The Secular Coalition for America (SCA) believes that Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse deserves kudos for his questioning of Jeff Sessions, President-elect Donald Trump‘s nominee for Attorney General. Whitehouse asked Sessions if a non-religious, secular person has as good a claim to the truth as a religious person, and defended the separation of church and state by invoking the name of Rhode Island’s founder, Roger Williams.
“It is crucial,” said Sarah Levin of the SCA, “that when lawmakers stand up for our community, that they can tangibly see the reward in constituent support. This is how we turn our allies into champions.”
Levin is asking people who support Whitehouse’s line of questioning to call and thank the Senator.
As a US Senator, Sessions has repeatedly claimed that a non-religious person, a secularist, can not be a moral person. According to Right Wing Watch:
Speaking to a Faith and Freedom Coalition event last year about the importance of the Supreme Court, Sessions lamented that Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor had what he called ‘a postmodern, relativistic, secular mindset’ that is ‘directly contrary to the founding of our republic.’
“He added: ‘So I really think this whole court system is really important and the real value and battle that we’re engaged in here is one to reaffirm that there is objective truth, it’s not all relative. And that means some things are right and some things are wrong, and we’re getting too far away from that in my opinion and it’s not healthy for any country and it’s really not healthy for a democracy like ours that’s built on the rule of law.'”
In 2014, according to the same Right Wing Watch piece:
Sessions made similar comments in 2014 when he accepted an award from the far-right David Horowitz Freedom Center (an award he was forced to defend during his confirmation hearings).
“Telling the audience that “this republic was founded on the pursuit of truth,” Sessions argued that there’s no truth, and thus no democracy, if “you’re a secularist”:
“‘That’s why we have freedom of speech. As [Samuel] Alito said last night at the Federalist Society banquet, ultimately freedom of speech is about ascertaining the truth. And if you don’t believe there’s a truth, if you don’t believe in truth, if you’re a secularist, then how do we operate this government? How can we form a democracy of the kind that I think you and I believe in? … I do believe we are a nation that, without God, there is no truth and it’s all about power, ideology, advancement and agenda, not doing the public service.'”
You can watch Whitehouse’s questioning of Sessions in the video below:
Thank you, chairman. Senator Sessions, welcome back. As you know, the Department of Justice has at its heart the career prosecutor and attorney corps that staffs it. On social media conservative bloggers are already circulating names of career attorneys from the department that they say arguing positioned that should be demoted or reassigned because of positions they argued under Attorneys General [Eric] Holder and [Loretta] Lynch. One commentator from the Heritage Foundation has made the comparison to filth within the Department of Justice and suggested that like the Aegean Stables you need to run rivers through the department and wash out the agency from top to bottom. You yourself have criticized department attorneys for being secular. Now, that was as recently as November. Now, in Rhode Island, we have a long tradition back to Roger Williams of separating church and state, and as an Attorney General and as a U.S. Attorney, we also have a tradition of allowing career attorneys to follow the policy dictates of other administrations and not holding the career people responsible for that. I’m wondering how you’ll react to this. Do you have a problem with career attorneys if their private religious beliefs are secular ones? And will you support the career attorneys against the pressure from these right wing organizations seeking to wash them out like filth, to paraphrase the Heritage Foundation?
The Department of Justice is composed primarily of career professionals, as you know, Senator Whitehouse. You served there ably as United States Attorney. And I give them the highest respect. Most of those attorneys reach high standards and they are willing to follow lawful orders and directions from their superiors even if they might have a different philosophy. I do think it is often that they are put into non-career spots and can go back to career spots. But I don’t know how exactly that works. But, Sir, you would normally expect — and I’m sure the Obama administration made changes in the leadership of the department, putting people in positions they thought would be most advantageous to advance causes they believed in. That’s sort of within the rules of the game. But to target people and to in any way demean them if they were fine public servants and they were following the law and carrying out a legitimate policy of their supervisors would be wrong. I think we should respect them.
Does a secular attorney have anything to fear from an Attorney General Sessions in the Department of Justice?
Well, no. And I use that word in the 90,000-foot level of — a little concern I have that we as a nation I believe are reaching a level in which truth is not sufficiently respected, that the very ideal, the idea of truth is not believed to be real, and that all of life is just a matter of your perspective and my perspective which I think is contrary to the American heritage — let’s just say kind of a criticism. We are not a theocracy. Nobody should be required to believe anything. I share Thomas Jefferson‘s words on the memorial over here, “I swear eternal hostility over any domination of the mind of man.” And I think we should respect people’s views and not demand any kind of religious test for holding office.
A secular person has just as good a claim to understanding the truth as a person who is religious. Correct?
Well, I’m not sure. In what method?
The methods that an attorney would bring to bear.
Well let me just say, we’re going to treat anybody with different views fairly and objectively. And the ideal of truth, trying to achieve the right solution to me is an important goal of the American juris prudential system, actually our legislative system. What is right, what is true and let’s act on it and do the right thing.
On the subject of what is truth, you may…
an age-old question…
You may be in a position as Attorney General to either enforce laws or bring actions that relate to the problem of carbon emissions and the changes that are taking place both physically and chemically in our atmosphere and oceans as a result of the flood of carbon emissions that we’ve had. It is the political position of the Republican Party in the Senate, as I have seen it, that this is not a problem, that we don’t need to do anything about it, that the facts aren’t real, and that we should all do nothing whatsoever. That’s the Senate. You as Attorney General of the United States may be asked to make decisions for our nation that require a factual predicate that you determine as the basis for making your decision. In making a decision about the facts of climate change, to whom will you turn? Will you, for instance, trust the military? All of whose branches agree that climate change is a serious problem of real import for them? Will you trust our national laboratories, all of whom say the same? Will you trust our national science agencies — by the way, NASA is driving a rover around on the surface of mars right now. So there are scientists, I think, who are pretty good. I don’t think there is a single scientific society, I don’t think there is a single accredited university, I don’t think there is a single nation that denies this basic set of facts. And so if that situation is presented to you and you have to make a decision based on the facts, can you give us any assurance that you will make those facts based on real facts and real science?
That’s a good and fair question. And honesty and integrity in that process is required. And if the facts justify a position on one side or the other on a case, I would try to utilize those facts in an honest and appropriate way. I’m not — I don’t deny that we have global warming. In fact, the theory always struck me as plausible. And it is the question of how much is happening and what the reaction would be to it. So that’s what I would hope we could see occur.
Indeed, I’ll bet you dollars against those lovely Krispy Kreme doughnuts that we have out back that if you went down to the University of Alabama and if you talked to the people who fish out of Mobile, they’d already see the changes in the ocean, they’d be able to measure the pH changes and knows that acidification is happening and there would be no dispute about that — except in the politics of Washington, DC.
I recognize the great interest and time you’ve committed to the issue and I value your opinion.
I do come from an Ocean State and we do measure the rise in the sea level and we measure the change of the Bay and we measure the change of pH. It is serious for us, Senator. Thank you, my time is expired.