WASHINGTON -- If atheists want their country to be free and safe, they should encourage people to worship God, Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert argued Thursday during a House floor speech.
Gohmert, who has a penchant for tweaking people who do not believe in God, was delivering a speech about the lack of attention given to Christians who are persecuted around the world.
Although he also declared that Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world, as an aside he argued that only nations that turned away from the Judeo-Christian god have ceased to exist.
"No country has ever fallen while it was truly honoring the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob," Gohmert said.
"So if you were completely areligious, completely atheistic, but you wanted to have a free country, and you wanted to have it safe and protected, then it would sound like -- from historical purposes -- that it might be a good thing to encourage those who believe in God to keep doing so," Gohmert said. "Because when a nation's leaders honor that God, that nation is protected. It's only when it turns away that it falls."
Gohmert has belittled people who don't believe in God before, blaming suicides in the military and the 2012 mass shooting in Aurora, Colo., on atheism. Other members of Congress have disparaged atheists in the military.
Greg Epstein, humanist chaplain at Harvard University, said such talk actually does significant harm to people who do not believe in God or who hold other religious beliefs, and in fact, make the United States weaker.
"What he [Gohmert] said is insulting. It's really insulting and hurtful," Epstein said. "People who are not religious or believe differently experience prejudice directly because of his statements."
Epstein said such thoughts declared by elected officials on the floor of the House suggest to others that it's OK to disrespect people who don't share their religious views.
It makes people who are not religious worry about persecution they could face, he said. "If you have him out there trumpeting what it is to be a good American, a police officer, a plumber -- who knows -- might feel pressure because this gentleman is saying there is only one way to be a good American."
He noted that other leaders conducted themselves differently, adding that Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) issued a proclamation on Thursday declaring Dec. 8 "Humanist Community Day," in honor of the opening of a humanist center on Harvard Square.
Epstein also had some advice for Gohmert on safeguarding the nation.
"If you want to protect your country, you will encourage freedom of thought and freedom of conscience and freedom of expression," he said. "If you want to damage your country, you will encourage uniformity of thought; you will be the thought police."
And he predicted most Americans would agree with him, not Gohmert.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.