Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic: Atheists in American Public Life
Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurance Moore
Hardcover, 256 pages
Publication Date: August 21, 2018
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Genre: Nonfiction, Religion, History
With a blunt title sure to arouse emotion from the start, “Godless Citizens” is a direct book. Kramnick, a professor of government, and Moore, a professor of history and American studies, at Cornell University co-authored “The Godless Constitution” over a decade ago. The pair returned last year with “Godless Citizens,” a short text about America’s foundations.
It is no secret many believe America is a Christian nation, despite also believing their Christianity to be threatened in America. I grew up in churches who constantly told me how the Founding Fathers were all devout Christians who created a country with God front and center. Kramnick and Moore take the opposite approach to those sentiments, arguing, not only for America’s Christianity-free beginnings as a governed nation, but also for the inclusion of atheists in public life.
It was that second statement which caused most of my interest in this book. Surely, I thought, atheists are included in public life. In a country full of people of different backgrounds, races and beliefs, atheism has its place among other belief systems.
I was incredibly wrong about this. “Godless Citizens” provides many scathing examples of how America has religious freedom, as long as your religion has the approval of others. Today, in 2019, you cannot join the Boy Scouts if you are an atheist. Seven state constitutions state a belief in God is necessary to hold public office. Thankfully, these clauses cannot be enforced, as doing so would violate the Constitution’s mandate of not requiring religious tests for those running for office. Despite this, the wording—and sentiment—remain. Atheists are looked down upon and, in many cases, openly ostracized in America.
Kramnick and Isaac believe there is a problem with this. In the prologue of “Godless Citizens,” they state, “The time has come for a serious reassessment of what it means to continue practices that ground citizenship in theistic belief.” The religion of no religion should be just as accepted as someone worshiping the Judeo-Christian God or any other deity or deities.
I found “Godless Citizens” to be incredibly eye-opening. Growing up in a Christian environment, I did not know about how terribly atheists are treated, but I often heard the sentiment expressed. Those labeled “atheists” were talked about in hushed or shameful tones.
“Godless Citizens” fights against the ideology of atheists as lesser and rightly so. Their opinions should be respected just as much as the opinions of anyone else. This is the real meaning of religious freedom in America: you have the right to practice your religion, and those you disagree with have the right to practice their religion, too. It was one of the many reasons people left Europe to make a new home for themselves in America.
While some of the chapters, which cover court cases centering around the treatment of atheists, are rather dense, the book as a whole was educational and written well. As an editor, I could tell it was a first edition and needed another round or two of proofreading, but the writing and points made were solid.
I think anyone, regardless of religious beliefs, should read this book. Kramnick and Isaac are not advocating for the downfall of Christianity, but rather the freedom to let atheists and agnostics live their lives without discrimination for their beliefs. In the epilogue, they summarize their intent in a single sentence, and I think everyone should take it to heart:
“Let’s be absolutely clear that religious liberty, everybody’s religious liberty, requires vigilant protection.” Atheists and Christians alike deserve the same freedoms, and “Godless Citizens” is a great starting point to understand this ongoing issue.
Paige Holmes is a junior journalism major from Topeka, KS. Reading is her favorite thing to do because it teaches one how to think, imagine and live. Paige believes there is no better way to learn something or be entertained than by reading a book. Her favorite genre of books is fantasy/thriller and her favorite book is ‘Opening Moves’ by Steven James.