Opinion: So, about Ron Reagan burning in Hell…

by Peter Heck · Jan 17th, 2020 4:59 pm

As someone who actually enjoys politics and gets into debates – no matter how scripted and choreographed the intellectual sparring is these days – I'll admit that Tuesday night's Democrat event was a bit lackluster. No exciting discussion, no memorable exchanges, no persuasive appeals.

In fact, from the analysis and reaction that followed, it appears that the two most noteworthy moments of the night were:

  1. The hilarious verbal catfight between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders that followed closing statements.
  2. The bizarre recycled ad from the Freedom From Religion Foundation which ran during the debate's commercial break and ends with Ron Reagan saying he's "not afraid of burning in hell."

On the topic of the latter, I remember seeing and commenting on this rather unspectacular ad five years ago when it first came out. As a bit of a primer for those unaware, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) is a group of evangelistic atheists based in Wisconsin who go around the country routinely suing over prayer rugs and plastic wise men on community grounds. See, it's not enough for them not to believe in God; no, they want to ensure that no one else does either (and if they do, that they aren't allowed any public expression of that belief).

No doubt understanding the Constitution is their enemy in such a mission, the FFRF has adopted a "Let's just persistently throw feces against a wall and see what sticks" strategy when it comes to their jurisprudence. You know, harassing a sheriff for letting Kanye West come sing to prisoners, barking about painted crosses on 9/11 memorials — real groundbreaking stuff.

But understanding that this is the type of unserious temperament FFRF has chosen to publicly exhibit, their snarky debate ad featuring Ron Reagan (the "unabashed atheist" son of former President Ronald Reagan) makes complete sense. Yet it still left me with some questions:

  • The ad is primarily focused on drumming up financial support by making false promises to their flock. A bit "televangelistic" for committed atheists, no?

  • Reagan touts that FFRF is committed to the Founding Fathers' vision for separating church and state, originally articulated by President Jefferson in his famous Danbury Letter. But while the FFRF is busy interpreting that vision in a way that leads it to attack college football teams for having chaplains and demand Holocaust memorials remove the Star of David, here's what the Library of Congress notes about those Founders:

It is no exaggeration to say that on Sundays in Washington during the administrations of Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) and of James Madison (1809-1817) the state became the church. Within a year of his inauguration, Jefferson began attending church services in the House of Representatives. Madison followed Jefferson's example, although unlike Jefferson, who rode on horseback to church in the Capitol, Madison came in a coach and four. Worship services in the House–a practice that continued until after the Civil War–were acceptable to Jefferson because they were nondiscriminatory and voluntary. Preachers of every Protestant denomination appeared. (Catholic priests began officiating in 1826.) As early as January 1806 a female evangelist, Dorothy Ripley, delivered a camp meeting-style exhortation in the House to Jefferson, Vice President Aaron Burr, and a "crowded audience." Throughout his administration Jefferson permitted church services in executive branch buildings. The Gospel was also preached in the Supreme Court chambers.

Jefferson's actions may seem surprising because his attitude toward the relation between religion and government is usually thought to have been embodied in his recommendation that there exist "a wall of separation between church and state." In that statement, Jefferson was apparently declaring his opposition, as Madison had done in introducing the Bill of Rights, to a "national" religion. In attending church services on public property, Jefferson and Madison consciously and deliberately were offering symbolic support to religion as a prop for republican government.

  • Reagan goes out of his way to forcefully proclaim his disbelief in Hell, assuring everyone he isn't afraid of it. Any sensible person would be left curious as to who asked him in the first place?

    Did someone say he was afraid of burning in Hell? Wouldn't a rational person expect that someone who doesn't believe in Hell wouldn't be afraid of it? Is this the kind of deep thinking associated with this organization?

    And speaking of that, precisely what does that statement have anything to do with the FFRF and its mission? Isn't the inclusion of this bizarre snark a pretty obvious betrayal of the infantile tendencies of this rather insipid legal organization?

  • What does it say that the FFRF, whose advertising budget seems so limited that they are recycling the same studio-filmed, infomercial-style spots they've had in the vault for 5 years, decided that their best chance of finding a hospitable audience for their brand of petulance was the Democrat presidential debate?

The FFRF can spend their donors' funds however they see fit, of course. And CNN is entitled to suck out of them whatever they're willing to pony up. I'm just a bit perplexed who envisioned that ad being a winner…for anyone.

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