Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New York. Here we talk about work to diminish the separation of church and state in the United States.
*Interview conducted on February 24, 2020.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, with regards to the current political situation in the United States, religion is having a freedom fest in The White House. Who are some of the main personalities who appear the most egregious in their open statements and actions for violation of the traditional separation of church and state that is idealized in the United States?
Jonathan Engel: It seems like pretty much almost everyone who is surrounding Trump. Start with some of the people who have, not only in this administration but people that he chose to defend him in the impeachment hearing, I would call them extreme religious believers. These are not your average everyday churchgoer. These are people with extreme views, especially when it comes to separation of church and state.
Which is a subject that is especially important to me, extremely near and dear to me, it is endangered in this country. From Trump and then from the people around him who Trump is happy to please, he does not care. He is not religious. He has no beliefs other than the greatest Trumpists. It is hard to believe that Trump would think that there is a God who is any better than he is because he does not think anything is any better than he is.
But you (Trump) are letting them have their way, letting them have their sway over the government, talking about some of the people we’re talking about here, we can start with Pat Cipollone. He is part of the White House Counsel. People talk a lot about the right-wing evangelical protestants, but they are surrounding Trump. There are a lot of extreme right-wing Catholics as well. He is one of them.
He is on the board of the Catholic Information Center, which, in some ways, prioritizes anti-LGBTQ activism. He is a spiritual leader and godfather to much anti-gay-rights stuff. So, start with him, right there, then we are going on to some of the other people who suspended Trump’s impeachment.
We have Ken Starr. The famous Ken Starr from the Clinton investigation. From the Clinton impeachment who is also an extreme person when it comes to religion, he was fired as president of Baylor University, which is a devout Baptist school in Texas. He was fired as president for covering up a sex scandal among the football players.
So, there’s religion and then there’s football. I mean, come on, this is America, you know what I mean? Football is, basically, a religion itself. So, you have Ken Starr. You have Vice President Mike Pence who again, anti-gay rights, a believer that God has appointed him to be a politician.
Then, we have Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is a protestant fundamentalist, believes strongly in the rapture and the apocalypse that is coming when Jesus will come back to Earth. Well, first, we must have Israel. Established in the Middle East and, again, that is why so many fundamentalist protestants are pro-Israel because that’s part of the prophecy.
Israel has a war and then Jesus comes back, and the people throw all the non-Christians into the pits of hell including the Jews, by the way. Thank you for being pro-Israel. And Christians float up to him. This guy believes this is going to happen. As far as I’m concerned, all I want to see is, “Oh, if you want to throw me to the pits of hell, that’s okay, but let me see these people float up to him.” I got to think that would be something to see.
Engel: But you also think about, “How do you plan?” I mean, “Why plan for climate change when in 50 years, the world is going to be gone, anyway, with this rapture? Why plan for anything?” Then, of course, the idea of the support for Israel, which is favouring war because again, it is part of the prophecy.
So, that’s Pompeo. But the guy I want to talk, a little bit, the most about is William Barr. William Barr, the Attorney General of the United States. Hard to believe that is true, but it is. He gave a speech at Notre Dame University in the fall, in which he blamed, basically, all the problems of this country on secularism.
That secularists are these horrible people who are destroying the moral backbone of the country, as if religion has anything to do with morality. Again, he talks about a campaign to destroy secularists like me or who are out to destroy the traditional moral order.
The traditional moral order is gay people staying in the closet and blacks staying at the back of a bus and women staying in the kitchen, etc., destroying that traditional moral order, but I don’t think that’s what he was talking about. This is what Barr is looking to do now. Why would Barr continue to be part of Trump’s campaign?
Because Trump will let him do what he wants and this is scary, especially, for me.
A couple of examples of speeches Barr has made in the past. He keeps complaining about public schools failing to provide moral instruction. ‘The moral, the bottom public schools have been based on extremist notions of separation of church and state, on theories of moral relativism which reject the notions that there is such a thing as right and wrong to which the community can demand adherence. There can be no right or wrong without religion.’ I would say that comes as news to me.
Engel: He gave another speech when it was a previous term of the secretary of state in which he said, ‘Because human nature is fallen,’ whatever that means, ‘we will not automatically conform God’s law because we can know what is good. We are not going to be slaves to our passions and wants to the extent that the society’s moral culture is based on God’s law, you will guide men towards the best possible way.’
Okay, as if it should not be a choice or anything, ‘The secularists today are clearly fanatics and their actions are producing soaring rates of crime. Widespread drug addictions, 1.5 million children aborted each year.’ Okay, so, I’m getting into a little bit of what William Barr is all about, but one of the things. In terms of trying to get rid of the separation of church and state, that I find so alarming myself and part of it is my personal background, which is to talk about school prayer.
Like somehow, schools are the problem with kids today, where they do not pray in school. I do not know if I have mentioned it to you before. I do not know if you anything about me, but my father was one of the plaintiffs in these court cases here in the states in 1962 about school prayer.
Jacobsen: That is right.
Engel: So, to me, this is important, but you look at what people like Barr believe that, somehow, if you don’t pray in school, if you don’t have organized prayers in school, that somehow this is going to be a moral blight on the country. That you cannot have morals unless kids are forced to pray in school which I find ridiculous.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Jon.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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