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.”