10th place: Grad student essay contest — Michelle Krauser

‘God’ not part of secular Constitution

Michelle Krauser

FFRF awarded Michelle $300.

By Michelle Krauser

A  secular society in which the government is prohibited from establishing a state-sponsored religion or giving priority to a religion is a right acknowledged in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Free Exercise Clause, which is also found in the First Amendment, grants every citizen the freedom to exercise any religion freely. The people who founded this country recognized that politics mixed with religion is a deadly combination — a recipe for conflict, bloodshed and marginalization. In conjunction with radical politicians, Christian Nationalists have demonstrably misinterpreted the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause as a right to impose Christian moral ideology on others through political discourse and legislation. 

Christian Nationalism, ignited by the “Make America Great Again” conservative political agenda espoused by President Trump, uses the bible to categorize non-Christian and nonreligious Americans as immoral and unpatriotic, an organized force hell-bent on destroying the sanctity of the United States and establishing a state of debauchery. But what exactly does “Make America Great Again” mean? To many, this slogan is symbolic of a desperate struggle to save the United States from an onslaught of secular “non-Christian” ideals and restore the Christian fundamentals, as interpreted by Christian Nationalists, upon which this country was supposedly founded. However, the underlying message is more sinister. This propaganda is an attempt by radical politicians to harness the unparalleled power of religion to create a society in which the white male reigns supreme, women are subservient to their husbands and those who rebuke extremist Christian values are condemned to eternal damnation. 

The inclusion of religious ideology in political discourse is pervasive, as evidenced by anti-abortion and anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer legislation. Pro-choice? “Life begins at conception!” Pro-LGBTQ? “It is against God’s will!” Such claims, often touted by Christian Nationalists and radical politicians, are an unabashed breach of the Establishment Clause. In the United States, Christian Nationalism is a threat to secular democracy. Conservative politicians have constructed a false war — the war on Christianity — to incite fear and mobilize the religious voter base. Controversial topics, such as same-sex marriage and abortion, are used to manipulate individuals into voting against their own best interests. Tax cuts for the wealthy? No problem, as long as access to abortion is restricted. Nepotism? Corruption? Crickets.

Christian Nationalists ignore blatant abuses of power in favor of their personal religious beliefs. 

Politicians use Christianity as a tool to influence prospective voters and control the masses. This is not a new phenomenon, as the Roman Catholic Empire, Ancient Egypt and countless other theocracies have shown. Governments have capitalized on religion and used it to maintain absolute power throughout history. Equally disturbing, governments have used religion to manipulate the masses into detesting  others on the basis of their individual beliefs or lack thereof, which has led to horrific violence, injustice and oppression across the globe. It is not a coincidence that the theocratic governments that exist today tend to be the most authoritarian and violent, a fate that the United States is not excluded from should religion continue to be exploited as a perverse political tool. The Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause were incorporated into the Constitution because history has shown that the inclusion of religion in politics results in an anti-democratic state. The Constitution itself is secular. There are, in fact, two words that are intentionally absent in the Constitution: “God” and “Christianity.”   

Michelle, 30, attends Coastal Carolina University after graduated from Oakland University in 2017. “I am researching loggerhead shrikes at Coastal Carolina University. I interned with the Student Conservation Association at Elizabeth Morton National Wildlife Refuge in New York and Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina. I spend most of my free time hiking with my dog and hope to pursue a career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”

Honorable mention: Grad student essay contest — Kavitha Kannanunny

Kavitha Kannanunny

Paradise in a steel dome​

By Kavitha Kannanunny

Imagine if the entirety of human scientific understanding had stalled somewhere around the Industrial Revolution. Consider the implications to society if we were frozen to a system of theories and philosophies that claimed to explain our physical world, while plugging every anomaly and disparity with hypothetical constants and ethereal constructs.

If that seems like an absurd work of fiction, it should defy belief that we would base the understanding of our origin, our culture and values on ancient works of metaphors and parables. Yet religion remains a fundamental human ritual. Perhaps it’s because there is a primal and emotionally gratifying appeal to even a magically consistent interpretation of the cosmos that promises cultural identity and community. Unfortunately, this blind acceptance confronted with any differing worldview induces such a violent cognitive dissonance, that it is simply easier to brand any opposition as abnormal and amoral. Cultural identity devolves into tribalism and conformity. Until we acknowledge this aspect of our social evolution, it is impossible to mature past it. Yet the need to address this deficiency is more pressing now than ever. Humanity faces a multitude of social, environmental and economic upheavals that relate intimately to each other. Social progressiveness threatens old doctrines and pre-convictions. Alternate sexual orientations are now receiving increased acceptance and support. Buying into an organized belief system is no longer a leading prerequisite for morality. Many nations — including the United States, with the First Amendment and its Establishment Clause — have enshrined secularism and the separation of church and state as guiding principles. Our laws need to acknowledge our changing priorities and ideals as a species, adapting forward-looking solutions that unite us.

Sadly, the United States today is facing an uprising of religious fundamentalism at a time when progressive ideas are so crucial to its progress as a nation. Right-wing Christian groups work tirelessly to normalize the idea of Christian sovereignty and ratify the United States as a Judeo-Christian nation, rejecting its very roots and guiding principles. Oblivious to the cognitive dissonance of their position, their defense against what they view as an invasion against their tradition and culture is a campaign for their right to suppress others. Science and reason, seen as a menace to traditional beliefs, are rejected. Desperately needed legislative measures are hamstrung in deference to religious sentiments that no longer reflect our stance as a civilization.

Examples of this range from clandestine to blatantly audacious. Religious expression has been used to justify dehumanizing LGBTQ+ minorities, as in ​Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission​. Project Blitz, a recently uncovered, chilling legislative assault by the Christian Nationalist Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, aims to reshape the country through a succession of legislation that promotes hardline Christian conservative views and destroys the separation between church and state. It details increasingly invasive strategies starting with injecting God into national language and enforcing mono-denominational prayer in public schools, to discrimination on the basis of religion and sexual orientation in healthcare and parenting, and access to public services.

Perhaps most worrying is the support for these hardline views in government. Project Blitz lists more than 600 politicians as members in state legislatures. Reproductive health and organizations such as Planned Parenthood are attacked as anti-Christian and have undue restrictions placed on them even at the federal level. Representatives in Congress mask their intolerance behind those that elected them to office. In truth, they recognize the emotional reaction that threats to religious and cultural identity can elicit, and so are able to play to those fundamental fears, projecting themselves as sole savior and defender. Positioned in this way, they are free to inflict archaic morals that fracture communities, pulling them into a regressive civilization where the prerequisites to surviving the future have been outlawed as immoral.

Ultimately, any attempt to rectify the status quo is met with vehement opposition and claims of religious persecution. As legislators continue to pander to religious sectarians, we are forced to shutter many avenues that promise real progress. Yet, the last bastion of true change is still in the hands of the voters. It is only by rejecting regressive politics propped up by fundamentalist endowments, and understanding the totality of what our vote represents, do we demonstrate our true values as a nation.

Kavitha, 25, is from Jersey City, N.J., and attends the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

“My decision to pursue a master’s degree in computer science was motivated by a desire to immerse myself in a competitive and challenging environment. With a data science specialization, I wish to work in an organization where I can analyze and generate valuable insights from business data.”

 

Honorable mention: Grad student essay contest —Ruth Dickey-Chasins

Ruth Dickey-Chasins

Preserving Democracy: The Dangers of Religion

By Ruth Dickey-Chasins

In discussing the separation of the religious and the political, it is impossible to ignore the ongoing crisis of COVID-19. Particularly in light of the presidential and congressional elections, involving “God” and religion imperils the democracy of the nation and the safety of its citizens. When leaders hold a power above the duties of their office, their accountability is compromised, and in pandering to one religion above another, leaders hold the dangerous power of alienating the public from the democratic process. Both these pitfalls are exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.

First, if leaders rely upon religion above all else, then they may find it easier to ignore experts, science and facts. For example, many elected officials have supported those still holding in-person religious services, even after shelter-in-place orders were issued and evidence in support of social distancing had been presented by scientists. Such reckless action not only endangers those who attend the services and betrays their trust, but lowers public confidence in the elected official, and by extension in the democratic process. This is doubly important in an election year, especially given the beating democracy’s reputation has taken in the past few years.

Furthermore, when public officials pander and mix religion with government, they do so to the alienation of other faiths and of nonbelievers. For instance, officials regularly reference the bible and God in their addresses or overtly indicate their Christianity as motivation for their legislation. This has the power to endanger lives, as when legislators restrict access to abortion on religious grounds or treat some lives as more disposable than others. Additionally, constant religious overtones mean that in a nation as diverse as the United States, there will inevitably be constituents who do not feel their voices are being heard. As an atheist who grew up in rural Iowa, I frequently found myself disillusioned and discouraged by what I felt was a lack of representation from my elected officials. This is particularly alarming when individuals feel disconnected from their elected officials, they are less likely to participate in the democratic process, and the cycle will perpetuate itself. This robs the nation of a diverse array of voices, which is critical to building a just and equitable society.

In sum, it is imperative to keep religion out of political debates, as it poses dangers not only to individual citizens but to the democratic system itself. As made evident by the COVID-19 crisis, public officials who cannot separate their political power from their religious beliefs directly endanger the lives of their constituents. In addition, the elevation of one religious belief above another creates division between the official and people of other religions in the public, which in turn harms the democratic process. Both of these elements are especially salient in light of not only the 2020 presidential election, but of the equally important congressional and local elections. Public officials have no business pandering and mixing religion with government, since by doing so they compromise their legitimacy, ability to govern and the foundation of our democracy itself.

Ruth, 26, attends George Washington University.

“I work at the Society for Science & the Public as part of the Outreach & Equity team. I am working on my Masters of Public Health, where I plan to focus on the mental health impacts of climate change. Previously, I have worked with the anti-poverty nonprofit YouthBuild and as an intern at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Outside of school and work, I am part of the Food Recovery Network, a local feminist percussion group, and I am (trying to) learn Arabic.”

Honorable mention: Grad student essay contest — Selina Chan

Selina Chan

First Amendment under siege: Trump and the rise of Christian Nationalism

By Selina Chan

The first words of the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution state “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” It is clear that the Founders had intended to keep a strict wall between government and any religion. The First Amendment notwithstanding, the United States has always been a hotbed of religious fervor, from the fire-and-brimstone of Johnathan Edwards to the Second Great Awakening of Charles Finney, Joseph Smith and the Mormon Church. These and more recent events such as the Jonestown massacre all have their roots in a particularly fiery brand of American Millenarianism, whereby true believers will restore the one true faith through violent social or political reform. In short, religious fundamentalism.

President Trump achieved political victory partly by stoking the flames of religious fundamentalism in America. He cultivated a personality cult, where his followers trusted him as if he were a deity. He claimed absolute supremacy and moral authority, which turned many evangelical Christians into his sycophants — defying morals, science, public health, civil engagement and the law. The president and his most ardent followers increasingly use “God” and religion as props and a means to divide the American people. For this reason, it is as apparent now more than ever that religion must be kept out of the political debate.

The latest incarnation of American religious fundamentalism began in the 1980s with the rise of the so-called “Moral Majority.” It was as much a religious and political shift as racial.

President Reagan appealed to Southern whites — conservatives who left the Democratic Party as a rejection of the civil rights movement. Rallied around issues such as abolishing abortion and proclaiming America “as a Christian Nation,” the “Moral Majority” was firmly ensconced in the Republican Party.

It was no surprise that in early 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump sought the endorsement of Jerry Falwell Jr., [then] president of Liberty University, one of the largest evangelical universities in the United States. Trump, a decidedly areligious candidate, understood that without the vote of the conservative Christian community, he would not stand a chance of being elected. With this charm offensive, Trump secured 81 percent of the evangelical vote and won.

Under Trump, the lines between white identity politics and Christian Nationalism blurred considerably. His tacit approval of naked racism and violence emboldened hate groups in America. The president created a group of loyal fanatics, using religion and nationalism to build himself up as a strong man in true fascist manner. After the deadly 2017 attack at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., the president did not repudiate the white nationalist hate-groups that had assembled there. For many, this was a nod and wink encouraging white supremacist groups to continue their actions.

But nothing encapsulated the risk of mixing politics with religion worse than Trump’s walk on June 1, 2020. On that day, Trump and his entourage of advisors, cabinet members and family emerged from the White House bunker, walked across Lafayette Plaza and stood awkwardly in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. Using violent tactics, federal police had created a protective cordon for the president. They had dispersed peaceful protesters with tear gas and flash bangs, violating the protesters’ First Amendment right to assemble. From her purse, Ivanka Trump procured a bible, which she passed to her father. Cameras flashed and military aircraft buzzed overhead as Trump held the bible aloft, unopened and upside-down, a prop in a bizarre photo op.

To his supporters, Trump’s antics represented a triumph for the cause of Christianity in America. In truth, it was the use of violence against American citizens by the president to endorse the Christian religion for his own political gain. It was a brazen appropriation of religious iconography for political power. Even more dangerous, these actions sent a message to fundamentalist lone-wolf actors and hate groups. They saw Trump’s actions and felt emboldened to perpetuate violence to promote their religious crusades.

Trump’s embrace of Christian Nationalism runs afoul of the Constitution. As his publicity stunt at St. John’s Church demonstrated, he promoted the cause of religion when it benefitted him politically. Religion and its symbols are easily appropriated by corrupt leaders such as Trump, and for that reason it is evident that there is no place for religion in the American political debate.

Selina, 29, is from Alpharetta, Ga., and attends the University of Pennsylvania.

“I graduated in 2014 from Georgia Tech with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and then worked several roles at ExxonMobil. I spent three years in the oil and gas industry before pursuing a career in animal care and public health. For the past two years, I have worked with animals and communities both in the United States and throughout Latin America. I am in the first year of doctorate studies in veterinary medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.”

 

Honorable mention: Grad student essay contest — John Carroll

John Carroll

The evangelical chokehold on American elections

By John Carroll

In the 2016 presidential election, white Protestants (otherwise known as evangelicals), emboldened by a strong moral obligation to intervene in politics and protest the spread of secular ideals, showed up in unprecedented support for Donald Trump, with over 80 percent of them contributing to his victory. Evangelicals make up one-fifth of all registered voters in the United States, as well as one-third of those who identify as right-leaning or are registered Republican. Not only do they maintain that Christianity belongs at the forefront of politics, they also have the access to media, social institutions and money to amplify that view — so much so that it would be considered untactful for any campaign not to pander to them in some way. Trying to make the argument against the erosion of secularism, religious nationalism or the finagling of God into every aspect of political discourse from rhetoric to law is difficult if it fails to recognize the incomparable cultural, political and economic capital that evangelicals possess and throw behind their causes. As a voting bloc of the American populace, no other is more influential or poses a greater threat to separation of church and state.

Secular government seeks a balance between a stable social order and religious freedom. It seeks to protect freedom of conscience in matters of religion and tolerates all forms of belief, but not all actions based on those beliefs. It was born out of situations where minority beliefs faced constant persecution under governments representing the dominant faith, collusion between religious leaders and politicians that allowed siphoning of public resources and power, as well as the need to replace theocratic ideas that stalled social progress or denied rational justice. Even when the concept was new, religious nationalists sounded alarms equating secularism to cultural decay and the death of God. In an identical fashion, modern evangelicals use that same moral panic to prod voters into action.

The evangelical vote in 2016 was consolidated in Trump’s favor thanks in part to

endorsements from several prominent Christian figures, including [now former] Liberty University President Jerry

Falwell Jr., theologian Wayne Grudem, author and radio host Eric Metaxas, media mogul Pat Robertson, etc. Evangelicals with massive platforms who sanctified Trump’s campaign and sought to give his presidency a “mandate of heaven.” According to their views, supporting Trump was no longer simply a political stance, it was a Christian’s moral imperative. Despite many Christians maintaining a dissenting view of Trump, the significant ideological overlap between conservatives and evangelicals meant those endorsements provided a sense of divine conviction to his supporters. In 2020, Democratic presidential candidates face abnormal scrutiny for their religious convictions. Christian voter guides and media commentators routinely grade them on how well their platform complements gospel virtues, and candidates at all levels of government face increasing pressure to pander to evangelical sentiments.

For non-Christian religious groups, the “God” present on the American debate floor is most certainly not their own, and that dystopian situation of a politically dominant faith having leverage over minority faiths becomes more vivid. For secular thinkers, the incorrigibility of scripture is a routine impasse. How many current election issues that push and pull our nation’s voters are rooted in or complicated by evangelical dogma? The notion that Islam is an inferior theology touting violence against Christians is a perception that compliments the Islamophobia already prevalent in many discussions around immigration. Uncritical support for the Israeli government from the standpoint of a biblically cited right to exercise dominion over certain territory in the region. Rejection of LGBTQ+ rights based on biblical conventions on gender and sexuality. Denial of reproductive rights based in the fear of encouraging a pandemic of premarital sex, or from the notion that a zygote has a soul and can be murdered.

Biblical authority is a refuge from criticism, and most politicians find it less of a headache to affiliate that authority with their platform via rhetorical gymnastics.

When public officials pander and mix religion with government, it not only facilitates egregious fear and complication over which policy best serves our immortal souls, it also puts those groups who are clearly not being pandered to in a vulnerable position. The Evangelical Right showed their influence in 2016 and will continue to do so in the coming months. If we choose to be complacent about their encroaching agenda, the prospect of suffering under a pre-secular society becomes more and more real.

John, 25, is from Ballston Lake, N.Y., and attends SUNY Fredonia.

“I graduated from SUNY Schenectady with a degree in music performance and I’m working on a degree in music composition and pursuing my masters in musical theatre writing at NYU. I was music director and composed scores for two shows this year, and I was awarded first place in ICareIfYouListen.com’s 2019 New Voices essay contest for my writing on autism and the concert environment.”

 

Honorable mention: Grad student essay contest — Emella Canlas

Emella Canlas

Trump’s America and religious false pretense

By Emella Canlas

From 1096 to 1291, the Christian Crusaders massacred a myriad of people indiscriminately across the Middle East to “secure” the Holy Lands. In 1492, the devout Christopher Columbus began his voyage to the Americas, where he left behind a legacy of rape, slavery and forced conversion. In 2003, President George W. Bush confided in Abu Mazen, the

Palestinian prime minister, and Nabil Shaath, Mazen’s foreign minister, that God told him to “Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East.” History shows a clear pattern of leaders immorally securing political advantages under the guise of “God’s will.” This omnipresent danger of mixing politics and religion was especially relevant during Trump’s presidential term because Trump’s supporters largely consist of Christian Nationalists. When we invite religion and politics to mingle, it allows misinformation and willful ignorance to affect society.

President Trump is popular with predominantly white Christian Nationalists who don’t adhere to a code of morals, but rather conform to a set of conservative values. These values are loosely based on the bible, thereby reflecting many of its white and patriarchal themes. Trump’s crass treatment of women and xenophobic rhetoric is a far cry from what Christianity purports to be, but Christian Nationalists saw that these acts aligned with their own biases. His bigotry is clearly displayed in his national addresses and statements made on his Twitter account, particularly in response to the murder of African-Americans by police. By invoking “God” in his press conferences, he is allowing Christian Nationalists to carry out his misinformation and willful ignorance under religious false pretense.

A concrete example of this willful ignorance is when Trump refused to acknowledge the potential dangers of coronavirus when it first began to spread. He publicly discredited guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommended limiting infection testing, and even disbanded the government’s pandemic response team. In solidarity with Trump’s views, many of his supporters have refused to practice social distancing or wear preventive face masks because it is one of their “God-given rights” — a stubborn practice that put the collective well-being of American citizens at risk. Trump has since been ridiculed across the globe for not enforcing some common-sense health measures in the United States. In an attempt to remedy the situation, he amplified a video of doctors naming hydroxychloroquine as our nation’s hope.

Of those doctors, Trump highly endorsed Dr. Stella Immanuel, who went viral for her passionate claims about the benefits of hydroxychloroquine against coronavirus. Though ongoing studies show that the drug is not effective in treating coronavirus, she claimed in her testimony, “You don’t need masks. There is a cure.” She then passes off her sample size of approximately 350 patients as sufficient evidence and dismisses the value of double-blind studies. Dr. Immanuel makes other medical claims about bodily ailments in relation to demons and impurities of the soul in a YouTube series titled “Fire Power Ministries.” She exemplifies the danger of mixing politics and religion, wherein false claims have led to disastrous outcomes. Trump’s supporters may have put themselves in harm’s way because they have nothing to fear in light of this “cure.”

It is the 21st century, and the president of the United States has deliberately chosen performative faith in lieu of science. Despite the progress that the United States has made in inclusion, Trump has effectively manipulated Christian values to condone racist, xenophobic and sexist sentiment that send us back decades in terms of women’s rights and minority rights.

Emella, 25, is fron Alameda, Calif., and attends California State University, East Bay. “I am Filipino, and like many other Filipino-Americans, I was raised in a very strict Catholic household. By the time I was in high school, I identified as agnostic, in part due to my bisexuality, and in part due to how hypocritically religion played out in the real world.

“I attended a community college and then transferred to UC-Davis, where I participated in the Filipino association called Mga Kapatid, which seeks to educate and dismantle colonial mentality.

“I have been working as registered behavior technician for the last three years, providing therapy to children with special needs and various learning disabilities. I am working on my master’s degree in special education.”

 

Honorable mention: Grad student essay contest — Brionna McCumber

 

Brionna McCumber

The foundation of America is religious freedom

By Brionna McCumber

American patriotism loudly sings words that we all know: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our inalienable rights as citizens. Our freedoms. We hold sacred the documents that strung together our nation in its earliest years and remain true to its words.

English religionists began to move into the Americas to settle communities in the

1600s to escape religious persecution from the English government and the Church of England. The United States of America became a sovereign nation in 1776 with the publication of the Declaration of Independence, followed by the signing of the Constitution in 1787.  The migration of religious settlers that led to the foundation of the United States created a free nation where citizens could not be subject to religious persecution again. In fact, the Constitution prohibits Congress from passing any laws “respecting an establishment of religion.” Freedom of religion has always been a key moral for American citizens.

Modern U.S. citizens are a majority of varied Christian faiths (71 percent), with about 7 percent of citizens belonging to other religions and 23 percent unaffiliated. Many Americans consider the United States to be a “Christian nation.” The correspondence of morality and participation in religious activities can be blinding to many individuals. Many churches encourage members to surround themselves with others of similar beliefs. Politicians have the option to disclose their personal or familial religious beliefs, which can act as a way to gain voter numbers. Religious institutions often preach political stances under the guise of morality, causing conflict among religious voters. Politicians who announce their religious views and advertise agreement with these political stances from religious institutions promote their campaigns seemingly with support from the church. This can cause religious individuals to feel like they need to vote for a certain candidate to remain in good stance with their religion. This causes problematic underrepresentation of minority groups in elected positions.

Freedom of religion in the United States is for everyone of all faiths and non-faiths. This allows for all members of the government to be of any or no religion. By common statistics, this makes the greater part of government officials Christians. Allowing the use of God in political discussions is an infringement of religious rights of non-Christian citizens. Millions of people in the United States do not believe in God, and millions of others believe in alternative religious characters. When politicians discuss God at the pulpit of a debate, not only are they immoralizing non-Christian peoples, but they are transforming the debate into a sermon. Religious opinions are broadcast as politics, giving religious advertisement over the community.

My personal experience with the problematic use of religion in government has a foundation with the controversial involvement of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) with the Utah state government. The LDS church reports that 68.55 percent of the population of Utah are members.

I shared an article on a social media page about the recent violations of human rights in the U.S. government, and expressed my own concern as a minority member. A religious relative from the Alabama responded to the post that I should “Talk with God.” What does God have to do with politicians advocating to remove protections for minorities? I further explained my intentions and concerns related to the politics that affect my freedoms. My relative, however, was too deeply rooted in her religious connections to the politician, she could not see the other choices. “Things feel better when we talk to God about them. I am a supporter of the administration. Love you!” My plea for help was blown away by the devotion to supporting a “Godful” nation.

As citizens of the United States, we are obligated to participate in the care for our country. The officials we choose to elect shape the direction of the country and future politics. In order to keep an unbiased, fair government, we must remove God from political debate. We must set human goodness as the bar for morality and vote for individuals of varying backgrounds and beliefs. We must keep America free for everyone.

Brionna, 23, is from Pleasant Grove, Utah, and attends Colorado State University. “I am an entry-level graduate student excited to start a program working with zoos and aquariums in the fields of education and conservation. I have worked in education for the past four years and have a deep love for natural science. I love working with animals and students. My wife and I recently got married during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

 

Honorable mention: Grad student essay contest — Andrew Young 

Andrew Young

Abortion: A gateway to religion

By Andrew Young 

Political debates have become a mainstay of the election process in America. Whether it be a state representative, congressional representative or the president, the debates are essential to success on the campaign trail. These debates cover important topics such as economic and fiscal plans, foreign policy and gun violence. While there are definitely partisan divides on these subjects, there is one topic that seems to split the parties more than any other: abortion.

A woman’s right to make that decision has been one of the most hotly contested political topics for the last 50 years. The two sides come down to fundamental disagreements that call on people’s religious upbringings. Is abortion murder? Some Christian candidates state that it violates the sixth commandment — thou shall not murder — and more liberal candidates will say a woman has a right to choose. This is how candidates are able to bring their religious views into debates and make religion political. While Republicans are majority Christian, there is a mix of religions on both sides of the aisle and both parties are guilty of pandering to the audience’s religious preference. When religion is brought into these debates, the tone shifts from intellectual to emotional. Candidates are no longer speaking about facts, but rather belief systems that they take as fact. When candidates take a stance on a religious topic it is often to pander to a specific group that they need to win.

There is a large Christian majority that will not vote for someone who is pro-abortion, so those candidates must establish that they are anti-abortion to even stay in the running. They are not focusing on issues that matter because they need to satisfy their constituents’ expectations, even if it not what they believe. The inclusion of religion in politics creates an environment where candidates need to establish where they stand on hotly contested issues that are derived from political believes.

This need to win over a large base of voters comprises the entire purpose of political debates. From the first televised debate in 1960 to the current election cycle, debates are used to focus on the candidate’s policies. These debates should give us, the voters, insight into what our candidate’s goals are, their plan to achieve them, and how they are going to help us. This can all be done without the inclusion of religion.

When religion is included in political debates, it comprises this objective and can be detrimental to society. The candidates spend time talking about religion and not about their policies, which is what affects most voters and creates this ideal of “right” and “wrong” religions. Look at Donald Trump’s rhetoric for the past four years. He has directly stated that Islam is the enemy and indirectly stated that Christianity is correct. This presents a danger to all Islamic Americans who have done nothing wrong, but the militarized Christianity has decided they are public enemy number one. This was taken to extremes when Trump passed his Muslim ban, preventing thousands of people from entering or exiting the country for almost no reason. The religious prejudice has invaded the political sphere and has had an extreme impact on marginalized groups.

When public officials speak about religion, whether it be in debates or rallies, they have alternative motives. They are appealing to groups they feel they must appease to get elected and may not be representative of their policies. We should vote for candidates based on their policies, not based on the religion they are born into. These religious prejudices and biases also have no place in politics because they almost always imply that there is a correct and incorrect side to the bible. This creates resentment against an often already marginalized group in society and puts them in danger.

Religion can be valuable as a belief system, but when running to be a public official it has no business in arguments. The inclusion of religion in politics causes a degradation of our democracy and makes candidates seem one-dimensional where religion is their only characteristic. Mark Twain said, “Very often, in matters concerning religion and politics, a man’s reasoning power are not above the monkey’s.” That still applies today. Our country will be better when religion is not included in an environment dictated by facts.

 

Andrew, 22, is from Bolingbrook, Ill., and attends the University of Denver. “I am passionate about accounting and have had a few internships that have only confirmed this belief. My career goal is to pass the CPA exam in Colorado, practice for a few years and then to begin teaching accounting in a university in Colorado. I want to give back to education and influence young people to think freely about all ideas in life.”

 

Honorable mention: Grad student essay contest — Yamiset Trujillo

Yamiset Trujillo

Conservative Christianity is at direct odds with LGBTQ+ basic human rights

By Yamiset Trujillo

I watched the 2016 election unfold in the same year that the Pulse nightclub shooting happened less than 10 minutes away from where I studied. It was a sucker punch I did not see coming, having been lulled into a false sense of security by same-sex marriage finally being made legal across the country a year prior. This had me naively believing that politics were ushering in a more neutral government focused on the issues of all its people, my loved ones and me finally included.

I was wrong. Election day had me feeling so hollowed out that I considered asking my professors for a day off from my extremely demanding program to do what felt like mourning. I thought I was being overdramatic, but the next day at school felt like a funeral. Other LGBTQ+ students in my cohort were shadows of themselves, heads down like the weight of the world was bearing down on them — and they were right to feel that way.

LGBTQ+ people are some of the most vulnerable people in America, having fought for decades not only for basic human rights, but to simply be recognized as people under the law. With President Trump courting the religious right, he’s used the excuse of Christian values to roll back to Bush-era conservatism and anti-LGBTQ+ legislation that actively contributes to the discrimination against, and deaths of, LGBTQ+ Americans. To pander to a conservative religious agenda inherently means to uphold a limited set of moral and ethical values that target communities this religious group seeks to eliminate. It’s easy to assume words like “elimination” are extreme or sensationalist, but when the president himself has made jokes about the LGBTQ+ community and how his vice president would like to “hang them all,” this becomes less sensationalism and more fact.

The list of anti-LGBTQ+ movements and legislation Trump has pushed through is exhaustive, but a handful of policies include: dismantling nondiscrimination policies in instances of foster care, permitting homeless shelters to deny transgender people despite the fact they are one of the largest groups to suffer from homelessness, allowing religious discrimination against LGBTQ+ workers for federal contractors, and creating a group in the Health and Human Services Department to protect doctors who refuse to provide medical care to LGBTQ+ patients.

In fact, he took any opportunity he could to try to erase not only knowledge of LGBTQ+ people, but even acknowledgment that they exist at all. Within hours of taking office, pages about LGBTQ+ rights and recognition were removed from government websites. He has pushed for the lack of inclusion of questions about LGBTQ+ groups and identities in the U.S. Census. At the CDC, employees were instructed to eliminate language that acknowledges the existence of transgender people.

This kind of targeted attack against a group specifically because of gender or sexuality is not only unconstitutional, but the vast majority of Americans do not support it. It’s only because of the insidious push of conservative Christian lobbyists and legislators that these acts of blatant discrimination have been passed.

This is not just trying to take away gay marriage. These acts put LGBTQ+ lives in danger. To say doctors can refuse medical care based on prejudice means people will go without access to basic needs. People will suffer and die. The HIV crisis still affects the LGBTQ+ community more than any other group, yet by allowing religious doctrine into medicine, it’s legal to allow those suffering from HIV/AIDS to die rather than give them care.

Transgender youth have one of the highest rates of suicide and mental illness, yet the religious right would sooner let them die than have access to life-saving resources. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this means doctors would be within their rights to deny any LGBTQ+ patient access to ventilators and allowing them to die when they could have survived. These risks only increase for even further marginalized identities. White gay men may be discriminated against, but a Black transwoman is even less likely to receive adequate care in a medical setting.

Allowing religion into legislation leads to the deaths of many underrepresented and underprivileged LGBTQ+ people. Ignoring their existence and trying to silence them through oppressive policies and discrimination will hurt countless lives. Religion has no place in legislation, where it’s always used to put its own in-group into power, and to exploit and hurt any group it is opposed to existing. To allow God into law means to allow playing God with our lives.

Yamiset, 28, is from Miami and attends the University of Central Florida.

“I’m a first-generation Cuban-American student. When I was six months old, my parents put me in a little box and smuggled me aboard a rickety little boat to cross the sea between Cuba and the United States. I’ve taken my lifelong passion for art and storytelling into just about any artistic medium. My has been displayed in galleries, painted on shoes of professional athletes, and in a 3D-animated student film about the dangers of light pollution on a sea turtle’s life cycle that’s been shown at over 50 film festivals worldwide.”

 

 

 

 

Honorable mention: Grad student essay contest — Yarrow Mead

Yarrow Mead

Let the first-born die: Christian Nationalists and the inevitable hypocrisy of allowing religion to dictate policy

By Yarrow Mead

Christianity actually has some rather helpful things to say about pandemics and personal responsibility — a surprising thing to claim in a freedom from religion essay, I know. Pandemic is a modern word. The ancient Israelites had the plague — and plagues were almost always the result of the wrath of God. This, of course, isn’t very helpful to us. We know and understand viruses to be entropic; ascribing a reason might feel comforting, but it’s useless from decision-making perspective. What’s interesting about Old Testament plague solutions is their emphasis on personal sacrifice and ritual. In perhaps the most famous plague story of the Western world — the story of Passover — there are only two protections from the plague that kills, maims and, interestingly, targets eldest sons (Exodus 9:9). One is a sacrifice of personal wealth in the form of slaughtering a lamb and placing the blood above the door. The other is the simple instruction to stay inside after dark. Sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it?
Galatians 5:13–14 says, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” The message is clear, even to a skeptic like me — biblical self-sacrifice is to set aside one’s own desires for the greater good. So why isn’t that reflected in the policies and rhetoric of the most aggressive proponents of Christian Nationalism?
2 Trump, perhaps the most obvious example of a high-profile Christian politician who doesn’t seem to adhere to the “Love thy neighbor” adage, is also probably the most obvious answer to this question. He consistently downplayed the threat this virus poses and has been joined by many other prominent Christian Nationalists, such as Mike Pence and Mitch McConnell. This sort of downplaying in the face of obviously spiking death rates requires a deep indifference to others that is simply not found in the bible — yet its roots are also religious in nature.
Religious thinking is emotional thinking, and a glance at the mismatch between the message of love found in the bible and the policies of its most aggressive proponents show that humans do not possess the consistency to follow its dictates faithfully in the realm of politics. Once we have allowed ourselves to be swayed by magical thinking in this area, it becomes simply too easy to continue in that process. The reason religion must be kept out of elections and politics is because it cannot be trusted to adhere to even its own values when faced with the overwhelming power of human fear and greed to justify un-Christian acts.
Perhaps for the average American this can be somewhat forgiven. Who can really judge how another copes in times of extreme fear and death? Opening up congressional and presidential debates and decision-making to this way of thinking, however, is something very different. Your neighbor down the road comforting himself with some wishful thinking isn’t such a huge deal — even if he does vote — but the people whose decisions have a direct impact on the health of a nation of 328 million people? These people must hold their thought processes to the highest level of rigor possible, and the first introduction of religious rhetoric undermines that lofty goal and opens up the thinker to the worst kind of hypocrisy — and invites their supporters to follow them.
3 In the rash of politicians openly calling for the sacrifice of our elders and immunocompromised for the benefit of the economy, we perhaps have a new take on Passover. These public servants seem to suggest that those ancient Israelites should have just let the plague take their firstborn. After all, having to hide inside after dark and sacrifice personal wealth in the form of young lamb is fairly analogous to being asked to stay home and work less.
Let the angels take the firstborn, the ancient economic price is just too high.

Yarrow, 25, is from Finley, Minn., and attends Hamline University.
“I am working on my Masters of the Art of Teaching. I’m a self-employed metalsmith, and my capstone project is focused on merging the worlds of art and education by creating curriculum that encourages young students’ confidence and technical skills while also teaching them high-level academic writing.”