I feel like we’ve been thrown back into the 1950s. Despite his efforts to appear moderate in confirmation hearings this week, the nominee for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), couldn’t help showing his complete disregard for humanists and the separation of church and state, to say nothing of his sexism, racism, and nativism. And it’s hardly the first time.
Consider this statement Sessions made in a Senate speech on March 10, 2016: “The Constitution says we shall not establish a religion—Congress shall not establish a religion. It doesn’t say states couldn’t establish a religion.”
His callous dismissal of history, legal precedent, and the US Constitution is amazing for any attorney, but for a candidate for the position of attorney general? Seculars have every reason to worry.
In a Huffington Post piece earlier this week, Herb Silverman, founder of the Secular Coalition for America, recounts the following story concerning Sessions’ religious bias, noting that the senator equates a belief in God with telling the truth:
In 2001, Sessions rebuked then-Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Patrick Leahy (D-VT) for swearing in witnesses without requiring them to use the phrase “So help me God,” which is not a constitutional requirement. Sessions argued, “Ninety-five percent of the people believe in God,” as if majority rules when it comes to religious freedom. Sessions also equated swearing to God with telling the truth.
In the confirmation hearings this week Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, asked Sessions about previous statements he’s made on the separation of church and state. Sessions affirmed that there wouldn’t be any religious test for prospective Department of Justice (DOJ) employees, but when prodded suggested otherwise.
Whitehouse inquired if Sessions would have a problem with lawyers “with secular beliefs,” having in the past wondered if secularists were fit for government. Sessions replied that he has used language about secular attorneys to differentiate between people who recognize objective “truth” and those who take positions “in which truth is not sufficiently respected.”
“A secular person has just as good a claim to understanding the truth as a person who is religious, correct?” Whitehouse asked. “Well, I’m not sure,” Sessions replied, smiling.
The senators on the panel and the whole room fell into stunned silence. This is a man who thinks that attorneys working under him cannot tell the truth unless they are religious, which clearly implies an unconstitutional religious test for public office. It’s also an example of religious bigotry and of ignorance regarding the concept of truth.
Accepting an award from right-wing extremist David Horowitz on Nov. 14, 2014, Sessions said:
Ultimately, freedom of speech is about ascertaining the truth, and if you don’t believe there’s a truth, you don’t believe in truth, if you’re an utter secularist, then how do we operate this government? How can we form a democracy of the kind I think you and I believe in…I do believe that we are a nation that, without God, there is no truth, and it’s all about power, ideology, advancement, agenda, not doing the public service.
Plato’s definition of knowledge, which is still used today, is “justified true belief.” I fear that Sessions thinks blind religious faith is a form of knowledge, which it’s not. How can he think that religious faith is the only (let alone any) way to the truth? Sen. Sessions tells us that seculars can’t be moral and can’t tell the truth. I only wish he could tell fact from fiction, belief from knowledge, rights from bigotry.
I feel like the American Humanist Association is going to be playing “whack-a-mole” on church-state separation cases for at least the next four years. AHA’s legal staff is extremely competent, winning 90 percent of their cases, but I suspect they will be inundated with cases due to an empowered and emboldened evangelical right wing. The theocrats smell blood and are ravenous in their attempts to create a theocracy. We will probably get no help and indeed a lot of undermining of our First Amendment rights from the DOJ under Sessions. These will not be times for the faint hearted; they will not be times for despair. These are times that call for resolute courage.