Freethought Today · Vol. 21 No. 6 August 2004

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

2nd Place High School Award

The Common Religion of Citizenry

By Joshua Zatcoff

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Joshua Zatcoff

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." (Amendment I; U.S. Constitution) The first article in the Bill of Rights expressly outlaws, and strongly reaffirms, what our U.S. founders had the wisdom not to make legal in the first place, namely endorsing a particular god or religious body. This sensible decision, courageous in the context of its time, has perhaps been the central tenet in preventing discrimination based on one's personal beliefs for over 200 years in the United States of America. Instead, the United States Constitution serves as a "religion of shared laws" that affect each person equally, and demands uniform adherence regardless of a person's private viewpoints on a certain deity. Now, in the year 2004, that idea is very much in jeopardy in the face of some of the most serious threats it has yet encountered. Indeed, the defense of this historical notion in its perilous situation has become a fundamentally vital issue for our country.

Imagining our nation without a godless Constitution is a grave thought. It would be a place where morality is dictated to the individual by the government, physical choices are made based on the religious ethics of the majority, and people are compelled to conform to laws created by societal standards of religion. Anyone who happened to disagree with or disobey these interpretations would be vulnerable to prosecution and open to widespread prejudice within their own country. Thankfully, this is prevented by the astuteness of our founders in adopting a constitution excluding the recognition of a specific god. Our Constitution is intrinsically protective of the minority in all circumstances.

Unfortunately, there are increasingly those who wish simply to ignore the law and attempt to blur the separation between the church and state as much as possible. Their goal is to impose their religion on all aspects of life, and in effect, merge the two. The past has shown us that in almost every case when a religion has interfered with the functioning of the secular government it has impeded human progress and stifled freedom of thought, if not caused outright harm. The Spanish Inquisition, where "heretics" were burned at the stake, the Salem Witch Trials, where innocent people were accused of worshiping the devil and executed, and the condemnation of the astronomer Galileo for contesting his Church's traditional perception of the universe are all apt examples of this.

That has not deterred the present administration from using Judeo-Christian philosophies to explain publicly advocating the use of federal funds to finance church charities, creating vouchers to help send children to parochial schools, trying to amend the Constitution to place a religious classification on the legal right of marriage, promoting the death penalty, fighting to ban abortion and stem cell research, teaching "abstinence only" programs in public education, justifying the use of military force, and refusing to remove the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. As the governor of Texas, George W. Bush even began a statewide "Jesus Day," deliberately sponsoring the superiority of a distinct group by distinguishing that sect's originator through the government.

The fight over gay unions and the recitation of the pledge would be extremely alarming to our founders, because those opposed to the former and in favor of the latter have developed their arguments almost entirely from religious doctrine. The key opposition that foes of homosexual matrimony cite is their assertion that marriage should only be between one man and one woman. They say that thousands of years of human civilization back them up, and will often point to numerous biblical verses as evidence. Humankind has also seen the prevention of interracial marriage as well as the practice of polygamy in this and separate centuries, ignoring the fact that the bible is entirely irrelevant to the Constitution. In the eyes of the founders, every citizen was equal to every other even if the greater part of the population did not hold them to be so. Therefore there can be found no grounds in the Constitution to deny same-sex couples the right to marry dependent on various religious prohibitions. The "under God" phrase was only added to the Pledge of Allegiance in the 1950s to differentiate the United States from its main rival, the USSR and its nonreligious atmosphere during the Cold War. These are hardly grounds from which to support the continuation of the phrase despite the clear obstruction of the Constitution that it poses to those students who may not venerate a god. The words are a stark reminder of the crusade of persecution Senator Joseph McCarthy went on during the same decade, and are an easy gateway for similar events to occur again. Making atheists unable to recite a promise of loyalty and patriotism to their country while concurrently acknowledging a god, treats these citizens unequally. Thus, the pledge is in violation of the views of our founders and the Constitution they wrought. In Article VI, it states that "No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." How then, can the possessors of these duties in turn impose a religious test on anyone else?

Our U.S. founders got it right when they adopted a godless Constitution, because they had the foresight to resist the pressures to codify their religion into law despite the deeply religious age in which they framed it. In doing so they left their country better off for the future. Rather than an established god or religion, they created a common religion for all citizens, unconcerned with differing backgrounds or beliefs, in the form of a constitutional document. It is because of these intelligent men that President Coolidge could say, "The Constitution is the sole source and guaranty of national freedom." It is up to us to keep it that way.

Joshua Zatcoff is a graduate of Gilbert High School in Gilbert, Ariz., with a 3.925 cumulative grade-point average. High school activities include the Speech and Debate Team, where he was awarded a National Forensic League Degree of Merit, and serving as a student council representative and as president of the campus Young Democrats Club. His hobbies include "updating myself on the news," going to the movies, and watching and playing sports. He has a black belt in Taekwondo.

Joshua plans to study pre-law and political science at Brandeis University, Mass., in the fall.

Placing second, Joshua received $500 for his essay.


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