8th place: Grad student essay contest — Lydia Taylor

Lydia Taylor

FFRF awarded Lydia $500.

By Lydia Taylor 

I was 2 years old on Sept. 11, 2001, when religious extremists first altered the fabric of modern American society. I was 21 years old on Jan. 6, 2021, when religious extremists struck again and attacked America and its principles. I don’t remember any details from Sept. 11. During the second attack, however, I was much more aware and could only watch in horror as insurrectionists chanting “stop the steal” and waving Christian flags stormed the Capitol. 

Although the immeasurable tragic impact of 9/11 on American society cannot be understated, the events of Jan. 6 reveal an intent perhaps even more malicious than that of the religious extremists who orchestrated 9/11. The insurrectionist and religiously fueled mob that stormed the Capitol was made up of Americans, not radicals from a faraway land. The violent mob that attacked not only our government buildings but also our elected officials came armed with weapons, zip ties and materials to erect crosses and even a noose. 

As I and countless others across the nation and across the world watched with bated breath, this mob pushed through barricades and security forces, while bright yellow signs reading “Jesus Saves” bounced above the crowd next to confederate, Trump 2021 and American flags. Yet, in the aftermath of this disturbing scene, during which it seemed American democracy was in its dying days, the bipartisan unity that swept Washington in the wake of 9/11 was nowhere to be found. Instead, our nation faced a stark divide between those who seek to protect American values and those that wish to twist them for their own gain and other malicious ends. The events of Jan. 6 have revealed what those in the secular community have long known: Christian nationalists pose a clear and present danger to American national security, the American people and American principles. The evidence is all around us. From coordinated legislation aimed at restricting voting rights to limiting the bodily autonomy of women and the freedom of the LGBTQ+ community. 

These issues are often grouped together under the term “culture wars,” but this is a mistake made at our own peril. We as a society should not underestimate the ability of the religious right, and Christian nationalists in particular, to create and perpetuate narratives that paint the secular community and others who seek to protect American principles and democracy as “dangerous radicals” seeking to destroy “true” American culture. 

Although America and its principles can signify many different things to different people, most can agree that America stands for freedom and liberty, although successfully ensuring these rights for all has been a struggle for more than 200 years. 

One of the most influential of these freedoms — so important, in fact, that it was ensured by the First Amendment to the Constitution — is this: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In short, America was established to be a secular nation where those of different religions, and none at all, could live freely. That is precisely why the strategy of Christian nationalists is so dangerous. To seek to redefine the narrative of America to that of a Christian nation, governed by Christian principles is to delete all those who are “different” from the story of America and to corrupt and manipulate America’s founding principles.

In America, the case for secularism has always been present, though not always clear to all. Today, re-establishing separation of church and state is vital to the protections of other freedoms and to prevent the bastardization and destruction of American democracy. In a truly secular America, civil rights could be better ensured, and all religions could have the ability to practice freely. Those who are secular would be truly free from religious domination in public life. 

In sum, the case for secularism in America is strong, although it must be accepted by, and not forced on, the American people in order to be truly successful. 

In the wake of the most recent tragedy spurred on by religious extremists, and Christian nationalists in particular, our nation had a rocky start in 2021. But thankfully, Americans have always risen to past challenges to our nation’s founding principles. This time will be no different. Though the road ahead may seem uncertain and even polarized, this could be just the moment to rebuild and re-unify America on its founding principles: freedom, liberty and secularism. 

Lydia, 21, attends the University of Denver. She would like to become a foreign service officer and represent the United States abroad.