FFRF’s 2021 national convention is scheduled for the weekend of November 19-21, 2021, at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel in Boston.
Due to the pandemic, the 2020 convention was deferred to this year. The amazing roster still includes Margaret Atwood, Gloria Steinem and a host of secular authors such as Katherine Stewart and Phil Zuckerman, activists such as Hispanic American Freethinkers’ founder David Tamayo and honorees such as Black Skeptics Los Angeles founder Sikivu Hutchinson. New speakers and honorees will include New York Times court columnist Linda Greenhouse and more to be announced.
Given many uncertainties and logistics to work out, FFRF will be announcing details in future issues.
Prolific and award-winning actor Ed Asner appeared via pre-recorded video at FFRF’s “Covid Convention” on Nov. 14.
Asner, who recently became part of FFRF’s Honorary Board, accepted FFRF’s 2020 Clarence Darrow Award.
Asner toured the country portraying William Jennings Bryan in a play about the Scopes Trial opposite John de Lancie (portraying Darrow), and has been an outspoken progressive activist. The award includes a bronze statuette, a miniature of the 7-foot statue by renowned sculptor Zenos Frudakis that FFRF erected on the lawn of the “Scopes Trial” courthouse in Dayton, Tenn.
Here is an edited transcript of his remarks:
By Ed Asner
This is a beautiful award. My God, it is beautiful. He is so embodied here. And being a junkman’s son, I can tell you, this is good metal. This is fine metal. You can’t get better metal than this. Unless you go to gold and silver and titanium, but we won’t go there. This comes from the heart, this is Clarence Darrow.
I was with your group in Wisconsin, and I felt the same way there that I feel with you now. You are brave, wonderful people, so essential to a democracy such as America, which needs you badly. It’s not easy to challenge religion in America, but it’s most necessary, very necessary.
And I want to say that Darrow put it so bluntly when he said the most humane thing we can do is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Keep doing it. You’re setting a great example for all freedom lovers. Thank you.
Appearing in a pre-recorded video during FFRF’s “Covid Convention” on Nov. 14 was FFRF Member Ben Hart, who successfully sued Kentucky to get “IM GOD” on his license plates. Because of that, Hart earned FFRF’s 2020 Freethinker of the Year Award.
Here is an edited transcript of his acceptance speech:
By Ben Hart
My name is Ben Hart and I live in Independence, Ky., with my wonderful wife of 64 years, Yvonne Hart. I have been named Freethinker of the Year by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. And this is the nice plaque that they have given me. It’s a beauty. I’m very proud to have gotten it.
We moved to Independence from Cincinnati, just across the river. In February of 2016, I applied for the same personalized license plate I had in Ohio for over 12 years — “IM GOD.” The plates also included the phrase “One Nation Under God.” I had no trouble getting it in Ohio, so I didn’t expect to have any trouble getting it in Kentucky. A week later, I got a letter from the Kentucky Transportation Department rejecting my request, which said it was obscene and vulgar. So, of course, I got in touch with the Freedom From Religion Foundation. They sent a letter telling the Transportation Department that it was denying my First Amendment rights. The department replied that the plate wasn’t actually obscene and vulgar, but distracting. It still denied my request.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation then contacted the American Civil Liberties Union in Kentucky, and it agreed to take my case. Later that year, in November of 2016, the suit was filed in federal court. The BBC picked up the story and it went around the world in March of 2017. The Washington Post called for an interview; Fox News called for an interview.
The state filed for dismissal a full year later, but the judge denied the motion.
Finally, in January , I was told my plate was on its way. I asked if it included the phrase “In God We Trust.” I was assured it did.
Then I went to pick up the plate, but it didn’t have the phrase on it. I refused it and they ordered another one. I finally got it — “IM GOD” with the phrase “In God We Trust” on it — no extra charge.
I now have the most famous license plate in the world on the front of my Jeep and the most expensive license plate in the country on the rear, thanks to the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Kentucky American Civil Liberties Union. The state had to pay $150,000 in attorney fees to deny me my rights, and that, my friends, shows the power our Freedom From Religion Foundation has.
And for those who are wondering, I’m not the god of the bible — that’s the guy who drowned all the babies in the world. I’m the god of the dictionary. The American Heritage Dictionary has six definitions for “god.” Number five is “a very handsome man.” And my wife says I’m a very handsome man. And nobody argues with my wife.
Despite no national convention this year due to the pandemic, the Freedom From Religion Foundation will be hosting an online membership meeting, including legal and other highlights of the year, on Saturday, Nov. 14.
Please join other FFRF members and staff at this event, which will include special greetings and surprises. While the meeting by necessity is only online, for the first time the gathering is otherwise available to all members, at no cost, no matter where you live!
Legendary TV actor Ed Asner will appear during the event in a video accepting FFRF’s 2020 Clarence Darrow Award. Asner, who recently became part of FFRF’s Honorary Board, is known for portraying “Lou Grant,” and to younger audiences for voicing “Ralph” in the movie “Up” and portraying Santa in the movie “Elf.” Asner toured the country portraying William Jennings Bryan in a play about the Scopes Trial opposite John de Lancie (portraying Darrow), and has been an outspoken progressive activist. The award includes a bronze statuette, a miniature of the 7-foot statue by renowned sculptor Zenos Frudakis that FFRF erected on the lawn of the “Scopes Trial” courthouse in Dayton, Tenn. De Lancie, who helped dedicate the statue, received the debut award two years ago, and U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, a co-founder of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, received the award by video at last year’s convention.
FFRF’s team of “watchdog” attorneys will present legal highlights at the online meeting, and FFRF’s many other actions and achievements over the year will be featured in the hour-long report preceding the short membership meeting.
Also appearing via a taped video will be Ben Hart, who is earning FFRF’s 2020 Freethinker of the Year Award. Hart seeking to counteract license plates saying “In God We Trust,” challenged in a lawsuit his inability to get a license plate with the words “IM GOD” on it. Kentucky DMV officials denied the plate because it was deemed “obscene or vulgar” and then later “not in good taste.” The U.S. District Court for the Eastern Court of Kentucky ruled in Hart’s favor that the denial of the plate violated the First Amendment.
The “FFRF Highlights of the Year” will begin online at 1:30 p.m. (CST) on Nov. 14, followed by a short membership meeting, which includes the annual treasurer’s report and an election for the State Representatives. The agenda and other information is published in your fall Private Line, FFRF’s biannual newsletter.
State Reps, who will be voting on a bylaws change and some Executive Board elections, will be contacted by email and mail with details on their annual meeting, which will take place the following week, on Saturday, Nov. 21, at 1:30 p.m. (CST). The agenda has been published in the fall Private Line newsletter, mailed to all members unless they specify receiving a digital copy.
Any FFRF member in good standing (meaning your dues are up to date) is invited to attend the annual membership meeting. Participants will be emailed the final agenda and written reports along with easy instructions to access the meeting and to vote. All registrants of the membership meeting will receive an email with a link to the online ballot to elect the state representatives. You must attend the meeting for your vote to count.
Please be sure to register online no later than Monday, Nov. 2, or to mail your free registration so it is received by our office (FFRF, PO Box 750, Madison WI 53701) no later than Monday, November 2. See registration form this page or simply register online at: ffrf.org/2020-meeting.
FFRF’s 2020 convention slated for the weekend of Nov. 13-14, 2020, in San Antonio, was postponed due to the pandemic. Most of the scheduled speakers, including Gloria Steinem and Margaret Atwood, have agreed to appear at FFRF’s 2021 convention at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel on the weekend of Nov. 19-21, 2021. (So save the dates!) Additional honorees and speakers joining them for the two-day event will be announced in 2021, and FFRF is looking forward to an exciting post-pandemic celebration.
(Members who have not shared their email address with FFRF are encouraged to do so. Send your preferred email address to [email protected] and include you full name and mailing address.)
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the status of FFRF’s 2020 national convention in San Antonio the weekend of Nov. 13-15 is to be determined.
FFRF hopes to have a definitive announcement later this summer about whether it will hold the convention.
Registration for the convention has been suspended until that decision has been made.
If the convention is canceled, there will be full refunds. We discourage members from making hotel reservations and flight arrangements until final decisions are announced. Please check future issues of Freethought Today for more information on this evolving situation.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the status of FFRF’s 2020 national convention in San Antonio the weekend of Nov. 13–15 is to be determined. FFRF is still accepting convention registrations online (and will fully refund members if the convention is cancelled). Speakers include Gloria Steinem, Margaret Atwood and John Irving. For more information on this evolving situation, please check future issues of Freethought Today. To register, for hotel information and info on other speakers, go to ffrf.org/convention2020.
This is an edited version of the speech Amber Scorah gave at FFRF’s national convention in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 19, 2019. She was introduced by FFRF Programs Manager Kristina Daleiden:
Amber Scorah is the author of the moving memoir Leaving the Witness, which details her experience growing up as Jehovah’s Witness, moving to China to become a missionary and coming to question the beliefs that she had been taught and eventually leaving that religion. After suffering the tragic loss of her 4-month-old son, Amber became a parental leave advocate, bringing this issue to the forefront of the 2016 presidential campaign. She also penned an op-ed in The New York Times titled “Surviving the death of my son after the death of my faith.” “Oprah” magazine said that Leaving the Witness was one of the best books of summer and The New York Times called it one of 12 new books to watch. Amber is a Canadian writer living in Brooklyn.
Please join me in welcoming Amber Scorah.
By Amber Scorah
First of all, it’s amazing to be here. I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness and women were never allowed to give talks. It’s my guess that everyone in this room either has known a Jehovah’s Witness or has had one approach them to preach to them.
But so many people feel like they don’t really understand what the Jehovah’s Witnesses are about and why there isn’t more information from ex-members out there.
Jehovah’s Witnesses fly under the greater cultural radar, in many ways, because of the way its own culture is set up. As a Jehovah’s Witness, you are raised to believe that you must keep separate from the world.
This is why Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t vote, don’t get involved in charity work, are told not to go to college or pursue any kind of career, don’t get too close to people or have relationships with anyone who is a nonbeliever. Any person who is not a Witness is considered “worldly” and a bad association. The outside is Satan’s world.
Growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness, I was taught I was different. And this was reinforced by many of the arbitrary things the Witnesses pull out of the bible and pronounce as necessary for salvation. No blood, which obviously meant that if you were dying and needed a blood transfusion, you’d have to accept death. No Christmas, no singing carols. We’d have to sit outside. When someone had a birthday in the classroom, we weren’t allowed to eat the cake. We couldn’t date or marry a non-Jehovah’s Witness. Our time was to be used for preaching, to save as many as we could before Armageddon.
No dirty laundry
You don’t see many books by people like me, who leave the religion, because the leaders of the group strongly forbid anyone from airing any of the organization’s dirty laundry.
This applies to very minor issues. For example, we were told constantly that even if a brother cheats us, we shouldn’t take him to court. And it extends to very serious issues, where parents are told not to go to the police when their child has been sexually abused by someone within the congregation. The idea behind this is that the most important thing is that God’s chosen ones be protected. They don’t want God to look bad.
Of course, you might think, if you leave, then you’re no longer bound by this rule, right?
But what happens when you leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses, like I did, is that you are shunned. This is quite a severe punishment for people who have been taught to build their entire lives around an organization, and who, as a result, have very few ties anywhere else.
This shunning is bad enough, but if a person takes it one step further and speaks out about the organization, or their doubts, or anything that they feel is wrong within the organization, in any kind of a public way, that person is labeled an apostate.
This is a very scary brand to receive. Apostasy, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses literature, is the one sin God will never forgive. “Apostates” like me would be described in very terrifying terms. They were “mentally diseased,” “criminals,” “lower than a snake” with “characteristics like the devil.”
Even after I wrote my book and didn’t believe in the religion anymore, you feel the power of that community lasts even after you’ve left. The last thing I wanted to be was that horrible apostate character we’ve been warned about. I didn’t want to be seen that way, even by people who no longer spoke to me. I didn’t want to be “mentally diseased”!
Yet here I am, out here in Satan’s world!
Path to freedom
The path to finding my freedom happened in one of the most restrictive countries in the world: China.
When I was in my 20s, after spending years knocking on doors in my home city of Vancouver, Canada, to not much in the way of results — you all know what you do when a Jehovah’s Witness calls! — I decided to learn Mandarin Chinese and travel to China to preach. China was the one place that had not received a Witness, and I wanted to give them a chance to convert before Armageddon came and God killed them for being nonbelievers.
Ironically, it was in China that, for the first time in my life, I had some freedom, which should have told me something, since most people who go to China don’t feel more free.
Because my preaching work was done underground in China, the structure of meetings and community I had had my whole life at home as a Witness was gone. Our religion was illegal there, so there was no structure.
Of course, my aim was to preach, and I took that mission seriously. But that, too, looked different. Back at home, rarely would a Witness ever have a friend who was not a Witness. The only interaction was for the sake of conversion. Non-Witnesses were to be always kept at bay, as they were a worldly influence.
Yet here in China, we were told by the leaders of the organization that the way to go about our preaching work was to spend a lot of time getting to know people before we preached to them. This would allow us to vet them, to make sure they weren’t Communist Party members, or people who would turn us in to the authorities. Often that vetting process took a long time, because you were trying to “be casual” and get information from people naturally, before bringing in the bible or our literature and possibly endangering ourselves.
A byproduct of this, of course, was that I began to make “worldly friends” for the first time. I got to know people who weren’t Jehovah’s Witnesses on a pretty intimate level before I ever even tried bringing up the bible.
Preaching in a language like Mandarin, too, was so different, it felt like my mind was being excavated. As I sat teaching my Chinese bible students “the truth,” telling them to throw away their thousands of years of cultural history for my 100-year-old religion in this new language, it was almost as if I could hear what I was saying for the first time. I started to realize my beliefs sounded a bit crazy.
Cracks in my faith
Eventually, the mild disorientation of being in this new culture and speaking this language so different than my own opened up cracks in my faith, and the physical distance from my community gave me a mental break from the constant meetings and indoctrination. Slowly, a “worldly” friendship I began to engage in with a client at my workplace ended up with me questioning everything I had been raised to believe.
A lot of people who have never been religious wonder why in the world anyone would stay in a group like this that is so obviously, to those on the outside, wrong and “culty.”
Here’s the thing: No one who is in a cult ever thinks they are in a cult. You think you are living the best life, and in some ways it IS a great life. You have no angst, you don’t worry about climate change, you don’t have to have a retirement fund because Armageddon and God are going to solve all those problems. Plus, you have many wonderful friends and family who believe in it with you. You have a warm community.
You are constantly told about how awful people’s lives are on the outside, and because you are only allowed to be close with other Witnesses, you have no way of verifying. Of course, the world can be a scary place, so it’s an easy message to sell. Sure, you see people who seem happy and fulfilled, you meet nice people at work and such, but you know that they are going to die at Armageddon, so really, how great can that be?
Yes, it isn’t until you try to leave a cult that you start to realize it’s a cult. When the people in your organization and family immediately shun you for questioning even one of the beliefs handed down from the leaders, you know you are in some form of cult.
When I voiced a doubt or two and that got back to the elders, well, that was about when I started to get the inkling that the Jehovah’s Witness organization bore the traits of a cult.
Later, after I left, I found stronger proof: The first boyfriend I had after leaving the religion found on YouTube nearly every documentary ever made about cult members and we watched them together. I was surprised as I watched. Every cult it seemed, from the most extreme (Jim Jones in Jamestown) to the less extreme ones (that didn’t mandate death), well, they were exactly my story.
They are entirely different belief systems, but have the same systems in place to keep people in. My lines of reasoning, my thought patterns, my thought-blocking, the us vs. them mentality, all the things we had been trained to do to stay in the religion were the same things people in all these cults had been trained to do.
And while the Witnesses are not as extreme as some cults, they do mandate that people die rather than take life-saving blood transfusions. So, while they aren’t drinking Kool-Aid, they are mandating death for no reason, which isn’t that different.
It takes a lot of deprogramming to realize the religion you were raised with as “truth” is simply a mythology that has been passed down from generation to generation.
Even given all I lost — family, friends, faith, support systems, purpose — I have never once regretted waking up and leaving. And I’ve never heard any other ex-Witnesses saying any different. People have lost their own children to the religion after waking up, have lost their livelihood, everything.
But now that I shed a belief system, it’s a lot easier for me to see culti-ness everywhere, not only in religion. We are, all of us, subject to indoctrination of some form, whether we realize it or not. Obviously, some belief systems are more extreme than others, but we all have blind spots. We are born into a family that teaches us values and ideals from birth. All of us have embedded ideas about how things must be and how we must live (marry, have children, elect a straight white man, whatever it is). This is most obvious in the religious realm, but it’s also the case in the political, social, internet, scientific and any other realm in which people identify with a way of thinking.
This is why cults exist! They are just a manifestation of the extreme end of something that is in us all. We all need to check our thinking, to ensure we aren’t succumbing to our own cult-like tendencies.
How do we do this?
Make friends with people who don’t think like us. That may sound trite, but in my story, the only reason I was able to see my blind spots was because I developed a close relationship with someone “on the outside.” The differences between us were what made it possible for me to see that not everything I had been taught to believe by my culture was absolute truth. Allowing myself to get close enough to someone so different than me was what made me see that. It wasn’t always pleasant, but I’m so grateful I didn’t back away or dismiss him.
I’ve also learned this: When we feel very sure we are right, that’s always a sign to look again, look deeper, question our strongest assumptions, never be dogmatic about anything. Always be willing to listen and readjust. Never let your identity be too stuck to a group, a belief. Step outside our comfort zone and be willing to put ourselves in positions that make us feel off kilter, because that is when we get opened up, that is when we learn.
There is one postscript to my story. And that is that seven years after I left my religion, I experienced a great tragedy.
My first child, my 4-month-old son, Karl, died. I raise this because many people who know my religious background have asked me if this terrible loss made me want to go back to religion. I think it’s an interesting question.
I don’t think anyone really can be prepared for the loss of a child, but it blindsided me. I was now faced with an entirely foreign landscape: death without hope of an afterlife. Grief without religion.
My father had died when I was a Witness, when I was 18, and I was sad, but I wasn’t that sad, because I was certain that one day I would see him again in paradise. Religion was born for times like this. My faith, I realize now, had acted as a buffer to many of these more devastating aspects of being human.
And now, when I lost my son, without that faith, I experienced this death as nothingness. My child, so full of promise and health and energy, vanished. It was beyond my ability to accept losing him. But it was even farther beyond my abilities to return to any kind of belief in life after death. This was the ultimate test for someone who had once had belief.
But let me tell you what I discovered about grief without religion. It has some surprising byproducts.
I now had no choice but to live with the reality of the loss, and it made me deal with what was in front of me. What was in front of me was utter devastation on every level. But once you have been that close to death, something else happens when you can’t escape it. In the midst of this kind of grief, where you have no escape, you are forced to experience a deeper pain, but you also become more clear-eyed about life. You find you see what is beautiful in life in the midst of all this suffering. And one of those things I experienced was the great care and compassion that we as human beings possess.
When I was in such great pain, so many people, strangers and friends alike, got me through by showing love in so many ways. It was the strangest thing, to experience such an awful thing, yet at the same time, to be touched by such beauty and love.
Now, time has gone by, and without the escape of belief, I have learned a lot. I have learned how to live with everyone’s worst nightmare, I’m still alive, which honestly feels like a feat sometimes.I have learned patience and endurance and how to tolerate devastating feelings, because that is what living without your child requires.
But since I do not believe that my son is “out there” somewhere or will come back to me, it has also meant that I have kept him alive in the ways in the here and now. By talking about him to his sister, and by holding close the memories I have of him every day.
I also became an activist for a national parental-leave policy in his name. Through this work, I found that death without hope didn’t have to be death without faith.
How so? Activism is an act of faith. A faith that when there are problems, we as human beings can find ways to solve them. A faith that my son’s life and death would show others the value of every child’s life. A faith that others would join me in a fight for what was right, and they did.
In my old religion, we were taught not to put our faith in man. But if humankind is all we have, perhaps this faith, this active belief that we can change the world, is not misplaced. That’s what I learned. I’m not willing to give up hope yet.
And the fact is, once we accept reality and truly live in it, with its full range of emotion, good and terrible, that’s where life lies. Not in some fictional paradise.
The one thing that no one can take away from us is the beauty and love we can find in this world if we look for it. When I am in great pain, I remember that the depth of grief we experience is a reflection of the depth of the love we are capable of.
I don’t have all the answers now, but I can appreciate the deep mystery of it all. I feel the magic of life all around me, the great power of shared humanity. I feel gratitude.
And it’s been so lovely to be here with you today. Thank you.
This is an edited version of the speech made by Andrew Bradley at FFRF’s national convention in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 18, 2019. He, along with Deven Green, created the comedy act of Mrs. Betty Bowers, America’s Best Christian, which is an award-winning satirical web series. The duo performed an act for the convention crowd, but then Bradley took the stage solo to give this speech.
By Andrew Bradley
America is lucky it was founded during the Enlightenment. Or, rather, it was lucky that it was the Enlightenment that pushed it to be founded. The Enlightenment meant that the United States was formed during a time of healthy skepticism for religions.
If you read the correspondence of most of the Founding Fathers, it would be almost impossible for any of them to be elected now, even as a Democrat.
They would be destroyed in the primaries by the super PACS: “Why does Ben Franklin hate Jesus so much? Why did Thomas Jefferson desecrate the Lord’s word by calling it a steaming pile of feces?” The Establishment Clause reflects this lull between fits of religious radicalism in this country.
Can you imagine the Bill of Rights written by the Puritans? It would probably look a lot like one that would be written by today’s evangelicals. And would probably have come to be known as the Bill of Wrongs. And only apply to other people.
Evangelicals don’t like — because of our pesky Constitution — that the United States isn’t the Official Sponsor of Christianity. And they’re tirelessly showing their resentment right now.
American theocracy has a new gimmick it’s using to try to work around the Constitution, and to shoehorn a right-wing brand of Christianity into the secular square. It’s called “religious freedom.” Forgive yourself right now if you think religious freedom is about being either religious or free. It is not.
As is the case with most political branding, the words were chosen for their ability to disarm rather than inform. “Religious freedom” is code. It’s anti-constitutional theocracy in constitutional drag. Who could possibly object to freedom? But a peek beneath its benign surface reveals “religious freedom” is really about one thing: Evangelicals using our government to promote their faith. But just an unapologetically selfish and vindictive version of their purported faith.
This very objective was regarded as so inimical to our secular republic that both the Founders and citizens thwarted it twice in the Constitution.
Once, in the body of the Constitution, Article 6, Section 3, banning religious tests for holding office. And then once again, for good measure, in the First Amendment, barring government from promoting any religion. The Founders haven’t been alone at recoiling from theocracy.
“Religious freedom” is not about indulging, much less protecting, non-Christians. It’s not even about protecting Christians who are not right-wing evangelicals. That’s because “religious freedom” is rooted in a lie. Its blandly inclusive title, pretending to protect people of all faiths, is descriptive only of its marketing, not implementation.
If you doubt this, listen to one of “religious freedom’s” highest profile proponents, the anti-LGBTQ president of Family Research Council, the odious Tony Perkins, a man who has selflessly devoted his life to thinking about men licking each other.
[Video of Perkins plays:] “The key to the Muslim community remains Jesus Christ. And that means that we, as Americans, understand the unique nature of this country, its heritage and its government is founded upon Christian truth. And that’s how it works. And the ideas of democracy and individual liberty and self-government are incompatible with what we see in the Muslim world.”
Now, that doesn’t sound like a guy who’s serious about protecting everyone else’s freedom to practice their religion.
In fact, Perkins has also said the Constitution does not protect Islam. And, according to him, “religious freedom” is even more stingy, as it only protects “orthodox” versions of Christianity. You know, the type that, quite coincidentally, hates the gays just as much as Perkins does.
It’s an ungrateful line in the sand. One of the Family Research Council’s favorite tropes to support its made-up version of “religious freedom” is to cite the statutory version called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The RFRA, which was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1997 as unconstitutional when applied to states, was enacted in large measure to protect the religious freedom of Native Americans. The very people — pagans — the new “religious freedom” excludes.
Even beyond its objective, to have secular courts promote one faith, there are other, fundamental problems with how “religious freedom” attempts to nullify laws that apply to all Americans.
If evangelicals can void a law, ad hoc, by claiming it violates their “deeply held faith,” how do courts define that faith, much less determine whether it is deeply held?
And courts can’t just take someone’s word for it. That would be tantamount to the anarchy of giving everyone a wallet full of “Get Out of Laws Free” cards. Hardly in keeping with evangelicals’ oft-spoken fondness for “law and order.”
Let’s address the first question: What is the “faith” being used to avoid the law of the land?
It may not be the one you think. The Christianity that evangelicals practice is as abrupt a departure from Christianity as Christianity was from Judaism. It is so far removed from the teachings of Jesus, it begs for a new name. Jerry Falwell Jr. makes me think of a few . . . But Christianity 2.0™ is the most polite.
Jesus was beta-tested for centuries and, clearly, found buggy. Too many empathy commands, too few tax cuts for Herod. Too much rendering unto Caesar. And give what to the poor? Er, no. That’s not happening.
If imitation is the highest form of flattery, conservatives have made their lifework not letting it go to Jesus’s head. Because, to conservatives, Jesus’s “help the poor” and “turn the other cheek” elective suggestions sound alarmingly liberal, even suspiciously un-American.
Worse, Jesus neglected to mention evangelicals’ two biggest obsessions: homosexuality and abortion. Something had to go. (Spoiler: It was Jesus.)
This has made “religious freedom” all about making up for Jesus’s carelessness. His inconveniently liberal agenda has been swapped out for evangelicals’ less-Jesusy approach.
If Jesus never had a problem with homosexuals, but you do, saying your voluntary animus is actually compulsory faith is a shrewd way to curry legal deference that would otherwise be curtly withheld. Because it’s not prejudice if you call it religion.
It’s God ignoring civil rights, not you. It’s God being an asshole for no reason, not you. “It’s nothing personal: God told me to hate you.”
Now, let’s address the second problem with this wildly improvised faith: How can it be claimed, much less proven, to be “deeply held”?
If there is one thing that the ascension of Donald Trump has taught us, it is this: The tea party never really cared about deficits. And evangelicals never really cared about “values.”
When it comes to determining what people really believe, actual actions speak louder than pious proclamations. Hardly any evangelical “deeply holds” the faith of traditional Christianity when it comes to what they do. So how can they be allowed to only hold it deeply when it comes time to use it against someone else?
Using “deeply held” religious beliefs as carte blanche to step on the constitutional toes of others is a dangerous precedent.
Do we provide exemptions from hate crime laws to Nazis, the KKK or other toxic flavors of white supremacy? Their “deeply held beliefs” about minorities, slavery and mixed marriages have, after all, been supported, with much success, in the past by the bible.
Whenever Franklin Graham tweets that the bible is a “book of timeless moral truths,” I always turn to Exodus 21:20 for tips on beating humans I own. The helpful Lord tells me I can beat them within an inch of their lives and I can’t be punished if they survive since they are my “property.” Ah, what a timeless moral truth. Glory!
I raise the Lord’s fondness for beating slaves to underscore how dangerous it is to allow rules in the bible to override secular laws about how we treat each other. Our secular laws change as humans become more knowledgeable, more caring. The bible is frozen in a time long before either science or the Enlightenment.
When you peel back the pleasant appearance of the words “religious freedom,” you see that something as fraudulent as it is unworkable is afoot. It was something the Founders tried to protect us from — an American theocracy.
Family Research Council and its ilk, after decades of butting heads against the separation of church and state mandated by the Constitution, have come up with a Trojan horse. They call it “religious freedom.”
They know that if you can’t stop inconvenient civil rights laws, creating an excuse to ignore them is the next best thing.
Cases are popping up around the country where businesses otherwise open to the public exercise their “religious freedom” to demean and refuse service to LGBTQ and other minorities.
But “religious freedom” is never about wedding desserts. It’s about just deserts: retribution against secularism.
It’s about promoting one brand of religion by making life difficult for those who do not promote it. It’s about people preening in the piety of making others comply with a “religion” they don’t even follow. It’s about upending America’s hierarchical relationship between settled law and ad hoc belief. It’s about providing right-wing evangelicals with a pretty costume to cover for their grimy bigotry.
Because “religious freedom” treats something that is just a choice (religion) as more important than immutable characteristics that are not choices (race and sexuality).
When you really look at it, you realize that “religious freedom” is neither.
This is an edited version of the speech given by Jeremiah Camara at FFRF’s convention in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 19, 2019. He was introduced by FFRF’s Director of Operations Lisa Strand:
It is my pleasure to introduce filmmaker Jeremiah Camara. He directed and produced the documentary, “Holy Hierarchy: The Religious Roots of Racism in America.” Those who were here at our convention a few years ago had the pleasure of seeing his other movie, “Contradiction,” also about religion, and it’s on Amazon Prime. Jeremiah is also an author, whose books are Holy Lockdown: Does the Church Limit Black Progress? and The New Doubting Thomas: The Bible, Black Folks and Blind Belief. He is the creator of the widely watched YouTube series, “Slave Sermons,” a mini-movie series addressing the harmful effects of religion. Please welcome Jeremiah Camara.
By Jeremiah Camara
I’m honored to be here. Thanks to [FFRF Co-Presidents] Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker for inviting me to this event, to an organization that’s so important, and not only to this country, but to the world. We definitely need the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
They say that America’s going to hell and going wayward because of the rise of secularism. That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. It is really crazy. Do you realize that once upon a time there was something in this country called slavery — and religious belief was the driving justification behind slavery? And now they’re saying that we’re going to hell because of secularism.
My film, “Holy Hierarchy: The Religious Roots of Racism in America,” attempts to explain how the beliefs in a biased supreme being during Colonial America led to beliefs in supreme human beings. If you believe in a supreme being, it’s a seamless transition to believe in supreme human beings.
There is a legal component behind racism that we tend to forget, and it ultimately turned racism into an institution. When you believe in a god, you bring your baggage into that belief, you bring your beliefs, your bigotry, your bias, your superstitions, your stereotypes and your ignorance into that belief. And one of the most fundamental beliefs in America since Colonial times and even today, even if it’s on a subconscious level, is the belief that there is a god who created whites to be superior and blacks to be inferior. This was the prevailing precept.
We moved from Virginia, but many of us still have a Virginia state of mind. Virginia is the boss of this country. You can call it the District of Columbia, if you want. That’s Virginia. And I tell people, if you don’t understand early Virginia, it’ll be a challenge understanding racism in this country, because Virginia is the place where the party started. They perfected racism.
You can’t talk about racism without talking about white supremacy. You can’t talk about white supremacy without talking about Christianity. They’re tied. They’re interwoven. And it’s the root of racism. You don’t enslave. You don’t create systems of apartheid. You don’t create systems of Jim Crow. You don’t implement systems of redlining. The prison-industrial complex is for people who you believe are equal to you.
I think one of the least appreciated but most powerful elements that keeps the wheels of Christianity spinning is white biblical imagery and iconography throughout this country and the world. It does three things: It promotes Christianity, it promotes white supremacy, and it ensures and preserves racism. There’s a lot of talk about the separation of church and state, but there’s also the separation of church and the state of one’s mind.
Imagery is more or just as powerful than any speech that any attorney general or any president or vice president can give in promoting Christianity. Iconography is one of the most powerful weapons in support of Christianity. It’s the unnoticed elephant in the room.
Before there was television, there was imagery. Before there were magazines, there was white biblical iconography. I remember when I was about 6, my mother had a picture of a white Jesus in the kitchen and it was sitting on the table and I noticed that everywhere I went, the eyes followed me. So, I knew that there was really something to this religion because I never saw a picture do that, where the eyes actually followed you.
To people of color, especially blacks being the antithesis of white, seeing white biblical imagery causes immeasurable psychological damage, which has helped to lead to severe cases of lack of self-worth. And deep illness of Stockholm syndrome, as we witnessed in the Botham Jean-Amber Guyger case. And the humongous statue of a white Jesus in the country of Nigeria.
Since Colonial America, the imagery throughout the land continues to support the notion of white supremacy. We see mythological white biblical imagery every day in the magazine and book sections of Walmart, Kroger, Walgreens, CVS and all throughout Hobby Lobby. We see the iconic biblical imagery in doctor’s offices. We see it in hospitals, airports, billboards. We’ve seen it in schools and, of course, in churches and movies.
You look at some of the big blockbuster movies that we’ve had, like “The Passion of the Christ,” that took in close to $400 million. Blacks go to these movies, too.
I always tell people that Jesus is white, even though he never existed. Jesus is white and they ask, “Why do you think that he’s white?” Because he’s white in Walmart and Walmart is the largest retailer in the world. My phone is packed with imagery that I just collect everywhere I go. It’s all around. And that’s something that’s really not talked about a lot.
I was born and raised in Cincinnati, and I used to work at a place called Half Price Books. I was a buyer there. People would bring their old books in and I would assess them. I was really the best assessor that they had and I was the only black. A lady came up with her books and she needed them assessed, and said, “I don’t want a black person touching my books,” even though she was giving them up anyway. I was like, “OK, no problem.”
Honestly, I wasn’t offended. I was cool with it, but what really pissed me off was my white co-worker who assessed her books. That’s the problem. If I can’t do them, you, as my co-worker, should say, “Look, take your books somewhere else.” So, if we’re not all offended and all appalled when we go to Walmart, when we go to these places, I don’t care. I was at the Miami airport and there’s white biblical iconography all around. It’s all over, it’s everywhere. It’s ubiquitous. We all should be upset about that.
Let’s not ignore imagery. Imagery is deeper many times than the spoken word. If there’s no legal justification to end the onslaught of white biblical imagery based on the Constitution’s protection of free speech, then the Constitution is flawed. You should not be able to walk into a store and see white images of Moses and Abraham. To a person of color, it does immeasurable psychological damage. There’s no way we can put a measure on the damage psychologically.
Black people don’t even embrace their own culture. We have Stockholm syndrome to the highest degree in Africa. I don’t know how many have been to Africa, but it is amazing the reverence. They have a saying in Africa that if you’re on your way to church and you see a white man, turn around, because you’ve already laid eyes on God.
This is all about imagery. But what is racism? There’s a lot of talk about it. We hear that word all the time, but racism is the legal backing of a group’s prejudices, stereotypes, bigotry, bias and ignorance. It’s when all that is backed legally it becomes racism. We’ve been mentally conditioned to perceive an all-knowing and all-powerful creator as a white male. And no matter what our current beliefs are, our memory, an association of a white Jesus, are permanently locked in our minds. I’ve been this way since I was 22 years old, since I’ve been out of religion. Done with it. But that image when I was 6 years old is still there. It will always be there.
I’ve got a little part in the film that addresses that imagery. Racism actually stems from one group believing to be of more value and more worth than another group. And it’s time to end all of that and I’m glad that I’m here. I wish there were more blacks here. I wish there were more Hispanics here. It’s a long process, but I think we’re headed in the right direction.
This is an edited version of the video speech made by U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin that was shown at FFRF’s national convention on Oct. 18, 2019.
By U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin
Hello to all my friends out at the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I’m thrilled to be here with you, even in absentia.
Freedom from religion means freedom of religion, and freedom of religion means freedom from religion because people aren’t going to be able to exercise the religion of their choice or the philosophy of their choice if you have theocrats imposing a particular religious creed on all of society.
Obviously, we’ve got some important things going on in Washington, D.C., and I’m delighted and honored and gratified to receive the Clarence Darrow award.
I’ve got this right by my desk, so Clarence Darrow can keep a close watch over me. I want to thank you for this award, which means a whole lot to me. It’s important to me for a few reasons.
One is that Clarence Darrow was a great lawyer who thought systematically and logically, and I think that that is the mindset we have to try to bring to public things. The second reason is because he was a very passionate crusader against capital punishment.
I remember when I was in law school reading his famous closing argument in the Leopold and Loeb case, and being so moved by what it was that he had to say. I was honored to have a chance in my life to campaign against the death penalty in my home state of Maryland as a state senator. I led the floor fight to abolish the death penalty, which we did in 2013. I invoked Clarence Darrow and tried to carry on in his spirit.
We had a guy who was convicted of the most brutal, grisly, gruesome, rape-murder you ever could have imagined: Kirk Bloodsworth. But he swore that he didn’t do it and he was on death row and we very easily could have executed an innocent man. He read about the advent of DNA evidence and wrote to his lawyer, begged his lawyer, who is now the chief judge of the District of Columbia Superior Court, Judge Richard Morin. He begged him to let him get a DNA test.
They found that evidence, which actually was supposed to have been disposed of, but the judge in the case had an assistant who never believed that Bloodsworth was guilty, and she’d saved the physical evidence in her desk. They found the evidence.
They performed the DNA test and it came back with more than 99.9 percent certainty that it could not have been Bloodsworth. And they actually found a positive DNA match with someone who was already in prison with Bloodsworth a floor beneath him in Maryland. That guy confessed to the crime.
I said on the floor to our friends across the aisle who were defending capital punishment, that the death penalty is a great system for people who think that the government is perfect and the justice system is infallible.
Usually that’s not what we hear from Republicans about the government. Usually they say government can’t do anything right. And here they are saying government couldn’t do anything wrong. But, obviously, in this most extreme of scenarios, the government could very easily do something wrong and we know has convicted hundreds of innocent people. And that’s one principal reason that the death penalty doesn’t function for us.
So, I was proud to be involved in that work of abolishing capital punishment in the state of Maryland. I’m also proud to receive this award because Clarence Darrow was such a magnificent and eloquent champion for the separation of church and state. And here he drew upon the deepest wellsprings of American constitutional and political thought.
Our Founders were enlightenment liberals who rebelled against centuries of religious conflict and religious war. The wars of religion between the Catholics and Protestants in Europe were every bit as brutal and vicious as the wars between Sunni and Shia today in the Muslim world.
Our forefathers and foremothers wanted to go in a different direction. They said, “We want a break from the religious wars, from the Inquisition, from the holy crusades. We want a break from the witchcraft trials and the blasphemy laws, the apostasy laws and the heresy laws. We want to put government on a secular and rational basis.” And that’s why we got our First Amendment. Thank you, James Madison.
We got a First Amendment, which gave everybody a right to freely exercise religion as they see fit — right of freedom of speech and also no establishment of religion.
I think that is what resonates with the name of your strong and growing organization. No establishment of religion, free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom to petition government for redress of grievances, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press. All of these freedoms of the human mind go together. That was a great breakthrough victory in our Constitution for progress of human society and human understanding. It allowed us to say that government would be concerned with reason and we would try to govern based on reason and based on a passionate commitment to the rights of everyone.
And that’s basically what our whole history has told us. We have a trajectory of freedom in our Constitution and that’s going to be a central commitment of what it means for us to defend American constitutionalism against attack. This is important to me.
I thought Clarence Darrow obviously had a brilliant and stunning performance at the Scopes trial in 1925, although I think it may have been unnecessary to humiliate William Jennings Bryan in the way that he did. We can say that there should be imposition of no religious creeds or orthodoxies, whether or not those religious creeds or orthodoxies are true. By the way, Clarence Darrow voted for Bryan and supported him in the 1896 election.
But when Bryan died five days after the Scopes monkey trial was over, it led to a kind of breach between the enlightened secular separation of church and state forces that tended to be in the big cities, as Clarence Darrow was in Chicago, and the rural populist forces that were fighting against big business exploitation. I don’t think that we needed that split.
And I think that split has been a tough thing for us politically. That divide has lasted up until this day. We need to defend and uphold the separation of church and state and all the Enlightenment values that Darrow was fighting for.
We should be respectful of other people’s practices of their philosophies and their creeds in their religions, and we should try to join everybody together in working to defend our constitutional democracy. A critical part of our constitutional democracy is the separation of church and state and no imposition of religion through the schools.
The Supreme Court’s ultimate decision in Engel vs. Vitale in 1962 was a great landmark precedent. Some of my colleagues today still walk around Congress saying this was the moral downfall of America, when the Supreme Court banned prayer in the public schools. But, as I like to say, the Supreme Court did not ban prayer in the public schools. As long as there are pop math quizzes, there will be prayer in the public schools.
All the Supreme Court found is that the government cannot impose religious prayer on anyone.
Thank you for this great award. Thank you for giving me a moment to share some of my thoughts with you. And please send me your thoughts and ideas as we move forward in trying to rescue American constitutional democracy today.