I should not have to care whether my religious beliefs conflict with the majority of those in any branch of our government. The Constitution — as enumerated in Article VI Section 3 and the First Amendment — is supposed to guarantee that government should not care that for the first time ever the number of Americans who belong to a church has fallen below a majority. Unfortunately, a lot of people do care. In fact, some are downright terrified at the decline in religion. And it just so happens, many people who are terrified are also in government.
According to the most recent Attorney General, William Barr, this country was founded on the premise (expressed by John Adamas that one time) that our government “was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people.” An attorney general saying this country is only intended and suitable for religious people is deeply disturbing for a couple of reasons. First, one John Adams quote notwithstanding, the Constitution’s plain language that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States” directly contradicts it. It takes a massive, unsubstantiated leap to say our government was intended only to be suitable and sustainable for religious people when religious oaths were banned from the beginning and the only other mention is that government must stay out of religious affairs. Second, and more troubling, is believing government is only suitable and sustainable for religious people means those citizens who does not believe by very definition become unsuitable. Which is exactly what William Barr thinks.
To Barr, nonbelievers are everything that’s wrong with this country. Barr views nonbelievers, as a collective, as directly responsible for “the wreckage of the family,” and “record levels of depression and mental illness, dispirited young people, soaring suicide rates, increasing number of angry and alienated young males, an increase of senseless violence, and a deadly drug epidemic.” Such views are not only facially bigoted (imagine saying Christianity and Christians were responsible for such things) but provably untrue.
Violent crime has not increased but drastically decreased during the period of religious decline. Families are not being wrecked. In fact, divorce rates have not only fallen significantly in the past year, but have also dropped appreciably over the past decade. The decline of religion is driving an irrational demonization and hatred of nonbelievers, and we are seeing this play out not just rhetorically, but in the courts.
Federal courts have banned nonbelievers from speaking to their own legislatures, banned nonbelievers from holding private jobs such as wedding celebrants for nonbeliever couples. Another federal panel (that included the liberal-minded Diane Wood and now-Justice Amy Barrett Coney) held last fall that states can favor religious gatherings over nonreligious expressive gatherings, including political gatherings. Never mind that political speech has been universally recognized as being at the heart of the First Amendment guarantee. Never mind there are many cases in which the Supreme Court has held, again, and again, and again, that religious expression must be treated equally with nonreligious expression. Because it is painfully obvious the law has nothing to do with such decisions.
Favoring religion in the law and disfavoring nonbelievers can only be explained by bigotry. Only a bigot would claim religious citizens and religious expression is worth more to this country than nonreligious citizens and nonreligious expression. Only a bigot would claim this country is “only suitable and sustainable for a religious people.”
But what can a nonbeliever do against such bigotry?
The absolute worst response to bigotry is more bigotry. Dr. Martin Luther King led a successful movement of American citizens (who had suffered far worse oppression than nonbelievers currently are), because he and these Americans rejected responding to bigotry in kind. Fear, hatred, and anger does not make lasting peace. Nonbelievers must respond by being better and fighting for universal freedom of conscience and denouncing any attempt by government to favor or disfavor citizens or their expression based on religious belief. Standing up for universal free conscience rights also means acknowledging where religious fears are legitimate.
If this now decades-long trend continues, nonbelievers will become the majority. In the short term, with a religious conservative ideological takeover of the courts, the continued rise in nonbelief is going to result in more restructuring of the First Amendment to favor the religious at the expense of nonbeliever free conscience. Last Friday, the Supreme Court reinvented religious liberty using an entirely new interpretation where the oldest precedent cited was from 2020. If or when a nonbeliever majority is achieved, nonbelievers must work to rebalance the courts to reverse the bigotry and restructuring of the law to serve partisan ends.
Tyler Broker’s work has been published in the Gonzaga Law Review, the Albany Law Review, and is forthcoming in the University of Memphis Law Review. Feel free to email him or follow him on Twitter to discuss his column.