Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., is sworn in to testify at a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing to become U.S. attorney general on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 10, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Kevin Lamarque *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-SCHMIDT-OPED, originally published on Feb. 8, 2017.

Distrust of unbelievers runs deep in American history

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.”

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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.”

Second U.S. President John Adams.

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.

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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.

CAHairyBear, CC BY-NC-SA

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.

‘Hands-off forbearance’

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.

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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.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
Edalisse Hirst, CC BY

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.

The Conversation(Leigh E. Schmidt is a humanities professor at Washington University in St Louis. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.)


  1. The events discussed by the author show how our Constitution was ignored regarding religion for most of our history. This happens when minorities have no one in the majority willing to stand up for them. Atheists are just one of many groups treated this way. The so-called “war on christianity” is just the result of us finally applying the Constitution.

  2. Fear the nonbelievers! For they disregard the alternative facts laid out by the church. They do kind things, not for salvation, but because they are kind. They do not fall back on a divine evil when they do evil they are forced to be responsible for their own actions.
    Yeah. If you are kind because you want eternal reward or to avoid eternal damnation, you might not be a kind as you think.
    If you transfer responsibility for your shortcomings on a divine being you are nothing more than a liar, and mostly to yourself.
    Be a human being take responsibility for your actions, that includes the good ones. And remember that you don’t need a reward for every act of kindness, that isn’t kindness, that is selfishness.

  3. I suspect that, like me, many atheists have a long personal history as allies to oppressed and marginalized groups in our society. It’s time we started expecting some of that support to come back to us, and it’s up to us to make the point that it is in other oppressed groups’ interest to work together with us, because assaults on true religious liberty – including freedom from religion – harms all of us.

  4. Hmm. Now THAT’s an interesting angle. Let’s explore it, shall we?
    For example, you atheists regularly give support to the gay activists, you show up at their political gigs, and they happily grab it & go — but it’s not like the gay activists have done any Primetime-TV street-marches on behalf of YOU folks lately, have they?

    And naturally, I’d mention the black community’s status (I’m black), but you atheists ALREADY know how that’s panning out. Barely get a couple black faces to show up, yes? You’re welcome to attend OUR rallies, but we sho’nuff ain’t gonna be seen hanging out at yours.

    “Hi Mama! Hi Daddy!”
    “Baby where you been? Dinner’s late! You go somewhere?”
    “I just went downtown to check out the rally, that’s all.”
    “Aunt Mahalia says she saw you on the TV wit’ some strange folks. Like they trying to act all mad at God or something. Half of ’em needing a hug, and the other half needin’ an exorcist. Now who was you with down there? Tell the truth and shame the devil.”

    Oh yeah baby, that’s gonna be one interesting dinner-table tonight !!!

  5. Wow. Although I can agree with you that religious liberty is important, I reject the idea that atheists like me constitute an oppressed minority. The unearned privileges I have as a white, middle class male override any disadvantages I might have as an atheist. In fact, I can think of no perceptible disadvantage legitimately deriving from being an atheist. Not in the U.S.

    Look, if people don’t trust me merely because I’m an atheist, it says a lot more about them than it does me. I have nothing to prove. In my experience, the people who’ve placed any degree of trust in me did so because I earned it as a result of my actions, not because of any label I’m wearing. Indeed, I tested that theory between 2012 to 2014 by mounting a bright red “Atheist” license plate on the front of my car while serving in the military and living south of the Mason-Dixon. Not one person treated me any different than they had prior. Maybe they talked about me behind my back, but either way, my rank, position, and reputation were, by that time, unassailable.

    As for movement atheism, the notion of taking it upon ourselves to lecture other minorities on the benefits of cooperation, or to demand reciprocity, is absurd. Until and unless atheists reach a common understanding of what it means to be part of a movement, and what the aims of that movement are, our energy is better spent supporting causes having greater urgency. We’ve no business wearing a mantle of self-righteousness regarding the status of atheists living in Western society.

  6. Support for what? How are we being oppressed? Because of what some ignorant theists may think about us?

  7. I’m not for a required religious test for running for public office, but I would much prefer the excesses of a country that is majority-religious to any of the countries of the former
    Soviet block before the all came down. At that time morality was define by what is helpful to the state! Cheating and lying were not only permitted on behalf of the state–they were encouraged!

  8. Sounds an awful lot like Trump.

    In short, religion is no guarantee of morality.

  9. As always, you can be counted on to ignore facts in deference to your biases. On the whole, atheist may have meetings, they may even have conventions. But it is not a community, it is largely unorganized. What they don’t have very often is very big public rallies.

    This gay person advocates regularly on behalf of atheists. This atheist advocates regularly on behalf of gay people.

  10. Your completely exaggerated statement here that the history of the Soviet block countries is like the place that Donald Trump wants to take us, just shows the depth of your hatred for our new president. No, religion is not a guarantee of morality, but atheism certainly is no such guarantee! “Ya gotta serve somebody!”

  11. And what would the great Cornelius have to say about “you don’t need a
    reward for every act of kindness, that isn’t kindness, that is selfishness”?

    ? “Somehow… it makes you look less intelligent.” ?

  12. I don’t hate him. I think he is completely dangerous, wrong for the job, unqualified, not so bright, and a narcissistic sociopath,.
    The only thing that’s a guarantee of morality is moral action. Grabby McPussy certainly is not qualified for that, either.

  13. And no, now that I revisited the comments, is that my “completely exaggerated statement” was not mine.
    This is what IO responded to: Cheating and lying were not only permitted on behalf of the state–they were encouraged!

  14. If that’s love youre expressing, it’s a rather peculiar variety!
    Morality is made up of moral character and moral reflection and both must take place before there’s moral action!
    We all know that one resorts to name calling when they’re on the losing end of key arguments-like you did here!

  15. Why are you bringing up Donald Trump in this conversation..

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