Politics is such a contentious topic right now, it appears nobody can agree on anything. Let’s turn down the temperature a bit by discussing something less controversial:
Or, more precisely, the lack thereof.
The 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees us the freedom to worship any deity we choose. Yahweh. Jesus. Allah. Buddha. The Great Spirit. The sun. A volcano. Mr. Wednesday on “American Gods.” The government is prohibited from meddling in spiritual decisions.
We could even decide not to accept the existence of any of those entities (please note that failing to acknowledge the existence of the sun or volcanoes can result in adverse health consequences including skin cancer and death by molten lava).
We could embrace atheism. This isn’t a popular option. Surveys indicate atheists constitute just over 3 percent of the U.S. population, although that figure may be depressed by respondents’ reluctance to admit they don’t believe in the supernatural. After all, other polls have shown atheists to be more disliked by Americans than any other religious group except, by the narrowest of margins, Muslims.
Muslims really need to up their public-relations game.
Most survey respondents would refuse to hire an atheist, do business with one, marry such a person or read a weekly column written by a god-denying journalist (stop here if you fit that profile, lest the following paragraphs shake the foundations of your faith).
All of this brings us to Thomas Waddell of Litchfield, the president of the Maine chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Waddell regularly agitates in favor of atheism, although he does so in ways that are less anti-religious and more pro-tolerant of competing belief systems. In a column he wrote for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel earlier this year, he said, “[B]arriers to religious coexistence are primarily a problem created by various religions trying to interject their beliefs into our nation’s secular laws. Doing so not only hampers coexistence but violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of the freedom of religion, the freedom from religion and the separation of church and state.”
Waddell has taken his crusade for human self-reliance to the Maine Legislature. In February, he gave a secular invocation, in place of the usual opening prayer, to begin a session of the House of Representatives. On May 30, he was scheduled to offer similar sentiments in the Senate. But Senate President Mike Thibodeau cancelled that appearance for reasons that remain in dispute.
According to Waddell, Thibodeau demanded to review his remarks in advance, a condition not imposed on others delivering opening prayers, including Muslims. Waddell told the Kennebec Journal, “[Thibodeau] personally is not comfortable with having someone who is not clergy get up there in front of the Senate and not reference God or Jesus in their invocation, and that’s the bottom line.”
The Senate president took issue with that, telling Waddell in a letter that he had been “confrontational” and “verbally aggressive” in dealings with his staff.
At this writing, the question of whether Waddell will be allowed to speak remains in limbo.
Much like the state budget.
While the Constitution grants Thibodeau considerable leeway in deciding who can blather on at the start of a Senate session, it clearly prohibits him from rejecting an applicant based on religious affiliation or lack thereof. Our fundamental law says he can either allow all belief systems to participate or none.
Thibodeau might want to seek the counsel of Bangor City Councilor Sean Faircloth, a former Democratic state representative, who’s spent a fair amount of his political career weaving across the tortured landscape between government and religion. Faircloth once wrote a newspaper op-ed in which he claimed religious beliefs were an essential part of governing. “Our best leaders lived life and led others based upon their spiritual views,” he said back in 1992. But in 2009, he began a stint as executive director of the Secular Coalition For America, a national group that described itself as “nontheistic,” dedicating himself to stopping “the persistent intrusion of religion into government policy.”
If that seems contradictory – and it should – it’s probably because reconciling the roles of religion and government is damn near impossible.
Can we all say amen to that.