When the American Atheists organization attempted to set up a booth at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference, not even their fervent support of limited government could secure them a spot. Brent Bozzel III, whose father asserted, along with his best friend, William F. Buckley, that the nation was founded on Christian principles, summed up the reason the American Atheists were ousted from the conference. Their presence, Bozzel stated, would have signified “an attack on God.”

The differences between the two were apparent in their mission statement. The American Atheists’ mission statement was as follows:

“{The AA} is fighting for the civil liberties of atheists and the total, absolute separation of government and religion.”

How different was the mission statement of the social conservative group American Conservative Union (of which Bozzel sits on the board of directors) in attendance: “We affirm our belief in the Declaration of Independence, in particular, that our inherent rights are endowed by the creator.”

It is apparent why these two groups are at loggerheads. Social conservatives hew to God-given rights, which, since the government “recognizes” and “protects” these “rights,” makes “church” strangely dependent upon “state.”

On the other side, we have the position of the AA that church must be separated from state. To agree that rights are God-given might be taken to mean that those who don’t believe in God are ineligible for such rights; and their “persecution” immediately follows.

In a certain sense, both “sides” promote a nightmare world about each other.

For many of the newly vocal social conservatives the separation of church and state goes against the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which “codifies” and “protects” these “God-given” rights. There is a sense that if God is detached from these “rights,” “human-made” rights are created, which result in citizens being made slaves of a capricious state. In such a view, eventually the separation of church from state ushers in immorality, and like Rome, America will collapse.

Those who support the separation of church and state argue that merging the two would create a theocracy that would imprison and perhaps, in the model of historical precedent, even execute nonbelievers.

But not all conservatives subscribe to this either/or. Some support limited government and the separation of church and state; and still see religion as attractive and sometimes a necessary component for democracy. The most interesting and intellectually rigorous of this group is George Will.

Will’s opposite number on the social conservative side has been Pat Buchanan, who is articulate and combative. His social issue stances show his belief that there should be no separation of church and state. Buchanan demands that school prayer, supported by the government in the form of a Constitutional amendment, be brought into the public school classroom. Always the culture warrior, Buchanan in 1999 wrote:

“A National Day of Prayer, conducted inside the classrooms of America’s public schools, by Christian teachers, in open defiance of Supreme Court edicts, would send a message of political strengths the Secular City could not ignore.”

For Buchanan, the separation of church and state is a creation of the secular left. He, like other social conservatives, states that it is not in the Constitution. To follow and obey it, he holds, would result in the end of the American experiment. If the American government did not “defend the moral order rooted in the Old and New Testament and Natural Law,” then “Western Civilization would collapse.” Thus, in Buchanan’s world, the backbone of the conservative movement is religion.

But not all social conservatives have demanded that only Christian believers could be part of the conservative movement. William F. Buckley, in many ways Buchanan’s intellectual guru, welcomed atheists into the conservative big tent. At first glance the fervently Catholic Buckley would have seemed the least likely to support this stance.

Buckley’s first book, God and Man at Yale (1951), demanded that college professors no longer be allowed to teach what Buckley called “collectivism” and “atheism” to students. Instead, in a kind of reverse political correctness, he demanded that they should instead teach “free market” economics and “Christianity to students.”

Buckley saw such religious education as necessary for fighting the Cold War as the missile silos. For him, America was founded on Christian principles, and such principles had to be conflated with the military-industrial complex in order to counter the appeal of the Soviets’ secular faith.

But had Buckley been alive in 2014, he might have been more welcoming to the inclusion of the American Atheists at CPAC; for Buckley saw no reason agnostics and even atheists could not be part of the conservative moment when he stated, “A conservative need not be religious but he must not despise religion.”

Before examining the atheistic Will, it should be noted that not all social conservatives hiss at the separation of church and state. Dinesh D’Souza does not. D’Souza shares with Buchanan a belief that the country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles and that natural rights enunciated in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution come from God. But he also states that the separation of church and state is a Christian creation. For D’Souza believes that the separation of church and state did not come from John Locke or Thomas Jefferson; instead it came from Jesus:

“{The separation of church and state is not} an Enlightenment idea or an American idea, but long before that, it was a Christian idea. . . . Christ seems to be the first one who thought of it. As we read in Matthew 22:21, Christ said, ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and; unto God the things that are God’s.’”

D’Souza is not the only unusual figure concerning conservative cultural warriors. David Horowitz, although an admitted agnostic, nevertheless shares with social conservatives the same belief that there is no evidence of a separation of church and State clause in the Constitution. Horowitz believes the whole basis for this concept came from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson, the contents of which were “misinterpreted” by the “malicious left” to drive religion from the public square.”

Charles Krauthammer was even more unusual. Krauthammer, who had a rigorous upbringing in Jewish religion (by high school he could pen essays in Hebrew) stated that he does not believe in God, but, paradoxically, “fears him greatly.” And yet he also despised atheism, calling it “the least plausible of all theologies.”

But at the same time Krauthammer wanted religion separated from politics. He lamented that the 2008 Republican presidential primaries were “knee deep in religion.” He was disgusted with how readily the Republican candidates were to answer personal questions about their religious beliefs. By answering such questions, Krauthammer asserted, the candidates were enabling a “religious test for office.”

George Will, raised Presbyterian, has none of Krauthammer’s inconsistency about the existence of God. In 2014 Will forthrightly stated, “I’m an atheist. An agnostic is someone who is not sure. I’m pretty sure. I see no evidence of God. The basic question in life is not ‘Is there a God?’ but ‘Why does anything exist?’ . . . Thomas Aquinas said that there must be a first cause for everything, and we call the first cause ‘God’. Fine, but it just has no hold on me.”

He concludes that he is an “amiable, low-voltage atheist.”

And yet he is also an odd one.

Like Buckley, Will believes that conservative atheists (such as he) should not shun social conservatives. Will sees both groups’ belief in limited government as a unifying issue. He writes that proponents of “limited government should be friendly to the cause of American religion, even if they are not believers themselves.”

But Will’s “amiability” has given way to anger toward Christians at times. He mocks Christians who “are joining today’s scramble for the status of victims.” Of Buckley’s beloved denomination, Catholicism, Will has been even harsher. In 1987 he castigated the “residual anti-Semitism at work in Vatican policy.” In 2015 he attacked Pope Francis for standing “against modernity, rationality, science, and ultimately the spontaneous creativity of open societies in which people and their desires are not problems but precious resources.” Will concluded that Francis is more in line with the Middle Ages when the church “ruled the roost.”

Will recognizes the necessity of the separation of church state when he writes of the “dark and bloody ground of the relationship between religion and American public life.” He cuts to the heart of social conservative beliefs by asserting that “rights” are not God-given. Civil liberties do not require a “religious foundation,” and in a passage anathema to conservative Christians, Will states that the Founding Fathers shared this view. As such, he sees the American experiment as owing “much more to John Locke than Jesus.”

But as a whole Will believes that the Founders did not see religion as detrimental to the American government. They, according to Will, saw religion as necessary in instilling morality in citizens, without which the American experiment would not work. Will even argues that religion strengthens the Lockean concept of limited government:

“It is at the foremost of our civil society that religious institutions pay a crucial role in sustaining our limited government.” Religion is part of a “wholesome division of labor” with “political institutions.”

Will credits the separation of church and state for making America “the most relentlessly modern nation” in history. In turn, religion, by “comfortably” coexisting beside government, is itself strengthened because of its “independence of politics.”

Will is certainly an unusual atheist. Finding value in religion he often sides with it in the culture wars against the secular left. He decries the “active hostility to the religious impulse on the part of those who preach tolerance and diversity.” He recognizes that the secular faith, with its belief that human nature as malleable, has, in the form of fascism and communism, created more carnage in the twentieth century than religious groups.

But he also takes positions anathema to the Christian right. He supports assisted suicide, the legalization of drugs, and is against the death penalty (it must be said that of the latter, Christians can be conflicted on this issue).

Some could call Will himself conflicted and inconsistent and even muddled regarding his view of religion. But in an age in which some Christian conservatives hope for a kinder, gentler theocracy, and some of their opponents want religion driven from public life in order to launch their social engineering schemes, Will shows that one can be against both.

Editor’s note: This magazine has always cited biblical evidence for a separation of church and state as unambiguously proclaimed by Jesus Christ. Current Christian views to the contrary depend heavily on a misunderstanding of the dynamics of the Old Testament theocracy, where God directly made His views known. Absent that dynamic, any pseudotheocracy today is bound to degenerate to that age of the Inquisition, where conscience died at the expense of those who presumed to know and be the voice of God. The U.S. First Amendment is the plaything of revisionism; but it is very easy to show that it was modeled after the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, whose author, Thomas Jefferson used the expression “wall of separation” to describe the statute. The reaction to the separationist intent of the amendment in large part explains the furor at Jefferson winning the presidency in 1801. He was somewhat inaccurately labeled “Godless.”


Article Author: ​Ron Capshaw

Ron Capshaw is a journalist and freelance writer in Midlothian, Virginia.