A facebook friend recently brought to my attention that in seven states, it is illegal to serve in a public office if you’re an atheist. Do I really need to go into how wrong this is? I want my state officials to reflect my political goals; for the most part, I don’t care about their religious values. There are good atheists who would benefit the state. Furthermore, atheist citizens have the right to better or muck up the government just as much as theists.
The states that ban atheists from serving are Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and my home state, Tennessee. I was extra-disappointed and outraged in Tennessee's law, because instead of just blatantly discriminating against atheists, it added a clause requiring a specific religious belief, making it even more discriminatory than the others:
Tennessee, Article 9, Section 2: “No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.”
To serve in Tennessee, one has to believe in a future state of rewards and punishments. I think whoever wrote this didn't intend to exclude Christians, but that's why there should be no religious threshold in American politics. Essentially, because of my religious beliefs, I am banned from office in my state. An afterlife of rewards and punishment implies that I will earn whatever I receive after death. But I believe in a little thing called grace, which means what happens after death is not a direct reflection of my actions.
I’ll start with reward. No one can earn Heaven. Most Christian denominations believe that all humans are sinners, ineligible for Heaven. Only grace can get us there. Christ came and opened the gates of Heaven for those who believe in Him. Now, maybe Heaven can be seen as a reward for belief, but even then, it is a disproportionate reward. It is much, much better than we deserve.
Now, punishment. I hold the view that Hell is the absence of God, not physical torture. It is coldness, loneliness, hopelessness. Yes, I think Hell is bad, and I don’t want to be there, but I don’t think it is punishment of earthly actions, just as Heaven is not reward of good actions. Hell is the consequence of rejecting God. Also, no one is sentenced to Hell; it is a self-chosen state. As C. S. Lewis said in The Problem of Pain, “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.” Someone can do very, very bad things but sincerely repent to God and wind up in Heaven instead of Hell. This would fly in the face of a theory that the afterlife is the ultimate reward/punishment justice system.
Of course, this is all speculation, as we cannot be certain of the hereafter. If we knew for certain how eternity worked, there would be no difference in faiths and no atheists (or perhaps we’d all be atheists). The afterlife is not some post facto justice system. Honestly, the closest Christian idea of a reward/punishment afterlife might be purgatory, where a soul must be purified before entering Heaven. This could possibly be viewed as temporal punishment for one’s actions. But I really, really doubt the writers of Tennessee’s Constitution meant that belief in purgatory was a requirement for public office. And if they did, they’d still be wrong because it would still be religious discrimination.
Earthly governments should be concerned with earthly order and justice and leave personal ideas of eternity alone. Moreso, no one in America should be denied the right to serve in government based on his religious (or non-religious) beliefs. Despite the Puritans’ best efforts, America isn’t a theocracy. The American experiment resides in the belief that Puritans, Catholics, atheists, deists, Lutherans, Muslims, Jews, and anyone else can come together and form a functioning society. Frankly, I’m now more inclined to vote for an atheist now, just so this law can be challenged and hopefully struck down.