Do We, as Americans, Worship God?

Trump's recent tweet is easily contested.

Posted Jul 27, 2017

At some point earlier this week, during the commercial breaks on Fox News, and amidst his push to take away millions of Americans’ access to affordable healthcare along with denying transgender Americans the right to serve in the military, President Trump made the following declaration: “IN AMERICA WE DON’T WORSHIP GOVERNMENT – WE WORSHIP GOD!”

Is that correct? Do we, as Americans, worship God? The answer: Most of us do, but many of us don’t. And those who don’t are growing in number.

First off, some brief history: Our nation has always contained a significant proportion of skeptics and non-believers. As Thomas Jefferson himself declared, “Question with boldness even the existence of a God.” Most of our founding fathers were deists with a very non-literal conception of God that has nothing to do with the God of Ann Coulter, Betsy DeVos, or the 81% of white Evangelicals who helped put Trump into office. And it was this lack of strong faith in such a God that helps explain why, in the Treaty of Tripoli of 1797, President John Adams decreed that "The government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." This legislation, by the way, was passed unanimously by the United States Senate.

Although the Declaration of Independence of 1776 definitely refers to God without apology, once American independence was won from England, and the arduous task of actually forming a new nation was underway, the writers of our Constitution deliberately left God out of the entire body of that foundational, brilliant, and oh-so-secular document. All authority was placed in the hands of “we the people” – not in a deity. Faith, prayer, Jesus, the Bible, a Creator, heaven, salvation, Christianity, ten commandments, God – all deliberately left out of America’s official blueprint.

America’s founders went out of their way to establish a clear “wall of separation” between religion and state, to again quote Thomas Jefferson. They reasoned, as James Madison so adeptly articulated, that both religion and government exist in greater purity if kept apart. To this end, the creators of the United States explicitly stated that no “religious test” shall ever be required in order to hold public office. And they also stipulated that the presidential oath shall make no reference to God. And the congressional oath constructed by the nation’s first lawmakers, and signed into law by George Washington in 1789, also left out any reference to God.

As for our national motto of “One Nation Under God” – it is not our original national motto! The actual founding American motto, adopted by an act of Congress in 1782, was “E Pluribus Unum” (“Out of many, one”). A decidedly secular motto, if ever there was one. But then, in 1956, at the height of the Cold War, and in an effort to distinguish ourselves from those godless communists over in Russia, the motto was changed to “In God We Trust.” And the words “under God” were also not in the original Pledge of Allegiance; they were only added in 1954!

And let's not forget that our nation’s history is peppered with amazing atheists and agnostics, including: Ethan Allen, Mark Twain, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Margaret Sanger, Frederick Douglas, Ernestine Rose, Frances Wright, John Henry Kagi, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Charles Knowlton, H.L. Mencken, Abner Kneeland, Robert Ingersoll, Susan B. Anthony, Richard Wright, William Howard Taft, A. Philip Randolph, Clarence Darrow, Ayn Rand, Felix Adler, Nella Larsen, William Lloyd Garrison, Emma Goldman, Gilbert Vale, Andrew Carnegie, Matilda Joslyn Gage, John Dewey, Betty Friedan, Pat Tillman, Krysten Sinema, Juan Mendez, Mary McCarthy, Charlie Parker, Bill Gates, Steven Pinker, Cal Sagan, etc., etc. In short, freethinkers, skeptics, doubters, humanists, secularists, and non-believers have always been an important, contributing part of American society.

And as I said, our numbers are growing. Back in the 1960s, when I was born, fewer than 5% of Americans claimed to have no religion. Today, it is up to around 25% — with approximately 35% of younger Americans in their 20s claiming no religion. Not all of these non-religious people are atheist or agnostic, to be sure. But a huge chunk of them are. According to sociologist Darren Sherkat, approximately 19% of Americans are non-theists – that is, non-believers in God. According to psychologist Will Gervais, approximately 26% of Americans don’t believe in God. Other estimates are significantly lower: Gallup data suggests that 11% of Americans don’t believe in God.

But whether the percentage of Americans who don’t believe in God is 11% or 26% or somewhere in between – that’s still a huge number of Americans. Tens of millions of people. For some perspective, just consider that Jews only make up about 2% of the US population (and many of them are non-believers in God). African Americans make up around 12.5% of the US population. So when somewhere between 11% and 26% of Americans don’t believe in God, that gives you a sense of just how baldly wrong Trump's tweet is (no surprise there).

What unites us as Americans is clearly not our faith in God.

What does and should unite us as Americans is our adherence to and respect for the U.S. Constitution – and that’s about it. Love of, belief in, and a willingness to defend freedom, liberty, and democracy: government by the consent of the governed. But as for metaphysical, spiritual, otherworldly, religious, or transcendental matters – Is there a God? What happens after we die? Why are we here? How does karma operate? Who was Jesus? Where does chi reside? What is the holy ghost? How can we best mollify jinn?  – the answers to such questions, whatever they may be, are not what define us as Americans, as citizens, or as human beings.

To declare — as Trump and his ilk do — that to be American means to worship God is, quite frankly, un-American.