Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic-Atheists in American Public Life by R. Laurence Moore and Isaac Kramnick. W. W. Norton, 209 pp.
In the beginning, there was uncertainty. As America rose from the ashes of the Revolutionary War, its fate was unclear. The idealists in the young country dreamed of becoming a beacon for democracy with a strong national identity, but the European nations in power expected it to fail. The nervousness surrounding America's success influenced the laws created in those early years. Anything or anyone considered a threat to the stability of the new American culture was vulnerable to legal sanctions. And atheists--those who did not believe in God--were seen as a serious threat.
In the early 19th century, politicians and religious leaders used "atheist" as a catch-all term for rhetorical strawmen who were intent on dismantling the law and destroying American democracy. The perception of atheists as un-American resulted in several state laws barring them from holding public office or testifying in court. These laws were created in the name of "protecting social stability."
Now, more than 200 years later, America is a world power, democracy has prevailed and atheists have not destroyed American social stability. So, why is it that Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Pennsylvania continue to retain provisions in their state constitutions that require their public officials to hold a belief in a higher power?
In their new book Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic: Atheists in American Public Life, coauthors and Cornell University professors R. Laurence Moore and Isaac Kramnick work to answer this question. Starting with the country's birth and ending with the Masterpiece Cakeshop Supreme Court case, Moore and Kramnick explore the history and current reality of atheism and non-belief in America.
The book's first chapter, titled "The Invention of Religious Liberty," tells a story that we at Americans United are well acquainted with: the origins of church-state separation. Puritans, Baptists, Quakers and Deists all played an important role in the founding of America, but one religious f leader stood above the rest when it came to religious liberty and support of nonbelievers: Roger Williams.
Williams, a Puritan minister and founder of Rhode Island, called for a "wall of separation" between churches and governing bodies. To Williams, believers and non-believers were equally capable of serving in government. It was their skill as civil servants--not their private religious beliefs that mattered. According to Moore and Kramnick, he was far ahead of his time.