Grad/‘older’ student essay contest winners

Grad school essay contest

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is proud to announce the 10 winners and nine honorable mentions of the Brian Bolton Essay Contest for Graduate/“Older” Students. FFRF has paid out a total of $17,750 in award money to this year’s contest winners.

Graduate students up to age 30 or undergrad students ages 25–30 were asked to write a persuasive essay on “Why God has no place in political debate.” Students were asked to make the case for keeping “God” and religion out of the political debates, and the dangers posed when public officials pander and mix religion with government.

This contest is generously and singlehandedly endowed by Lifetime Member Brian Bolton, a retired psychologist, humanist minister and professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas. Bolton is also underwriting FFRF’s Bible Accountability Project to call attention to the continuing harm of the bible to society.

FFRF thanks Dean and Dorea Schramm of Florida for providing a $100 bonus to students who are members of a secular group, student club or Secular Student Alliance. The total of $17,750 reflects those bonuses.

FFRF also thanks “Director of First Impressions” Lisa Treu for managing the details of the essay contests. And we couldn’t judge these competitions without help from our “faithful faithless” volunteers and staff members, including Don Ardell, Dan Barker, Darrell Barker, Bill Dunn, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Stephen Hirtle, Judy Jacobs, Linda Josheff, Dan Kettner, Katya Maes, Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey, Amit Pal, Dave Petrashek, Sue Schuetz, Lauryn Seering, PJ Slinger and Karen Lee Weidig.

FFRF has offered essay competitions to college students since 1979, high school students since 1994, grad and older students since 2010, one geared specifically for students of color since 2016 and one for law school students since 2019.

Winners, their ages, the colleges or universities they are attending and the award amounts are listed below. The winning essays are reprinted in this issue. The honorable mention essays will not be reprinted here but can be seen at freethoughttoday.com.

Note: The essays were written prior to the November elections and have been edited, when possible, to reflect the discrepancy. 

First place

Miriam Barnicle, 23, Alverno College, $3,500.

Second place

Kelsey Kane-Ritsch, 26, Columbia University, $3,000.

Third place

Sydni Ham Myers, 29, Virginia Commonwealth, $2,500.

Fourth place

Nicolle Dirksen (Rann), South Dakota State University, $2,000.

Fifth place

Rebecca Barrett, 25, Emory University, $1,500.

Sixth place

T. Parker Schwartz, 27, Capital University, $1,000.

Seventh place

Ipsha Banerjee, 22, Arizona State University, $750.

Eighth place

Sonia Bajaj, 28, Benedictine University, $500.

Ninth place

Paula Canales, University of Texas-San Antonio, $400.

Tenth place

Michelle Krauser, 30, Coastal Carolina University, $300.

Honorable mentions ($200 each)

Emella Canlas, 25, California State University, East Bay.

John Carroll, 25, SUNY Fredonia.

Selina Chan, 29, University of Pennsylvania.

Ruth Dickey-Chasins, 26, George Washington University.

Kavitha Kannanunny, 25, New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Brionna McCumber, 23, Colorado State University.

Yarrow Mead, 25, Hamline University.

Yamiset Trujillo, 28, University of Central  Florida.

Andrew Young, 22, University of Denver.

1st place: Grad student essay contest — Miriam Barnicle

Miriam Barnicle

Threat of religious pandering in a COVID election

FFRF awarded Miriam $3,500.

By Miriam Barnicle

Freedom from religion is granted by the U.S. Constitution and has been a right guaranteed to Americans since our nation’s founding. In the political debates of 2020, there was no time or place for discussing the religious convictions of candidates. The American people deserved to hear how candidates would work in service of their constituents, not their God. When considering reopening the economy in May, President Trump stated: “I’m going to have to make a decision, and I only hope to God that it’s the right decision.”

As economies reopened and coronavirus cases soared last summer, it is clear that he would have benefited from consulting other sources. In 2020, the mixing of God with political decisions presented dire consequences for the health, safety and economic prosperity of the American people.

Religious pandering poses an immediate threat to Americans’ access to healthcare. Trump’s administration was incentivized to enact policies that are favorable among white evangelical voters, a key voting block of Trump’s political success, even if such policies present health risks. Most recently, the Department of Health and Human Services rolled back regulations that barred health-care professionals from denying care to individuals based on their gender identity or expression. This policy may be welcome to evangelical voters, and advantageous for some politicians. But in the face of a deadly pandemic, the U.S. government cannot allow healthcare professionals to deny care based on their own religious convictions. Americans who profess no faith or hold beliefs different than those of their elected officials should not have to wonder whether politicians will deem them worthy of care. Every American deserves health care that is competent, compassionate and based on the facts available, rather than religious doctrine. 

In addition to limiting access to health care, religious pandering poses a threat to the general safety of the entire country. As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, the debate over masks has grown increasingly heated. Elected officials have expressed religious objections to face coverings, such as an Ohio lawmaker who refuses to wear a mask because he believes it dishonors God. Additionally, as many states have implemented mask mandates in public spaces to try to contain the spread of coronavirus, some governors have issued exemptions to places of worship despite a complete lack of scientific justification. Of course, discourse about the factors impacting the spread of coronavirus and the government’s role in mandating such measures should be welcome in America. However, these discussions must be guided by data rather than the religious beliefs of individual lawmakers. 

Finally, the entanglement of religious beliefs with policy creates economic consequences. At the time of writing, roughly 30 million Americans are receiving unemployment benefits, Congress is working to roll out another trillion-dollar stimulus package, and economists warn that the impacts of COVID-19 will continue for months, if not years to come. The U.S. government will continue to need to pump money into the economy, presenting an opportunity for costly religious pandering. The $2.2 trillion CARES Act has already poured millions of dollars into the coffers of religious groups, such as religious schools, megachurches, and Trump’s own private preachers. Americans deserve not only transparency from political officials about where tax dollars are going, but also confidence that public money will not be funneled into the pockets of religious groups in hopes of political gains.

The entanglement of religious beliefs with public policy decisions poses clear threats to Americans’ health, safety and economic well-being. Trump warned that the current situation would probably “get worse before it gets better,” and it is clear that the crises facing America today will remain at the forefront of political debates. As our nation grapples with whether and how to open safely, we find ourselves in desperate need of leadership unclouded by religious beliefs. Now, more than ever, public officials must rely on data, science and the voice of the people, not the voice of God. Failure to do so threatens the founding principles of the United States and the lives and livelihoods of the American people.

Miriam, 23, of Milwaukee, attends Alverno College.

“I am working toward a master’s degree in urban education. I also work as a special education teacher at a Milwaukee high school and enjoy supporting my students as they embark on their own educational and career goals.”

2nd place: Grad student essay contest — Kelsey Kane-Ritsch

Kelsey Kane-Ritsch

Remove religion bias to fight climate change

FFRF awarded Kelsey $3,000.

By Kelsey Kane-Ritsch

Nature is my religion. Growing up, while my classmates spent their weekends in Sunday school, I slipped off into the forest for my own spiritual and moral instruction. Gentle deer reminded me to listen to others, chattering squirrels taught me the importance of advocating for basic rights, a mother bear protecting her cubs displayed the importance of love, and unapologetic peacocks prompted me to never be ashamed to show my true colors. 

My beliefs left me feeling like the pariah of the playground ruled by Catholic Girl Scouts. I didn’t realize until later just how fortunate I was to be defended by a public school system that was legally bound to accept students of all beliefs and not take sides in our spiritual schoolyard squabbles. This separation of church and state allowed me to develop my own understanding of the world that has shaped nearly every personal, educational and professional decision I have made.

I have joined the ranks of Americans who commit their careers and their votes to maintaining this thin “wall of separation.” However, when President Trump was elected, he assembled an administration that took a sledgehammer to that wall (while building a very different wall along the border). The president handed the reins of the federal government directly to the Christian dominionists, who used the bible as an excuse for environmental exploitation.

While a series of political horrors have resulted from this shift (i.e., anti-abortion policies, immigration bans and much more), none is more devastating than the assault on the health of our planet. Thanks to the skills and values gained from my forest friends, I now spend my days working for the Natural Resources Defense Council advocating for the lives of my fellow inhabitants of Earth and against the destructive climate policies based on religious rationales. 

Climate policies should be based in sound science. This is not news to world leaders, except perhaps former President Trump, who skipped the key climate crisis talks at the United Nations in 2019 to chair his own conflicting event on “religious freedom.”

Promoting science is also unfamiliar to his staunchly Christian former Vice President, Mike Pence, who has argued on the floor of Congress that evolution is only a theory and that creationism should be taught in public schools. 

Therefore, it is no surprise that Trump “blessed” Scott Pruitt with the opportunity to run the Environmental Protection Agency, where Pruitt used interpretations of religious texts to conveniently justify destructive EPA policies meant to bring the president’s powerful industry backers immediate wealth and power.

According to Pruitt, “The biblical worldview with respect to these issues is that we have a responsibility to manage and cultivate, harvest the natural resources that we’ve been blessed with to truly bless our fellow mankind.” He has also argued that “God has blessed us with natural resources,” but “the environmental left tells us that, though we have natural resources like natural gas and oil and coal, and though we can feed the world, we should keep those things in the ground, put up fences and be about prohibition.”

Even the pope strongly disagreed with these statements. Yet, our federal government invoked this religious interpretation while forcibly suppressing the sound science calling for the end of extractive practices fueling climate change. The suppression of science illuminates just how damaging the blind application of any “religious justification” can be to fair political decision-making. If God’s word is considered the final word in politics, whose interpretation of God’s word is correct and who gets to decide?

While I’d love to turn to my old forest friends and let them decide, my own spirituality must remain removed from politics, as well. Our democracy thrives off of healthy political debate fueled by a mix of economic, scientific, and moral arguments.

This discourse must continue unencumbered by religious bias in order to craft fair policy. It just so happens that science, economics and morality are all on the same side of the climate change debate, so removing the Trump administration’s rules based on dominionist religious theory will clear the path to our own futures. 

In keeping with what I learned from the squirrels, the people must bury this collection of nuts in order to grow a more sustainable future.

Kelsey, 26, is from the Los Angeles area and attends Columbia University.

“During my undergraduate years at Princeton, I focused on anthropology and environmental studies. Today, I work as a program coordinator for the Science Center and Oceans team at the Natural Resources Defense Council while pursuing my M.S. in sustainability management.”

3rd place: Grad student essay contest — Sydni Ham Myers

Sydni Ham Myers

The political ideology of God

FFRF awarded Syndi $2,500.

By Sydni Ham Myers

On June 23, 2017, Mike Pence delivered keynote remarks to an energetic crowd in Colorado Springs at the 40th anniversary celebration of Focus On The Family, an organization that openly invests in public education campaigns against LGBTQ individuals: “In a very real sense, you’re the hands and feet, and the voice in so many ways of the truths found in the scriptures,” said Pence. “You’ve strengthened marriages. . . . You’ve advocated for the timeless values our society needs to hear now more than ever.”

Meanwhile around the living room of my parents’ home in Hampton, Va., heads shook in confusion and disgust at CNN’s live coverage of the mystifying words of our nation’s vice president.

Yet one family member remained fixed on the zealous speaker. In the middle of the room, my uncle watched on, eyes wide with awe, nodding his head fervently to every word. 

Then Pence doubled down with the promise: “Protecting and promoting religious freedom is a foreign policy priority of the Trump administration. . . . Many believers around the world are under assault, and nowhere is this more evident than the Middle East, in the very land where our faith was given life, that’s why under President Trump, America stands with Israel.”

In response, my uncle slowly stood up from his seat, clapping his hands together and said, “Amen.”

The room fell silent and the tension that followed was palpable. I remember my father and grandfather scoffing loudly in reaction to the daring act of praise. For it was certainly a bold act, especially for a Black man, to openly praise a conservative leader in a room of unwavering Democrats. Yet, to my uncle, the deeply religious references that enveloped Pence’s speech were the only thing that mattered. 

With a nod to God, my evangelical uncle could look past even the most divisive of messages.

When religion is referenced throughout political debate, it helps politicians gain automatic support from a large demographic of the American populace: devout Christians. This blind devotion is antithetical to the legal framework intended by our country’s Founding Fathers. 

In the 18th century, when Christianity was the de facto religion of the country, Thomas Jefferson introduced the Bill Concerning Religious Freedom to the Virginia Legislature. In it, he urged an amendment to end state support of religion out of fear that combining faith and politics would encourage citizens to conform to a common denomination. He believed conflating religion and politics would also have more severe rippling effects — it would lead to the persecution of individuals outside of the common faith. 

For years, Israel and Palestine have been in conflict over border rights and control of Jerusalem (as well as Israeli settlements, Palestinian freedom of movement, water rights and many more matters). Furthermore, according to its 1997 Status of Jerusalem plan, the United Nations aims to one day recognize Jerusalem as a capital of both states, Israel and Palestine.

Yet, in his Focus On The Family address, Mike Pence likened Palestinians struggling on the border to radical terrorists: “Nearly 2,000 years ago the disciples of Jesus Christ fanned out from Israel in every direction, but today, these Christian communities face unspeakable atrocities at the hands of radical Islamic terrorism.”

As a leader of a nation that was founded on the Jeffersonian principles of the separation of church and state, Pence used religion to cushion his extremist point of view. In doing this, he invoked a foreign policy that isolated an entire group of people based on faith.    

When Pence or any other politician claims that God is on their side, they not only confuse Christians and encourage blind piety, they also use religion to justify enacting policies that are ethically corrupt.   

During the 2016 vice presidential debate, Sen. Tim Kaine recounted a moment, during his time as governor of Virginia, when he struggled between upholding the state’s death penalty laws and his Catholic faith. Yet, despite his personal religious views, he upheld the law. 

“It was a real struggle for me,” Kaine said, “but I think that it’s important that those of us who have deep faith lives don’t feel like we can just substitute in our own views.”

When politicians take the oath of office, ideally, they should sacrifice their personal beliefs to do what is legally and ethically just for the sake of their constituents. Unfortunately, the politicians of today still remain to weave Jesus into their ideologies at any opportune chance.   

Sydni, 29, attends Virginia Commonwealth University.

“I’m a young woman passionate about advertising and writing and a proud Hampton, Va., native.”

4th place: Grad student essay contest — Nicolle Dirksen

Nicolle Dirksen

Religion is antiquated and irrelevant

FFRF awarded Nicolle $2,000.

By Nicolle Dirksen

In the current political climate of extreme polarization, religion seeks to further divide us. While many proponents of religiosity view it as a catalyst of togetherness, the opposite is true, particularly when religion becomes intertwined with politics. When the two become enmeshed, policy changes are made based on religious values that do not represent all of a politician’s constituents. Additionally, religion within the context of politics creates a narrative in which one set of ideas is viewed as the only path to morality and, most devastatingly, it forces scientific understanding and critical thinking to the backseat in policy making.   

Lawmakers have incredible responsibility to their constituents and to the country as a whole. Heading into the 2020 elections, the issues that most divided the country were heavily based on Christian values. LGBTQ+ rights, reproductive rights and police reform were voted on, by many Americans, through the lens of biblical principles. Politicians pander to these Christian ideals, regardless of their own convictions. While this may seem like a strategic plan to politicians, it only serves to further divide the country into Christians and non-Christians. Nonbelievers and holders of alternate religious views are left out of the equation, pointing to a need for our political system to do away with any religious consideration or conversation. When politicians involve religion in their platforms, it will always be the religion of the majority, because nothing else makes strategic sense. This is not conducive to creating a government for the people, but rather a government for the “right” people, thereby creating an “us-versus-them” society. As demonstrated by the current political climate, no one wins when extreme polarization runs rampant. 

This polarization is further highlighted when the question of morality inevitably enters the conversation. When religion is part of political conversation on virtually every media platform and viewed by the masses, unequal representation of belief systems emerges. This reinforces the false narrative that one’s moral compass must be guided by a religion and/or higher power. When more people in America say they would vote for a Muslim presidential candidate than an atheist candidate in a post-9/11 country rife with anti-Muslim rhetoric, it becomes clear that a religious focus reinforces that morality equals God, any god. A Muslim politician is more palatable than a lawmaker viewed as amoral, even when that politician’s deity is one whose religious text(s) and belief system are in complete contradiction with the voters’.

A lack of a god belief becomes synonymous with a lack of morality, further polarizing the country and calling any scientific discovery that does not align with religion into question.

Science is the only method through which progress can be made. With religion at the center of political debate, science inevitably becomes an afterthought. When a country’s population is incapable of critically thinking about their own beliefs, the beliefs of others, and scientific literature, it is a detriment to that country’s ability to advance. In the social media age, this lack of critical thinking ability is clear. Confirmation bias and creating an echo chamber are easier than ever, and if one searches for something hoping for an answer that aligns with his/her/their biases, he/she/they are almost certainly going to find it, regardless of any objective, scientific truths that may directly oppose it. This seems to be especially true when something as closely held as religion is at the center of those biases. If the political system continues to incorporate religion in any part of the conversation, this problem will only continue to grow. 

Religion is the most divisive and problematic player in the American political system. No individual political figure could do as much damage as religion has. During this tumultuous time in American history, it is more important than ever for our leaders to create policy and make change based on scientific understanding, not divisive religious values. When religion has a seat in the political conversation, people are left out, morality becomes blurred, and critical thinking becomes obsolete. If America wants to move past the polarization and pave a path forward, we must view religion for what it is: antiquated and irrelevant. 

Nicolle, 29, attends South Dakota State University, studying human development and family studies with a minor in psychology.

“Living as an atheist in middle America has not always been easy, but it has been motivating. I have applied to graduate schools and hope to use my skepticism and critical-thinking skills to further the pool of research in psychology. Science has become increasingly important to me, particularly in the age of social media ‘truth,’ and I cannot wait to devote my life to scientific progress.”

5th place: Grad student essay contest — Rebecca Barrett

Rebecca Barrett

Dangers of mixing religion and government

FFRF awarded Rebecca $1,500.

By Rebecca Barrett

The presence of religion in government has long been contentious. Despite the First Amendment to the Constitution, which states, in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” religion has long been creeping into public life. Many politicians are sworn into office on a bible. Many state legislatures, city councils and other political bodies begin their meetings with an “invocation,” usually given by a priest, pastor or minister with an explicitly Christian prayer. Monuments of the Ten Commandments are put up in public buildings. Advocates of religion in public life say that religion has a positive influence on politicians and on the public. They contend religion in government encourages government officials to behave more morally, more honestly and with more compassion. But the whole idea of “religious freedom” and “religion in government” is a misnomer. We are really talking about a specific form of Christianity in government. The evangelical fundamentalists and pundits bemoaning the “War on Christmas” on Fox News do not want just any religion in government, they want their religion in government. The consistent effort to insinuate Christianity into every aspect of public life is not just an annoyance for non-Christians, it undermines religious freedom and chips away at the foundations of our pluralistic democracy.

Proponents of religion in public spaces argue that it is not about promoting Christianity, because these public spaces are open to all religions who want to enter them. But is this actually the case? The Satanic Temple has been a marvelous case study that proves that claims that public spaces are open to all religions equally are false. Founded in 2013, the Satanic Temple has been formally recognized by the IRS as a church and has 23 official chapters in the United States, Canada and Europe. It has applied to have after-school clubs, give invocations at city council meetings, and is suing Arizona to be allowed to put a 9-foot-tall statue of Baphomet next to the Ten Commandment’s monument on the statehouse lawn. Unlike some Christians, it is not trying to be the only voice in the public square. Rather, it only asks to enjoy the same rights Christians do to have its religion acknowledged in government meetings and in public spaces. The ensuing debate is very revealing. Christianity in government proponents who find themselves saying, “Why do these Satanists need to have their religion in public spaces?” must also ask themselves the same question. 

It is clear why freethinkers and people with minority religious viewpoints should be concerned by the incursions of Christianity into public life, but even other Christians should be concerned. This dominance of a particular type of conservative, fundamentalist Christian viewpoint is antithetical to the pluralism that our democracy is dependent on. Christian theocrats claim to be advocating for “freedom” for all religious people, but really it is about power. When public officials give primacy to Christianity in public life, they are knowingly or unknowingly promoting the superiority of Christians above other religions. This has a chilling effect on free speech, as people with other religious viewpoints, or Christians who interpret scripture differently, do not feel welcome in these spaces. Our democracy depends on the ability of all members of our society to voice their opinions, no matter how upsetting to some those opinions may be. When religion and politics mix, a difference of opinion becomes heresy.

If these public spaces could truly be an open forum to all religious and nonreligious viewpoints, I believe we would not have a problem. Unfortunately, the primacy of Christianity in public spaces, in politics and in public discourse is causing the United States to slide toward theocracy.

When Donald Trump stood in front of St. John’s Church holding the bible after having violated the constitutional rights of protesters to free speech and free assembly, he was not just pandering to his conservative Christian base. Trump was telling Americans, and the world, that the unquestionable and unquestioning morality of the Christian faith was on his side. While Trump’s piety is most likely a performance, real politicians are making public policy decisions every day not based on science but based upon religious belief. This debate is not merely academic. It impacts the health and welfare of every American.

Rebecca, 25, attends Emory University. “I have been an atheist and lover of science and reason since age 10. After getting my bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering, I decided to get my master’s degree specializing in public health policy. I have a particular interest in criminal justice and prison reform. I am interested in how policy reforms can radically change the justice system, so it can maximize social welfare while still addressing harm.

6th place: Grad student essay contest — T. Parker Schwartz

T. Parker Schwartz

‘God’ as an ideological precedent

FFRF awarded Parker $1,000.

By T. Parker Schwartz

The repercussions of America’s expansive political campaign rhetoric attached to “God” and organized religion will, as always, have measurable impacts on local, state and federal government policies. While pandering to religion certainly creates a litany of policy-related consequences, the implications of such overridingly religious rhetoric also stoke a widespread and dangerous ideological precedent for the selection, evaluation and cultivation of our country’s future political leadership. 

The lack of a historically accepted secular orientation for the evaluation of our elected political leaders contributes to an entrenched set of sectarian norms that encourages the disenfranchisement of secularists from our political system. Throughout American history, virtually every president has furthered these Judeo-Christian values in his inaugural address. In fact, President Trump’s 2017 inauguration remarks, opined The Washington Post, “was infused with religious language . . . [including a] a bible reference to Psalm 133” and several explicit mentions of “Jesus Christ.” It was one of the most starkly religious inaugural addresses in collective American memory. 

As leaders across party lines elevate religion in their personal and political platforms, both leading U.S. presidential candidates pandered to faith-based constituencies as a tacit “rite of passage.” Trump used his “bully pulpit” to indulge far-right Christian factions of his electorate, both as an act of party solidification and for the sake of self-promotion. The president’s June 2020 bible-thumping photo-op in front of St. James Church, amid the George Floyd protests, revealed his brazen attempts to gain favor with Christian elements of the GOP. Moreover, the formation of the president’s Evangelical Advisory Board, led by prosperity theologist Paula White, raises serious questions about whether our federal government respects the separation of church and state. 

Trump’s Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, also fomented appeals to religiosity for undoubted political purposes. Biden initiated a campaign intent on “stealing votes” away from Trump’s solidly evangelical Christian voting base, reported Gabby Orr of Politico. In implementing such a strategy, Biden crafted campaign messaging with “religious undertones, and [he] reportedly hosts a weekly call with faith leaders to crowdsource policy and personnel suggestions.” In a December 2019 op-ed, Biden reveled in scripture and quotes from the pope as examples of foundations for his political philosophy. 

This ideological precedent, bent on promoting religion as a political weapon, must shift as the American citizenry becomes increasingly more secular in nature. A fall 2019 poll by Pew Research Center revealed that nearly four of every 10 Millennials are unaffiliated with any religion. Moreover, Millennials (23- to 38-year-olds) are more likely to identify as having no religion. For an even younger Gen Z (13- to-18-year-olds), a recent Barna study revealed that they are twice as likely as their adult counterparts to identify as atheist (13 percent to 6 percent). 

This sizable shift toward an increasingly secular American demography is hardly reflected in the rhetoric and makeup of our publicly elected officials today. As David Smith of The Guardian wrote in 2019, “nonbelievers [still] remain few and far between in U.S. politics.” Only one member of Congress (U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman of California) identifies as a nonbeliever. Secular candidates have not made widespread waves in state elections either. The Center for Freethought Equality noted before the fall election that just over 70 total state elected officials consider themselves to be atheists or humanists. 

By pandering to America’s historic Judeo-Christian values, the American political establishment risks engendering young, future political leaders toward public promotion of religious values as a threshold for seeking elected office. Our current set of elected political leaders’ religious values do not reflect the growing ranks of nonbelievers in America’s evolving voter base. 

As President Obama made the first step of doing in his 2009 inaugural address, our public officials must acknowledge our growing population of nonbelievers. Furthermore, our local and state representatives must take the steps to denounce the influence of religion in the structure of selecting and evaluating the criteria for viable political candidates. In doing so, our American political system will become a more conducive environment for the inclusion of intelligent, young and secular leaders who will help move our nation toward a set of policies more consistent with the separation of church and state.

As a current law school student, and hopeful future public official, I have little doubt that I speak for thousands of young Americans by saying that we yearn for the day when religion is no longer a barrier, or litmus test, to seek elected office. 

Parker, 27, is a law school student at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. “I previously worked as a public and media relations professional with Wilks Communications Group. A 2015 graduate of DePauw University, I majored in political science and communication and also have a master’s degree in professional communication from East Tennessee State University.”

7th place: Grad student essay contest — Ipsha Banerjee

Ipsha Banerjee

Politics and religion — the oldest con in the book

FFRF awarded Ipsha $750.

By Ipsha Banerjee

“God bless the United States of America” as the norm to conclude presidential speeches is a practice no one blinks twice at. Though the separation of church and state has been advocated for since the time of the Founding Fathers, politics remains tangled with religion as citizens are constantly reminded of Christian beliefs through nationalist symbols and public officials’ rhetoric. Politicians’ propagation of their supposed religious beliefs spurs danger in the form of controversy surrounding important issues, bias in voters that distracts from platforms, and division of the nation. Continued involvement of religion in politics is not only absurd — as religion is based on dogma and arcane consequences whereas politics depends on current events and present existence — but also harmful as it impedes growth and advancement. 

Politics and religion have been intertwined throughout the United States’ history. For example, although it is not required, presidents are conventionally sworn in using the bible. Additionally, the mention of “God” or our “Creator” can be seen across national documents and symbols. The Declaration of Independence states: “they [all men] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” The Pledge of Allegiance, which some public schoolchildren are required to recite daily, mentions “one nation, under God.” Even all coins and paper money include the nation’s motto “In God We Trust.” Religion and God are subconsciously reinforced through repeated exposure in the name of nationalism and therefore is implicit in politics. 

The primary problem of religion mixed with government comes down to misuse and obscurity. Instead of being a private choice each person has the right to make, religion has become a tool of political influence by deliberately priming public response and adding unnecessary points of contention to current issues. Religion should not be incorporated with politics because it is based on belief not evidence. Why should something that is a figment of humankind’s imagination impact politics, which is tangible and includes our country’s foreign policies, social institutions, economic development and civil rights? Policies should not be based on a future possibility but rather current happenings. If we framed issues and public officials’ platforms in terms of what is beneficial for us right now, in this moment, without fearing the consequences of a supernatural being that there is no evidence for, we would make progress with controversial topics such as abortion, stem cell research, LGBTQ+ rights, and even wearing masks to curb the ongoing pandemic. In the end, religious rhetoric and ideology are only impeding the political system, both for voters and public officials, as well as increasing civil conflict.

The intermixing of religion and politics implements bias, influences voter perception, limits public officials and pardons politicians. Because candidates are molded to fit religious views of political parties with their public image, marital status, church attendance and campaigns, voters often form an opinion based on the beliefs politicians’ claim to espouse rather than their stances and plans. Voters feel an emotional connection to candidates through a supposedly shared identity, creating bias, and thus are more likely to support the candidate without considering ability or platform. Religion provides the opportunity for voters to remain ignorant and make assumptions based on limited knowledge that then determine our country’s leadership. When these candidates are elected as public officials, the religious undertone of their platform and campaign puts them in a box, limiting progress. Now, these leaders must pander to religious beliefs and values to avoid being outcast by voters and ostracized by other policymakers. Public officials must make decisions in accordance with their appeal to religious voters, especially if they hope for reelection and acceptance among others of the same party. Finally, viewing politicians through a religious lens often obscures what they are saying and what they stand for. Even if the politicians speak or act immorally, those who identify with the politicians’ claimed religious values will often “forgive and forget” due to their initial presumption of character based on those values.

Religion is ingrained in politics and used as a means to an end. Based on faith and spirituality, religion has no logic or evidence that guides its followers. This inherent mystery surrounding its existence allows for strategic employment in order to influence, gain power or even conceal corruption. If religion is replaced with ethics and reality, voters and leaders alike would experience unity, change and growth. Politics needs to banish God and faith-based reasoning because in the end, religion is simply powerful marketing that dupes entire masses with the promise of virtue.

Ipsha, 22, attends Arizona State University after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, in May 2020 with a degree in integrative biology and psychology. “I volunteer virtually for Red Cross’ Biomedical Services department to support local and national blood drives and delivery and volunteer for the Phoenix Children’s Hospital and as a private piano and vocal teacher for underprivileged students. I also advocate and fundraise for organizations I’m passionate about, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arizona.”

8th place: Grad student essay contest — Sonia Bajaj

Sonia Bajaj

Religion and science are like oil and water

FFRF awarded Sonia $500.

By Sonia Bajaj

Religion is not bound by the same constraints as science. There can be no conversation tethered completely in reality that is guided solely by religious doctrine. By contrast, scientific debate is typically guided by a motivation for the distillation of truth. Politics is also a fluid process that is, in an ideal world, informed by rational decision-making. Thus, science is relevant to the issue of politics as a methodical, self-reflective approach to discerning fact. 

Experiments aim to minimize external variables in order to test specific hypotheses and determine causality. Even non-experimental designs take measures to reduce the influence of bias. Errors are certainly made in this process, but the aim among most researchers is the same: to discover the truths of this universe as they are. Similarly, the political process is inherently an active one. As societies evolve, so do their concerns, technology, access to information and understanding of the world. As new information is added to the collective database, growth occurs accordingly. Politics is an active process that requires a growing knowledge base, not a stagnant one. 

Religion, by contrast, is a passive process. Centuries-old books written by humans are taken to be the word of God. Critical review of these doctrines is frequently condemned, and, in some communities, dissent is punished. Like oil and water, religion and politics are quite separate entities. Where the two intersect, there is turbulence. Abortion, an issue that has been debated heatedly for decades, is one such example. Religious views on the subject tend to impose a version of the “correct” response to unplanned pregnancy that is at once restrictive and subjugating to women. It denies a female’s essential right to choice in favor of some “godly” version of virtue. It denies the fact that children born without access to proper financial, emotional, and environmental resources are less likely to reach developmental milestones for their ages. It fails to acknowledge the role that circumstance and experience play in human life.

It simplifies a nuanced issue.

Religion, when used to inform political decisions, has devastating consequences. Planned Parenthood has faced a decades-long battle against conservative religious groups. In the past several years, it has experienced defunding and restriction of its lower-income patients insured by Title X. In certain states, entire clinics have been closed. Missouri’s last abortion clinic in St. Louis was threatened with closure, but after a year-long battle, fought for its continued existence. 

The consequences of closure would have impacted not only individual lives, but society at large. With social services experiencing greater cuts, it seems unlikely that every fetus, if given the chance at life, would receive the care and protection it would need to thrive. This is but one consideration of many in the efforts to secure reproductive rights in this country.  The lack of respect and empathy afforded to those individuals who choose abortion and the continuous, underlying threat to their autonomy is yet further evidence that religion has no place in political debate.

Ancient texts should not be doctrines for use in any rational discourse. Government is a space which affects each of us, regardless of our political stances. For a free and fair political system to be functioning optimally, it must use every resource at its disposal to dispel myth, bias and fiction from its internal process. Only then will fact reign and truth be preserved from distortion. 

Sonia, 28, attends Benedictine University, studying clinical psychology. “I appreciate expressive approaches to therapy, including art and dance. My professional goals include supporting individuals who have experienced childhood trauma and advancing our understanding of trauma recovery through research and clinical practice.”

9th place: Grad student essay contest — Paula Canales

Paula Canales

One nation going under

FFRF awarded Paula $400. 

By Paula Canales

Religion — specifically the Abrahamic belief systems — has played a large and multifaceted role in the development of humanity for the past several thousand years. Historical trends reveal a general decline in human rights and societal progress during times of increased religiosity and in theocratic societies, such as during the European Dark Ages and in countries under strict observance of Sharia law. Basing political systems on theology can often create a slippery slope into religious extremism and compulsory conversion. Despite being the land of the free in theory, the history of the United States is scarred with the effects of religious extremism, as evidenced by Christian support of slavery, Manifest Destiny and the forced removal/conversion of Native Americans, and evangelical marginalization of women and homosexuals, to name just a few. 

The modern political stage has also seen a rise in Christian Nationalism and its negative effects due to [former] President Trump’s problematic rhetoric, such as the empowerment of Christian domestic terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and faith-based ignorance of COVID-19 precautions under the guise of individual rights. Aside from the obvious and overdone (and often ignored) argument that the Founding Fathers stipulated a separation of religion and government, Christian Nationalism is a detriment to American society and should be kept out of election debates because it further divides the nation’s people and creates a hindrance to social and scientific progress.

There have been few instances in our nation’s history plagued with more division among its people than the present. Domestic terrorist groups have become increasingly empowered, racial and foreign tensions are at an all-time high, and the very recognition of a worldwide pandemic has been reduced to a political opinion. Despite living in the age of free and accessible information, we continue to see the classic religious denial of fact for the sake of faith, and near-cult following Donald Trump has gained among right-wing Christians. His public displays of piety and religious rhetoric have not only gained him forgiveness for inexcusable displays of character (citing his former racist business decisions and misogynistic actions and remarks) but have caused nearly half of the nation’s population to turn a blind eye to the aforementioned atrocities. Additionally, Trump’s rhetoric has caused a belief among many Christians that our nation’s problems stem from a rise in rational secularism and thus, reinstitution of mainstream Christian dogma is necessary, despite being unconstitutional. We have seen from the Trump presidency how easily a cult of personality can be formed based on religious rhetoric, and how this in turn leads to social division and permittance of the blatantly unconstitutional. Regardless of one’s political affiliation or opinion of Trump, leaders should be elected based on the merit of their ideas and applicable experience, rather than feigned divine ordination.

The ancient standards of the bible are purely anachronistic when applied to modern society. Not only do they contradict well-established scientific facts such as the evolution of life forms (further evidence of the ignorance of the book’s human writers), but they hinder social progress because of their rigid nature. Of even more concern is the damage done by bible-based political policies, such as the call to defund Planned Parenthood, which would result in greatly limited access to healthcare for underprivileged women. Additionally, some fundamentalist Christian sects have pushed for the biblical myth of creation to be taught in public schools as an equivalent and opposing theory to that of evolution. The freedom of religion granted as the most basic of rights in the United States has become confused for biblical supremacy over the personal lives of citizens largely due to the willingness of politicians to include such demands in their platforms. 

Contrary to the myth that Christianity is under attack by modern ideals, secularism takes a neutral stance on social issues; religious beliefs of almost any kind are tolerated, without favoring one over others. Rather, political decisions should be made based on reason and with the peoples’ best interest in mind, without unequitable regard to any specific theology’s laws. Because of the requirement of faith in the absence of evidence that is the foundation of Christianity — rendering it little more than a long-held and inherited personal opinion — it is no more relevant to political debate than other arbitrary traits, such as a candidate’s favorite color. Allowing religion to interfere in politics is a threat to progress and to the unity of the people. 

Paula, 25, attends University of Texas at San Antonio. “I am a mental health tech in a children’s psychiatric center in San Antonio. Teaching English as a second language and advocating for speakers of other languages has been a goal of mine since high school. After earning my degree, I hope to teach abroad to gain experience working with multiple language groups. Upon returning to the United States, I hope to teach and advocate for multilingual learners.”