As an atheist in the United States, I’m surrounded by messages that I am a second-class citizen. Not only are atheists the demographic least trusted in elections, a frighteningly large number of states specifically (and unconstitutionally) prohibit atheists from holding public office. The military, presumed to be all but the definition of what American heroes and role models should look like, goes out of its way to curate its members’ “spiritual” well-being and implies that soldiers who are nonreligious are less than fit for duty. I’m sure you remember the plethora of stories from the 2008 election about conservative politicians’ remarks on the nature of “real Americans,” in particular that they’re people who have faith in (the Christian) God.
These “real Americans” have a bunch of other important traits, of course. They hail from little towns in the “heartland,” not big cities. They like driving trucks and shooting guns. They don’t need your fancy-pants university education, because they do real, honest work (read: unskilled or low-skilled, manual labor). If you value gun control, fuel economy, or higher education — or if you work a white-collar job, or if you live in a city — you might not be
redneck real American. (Apologies to Jeff Foxworthy.) There’s a reason why the term “liberal” works as a slur. Worst of all, though, is a “godless liberal.”
Don’t look at me — I didn’t make this up. It’s a deeply entrenched and popular meme. Here’s singer-songwriter Brad Paisley performing his single, “This Is Country Music,” at the CMA Awards last November (where he won Entertainer of the Year). Listen to that applause….
Oh, those lyrics! Of course, the part that made me stop my radio dial and actually listen to an entire song on the country music station was that early line, “And tellin’ folks that Jesus is the answer can rub ‘em wrong.” And I knew I had to turn it into a blog post at the point when the chorus went, “This is real, this is your life in a song.” It’s sure not my life, but then, I guess I’m not a “real” American anyway.
Here’s what I can’t wrap my head around. On the one hand, Christians make up over three quarters of the US population. Every politician seems to end their speeches saying, “God bless America.” Christianity has insinuated itself into our currency and our national pledge. (Sure, maybe these are just generic deities being mentioned. But every Christian Right-ist claims them as evidence that the US is a Christian nation.) And time and time again we are told that “real,” patriotic Americans are the ones who love Jesus.
But on the other hand, Christians (including Brad Paisley) claim, “folks” don’t seem to like it when you tell them that Christianity is true. I’m perpetually hearing and reading Christians go on about how hard but noble it is to be open about their religious beliefs, bemoaning how it just isn’t cool in this day and age, and challenging each other to be brave enough to do it. There’s also apparently the perception that many of the other traits ascribed to “real Americans” are rare as well; for example, in the song above, it says, “And if there’s anyone that still has pride and [maybe “in”] the memory of those that died defending the old red, white, and blue,” as though almost no one respects the military and the sacrifices made by soldiers and their families. I don’t know where anyone got any of these ideas. However, it is a fact that 80% of the US population lives in urban areas, not in small towns.
Here’s the thing, Christians. You can’t bask in the privilege of being a supermajority and at the same time lick your wounds and beg for the sympathy we’d offer an oppressed minority. You have to pick one or the other. Should we be framing the Ten Commandments in our courtrooms, because the country is so obviously founded on the Bible and everyone’s a Christian anyway? Or are you actually going to start keeping your religion to yourselves for fear of offending and upsetting anyone?