The Separation of Church and State
Presidential Spiritual Advisers, Tongue-Speaking
Vice-Presidents, School Vouchers, and
America's Precarious Freedom of Religion
The very first of the American Bill of Rights begins, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . ." The Supreme Court of the United States has long interpreted the first amendment of the constitution to mean that the government cannot use its enormous resources, power, and influence to favor one religion over others. In this doctrine, the State and the Church must remain independent. This is the principle of "The Separation of Church and State."
Though the Religious Right(eous) screech (endlessly) about a supposed "War on Christianity" whenever someone attempts to uphold this all-important principle, its purpose has always been to protect religious freedom. The State thus becomes the protector of freedom of religion. Unlike many countries with a State religion that is given preference and/or forced on the citizens, the idea was that the United States would ensure that no one can forcefully indoctrinate or persecute religious believers. The most important first step is the prohibition of the establishment of any specific State supported religion. Thus, America became a land of religious freedom, tolerance, and diversity.
To repeat — and unfortunately, given how easily the religionists are able to fool people into thinking that opposition to the use of governmental resources in the support of religious activities/displays is a War on Religion, repetition appears to be necessary — the goal was to protect the religious freedom of all citizens, i.e., the complete freedom of human beings to determine their own religious beliefs. Such freedom can only exist if the power of the government is not used to shape the religious beliefs of the citizens. To protect this most holy freedom, there must be NO actions by the State favoring one form of religious belief over any other.
Listen to how John F. Kennedy put it.
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In 1994, this inspired doctrine was clarified further when the United States Supreme Court concluded that "government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion." The government's sacred job is to protect the complete freedom of sentient humans to determine their own religious beliefs, and to do so, the government must not enter into the business of promoting any particular form of religious belief.
"The Case of The Loony Legislator & The Sensible Skeptic"
So, let's see how democracy actually works in America, the Land of the Free, where the Constitution is the highest law of the realm.
Not too long ago, Representative Monique D. Davis (D-Chicago), an Illinois legislator, made it clear that even those who have gone beyond a college education (Davis has a Master of Science degree) and have worked as a LAWmaker for over two decades (as Ms. Davis has) can operate with no understanding of the U.S. Constitution. As you will see below, this legislator does not have an inkling of a hint of a clue regarding how important the Separation of Church and State is for the protection of religious freedom.
Let's take a closer look.
The Loony Legislator & The Sensible Skeptic
Illinois House hearing on $1 million grant to school
. . . The hearing to probe the grant came after the Blagojevich administration steered $1 million to the private Loop Lab School to make good on the governor's pledge to help Pilgrim Baptist Church rebuild after a fire. Instead of giving to the church, the money went to the school, which rented space from the church.
The grant came as state and federal authorities were trying to collect thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes from the school, the Tribune reported Wednesday. Other potential roadblocks also were cleared to make the grant possible: The governor gave a rare and swift pardon to the school's director, a convicted felon; the school registered as a charitable organization for the first time in its 25-year history; and the school filed three years' worth of required state tax documents in one day.
On April 2, 2008, a horribly evil atheist, Rob Sherman (who was also a Green Party candidate for State Representative), was testifying before the Illinois State Government Administration Committee. According to Mr. Sherman, "My testimony was that Governor Blagojevich's plan to donate one million tax dollars to Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago is unconstitutional." Note that Blagojevich is now serving a 14 year sentence in federal prison for numerous charges including the misuse of state funds. In fact, since such a donation is a blatant violation of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, the Governor had found a sneaky, indirect, and illegal way to funnel the money to the church (see side box).
So the wicked Mr. Sherman was protesting this violation of the Constitution of the United States. Surely, any American who understands the importance of the role of the law in protecting freedom would understand this. Surely we could expect a 20-year State Legislator with a Master's degree to understand the law.
The Unbelievable Exchange
Well this unbelievable (or rather, all too believable) exchange is what took place during the Committee hearing:
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I think the church, regardless of what it is being used for now, is a building that deserves to be preserved, historically, because in our community it has great value . . .
: Yes, ma’am.
. . . great value, historical value. So, I don’t know what you have against God, but some of us don’t have much against Him. We look forward to Him and his blessings. And it’s really a tragedy—it’s tragic—when a person who has engaged in anything related to God, they want to fight. They want to fight prayer in school.
I don’t see you (Sherman) fighting guns in school. You know?
I’m trying to understand the philosophy that you want to spread in the state of Illinois. This is the Land of Lincoln. This is the Land of Lincoln where people believe in God, where people believe in protecting their children. You know, we don't want . . . In my opinion, what you have to spew and spread is extremely dangerous, it’s dangerous . . .
: What’s dangerous, ma’am?
It’s dangerous to the progression of this state. And it’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists! That you will go to court to fight kids havin' an opportunity to be quiet for a minute. But damn if you’ll go to school (sic) to fight for them to keep guns out of their hands. I am fed up! Get out of that seat!
Thank you for sharing your perspective with me, and I’m sure that if this matter does go to court, the record . . .
You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying! You believe in makin' uh . . . destroying what this state was built upon.
Well, you've made an assertion. Let me respond to . . .
An Even More Unbelievable Exchange
Maybe Davis is just a State Legislator. Maybe the members of the United States Congress — you know, the highest group of lawmakers in the land who have sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution, the group of men and women who have the authority to declare war and call into play weapons that could end life on earth — understand how important it is to maintain the separation of Church and State. Wrong! Take a listen to the even more bizarre exchange between Congressman Westmoreland and Stephen Colbert.
The Precarious Nature of Religious Freedom in America
So much for the Bill of Rights, freedom of religion, and the Separation of Church and State. In the Land of Lincoln, even the lawmakers have little understanding of the law.
[BTW, Lincoln is reported to have written, "My earlier views on the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures, have become clearer and stronger with advancing years, and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them."]
But lest we be too critical of Ms. Davis and Congressman Westmoreland, remember that a significant minority of Democrats along with the vast majority of Republican Senators and Congresspersons share (and loudly proclaim) this same lack of understanding of the Constitution of the United States. Many Americans, who also share this same ignorance, are eagerly working for an end to the Church-State division. With no understanding of how the Separation of Church and State was put in place to protect religious freedom, they openly state that America is and should be legally structured to be a "Christian" nation.
Be afraid, America! Be very afraid!
Spiritual Advisers and Political Leaders
The danger of political leaders who have "spiritual advisers" should (and does) seem obvious (to anyone who doesn't share the particular adviser's religious beliefs). Consider American politics and the religions of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Pope Benedict XVI, John Hagee, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Billy Graham.
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It is ironic that those on the Religious Right — i.e., those who want to do away with the Separation of Church and State — so gleefully attacked Barack Obama for his participation in "the Black Church." They didn't want a Christian leader who actively puts into practice (lives) his Christian values IF that leader understood that the government of America needs to be kept separate from religion.
And despite any historical ties between Barack Obama and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, he appeared to fully understand and was clearly a staunch supporter of the need to maintain the Separation of Church and State.
“Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.” —Sen. Barack Obama, 6/28/06
It was, therefore, more than a bit disingenuous for the Religious Right(eous) to say that THEY — who are actively working to have their version of Christianity be officially intertwined with the constitutional fabric of their nation — fear that OBAMA — whose words and behavior as a legislator indicated a real respect for the need to keep Church and State separate — would try to impose Reverend Wright's radical religious beliefs (beliefs that Obama had specifically repudiated) on the rest of the world!
Compare Obama to McCain 2008:
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Just how nuts were McCain's supporters (and his VP nominee)?
Apparently, they felt a need to remind their almighty God to make sure that McCain got elected so an Obama victory didn't sully His rep! No kidding. BTW, this is not some weird fundamentalist's notion; it's straight out of The Old Testament that Sarah Palin (and two thirds of Republicans) believe is the literal truth. Unfortunately, Obama's election has now proven that the God of the Bible is relatively puny when compared to Allah ;-) Yes, many McCain/Palin supporters really believed — and would have had us make major political decisions based on — such idiocy!
While you may be lulled into indulging in a sigh of relief — and after eight years of The Shrub followed by the election of a sane, reasonable president despite his African ancestry, who could blame you? — don't be fooled! With estimates that one-third of Americans are evangelical, born-again, or fundamentalist believers in the literal truth of every word of the Bible, if a right wing politician can motivate this highly organized sector of the electorate, all yo has to do is get one out of four of the rest of the country's votes to win a national election in the U.S.
Yes it's true that the election of an African-American with an Arabic name during a time of war was truly cause for celebrating the progress of enlightenment values. Yet, it is simultaneously utterly astounding that, after an eight year Republican debacle, John McCain came within three percentage points of winning the election! It should have been a landslide. And without the enthusiastic support of the Religious Right — which McCain only purchased by potentially putting an incompetent nutjob a heartbeat away from the presidency — it would have been.
In 2012, we watch as the parasitic chameleon, Mitt Romney, attempts to stitch together the same political alliance. While Romney's Mormonism (considered anathema by most fundamentalist Christians) keeps the enthusiasm of the religious troops from reaching fever pitch, his choice of vice president (which we accurately predicted in April of 2012 would be a fanatic, religious Christian such as Paul Ryan who wants to repeal Roe v. Wade) should get the religious right back on board. And this will occur despite the fact that it is obvious to everyone that
Romney is a complete hypocrite with no agenda whatsoever besides whatever is calculated to appeal to whomever he happens to be talking to at the moment.
What the Religious Fanatics Fear
Obama Wins & Stephen Quits in Disgust
On November 7, 2006, the Colbert Time Machine
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took you to Election Day, November 4, 2008
The Paranoid Belief in "The War on Christianity"
Many of the religious fanatics who want to do away with the
Separation of Church and State actually harbor the paranoid delusion that their most sacred holiday — you know, the one where they celebrate the immaculate conception and birth of God's son to a virgin by engaging in a frenzied orgy of shopping and consumption — is in grave danger! In their conspiracy theory belief system, the dark forces of (homo)secular humanism (comprising far less than 10% of the American population) have declared a War on Christmas.
And, of course, the Christianity that each such group of religious fanatics propose to make part of America's legal Constitution just happens to be THEIR particular version of Christianity. Anyone in the mood for a few hundred years of religious warfare? Apparently, a large segment of the American electorate needs a reminder of what it is like to have governments controlled by one group's religious point of view.
In the face of such widespread historical ignorance about why the framers of the Constitution felt a need to separate the state from religion, religious freedom cannot be taken for granted. This divine freedom enshrined in the Constitution could be eroded and eventually vanish altogether. For the maintenance of freedom in a democracy to be assured, a better educated electorate is required; the people must have an understanding of the relationship between laws and rights. Yet the understanding needed for the maintenance of religious freedom in a democracy is diminishing in America.
For example, many Americans found nothing wrong with the Bush Administration's erosion of the Separation of Church and State when Bush instituted long prohibited government grants to "faith-based" organizations. Barack Obama, who should and probably does know better, also supports such grants. (It is not clear if his support of such grants is part of the pandering to the religious community that he feels he needs to do to get elected and reelected, i.e., he may know better.)
Despite the need for a better educated electorate that understands the need to protect such basic freedoms, the religious right has been able to generate growing support for an apparently reasonable initiative that would permanently end any such education. And this initiative is touted as something that would supposedly enhance freedom and improve the quality of education: school vouchers.
School Vouchers to the Rescue!
So how do our political leaders respond to the critical importance of education in the maintenance of a robust democracy? In their ostensible concern about the quality of education that children receive in public schools, many of America's elected officials are now promoting school vouchers. Vouchers will turn taxes collected by the government over to parents who can use them to send their children to the school of their choice.
More freedom! Choice and competition — the almighty engines of the free market — will surely improve the quality of education. Sounds good, doesn't it? Yet a little consideration of the consequences should make it clear that this would pose a far greater threat to American democracy than a Saddam Hussein with real WMD's!
As the examples above (not to mention the eight year Reign of The Shrub) should make clear, today only a precarious allegiance to the Constitution is maintained by politicians put in place by an electorate that hasn't much of a clue about the importance of the Separation of Church and State. This precarious allegiance could very well reach "a tipping point." Indeed, school vouchers should enable the religious right to reach their stated (!) goal, the destruction of America's religious freedom.
Consider this. It is the very same people who want to make the U.S. a Christian nation and are terribly concerned about "the carnage" from the imaginary War on Christmas who are the most vociferous supporters of school vouchers. Why? Because what will inevitably happen is that an even larger number of families will then be able to afford to remove their children from public schools (that are currently prohibited from fostering any particular religious notions) and send them to private, parochial (i.e., religious) schools.
The end result of such a change in how the government spends/disburses tax money earmarked for education is that many more millions of American children will be withdrawn from secular, public schools and sent to parochial schools. So don't worry; since parochial schools are believed by some to provide a better all-around education, we can rest assured that the next generation of Americans will have a more thorough understanding of the importance of the Separation of Church and State!
How about a little Sunni versus Shia, American-style? Or to paraphrase George Santayana, "Those who went to parochial schools and were never taught about religion's horrible past are condemned to repeat it."
Here are some words from some great Americans:
When Atheists Attack
A noted provocateur rips Sarah Palin—and defends elitism.
From the magazine issue dated Sep 29, 2008
Let me confess that I was genuinely unnerved by Sarah Palin's performance at the Republican convention. Given her audience and the needs of the moment, I believe Governor Palin's speech was the most effective political communication I have ever witnessed. Here, finally, was a performer who—being maternal, wounded, righteous and sexy—could stride past the frontal cortex of every American and plant a three-inch heel directly on that limbic circuit that ceaselessly intones "God and country." If anyone could make Christian theocracy smell like apple pie, Sarah Palin could.
Then came Palin's first television interview with Charles Gibson. I was relieved to discover, as many were, that Palin's luster can be much diminished by the absence of a teleprompter. Still, the problem she poses to our political process is now much bigger than she is. Her fans seem inclined to forgive her any indiscretion short of cannibalism. However badly she may stumble during the remaining weeks of this campaign, her supporters will focus their outrage upon the journalist who caused her to break stride, upon the camera operator who happened to capture her fall, upon the television network that broadcast the good lady's misfortune—and, above all, upon the "liberal elites" with their highfalutin assumption that, in the 21st century, only a reasonably well-educated person should be given command of our nuclear arsenal.
The point to be lamented is not that Sarah Palin comes from outside Washington, or that she has glimpsed so little of the earth's surface (she didn't have a passport until last year), or that she's never met a foreign head of state. The point is that she comes to us, seeking the second most important job in the world, without any intellectual training relevant to the challenges and responsibilities that await her. There is nothing to suggest that she even sees a role for careful analysis or a deep understanding of world events when it comes to deciding the fate of a nation. In her interview with Gibson, Palin managed to turn a joke about seeing Russia from her window into a straight-faced claim that Alaska's geographical proximity to Russia gave her some essential foreign-policy experience. Palin may be a perfectly wonderful person, a loving mother and a great American success story—but she is a beauty queen/sports reporter who stumbled into small-town politics, and who is now on the verge of stumbling into, or upon, world history.
The problem, as far as our political process is concerned, is that half the electorate revels in Palin's lack of intellectual qualifications. When it comes to politics, there is a mad love of mediocrity in this country. "They think they're better than you!" is the refrain that (highly competent and cynical) Republican strategists have set loose among the crowd, and the crowd has grown drunk on it once again. "Sarah Palin is an ordinary person!" Yes, all too ordinary.
We have all now witnessed apparently sentient human beings, once provoked by a reporter's microphone, saying things like, "I'm voting for Sarah because she's a mom. She knows what it's like to be a mom." Such sentiments suggest an uncanny (and, one fears, especially American) detachment from the real problems of today. The next administration must immediately confront issues like nuclear proliferation, ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and covert wars elsewhere), global climate change, a convulsing economy, Russian belligerence, the rise of China, emerging epidemics, Islamism on a hundred fronts, a defunct United Nations, the deterioration of American schools, failures of energy, infrastructure and Internet security … the list is long, and Sarah Palin does not seem competent even to rank these items in order of importance, much less address any one of them.
Palin's most conspicuous gaffe in her interview with Gibson has been widely discussed. The truth is, I didn't much care that she did not know the meaning of the phrase "Bush doctrine." And I am quite sure that her supporters didn't care, either. Most people view such an ambush as a journalistic gimmick. What I do care about are all the other things Palin is guaranteed not to know—or will be glossing only under the frenzied tutelage of John McCain's advisers. What doesn't she know about financial markets, Islam, the history of the Middle East, the cold war, modern weapons systems, medical research, environmental science or emerging technology? Her relative ignorance is guaranteed on these fronts and most others, not because she was put on the spot, or got nervous, or just happened to miss the newspaper on any given morning. Sarah Palin's ignorance is guaranteed because of how she has spent the past 44 years on earth.
I care even more about the many things Palin thinks she knows but doesn't: like her conviction that the Biblical God consciously directs world events. Needless to say, she shares this belief with millions of Americans—but we shouldn't be eager to give these people our nuclear codes, either. There is no question that if President McCain chokes on a spare rib and Palin becomes the first woman president, she and her supporters will believe that God, in all his majesty and wisdom, has brought it to pass. Why would God give Sarah Palin a job she isn't ready for? He wouldn't. Everything happens for a reason. Palin seems perfectly willing to stake the welfare of our country—even the welfare of our species—as collateral in her own personal journey of faith. Of course, McCain has made the same unconscionable wager on his personal journey to the White House.
In speaking before her church about her son going to war in Iraq, Palin urged the congregation to pray "that our national leaders are sending them out on a task that is from God; that's what we have to make sure we are praying for, that there is a plan, and that plan is God's plan." When asked about these remarks in her interview with Gibson, Palin successfully dodged the issue of her religious beliefs by claiming that she had been merely echoing the words of Abraham Lincoln. The New York Times later dubbed her response "absurd." It was worse than absurd; it was a lie calculated to conceal the true character of her religious infatuations. Every detail that has emerged about Palin's life in Alaska suggests that she is as devout and literal-minded in her Christian dogmatism as any man or woman in the land. Given her long affiliation with the Assemblies of God church, Palin very likely believes that Biblical prophecy is an infallible guide to future events and that we are living in the "end times." Which is to say she very likely thinks that human history will soon unravel in a foreordained cataclysm of war and bad weather. Undoubtedly Palin believes that this will be a good thing—as all true Christians will be lifted bodily into the sky to make merry with Jesus, while all nonbelievers, Jews, Methodists and other rabble will be punished for eternity in a lake of fire. Like many Pentecostals, Palin may even imagine that she and her fellow parishioners enjoy the power of prophecy themselves. Otherwise, what could she have meant when declaring to her congregation that "God's going to tell you what is going on, and what is going to go on, and you guys are going to have that within you"?
You can learn something about a person by the company she keeps. In the churches where Palin has worshiped for decades, parishioners enjoy "baptism in the Holy Spirit," "miraculous healings" and "the gift of tongues." Invariably, they offer astonishingly irrational accounts of this behavior and of its significance for the entire cosmos. Palin's spiritual colleagues describe themselves as part of "the final generation," engaged in "spiritual warfare" to purge the earth of "demonic strongholds." Palin has spent her entire adult life immersed in this apocalyptic hysteria. Ask yourself: Is it a good idea to place the most powerful military on earth at her disposal? Do we actually want our leaders thinking about the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy when it comes time to say to the Iranians, or to the North Koreans, or to the Pakistanis, or to the Russians or to the Chinese: "All options remain on the table"?
It is easy to see what many people, women especially, admire about Sarah Palin. Here is a mother of five who can see the bright side of having a child with Down syndrome and still find the time and energy to govern the state of Alaska. But we cannot ignore the fact that Palin's impressive family further testifies to her dogmatic religious beliefs. Many writers have noted the many shades of conservative hypocrisy on view here: when Jamie Lynn Spears gets pregnant, it is considered a symptom of liberal decadence and the breakdown of family values; in the case of one of Palin's daughters, however, teen pregnancy gets reinterpreted as a sign of immaculate, small-town fecundity. And just imagine if, instead of the Palins, the Obama family had a pregnant, underage daughter on display at their convention, flanked by her black boyfriend who "intends" to marry her. Who among conservatives would have resisted the temptation to speak of "the dysfunction in the black community"?
Teen pregnancy is a misfortune, plain and simple. At best, it represents bad luck (both for the mother and for the child); at worst, as in the Palins' case, it is a symptom of religious dogmatism. Governor Palin opposes sex education in schools on religious grounds. She has also fought vigorously for a "parental consent law" in the state of Alaska, seeking full parental dominion over the reproductive decisions of minors. We know, therefore, that Palin believes that she should be the one to decide whether her daughter carries her baby to term. Based on her stated position, we know that she would deny her daughter an abortion even if she had been raped. One can be forgiven for doubting whether Bristol Palin had all the advantages of 21st-century family planning—or, indeed, of the 21st century.
We have endured eight years of an administration that seemed touched by religious ideology. Bush's claim to Bob Woodward that he consulted a "higher Father" before going to war in Iraq got many of us sitting upright, before our attention wandered again to less ethereal signs of his incompetence. For all my concern about Bush's religious beliefs, and about his merely average grasp of terrestrial reality, I have never once thought that he was an over-the-brink, Rapture-ready extremist. Palin seems as though she might be the real McCoy. With the McCain team leading her around like a pet pony between now and Election Day, she can be expected to conceal her religious extremism until it is too late to do anything about it. Her supporters know that while she cannot afford to "talk the talk" between now and Nov. 4, if elected, she can be trusted to "walk the walk" until the Day of Judgment.
What is so unnerving about the candidacy of Sarah Palin is the degree to which she represents—and her supporters celebrate—the joyful marriage of confidence and ignorance. Watching her deny to Gibson that she had ever harbored the slightest doubt about her readiness to take command of the world's only superpower, one got the feeling that Palin would gladly assume any responsibility on earth:
"Governor Palin, are you ready at this moment to perform surgery on this child's brain?"
"Of course, Charlie. I have several boys of my own, and I'm an avid hunter."
"But governor, this is neurosurgery, and you have no training as a surgeon of any kind."
"That's just the point, Charlie. The American people want change in how we make medical decisions in this country. And when faced with a challenge, you cannot blink."
The prospects of a Palin administration are far more frightening, in fact, than those of a Palin Institute for Pediatric Neurosurgery. Ask yourself: how has "elitism" become a bad word in American politics? There is simply no other walk of life in which extraordinary talent and rigorous training are denigrated. We want elite pilots to fly our planes, elite troops to undertake our most critical missions, elite athletes to represent us in competition and elite scientists to devote the most productive years of their lives to curing our diseases. And yet, when it comes time to vest people with even greater responsibilities, we consider it a virtue to shun any and all standards of excellence. When it comes to choosing the people whose thoughts and actions will decide the fates of millions, then we suddenly want someone just like us, someone fit to have a beer with, someone down-to-earth—in fact, almost anyone, provided that he or she doesn't seem too intelligent or well educated.
I believe that with the nomination of Sarah Palin for the vice presidency, the silliness of our politics has finally put our nation at risk. The world is growing more complex—and dangerous—with each passing hour, and our position within it growing more precarious. Should she become president, Palin seems capable of enacting policies so detached from the common interests of humanity, and from empirical reality, as to unite the entire world against us. When asked why she is qualified to shoulder more responsibility than any person has held in human history, Palin cites her refusal to hesitate. "You can't blink," she told Gibson repeatedly, as though this were a primordial truth of wise governance. Let us hope that a President Palin would blink, again and again, while more thoughtful people decide the fate of civilization.
Harris is a founder of The Reason Project and author of The New York Times best sellers “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation.” His Web site is samharris.org.