Two snarls, one Cupp

Lord love her, S.E. Cupp has posted the first chapter of her book Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media's Attack on Christianity. That means I've now inflicted two chapters of the damnable thing on myself, and I feel no better for it. You'll recall that the first chapter I saw was her look at evolution. I summarized:

S.E. Cupp's handling of science and religion misrepresents the nature of evolution, obscures the science of biology, and dismisses the deeply-held religious views of most Christians outside of the fundamentalist subculture. This is the sort of misrepresentation which leads her to concoct an anti-Christian conspiracy on the part of reporters, and – bizarrely – to say that Darwin is "quite literally the Anti Christ" for liberals.

Well, the first chapter of the book is no better. Throughout, it's important to remember that Cupp describes herself as an atheist. Again: when she talks about "our religion" in the book's title, she doesn't mean her religion. It's easy to forget that as you read along. She jumps on every petty offense that any fundamentalist whackjob has ever taken issue with, and quite a few that prominent conservative Christians didn't seem to mind.

For instance, she opens by reviewing President Obama's Inaugural Address, in which he mentioned, "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers." At the time, Fox tried to generate some acrimony over the matter, but Mike Huckabee set them straight, noting that it's "an honest assessment that there are certainly many people in this country that are not necessarily believers in anything other than themselves." It was a decidedly dick move by Huckabee, but not really some sign that he was offended on behalf of religious America.

This does not stop Cupp (in a book that Huckabee contributed a foreword to!) from waxing wroth:

Obama delivered another slight to religious America when he became the first president in the history of the United States to mention atheists.

First, it isn't a slight to religious people to indicate that there are also non-religious Americans. Cupp being one of those non-religious Americans, she should have appreciated the acknowledgment. But no, she feels slighted on behalf of the religious Americans who were not, themselves, feeling slighted. And she throws in a readily checked falsehood for good measure.

You see, Presidents have been mentioning atheists since George Washington. In a letter from March 24, 1784, Washington asked a slave dealer to purchase a house joiner and a brick-layer for him, and emphasized: "if they are good workmen, they may be from Asia, Africa or Europe; they may be Mahometans, Jews or Christians of any sect, or they may be Atheists." Other Presidents have, of course weighed in. Thomas Jefferson called Calvin an atheist in a letter to John Adams of April 11, 1823. In an 1814 letter, Jefferson wondered "If we did a good act merely from love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist? ...Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God." In correspondence his correspondence with Jefferson, Richard Price explored the harm done by religion and inquired, "Would not Society be better without Such religions? Is Atheism less pernicious than Demonism?" Jefferson responded: "I concur with you strictly in your opinion of the comparative merits of atheism and demonism, and really see nothing but the latter in the being worshipped by many who think themselves Christians."

In a famous letter to John Adams, Jefferson expounded further on his views, writing: "To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise: but I believe I am supported in my creed of materialism by Locke, Tracy, and Stewart. At what age of the Christian church this heresy of immaterialism, this masked atheism, crept in, I do not know. But heresy it certainly is." Jefferson was, it should be said, drank deep from a well that Cupp cannot even dip into.

And George H. W. Bush famously got himself into trouble by telling a reporter "I don't think atheists should be considered as citizens." It was a rather bold misunderstanding of the First Amendment, but still stands as a presidential mention of atheism in America.

In as deeply dishonest a book as this, one wants at least to see the twinkling eye of a sparring intellect at work. Instead, it's just a dreary recitation of trumped up bitchiness by fringe right-wing groups. In an economic policy speech at Georgetown University, the White House asked that religious symbols in the background be covered. Obama didn't pray publicly during the first National Day of Prayer in his administration. The media covered Supreme Court deliberations on the constitutionality of the National Day of Prayer, on religious references on US currency, in the Pledge of Allegiance, and in the President's oath of office.

For each of these, Cupp quotes media coverage which she finds especially offensive, but her description of the language rarely matches her actual quotation. For instance, she writes about an opinion column in which Newsweek's Lisa Miller considers whether Obama should close the oath of office by saying "So help me God," as many presidents have done. She quotes Miller writing: "Our new president might use his inauguration then to showcase the values that have made this country great: pluralism, moderation—and the separation of church and state. Though not as politically expedient, the better choice might be to pray in private."

This passage is taken by Cupp to be a white flag of surrender. It is cited as evidence that Miller is saying, "acting too God-crazy might make the terrorists angry. Seriously." Not only that, but these sentences extolling American values have a more sinister meaning:

Miller’s suggestion that we should hide our religion from terrorists is alarming enough. Kowtowing to mass murderers so as not to tick them off is akin to negotiating with them, something the United States isn’t supposed to do. But there’s another flaw in her argument. If what makes this country great is pluralism, then the plurality of its faithful should be acknowledged and even celebrated, not watered down and shoved under the rug. Miller may be embarrassed by the American faithful. But the president shouldn’t be. A presidential rejection of prayer is a presidential rejection of the majority, and therefore a presidential rejection of democracy itself.

Yes, dammit! The President shouldn't kowtow to terrorists, he should celebrate America's religious diversity! Not just Christians, but Muslims and Jews and even atheists deserve a mention. But wait, she though it was an insult to religious Americans to even mention the existence of atheists (like Cupp) among them. What is Cupp saying?

And how does a president's choice to pray or not pray constitute "a rejection of the majority"? Let's change the words a tiny bit to see if the argument makes any more sense this way:

A presidential rejection of white skin is a presidential rejection of the majority, and therefore a presidential rejection of democracy itself.

That doesn't really make sense. Let's try again:

A presidential rejection of Louisville in 2009's NCAA basketball bracket is a rejection of the majority, and therefore a presidential rejection of democracy itself.

Nope, still doesn't make sense. The president is entitled to his own opinions and his own identity. Most Americans are women, yet Cupp is oddly silent in her calls for a presidential sex change. Disagreeing with the majority is not anti-democratic.

Nor does the National Day of Prayer reach back to the First Continental Congress. Various Congresses and Presidents have indeed called for prayers on certain days, but an annual celebration of prayer only goes back to the '50s, and its date was only fixed in the '80s. It's far different to call for prayer after a tragedy befalls the nation than to declare one day a year to celebrate the religious act of prayer. Nor, of course did President Obama "forgo the day entirely." As Cupp observes, he signed a proclamation commemorating the day.

Later she whines that "The war against Christmas has been raging for years." She never gets around to actually demonstrating a years-long campaign. She does cite a lot of people pointing out that it's a hoax jiggered up by conservative babblers, and she never actually offers any counterargument. The criticism of the "war on Christmas" meme goes back to 2005 in her telling, but the only incidents she offers to support the existence of such a war begin in 2008, when a fireworks company refused to sell to a city which turned its Christmas festival into a less sectarian celebration. She tries to gin up controversy over Mike Huckabee's Christmas-themed primary campaign ad, but it never gets off the ground.

Her greatest ire is reserved for people who want equal treatment for their views when a government erects public displays of Christian faith. The issue of government speech versus private speech never actually enters her radar, which would make it impossible for anyone who didn't already know what the War on Christmas was supposed to represent, but here she goes:

In 2009, the war on Christmas raged anew. Atheists in Illinois and Arkansas fought to get their beliefs positioned next to those of the faithful in the state capitols. In Springfield, Illinois, the Freedom From Religion Foundation erected its winter solstice display next to a Christian nativity scene, a Jewish menorah, and a bizarre display by the ACLU. The declaration read:

At this season of the winter solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.

It was also joined by a comment from the Friends of Festivus, a group celebrating the fictional holiday invented by a Seinfeld character more than a decade ago. Nice. A federal judge also allowed the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers to display a four-sided sign honoring the winter solstice and famous atheists throughout time. The states complied, of course, because they wanted to avoid a “controversy.” Let’s examine how much sense that makes. Bowing to the whims of a tiny minority—how many Festivus adherents can there really be?—so as to avoid a “controversy” with 90 percent of the country who believe in God is in fact begging for a controversy.

Shorter S.E. Cupp: Acknowledging the existence of minority groups is insulting to majority groups.

Even Shorter S. E. Cupp: Screw minority viewpoints!

Actual S. E. Cupp: Allowing people to speak freely "is not 'inclusion.' It’s un-American."

Christmas and Hannukah have nothing to do with atheism, so acknowledging it in a holiday display is not only incongruous, it’s an implicit and wholly unnecessary assault on the faithful. But the media didn’t see it that way—countless liberal outlets asked what all the fuss was about. Fox News covered the war on Christmas, while MSNBC, CNN, and the rest told their viewers it didn’t really exist.

I am a nonbeliever. Yet I easily identify with both Huckabee and Stein in wanting to get to the bottom of this marginalization of the faithful. I don’t need to feel “represented” in my beliefs, nor do I need the president to publicly and officially “recognize” them. But here’s the bottom line: If atheists are so opposed to public displays of worship, why the heck are they so pleased when they get a public shout-out?

Are you aghast? Have you no idea how someone could possibly be so daft? Welcome to my world.

Jews represent ~12% of the US population. Putting a menorah in a public place should be as offensive to Ms. Cupp as putting up an atheist sign. And neither menorahs nor Christmas trees nor Flying Spaghetti Monster murals have anything to do with the government's business. If governments wanted to, they could kick all of them out. But as a matter of fairness, if governments let one religious group tout its symbols on the public land, the government can't pick and choose. That'd be establishing a religion, and the sainted Founding Fathers had strict opinions on that topic.

So if atheist groups are opposed to public displays of worship, why do they make a fuss? Because, unlike Ms. Cupp, they do want to be represented. It's her right to want to be downtrodden because she happens to disagree with the majority, but our Constitution protects those of us with minority religious views, and it seems somehow anti-American to criticize people for exercising their legal rights.

But Cupp's over-the-top silliness is still just warming up. "Christians will become the minority," Cupp asserts, "if, in the interest of avoiding a 'controversy,' so many willingly succumb to the media’s assaults." If Christianity's majority status relies on public displays of Christmas trees or a presidential decree of a day of prayer, it's in a pretty weak state. Christianity managed to do fine until Truman signed the Congressional Day of Prayer resolution in the '50s. So how does she see this playing out?

Pretty soon the war won’t be over Nativity scenes and Christmas trees in the town square—it will be over Nativity scenes and Christmas trees in their own homes. Does that sound paranoid? What’s to stop the secular Left from ridding all of America of religious acts of devotion?

You with me? In the course of writing a book about religion in American public life, Cupp has managed not to realize that the First Amendment's Free Exercise and Establishment clauses work together to prevent exactly what she describes. If the government could establish a state religion (by allowing only Christian religious displays on public land, say), it would interfere with people's ability to freely exercise their own religion. This was why the Danbury Baptists were writing to President Jefferson when he wrote back about a "wall of separation" – they were afraid of government endorsement of one religion over another. And the guarantee of free exercise of religion means that the government couldn't outlaw private religious practice if it wanted to. The same courts which defend my right not to pray would protect theists' right to pray.

Slacktivist recently explained this all from his own perspective as a Christian:

my primary objection to the Nationalized Day of Prayer is a religious objection -- a sectarian, Baptist objection, in fact.

For those who subscribe to what my old friend Dwight Ozard called "hegemonic religion," the First Amendment seems incoherent and contradictory. The core belief of hegemonic religion is that religion cannot be freely exercised unless it is also established in law. Those who subscribe to a form of hegemonic religion therefore view the First Amendment as presenting a conflict or, they like to say, a "tension" between its two religious clauses.

Those of us from other, non-hegemonic religious traditions do not see this supposed conflict. Here is what the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says about religion:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ..."

Sometimes a comma is just a comma and not a vast chasm separating two competing and incompatible ideas. The two clauses there do not conflict. At all. They are logically necessary counterparts of one another. Congress may not make any law establishing religion and Congress may not prohibit the free exercise of religion. Congress may not make any law establishing religion because to do so would be to prohibit the free exercise of religion.

Hegemonic believers don't seem to appreciate this point. They can grasp that the establishment of one, official state religion might inhibit the freedom of those not belonging to the One True Official Sect, but they don't perceive how such an establishment also fundamentally alters the relationship of members of that official sect to their own church -- requiring lockstep assent to its official doctrines and practices as set forth thereafter by its official and legal enforcers.

There's only one way to have an established religion without having an inquisition and that is to go without any such tests to distinguish genuine from disingenuous allegiance to official doctrine. That results in a different kind of disaster for the official, established sect. It means that nominal, indistinct, content-less faith becomes the norm. It turns the established sect into something toothless and vague -- the C&E faith of the C of E (Christmas, Easter, Church, England).

These are the unavoidable options for any sect that becomes official and established. It can become monstrous or it can become mundane, but either way it cannot continue to be exercised as freely. Establishment restricts the religious freedom of those belonging to the official sect just as surely as it restricts the freedom of the religious minorities it disenfranchises.

Cupp is a hegemonic believer who happens to think of herself as an atheist. I say she "thinks of herself" that way I am unconvinced that she has thought clearly about just about any of the ideas she's writing about, and I'm unconvinced that she even knows what atheism is. She doesn't understand the law, she doesn't understand religion, and despite having worked for the New York Times, she seems not to understand journalism. Maybe because she spends to much time on Fox News shows.


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yes, what you say may be true. but none of this hides the fact ms. cupp is very sexy with those big glasses.

Kilgore, you hit the nail on the head. The religion of "Liberalism" trumps all else with those on the Left. It trumps their Catholicism, Judiasm and even their Atheism. If you don't agree with their Left wing views, you aren't legitimate. I'm black and I cannot tell you how many times I've been accused of being a trader to my race. My skin is dark and I am obviously a black woman; but because I hold Conservative views, I'm not a legitimate black person.
I thought Liberals preached inclusivism? What a crock!!

Cupp has stated during his softball interviews on rightwing radio that she is an atheist. Well, should she? After all, she believes mentioning by the president that there are atheists is offensive. So, maybe she shouldn't use the fact that she is an atheist to defend her pro-Christian right views. Or, are the audiences of these shows only offended if the mention of an atheist or being an atheist only follows without a defense of the Christian right?

We can't read her mind, but soi-disant atheist is probably a better label for S.E. Cupp.

By Marion Delgado (not verified) on 30 Apr 2010 #permalink

"If atheists are so opposed to public displays of worship, why the heck are they so pleased when they get a public shout-out?"

Wait.. WHAT?

THIS is the new leading light of right-wing punditry? A Coulter wannabe?

I'm a little late to this party, but I submit that Cupp's atheism is as fake as the eyeglasses she wears. It's merely a niche she's carved out for herself to distinguish her from the Ann Coulters, Laura Ingrahams and the Michelle Malkins.

She is the atheist equivalent of a Fox News Democract, whose sole purpose seems to be the bash the group she is ostensibly a part of.