Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama recently raised eyebrows during his confirmation hearing for attorney general when he expressed doubts that secular people respected the truth as much as did those with religious convictions. Even as he insisted that there should be no religious tests for holding public office, Sessions was queasy about the potential dangers of the secular worldview.
This was hardly uncharted territory for Sessions. During a speech in 2015, for example, he had singled out the “relativistic, secular mindset” of Justice Sonia Sotomayor as “directly contrary to the founding of our republic.”
The misgivings that Sessions harbors about secularists and nonbelievers — those who “don’t believe in a higher being” — is no mere eccentricity of a senator from the Bible Belt.
As a scholar who has worked for some years now on the history of atheism and secularism in the United States, I find his suspicions deeply familiar. In my book “Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation,” I have examined attitudes toward atheists.
Distrust of the irreligious runs deep in American history.
The place of religion in civic life
The proposition that the ungodly are not up to the demands of virtuous citizenship has been an abiding concern, a commonplace of American political discourse from the founding.
The second president of United States, John Adams, wrote in 1798,
“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.”
It was believed that religion alone was able to check the passions — from avarice to ambition — that would otherwise unravel the country’s republican form of government.
Adams was in plentiful company on the necessity of religion to public order and morality. In the decades following the American Revolution, religious freedom had many exponents, while irreligious freedom had far fewer. The law routinely favored believers over nonbelievers.
The state constitutions of Pennsylvania (1790), Tennessee (1796) and Mississippi (1817) made holding political office contingent on affirming a belief in God as well as eternal rewards and punishments. Those who would not make such avowals were seen as lacking moral accountability, as unanswerable to a higher truth.
After the Civil War, the state constitutions of Maryland (1867), North Carolina (1868), Arkansas (1874) and Texas (1876) all defended the principle of religious liberty, but still specified that those who did not believe in God were to be barred from positions of public trust.
The prejudice against secularists and nonbelievers often extended into American courtrooms. The credibility of witnesses was frequently tied to religious belief; those who refused to swear an oath in God’s name could be barred from the stand as untrustworthy.
The famed French observer of American life, Alexis de Tocqueville, reported on one such instance in a New York court in 1831. A witness had made a point of challenging the usual oath, declaring that he “did not believe in the existence of God or the immortality of the soul.” Shocked to find an atheist in his own courtroom, the judge moved quickly to restore order, declaring the United States to be a Christian country and the witness unfit to testify.
Tocqueville found the episode emblematic of how religion routinely informed the norms of American civic life. Irreligion translated into a lack of integrity, honesty and truthfulness.
The Protestant clergyman Robert Baird crystallized the widespread disregard for atheists and unbelievers in his “Religion in America (1844)," a formative textbook on the nation’s churchly character.
“Rights of conscience are religious rights,” he insisted. It was inconceivable to Baird that those rights extended to his fellow citizens who held views that subverted God, virtue and morality.
“What rights of conscience can atheism, irreligion, and licentiousness pretend to?” he asked with his negative answer already in hand. The most he could offer the ungodly was a little hands-off forbearance: Prosecuting the irreligious, after all, often only called people’s attention to their blasphemies. So he concluded,
“It is sometimes the best way to silence a noisy, brainless lecturer on atheism, to let him alone.”
Nonbelief as moral deficit
The legal standing of secularists and atheists certainly improved in the 20th century, though the process was uneven.
When, in 1959, a Maryland atheist named Roy Torcaso petitioned to be a notary public without taking the required oath declaring his belief in God, he found himself on the losing side in the state courts.
Indeed, the Maryland Court of Appeals defended the state’s constitutional ban on atheists in decisive terms:
“It seems clear that under our Constitution disbelief in a Supreme Being, and the denial of any moral accountability for conduct, not only renders a person incompetent to hold public office, but to give testimony, or serve as a juror. The historical record makes it clear that religious toleration, in which this State has taken pride, was never thought to encompass the ungodly.”
Nonbelief was still presented as a moral deficit, a treacherous marker from which the state necessarily recoiled.
Fortunately for Torcaso and other nonbelievers, the legal winds had been shifting at the U.S. Supreme Court. In a unanimous opinion, delivered in 1961, the justices ruled for Torcaso, affirming a principle of neutrality in which the religious and irreligious were to be treated equally under the law.
The use of atheism as a civic disqualification was thus officially set aside as unconstitutional. The next year, in Engel v. Vitale, the Supreme Court struck down state-sponsored prayers in the public schools, vindicating a group of atheist, humanist, Unitarian and Jewish plaintiffs.
“The atheist or agnostic – the nonbeliever – is entitled to go his own way,” Justice William O. Douglas wrote in that opinion, underlining the equal liberties now accorded avowed secularists.
The Reagan years
Those court victories hardly eliminated widespread public distrust of atheists and agnostics. In the throes of the Cold War, no set of judicial opinions was going to dispel the persistent suspicion that the godless were somehow in league with communists.
In many ways, the Supreme Court decisions against prayer and Bible reading in schools only heightened popular antagonisms against nonbelievers. Among religious conservatives, the court was seen as having opened the secular floodgates, which now threatened to wash away the nation’s Christian heritage.
When President Reagan spoke at a massive Dallas prayer breakfast in 1984, he dated the tearing of the country’s religious fabric to the Supreme Court decisions of the early 1960s.
Reagan told the assembled,
“Without God, there is no virtue, because there’s no prompting of the conscience. … And without God, democracy will not and cannot long endure. If we ever forget that we’re one nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under.”
The reservations that Sessions expressed at his confirmation hearing are usefully set against this much larger historical backdrop. He sees religion (especially his Protestant version of it) as having been integral to the welfare of the republic and considers secularism as corrosive of that anchoring synthesis.
He is far from alone in those presuppositions. Leveling the playing field for believers and nonbelievers has been a long and contentious struggle in American public life. The back-and-forth at Sessions’ hearing was another reminder that the skirmishing is far from over.