Op/Ed by George Payne –
Thomas Jefferson wrote in a 1802 letter addressed to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut: “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people… which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
In retrospect, Jefferson understood the supreme value of separating the spurious edicts of religion from the moral imperatives of the State. A people can base a system of governance on universal civic mandates such as telling the truth, but a people cannot build a system on the passion driven, subjective wishes of believers. Put in more bombastic if not chillingly accurate terms, one of Jefferson’s modern day acolytes, Christopher Hitchens, declared in his books and lectures: “Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children, organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.”
Sadly, one need look no further to validate Hitchen’s critique than the exhaustive grand jury report in Pennsylvania, which provides nauseating detail on at least 1,000 children allegedly raped or abused by more than 300 priests over decades, all covered up. That particular scandal was so ungodly that it forced the Pope to declare in the most severe terms, with “shame and repentance,” these “predator priests” must be treated with “zero tolerance.”
Did those priests truly believe in God? Did they swear oaths in front of their families, parishioners, allies, benefactors, superiors, constituents, friends, and even victims? In the end, did their belief in God have anything do with the truthfulness of their actions?
Speaking of the late Christopher Hitchens, a man who was not just the most brilliant atheist of his generation, but also a man of tremendous journalistic integrity and humanistic compassion, it is worth remembering the infamous Bluementhal Affair- that matter of Hitchens vs. Sidney Bluementhal, and their friendship-ending flap over who said what to whom about Monica Lewinsky. Hitchens, it will be remembered, accused the President of the United States of planting allegations against women accusers of sexual harassment and sexual assault? As it goes, over lunch in Washington he heard Blumenthal (Clinton’s top aid) tell him that Lewinsky was a “stalker” and “blackmailer.” These were accusations that came before she produced DNA evidence of the sexual encounters. Even at that stage, Hitchens detected a planted story and perhaps obstruction of justice. As a voracious critic of the president, he also detected a key move in Clinton’s dirty tricks playbook. When accused of sexual harassment, Clinton instinctively lied, blamed others, and went on the attack. In fact, every woman who he had inappropriate relations with became, in one way or another, targets of a highly organized smear campaign; often these all too real political hit jobs relied on American tax dollars to fund them. All the while, Clinton- ever the Southern Baptist at heart- purported to believe in God. Let’s call it as it is. He lied under oath while proclaiming his allegiance to God. As Clinton and these priests have demonstrated, far too often one’s very belief in God becomes a shield that deflects one’s sense of personal accountability.
This may sound crazy, but shouldn’t we care more about whether God believes in us? What if what truly matters is whether we believe in each other? If that’s the case, what does a declaration of faith in the supernatural have to do with simply believing each other? What difference does it make, Senator Kennedy, if Judge Kavanaugh believes in God? What the world wanted him to do was just tell the truth. That’s it. Like John Lennon said, just give me some truth. That’s hardly a religious act.
George Cassidy Payne is an independent writer from Rochester, NY. He has graduate degrees from Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School and Candler School of Theology at Emory University.
(The views expressed on our opinion pages are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or viewpoint of the Minority Reporter.)