Rep. Jared Huffman, the only openly atheist member of Congress, is being criticized by a prominent Republican for the crime of… defending the Constitution.
A little background: Huffman sits on the House Committee on Natural Resources. Earlier this year, after control of the committee flipped to Democrats, Ranking Member Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva agreed to strike the words “So help me God” from the default oath.
That shouldn’t have been controversial. As it stood, every person being sworn in had to say those words — even if they were atheists, even if they were Muslim, etc. The Democrats wanted to make it optional. That move, however, was treated as blasphemy by Republicans who lied and said the Democrats were effectively killing God.
GOP Rep. Liz Cheney, who never shies away from hyperbole, responded at the time by saying, “They really have become the party of Karl Marx.” (Because allowing Christians to openly declare their faith if they want to was the utopia Marx always dreamed of…)
It was an over-the-top response. It made a mountain out of a molehill. It was, shall we say, ballistic.
It certainly wasn’t a surprise. The Cheneys, being Cheneys, aren’t exactly known for their sense of reason.
Unfortunately, the Democrats, being Democrats, caved from the right-wing backlash within a couple of days. The oath never changed.
Huffman was asked about that controversy this week during a taping of “Freethought Matters,” a show produced by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Here’s how he described it:
I sit on the Natural Resources Committee and, in our original proposed rules for the committee, we proposed that we drop the oath, or we allow witnesses to simply say it voluntarily if they chose to, which to me, you know, makes perfect sense. And wouldn’t you know it, Liz Cheney just went ballistic. She smelled blood in the water, went on FOX News, and, you know, started ranting about how Democrats were dropping God from the Congress.
And in our next meeting, the Republicans, one by one, made these pronouncements about how, you know, we shouldn’t be against God, and Democrats were against God, and, unfortunately, my Democratic colleagues backed down. And so we now nominally still have that same oath.
But you’re right: It’s unconstitutional to require a witness in congressional testimony to affirm an oath to a deity they may not even believe in, or to affirm an oath to a singular deity when you might be a polytheistic Hindu, for example. It’s just preposterous. If we were to have a hearing on climate change, for example, and we wanted to call you know one of the foremost physicists — let’s say Neil deGrasse Tyson — He’s an atheist! Do we force him to affirm an oath to a God he doesn’t believe in? It really, frankly, strains credulity that in this day and age, Congress would have something like that. And yet, some of the politics persist.
To be clear: Everything he said there about the oath was accurate. It’s unconstitutional for the government to force a religious view on citizens who may be testifying under oath. Republicans aren’t interested in Christians having a choice to swear an oath to God; they want everyone to swear an oath to their God.
Cheney, being a Cheney, couldn’t believe Huffman was calling her out. She responded to an article about Huffman’s comments (headline: “Rep. Cheney ‘Went Ballistic’ to Defend God”) with just one word:
Huffman (D): Rep. Cheney 'Went Ballistic' to Defend God https://t.co/pcnOTV1UPP
— Liz Cheney (@Liz_Cheney) September 3, 2019
Her team elaborated for FOX News:
Responding to Huffman’s comments, a spokesperson for Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, told Fox News, “Liz Cheney will always defend God. Period. If that bothers Rep. Huffman, we’ll be praying for him.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah, and he’ll be thinking for her.
Notice how Republicans spun that, though. Huffman wanted people to swear an oath to whatever they felt comfortable with. Cheney wanted to force Christianity on everyone. And yet allowing non-Christians a bit of freedom was so appalling to her that she basically accused Huffman of being anti-Christian.
She wasn’t defending God. Huffman was — for everyone who isn’t Christian.
Her Christianity didn’t bother Huffman. Her forcing that Christianity on other people did.
She’s the problem here, not him. She did go ballistic. Again. It’s a typical tool of right-wing media to take a perfectly accurate (and mild) statement from a Democrat and treat it like some major bombshell revealing a closely guarded secret.
Huffman takes the Constitution seriously. Cheney doesn’t. That’s the story. That’s the only story.