By James Neal, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
Oklahoma atheists are uniting their voices with non-believers across the U.S. to lobby for more separation between church and state.
“There are 40 million Americans who don’t identify with any religion, but our political influence has been limited because we have not been organized,” said Edwina Rogers, Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for America. “This year, that changes.”
Rogers made that statement in a press release announcing formation of an atheists’ lobbying group in Oklahoma, which will officially open with a conference call Wednesday.
“Some of the most egregious violations of church-state separation are being promoted and passed at the state level, and we absolutely must act to stop it,” Rogers said.
According to the press release, the conference call and the Oklahoma SCA chapter will be “open to anyone who supports a strong separation of religion and government and wants to get involved, irrespective of personal religious beliefs.”
Organization of the Oklahoma chapter comes in a final wave of 12 states in which SCA plans to organize lobbying groups. Chapters already have been organized in the other 38 states, and SCA plans to have chapters operational in all 50 states by December.
Lauren Anderson Youngblood, SCA Communications Manager, said Oklahoma’s atheist lobby is being organized in the last round because there’s less support here than in some other states.
“We rolled the groups out first in the places where we knew we had some type of framework already in place that would be natural feeders for our organization,” Youngblood said. “The states where we didn’t have as much infrastructure, we waited on them, and that’s how Oklahoma ended up being in the last round.”
Youngblood said an agenda has not been set for the Oklahoma chapter, but it will join with other state chapters to oppose legislation that “mixes politics and religion.”
“Our founders specifically founded our country to be a country that didn’t have a designated religion,” Youngblood said. “What we’re seeing now is an attempt to blur the lines and insert religion and religious ideology into our policy and our laws.
“Not only is that against the founding principles of our country, it’s just not right. Our elected officials are elected to represent the public, and the public is very pluralistic, and those lawmakers are not there to only represent people who agree with them on religion.”
Youngblood cited a recent Pew Forum study that indicated 20 percent of Oklahoma residents do not express an absolute belief in God, and 31 percent disagreed “religion is very important to their lives.”
Another Pew study cited in the SCA press release found 54 percent of Americans say churches and other houses of worship should keep out of political matters, and 38 percent say there has been too much expression of religious faith and prayer from political leaders.
Youngblood said the SCA is not opposed to people having religious views, they just want those views kept out of politics.
“We represent non-theists, but our chapters are open to everyone who agrees the separation of church and state needs to be upheld and strengthened,” Youngblood said. “We typically work with people who believe in God and who do have faith, but who believe the place for God is not in our government.”
George Gividen, member of the Enid Humanist Association, said Oklahoma atheists and agnostics need a lobby to make their voice heard.
“We need a lobbying organization, just like Christians need their lobbying organizations,” Gividen said. “There are great Christians out there doing great things for this nation, and there are great atheists who also are doing great things for our nation.”
Gividen said the Enid Humanist Association, an admittedly small group, was founded not to oppose religion, but to foster respect and understanding between believers and non-believers.
“The humanist organization as a whole is not against religion,” Gividen said. “We’re for religious freedom. We’re just against religion getting special treatment and exemptions.
“We’re not trying to push our views on other people,” he said. “We’re not here to attack religion, we’re not here to attack Christians, we’re here to voice our opinions and say that we should be respected for our right to have our own beliefs.”
Gividen said he is not personally offended when elected officials profess their faith, if it is genuine.
“For some politicians, God really is an all-important part of their life, and I’d expect when they talk, God is going to come up, because that’s who they are,” he said.
Gividen said he is opposed to politicians using God and faith to further their campaigns and their own cause, “and we should all take issue with that.”
On the other side of the issue, many in the local community and across the nation argue politics need to be based more on faith, not less.
“We would like to see more faith included in government rather than less,” said Mark Irwin, co-founder of Garfield County Sons and Daughters of Liberty. “In the course of the last couple of hundred years, we’ve moved farther and farther away from that, particularly in our schools, and I don’t see how our country has improved because of that.
“I think the government should be a reflection of the society as a whole, and I would much rather live in a society that is at least trying to live in the principles outlined in the Ten Commandments. If you look at those commandments, in Christianity, Buddhism or Islam or whatever, those basic tenants are outlined in all religions.”
Irwin said American politics should be defined by the guiding principles of the majority, though the rights of the minority “should never be trampled by the majority.”
“You can’t restrict the beliefs of our society and our elected officials based on the beliefs of a small segment of our population,” Irwin said.
The freedom to express political views in a tax-exempt religious setting was the centerpiece of “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” promoted in all 50 states by the national group Alliance Defending Freedom.
Organizers called on pastors to “preach sermons that present biblical perspectives on the positions of electoral candidates” in opposition to an IRS code that bars political speech from the pulpit.
According to an ADF press release, about 1,500 pastors nationwide were expected to take part in the civil disobedience, though few, if any, participated in Enid.
Brad Mendenhall, pastor of World Harvest Church and president of the Enid Ministerial Alliance, said he didn’t know of any churches that officially participated in the event Sunday.
Like many local pastors, Mendenhall said he doesn’t see a clear line between faith and politics, but he does stop short of endorsing candidates from the pulpit.
“In my opinion, our nation was founded upon the principle of having God first and honoring God, and to me, it’s hard to separate God from government, because I believe God is the ultimate authority,” Mendenhall said.
“My approach has been to talk about the Godly values and the Godly principles our nation was founded on. We provide all the information that is needed for people to make a quality decision.”
Wade Burleson, lead pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church, also said he keeps political endorsements out of the pulpit.
“It’s my practice to never publicly endorse any candidate,” Burleson said. “I’m very active politically personally, but I try to leave that out of the pulpit.”
Burleson said he keeps politics out of his sermons because mixing politics into the church damages the church.
“We don’t do politics from the pulpit, because I frankly think that lowers and denigrates the church,” Burleson said.
Burleson said Christians need to be informed about and active in politics, but politics is not their highest calling.
“I do think it’s important for Christians to be involved in the political arena and to vote their conscience and their convictions,” he said. “But, I think every Christian has a much higher calling. Be involved in politics, but realize you have a much higher purpose than that.”
The faithful and the non-believers are not likely to come to any agreement on religion. But, Gividen said, there is hope we all could work together to improve our nation, regardless of our individual beliefs.
“We have to respect each other as humans and work together,” Gividen said. “That’s what makes America great, is that we can all have our own views and we can bond together to work for the future.”