Monday, November 11, 2013

The Historical Construction of the Atheist as the ‘Other’ in the United States

To better understand how an “atheistic American” came to be understood as a “contradiction in terms” and what this negative perception of unbelief reveals of the importance of religion for civic belonging and collective identity in the United States, it is first necessary to study the theological, cultural and political patterns that have contributed, from the colonial times until the 21st century, to the constant “othering” of atheists from a certain American collective imagination: how and why not to believe in God came to be regarded throughout the centuries, not only as a moral and social stigma, but also as an essentially “un-American” behavior. Throughout this historical analysis, religion will clearly surfaceas a significant “moral boundary” - as a “principle of (private and public) classification and identification” within American society – closely tied to the dominant ideals of morality and citizenship in the United States.

Village atheist

In American colonial society, as in John Locke’s England or in Voltaire’s France during the same period, non-believers – even though they were almost inexistent – were commonly loathed and feared. The figure of the “village atheist” pertained to the collective imagination, as that of an immoral and dangerous individual abandoned by God, unable to distinguish between good and evil, and condemned to be an eternal outcast, “detested”, abhorred and despised by everybody, as pest and plague to society.” In a traditional rhetorical script that became known as the “Jeremiad”, religious and political leaders often instrumentalized this popular fear of irreligion to guarantee the social order and the unity of the community. Prophesying the decay of religious beliefs and the imminent spread of atheism almost became a kind of “cultural ritual” among New England pilgrims, designed to guarantee religious, social and political obedience. John Winthrop, the Governor of the Massachusetts bay colony, often agitated the specter of atheism in his sermons, warning immigrants that a “laissez-aller” in their religious commitment could lead to the breach of the Covenant they had passed with God, and thus to the fall of the “city upon a hill” they had dreamt of building in their new land. A century after Winthrop, during the first “Great Awakening” of the 1730s, the preacher Jonathan Edwards similarly warned people of
the risks of religious indifference and enjoined them to turn to God in order to avoid a moral decay of the community.

Irreligion in Winthrop’s and Edward’s discourses was not only rejected as a religious fault, as an individual sin, but also and above all as a social and political offense that could have threatened the moral purity and the stability of the whole community. Atheism was therefore stigmatized as what Jeffrey Alexander calls a “civic vice”, i.e. an “impure”, “illegitimate”, and ”unworthy” social behavior that could have represented a potential “pollution” of the community – bringing immorality, licentiousness and anarchy - and thus that had to be legitimately “kept at bay”, on the margins of society. As Alexander further argues, it is precisely “in terms of symbolic purity and impurity” that within a community, “marginal demographic status is made more meaningful”, and “centrality is defined.” Thus, in American colonial society, religion was already emphasized as a crucial individual, social and political value, as a “symbolic boundary” – one among many others – safeguarding the community from the danger of moral deviance and distinguishing between those who had the legitimacy to belong and those who did not. It was, for instance, for the very purpose of avoiding a “pollution” of the community by potential irreligious individuals, that most colonies decided to limit their rights and their participation in the life of the polity. Atheists were traditionally prohibited from serving as witnesses in a trial or from being members of a jury. A vast majority of the colonies also required candidates for public office to take a religious oath, thus excluding religious minorities (Quakers, Baptists, Presbyterians, Jews, etc.), when there was an established church, as well as non-believers in any case. In this regard, it is interesting to note that John Locke himself contributed to the political implementation of his philosophical rejection of atheism in the American colonies, when he took part in 1669 in the drafting of the “Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina”, of which Article 95 stated that overt irreligion was “illegal” on the whole territory of the colony: “No man shall be permitted to be a freeman of Carolina, or to have any estate or habitation within it, that doth not acknowledge a Lord and that God is publicly and solemnly to be worshipped.”. Belief in God became therefore in this particular case a requirement of the law itself, necessary, even if not sufficient, to be considered a “pure”, “virtuous” and legitimate member of the community.

After the War of Independence

After the War of Independence, some of the new American states similarly continued to impose restrictions on religious minorities and, of course, on non-believers, notably by requiring individuals to take a religious oath to testify in courts or to hold a public office. Even in cases where the official church had been disestablished and religious liberty inscribed in the law, political authorities, convinced of the social utility of having religiously committed citizens, still tried to foster belief in God and an active religious practice, as exemplified in the Constitution of Vermont. Ratified in 1786, the text guaranteed complete religious freedom, but nonetheless explicitly stated that citizens ought to practice their faith, in order to maintain a “religious spirit” indispensable to the “moral purity” of the society. Chapter I, Article III affirmed that “all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences (…). Nevertheless, every sect or denomination ought to (…) keep up some sort of religious worship, which to them shall seem most agreeable to the revealed will of God.” This official discouragement of religious indifference clearly indicates that religion was considered in Vermont – as in most of the new American states – as a necessary “civic virtue”, as a basic and essential attribute of the new republican citizen.

More significantly, this ambiguity between the necessary protection of freedom of conscience and the promotion of religion as a useful social and civic value was also salient at that time in the Founding Fathers’ thoughts on the place of religion in public life. Both the Federal Constitution of 1787 and the Bill of Rights of 1791, which they contributed to draft, by respectively prohibiting religious tests for federal public offices (Article 6) and the establishment of religion at the level of the national government (1
st Amendment), made clear that belonging to the political community – citizenship - did not depend at all on a belief in God, and that the (federal) state could not legitimately use religion to distinguish between citizens. As James Madison wrote, “no man's right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and (…) religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance.” All the more emphasizing the secular character of the new federal government, the founding document of the United States made absolutely no reference to Christianity, to God or even to a “Supreme Being” or a “Divine Providence”, as such was the case in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, leading many alarmed commentators to denounce the dangerous religious “infidelity” of the drafters. And it is indeed true that, far from being pious Christians, some of the most important Founding Fathers – Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, and Adams - were closer to Deism, influenced by Enlightenment philosophers in their conception of a “benevolent Supreme Being” who created the world but did not intervene in human affairs.

Yet, even those “infidel deists”, who wrote and ratified a “Godless Constitution”, seemed to believe, as Locke did, that some sort of “religious spirit” was necessary to maintain a healthy republican society. Indeed, once elected presidents, George Washington, John Adams and James Madison regularly exhorted Americans to believe in God. Despite their deeply held conviction that the “business of civil government” was to be “exactly distinguished from that of religion,” they still closely associated belief in God, morality, and “good citizenship” as three complementary qualities. Encouraging some kind of diffuse religious spirit was for the Founding Fathers a way to guarantee that people would have a minimum set of moral values, which they believed could contribute to make them more virtuous citizens, and more likely to respect the new laws of the young republic. Washington, in his 1796 Farewell Address, written by Alexander Hamilton, famously stated that it was unreasonable to believe that “national morality could be maintained in exclusion of religious principle.” John Adams similarly wrote in 1798 that “our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people”, one year after he had signed the Treaty of Tripoli, whose Article XI reaffirmed the secular character of the American Republic (“The American government is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion”). Jefferson, who was perhaps the only Founding Father who was openly willing to tolerate atheists, suggesting that they could be protected under the 1st Amendment, allowed during his presidency the public funding of American Bible Societies. Created at the beginning of the 19th century by another Founding Father, John Jay, they were supposed to “promote the extension of true religion, virtue and learning” in order to “clean” the “impurities of our moral atmosphere”. Therefore, it seems that even for the most skeptical Founding Fathers, religion appeared as one of the most useful warranties of “civic solidarity” in a Republican society. Overt atheism, if it could not legally alter one’s status as an American citizen, was still to be discouraged as deviant social behavior, better confined to the margins of the Republic.

Moral boundary

The stigmatization and “othering” of unbelief still continued to sharpen in the first half of the 19th century, as religion also began to play a central role in the building of a certain American identity. During this period, the United States was indeed characterized by a powerful movement of religious revivalism, the second “Great Awakening”. Evangelical sects started proliferating throughout the country, converting people massively in famous “camp meetings”, while romantic historians undertook the “Christianization” – or more precisely the “Protestantization” - of the American Republic. They heightened in their works the myth of a Protestant nation founded for religious reasons on religious principles by religious men. More than being a “civic virtue”, religion became intimately linked with the history, culture and core values of the United States, thus gaining even more salience as a “moral boundary” in Americans’ collective imaginations.

In this context, where religious minorities such as Catholics were also stigmatized and discriminated against by protestant nativists, irreligion, more than being a threat for the “moral purity” of the community and for republican values, came to be progressively castigated as “un-American” in essence. As religion became more and more integrated into “the ethos of American life”, unbelief was becoming all the more inconceivable. Thus, the figure of the atheist became increasingly associated, not only with the figure of the deviant immoral citizen, but also with the figure of the alien or of the nation’s enemy more generally. At the beginning of the 19th century for instance, atheism came to be systematically linked to the violence of the French Revolution. The writer Mercy Otis Warren expressed her fears that the “cloud of infidelity that darkened the hemisphere of France” could travel to the other side of the Atlantic and poison the American “national character, (…) free from any symptoms of pernicious deviations from the purest principles of morality, religion and civil liberty.” Thomas Jefferson, who had lived in France during the Revolution, was accused by his Federalist adversaries and by Evangelical preachers of being an “atheist in religion”. Alexander Hamilton, in a series of articles entitled The Stand, repeatedly warned Americans against “French atheism”, particularly against the “political leader of the adherents to France”, the “pro-consul of a despotic Directory”, whose election as president would destroy religion. A Connecticut penman asserted even more categorically that we are not Frenchmen, and until the atheistical philosophy of a certain great Virginian shall become the fashion (which God on his mercy forbid), we shall never be.

This strong rejection of atheism and the importance of religion as a “symbolic code” – as a principle of social categorization and identification - , was noticed by Felix de Beaujour, a French diplomat assigned to Washington between 1804 and 1811, and who was surprised to discover that if Americans seemed indeed ready to accept almost “indistinctly” any kind of religious faiths or practices, “atheists alone [were] rejected”. He explained further that “[Americans] regarded [atheists] less as the enemies of God than of society”, (…) on the principle that the truth of each religion, individually, may be contested, but the utility of all is incontestable. Religion, as an indispensable basis for morality, “civic solidarity” and collective belonging in the United States, was thus more generally understood as an essential constituent of a certain Durkheimian “moral order”, i.e. of “a common public perception of reality that regulated, structured and organized relations in the community (…), (operating) less through coercion than through inter-subjectivity” and which contributed to “define the internal bonds” within American society.

This crucial role of religion in 19th century American society was confirmed a few decades later by De Beaujour’s fellow citizen Alexis de Tocqueville,
who also noticed that an individual who dared to express his irreligion publicly and – even worse – to criticize religious beliefs, was almost immediately despised and shunned by other Americans. In a comment that is still relevant today, he wrote that “in the United States, if a politician attacks a sect, this may not prevent the partisans of that sect from supporting him; but if he attacks all the sects together, every one abandons him and he remains alone.” Tocqueville acknowledged that some Americans probably did not believe very sincerely in their faith: “I do not know whether all the Americans have a sincere faith in their religion – for who can search the Human heart?”. But he also judiciously remarked that the skeptics would always rather lie and say that they believed in God: “among Anglo-Americans, there are some who profess Christian dogmas because they believe them, and others who do because they are afraid to look as though they did not believe them”. Thus, in order to hide and to overcome their “stigma”, the non-believers met by Tocqueville felt compelled to resort to what Erving Goffman called the strategy of “passing”, i.e. pretending to be part of the “unstigmatized (religious) majority” in order to “gain social acceptance,” an attitude that all the more testified of the “social desirability bias” of religion and of its strength as a “moral boundary” in American society.

The various trials for blasphemy that were held at that time in the United States give another meaningful illustration of the centrality of religion (Christianity to be precise), for a certain “moral order”. In various states, individuals were prosecuted for having denied the existence of God or for having attacked and insulted the Christian religion. Yet, blasphemy was not sanctioned for theological reasons – in order to defend the dogmas and beliefs of a specific faith - but rather because it served a secular purpose, i.e. guaranteeing public safety. In a country inhabited mostly by Christians, attacks against their religion – and thus their identity - could indeed potentially represent a source of conflict. When in 1837 the Supreme Court of Delaware condemned an individual named Thomas Jefferson Chandler for having declared that “the Virgin Mary is a whore and Jesus Christ a bastard”, the Judges clearly explained that the anti-blasphemy laws of the state were not designed to protect a faith in particular or even religion in general, but were necessary to preserve the unity and integrity of a community that such comments against its deeply held beliefs and identity could offend and divide: “The common law took cognizance of offences against God only when by their inevitable effect they became offences against man and his temporal security .”

As mentioned earlier, non-believers were of course not the only religious minority despised and stigmatized in that way in 19th century America: to the sound of “anti-Popery” cries, Protestant nativists regularly attacked Catholic immigrants, accusing them of being a threat to republican values and questioning their loyalty to the American government. But in the first half of the 20th century, the American “circle of the We” started widening progressively, as religious minorities were increasingly being culturally, socially, and politically accepted into American society. A 1959 Gallup survey testified of this process of inclusion, as 72% of Americans affirmed that they were ready to elect a Jewish President and 70% a Catholic, a result that was confirmed one year later by Kennedy’s victory. Yet, this broader tolerance of religious diversity did not necessarily imply that religion as a “moral boundary” - as a standard of morality and “good citizenship” and as a basic attribute of the American “self”- was disappearing and becoming irrelevant in the United States. Indeed, while the 19th century Protestant nation was becoming a “Judeo-Christian” country, the atheist continued to be perceived and stigmatized as an unacceptable “other” in American society.

“Godless communist”

Its symbolic exclusion and its status of “outsider” even worsened during that period, when in the official rhetoric of the US government against the USSR, Communism and atheism came to be systematically associated with each other, conflated into the common figure of the anti-American enemy. In the language of religious and political leaders, the “godless communist” was often contrasted with the “religious American”. Joseph McCarthy declared for instance in a speech, that the “Christian world”, led by the United States, was facing the “atheist world”, dominated by the USSR. Alluding once again to the “impurity” of atheism and to the risk of moral “pollution” it raised, American officials explicitly encouraged irreligious Americans to give up their deviant and “pernicious doctrine of materialism”, which, as the director of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover pointed out,
“readied the minds of our youth to accept the immoral (…) system of thought [known] as communism”. And it was for the very purpose of exacerbating the religious identity of the United States against the “cold” atheism of the USSR, that Congress decided to add “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” on the dollar bills, respectively in 1954 and 1956. A few years earlier, in 1952, senators, supported by President Truman - to whom Communism was the “deadly foe of belief in God and of all organized religions” - had already decided to establish a National Day of Prayer. Their intention was to defend the United States against “the corrosive forces of Communism, which sought simultaneously to destroy [the American] democratic way of life and the faith in an Almighty God on which it was based.”

Socially and politically marginalized since the founding of the first colonies, stigmatized as an immoral and dangerous citizen throughout the 19th century, the non-believer became the official enemy of the American Republic during the Cold War. Professing one’s irreligion - even in one’s private life - meant to symbolically break away from the rest of American society and to share the same values as the Soviet enemy. As Will Herberg wrote in 1955, “declaring oneself atheist, agnostic or even humanist” in the United States during that period, almost inevitably implied “being obscurely ‘anti-American’.” During the Cold War, the stigmatization of the atheist as an “other” reached its climax: like Communism, unbelief was perceived as intrinsically incompatible - and irreconcilable - with the nation’s history, values and identity. Relegated beyond the boundaries of the “We”, the atheist, just as the Communist during the same period, could never be assimilated into the fabric of society and could only be imagined as a “dissident”, an “alien” or an “enemy”, fundamentally different from – and antagonistic to - the (good) American citizen. Religion clearly surfaced as a seemingly impassable “moral boundary”, separating the insiders from the outsiders (the atheists) - those “who did not share the core characteristics” of the “legitimate participants in the ‘moral order’ ” and against whom the symbolic “contours of American culture and citizenship were imagined.” The “good American” was the “good believer”.