Because I wrote a book with “Atheist” in the subtitle and I go on political TV shows to hawk that book, well-groomed meat puppets frequently ask me why politicians like Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry are saying bugnutty Christian stuff.
I have an idea why these politicians have gone all religious, but I haven’t found a way to explain it in a sound bite, which is why I’m writing this. I think the whole problem comes down to the word “Christian” and what it has come to mean in my lifetime.
Christian used to be a throwaway word. People didn’t used to use it much. People didn’t start self-labeling or getting labeled Christian until the last part of the 20th century. Before that, you might identify as a Baptist, or a Southern Baptist or a Methodist. But there wasn’t one identifier that put you in a fold with all the other believers.
In fact, every religious cult was afraid of every other religious cult. The bugnutty Pentecostals didn’t want the bugnutty Methodists to have too much power. There was no “Christian nation” for the simple reason that the Christians were afraid of one another. America was founded on Christians not trusting each other, and they sometimes seemed more willing to reach out to the godless than to someone from another sect.
Robert Ingersoll, “The Great Agnostic” of the 19th century, was courted by many politicians. Candidates wanted Ingersoll, one of his era’s great speakers, on board to show they were open to free thought. After all, if they were open to Ingersoll, a nonbeliever, surely they’d tolerate the other Christian cults too.
I’m no Ingersoll, but I’m an atheist who, like him, speaks publicly about not believing, and I can assure you today’s politicians don’t court me.
When I was a kid, politicians wanted to avoid talking about religion if they could. John F. Kennedy couldn’t duck the issue, being Catholic and all. So how did he address it? By reminding Americans that religion shouldn’t be an issue, that he was concentrating on big things like poverty and hunger and leading the space race.
When he finally got around to talking about religion, here’s what he said: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” Can you imagine a presidential candidate talking that way today?
“Freethinkers,” a great book by Susan Jacoby, explained that the modern use of the word Christian was pushed to fight Roe vs. Wade. The anti-choice people wanted a big-tent word for the religious objection to abortion, and that meant they had to bring all the Protestants and Catholics together if they wanted to claim God for their team. The word Christian did that.
Since then, religion and politics have gotten ever more entwined. Jimmy Carter happily identified as born-again, and that phrase and the magic word Christian started to be used more and more. One American president who mentioned religion constantly and seemed to appear in a different church every time you blinked was Bill Clinton. Slick Willy really rammed home the idea of Christian. He was a church slut, not caring what church he appeared in as long as he was seen at a church.
And, now, we come to Bachmann and Perry.
I’ve used pornographic images, obscenity and poetry to try to make even the most doubtful blush, but I’ve never come close to Bachmann’s insult to the gentle, honest faithful when she said the suffering and casualties of natural disasters were her God’s message to wayward politicians. What she said was disgusting and not generally Christian at all. But her blasphemous message was delivered on the news as just that.
Bachmann was a longtime member of the Salem Lutheran Church, a small denomination that has some odd teachings. But even in the broadest definition of Lutherans, there are only about 13.5 million, and that’s not enough to elect you president. Now Bachmann has moved to Eagle Brook, an evangelical church, but even if she wins all the evangelical vote, that gives her only 26.3% of the American people. With those percentages, you need to shut up about religion. You need me on board to show that you won’t sell out all the others.
Perry is the same deal. Perry has moved away from his Methodist background (which claims about 8 million American members) and moved to the Lake Hills Baptist Church, which went on to drop the word Baptist to be more inclusive. When Perry did his big apolitical political rally in August, he was very careful to call it nondenominational. It was Christian. Now let’s watch Mitt Romney as he works on trying to convince Americans that his sect, with its magic underwear and its belief that the Garden of Eden was in North America, really is just another Christian offshoot.
Atheists are growing way fast, from under 2% to about 8% just in this century. If you throw in self-labeled agnostics and those who identify as not religious, you’re getting up to around 20%. Evangelicals are about 26%, Catholics about 23%, Jews, 1.7%, Mormons also 1.7% — if you start breaking Christians up into their smaller groups, nonbelievers come close to being the dominant religion, if you can call no religion a religion, like calling not collecting stamps a hobby.
Let’s just hope our politicians keep expanding the group of people they want to serve. Rather than embracing Christian as the magic word of politics, we can move on to the truly magical word: American. And maybe we can even go a step further and make the magic word “humanity.”
Penn Jillette, the louder, bigger half of the magic/comedy team of Penn & Teller, is the author, most recently, of “God, No!”