.D.).  This great man served as Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry II and resisted the king for meddling in church affairs.  The organization bearing his name is “dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions."

For being a man of his convictions, Becket was brutally murdered by Henry’s knights.

The Romney speech echoed some of the points he had previously made, but paid special attention to a people-group inadvertently left out in December - NON-believers.  Noting that he had received some criticism about this, Mitt told the audience listening to him at the Metropolitan Club in New York City that he “had missed an opportunity…an opportunity to clearly assert that non-believers have just as great a stake as believers in defending religious liberty.”  He further argued that: “Religious liberty and liberality of thought flow from the common conviction that it is freedom, not coercion, that exalts the individual just as it raises up the nation.”

It’s not likely that Mr. Romney’s eloquent words will assuage the darker passions of some nouveau atheists (better: anti-theists).  Men like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins very much see religion (of whatever sort) as a scourge on society – the very root of all modern evil.   

Their kind of thinking was reflected in a story out of the United Kingdom a couple of years ago.   BBC History Magazine conducted a poll in its January 2006 issue asking the question: “Who was the worst Briton in the past thousand years?”

Mr. Becket – a man who has been venerated by both the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches – came in SECOND.  The 5,000 people who participated in the poll ranked only JACK THE RIPPER higher.  I guess a killer is just slightly worse than a cleric.

Apparently, the desperate question uttered by King Henry II way back in 1170 A.D. (pardon that religio-centric date citation) – “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” – would have plenty of respondents in century number twenty-one. 

Freedom of religion is a very good thing.  Freedom FROM religion, though promoted by some as the wave of the future, is not.

A simple look back at the eighteenth century gives us a case study.  It was the “age of revolution.”  Here in America, very much in the spirit of Becket, we rejected tyranny.  Over in France they tried to do the same thing. 

It worked out very well here.  Not so much for France.  For all the cries of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” – they instead wound up with a period of violent chaos only somewhat resolved when that despotic secularist Napoleon took over.  Hello short man, good-bye freedom.

What made the difference?  Well, an often overlooked factor is that it was RELIGION that may have made the difference – particularly something that happened here in the years immediately leading up to 1776 and beyond.  It was called THE GREAT AWAKENING.  Inspired by men such as George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, there was a period of deep religious reflection in the land – one that ultimately served to temper human passions – even those inflamed by injustice and revolutionary fervor. 

Anti-theists notwithstanding, we need religion as part of the glue that holds civilized society together.  When we get to the place where values get turned so upside down that men like Mr. Becket are thought to be as evil as mass murderers, it’s time to pull down the curtains and turn the light off.  Life as we have known it is just about over.  It’s getting close to that in Western Europe – we are lagging somewhat behind, but we shouldn’t be in that race at all.

Sure – when religion and the state are “one” tyranny can happen.  No thinking non-Muslim religionist wants that kind of thing for America.  But the other extreme, one that so marginalizes religion as to dismiss it from social discourse, is just as bad.  Yes, there are some predominately secular nations in Europe functioning as democracies.  But they tend to have that socialist quirk that makes the state itself a religion. Let’s see how it looks over there in twenty-five years.

Religion has always been important in America and that should not change. To the extent that it’s a part of a would-be president’s lifestyle, it should be on the table as people make electoral choices.  When Mr. Romney made his first speech on the general subject several months ago, the issue at hand was his Mormon faith.  The subject, not to mention the speech itself, reminded many of when John F. Kennedy appeared before The Greater Houston Ministerial Association less than two months before he narrowly defeated Richard M. Nixon for the presidency in 1960. 

He effectively neutralized the idea that his religion (Catholicism) should somehow disqualify him for the nation’s highest office.  The subject had been an undercurrent in the campaign.

Even before he announced his candidacy in 1960, Kennedy was talking about the issue telling one national magazine in 1959: “Whatever one’s religion in private life may be, for the officeholder nothing takes precedence over his oath to uphold the Constitution and all its parts – including the First Amendment.”  That was the essence of his argument before the Texas ministers.

Eugene McCarthy was a Senator from Minnesota at the time, though he is best known to most of us for what happened in the 1968 campaign.  He was a devout Catholic who actually took issue with Kennedy’s handling of issues of faith.  Writing in America, a Catholic weekly, at the time he said:

“Although in a formal sense church and state can and should be kept separate, it is absurd to hold that religion and politics can be kept wholly apart when they meet in the consciousness of one man. If a man is religious – and if he is in politics - one fact will relate to the other if he is indeed a whole man.”

McCarthy, in my opinion, hit the nail right on the head.  Yes, the mixing of politics and religion will always be tense.  It might even threaten at times to become toxic. But a nation without religious influence will…well…let me let John Adams, our 2nd President (quoted by Mitt Romney in his speech last week) say it for me: “Without religion, this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean Hell.”

Indeed.