Kristen received $300 for her essay.
As I watched the recent zombie apocalypse movie “World War Z,” an uneasy feeling crept over me. The highly contagious zombie infection turns people into single-minded predators who are unable to think and reason.
Zombies are dangerous and terrifying because of their mindlessness. It is futile to try to reason with them because they are feral creatures, entirely focused on infecting other people. What disturbed me most was not the violence of the movie, but rather the anxious realization that a zombie epidemic can be viewed as a subtle satiric commentary on religious fanaticism, which is as dangerous as a zombie plague.
Both destroy people’s higher cognitive powers and ability to question authority. Both demand blind obedience, often turning followers into senseless automatons. Once “zombified,” they don’t care much about anything except converting others and increasing their growing hordes.
Watching the characters in the movie become ever more desperate in their efforts to avoid the zombie infection, I too was wondering, how can we avoid real-life epidemics of religious fanaticism?
The U.S. has a secular government, one that is legally bound to protect the “wall of separation between church and state.” More Americans than ever report that they have no religious affiliation and the percentage of U.S. Christians, while still a majority, diminishes steadily.
Yet even as our culture and government teem with signs of religious diversity, there exists a widespread belief that the U.S. is a Christian nation. Concurrent with this idea is the belief that the U.S. government should support Christianity to the exclusion of other religions. These beliefs work in tandem to produce ignorant prejudice in mild cases, and violent fanaticism in the extreme.
Culturally, legally and historically, the U.S. is not a Christian nation. The founders deliberately left religion out of the Constitution, and the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli further reinforced America’s secularism with the statement, “The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
Religious leaders often equate Christianity with patriotism and secularism with heathenism. The very word “secular” has taken on malignant connotations with some religious leaders. Pat Robertson said, “The truth is, the secular world isn’t too enamored with Jesus.” Jerry Falwell said that the 9/11 attacks were brought on by “all of them who have tried to secularize America.”
Religion conflates secularism and “godlessness” when, in reality, secularism benignly connotes a neutral separation from religion. By denigrating secularism, religious leaders teach their followers to view the separation of government and church as an ungodly abomination.
Spreading like a zombie virus through the biosphere, these misguided beliefs propagate the idea that our country should be (even) more Christian and that our government should only uphold Christianity. Medieval, Old World governments did this, and the results were sectarian violence, torture for those with questionable religious beliefs and rampant abuses of power by clerics and kings.
We are still vulnerable to the religious brainwashing that spews Christian supremacy from the pulpit and creates the illusion that Christianity is all about loving-kindness and forgiveness. Raised in a highly Christian household, I experienced firsthand the subtle ways in which religion breeds fear, sheep-minded acceptance and a sense of righteous superiority.
When I began to question my own religious beliefs, I felt like a traitor to God and my family, as if I were taking an axe to the root of my community and very existence (since God Himself ordained my birth). But in reality, what I discovered was that I had been betrayed by a millennia-old methodology that numbed my intellect and sabotaged my reason. No one ever told me that I could say no to religion, so for years I was blind to other possibilities.
Religion uses fear and shame to create blinders. The belief that the U.S. is or should be a Christian nation promotes dangerous radicalism and supremacist ideology. This deplorable indoctrination starts at a young age as Sunday school teachers inundate children with the cheery images of Christ’s flagellation and crucifixion.
Viruses work most effectively on those who are ill of body, whereas religion packs a punch on those who are weak of logic. Churches target the young, the brokenhearted and the dying because those vulnerable people are most susceptible to the emotional pull of religion’s outlandish premises and promises.
There have been thousands of gods and religions over the millennia, and the vast majority of them are long forgotten. Richard Dawkins says, “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”
Fanatics refuse to take that last step. One of my favorite bumper stickers reads, “God, please save me from your followers.” When the zombies try to tear down the barricade that separates church and government, our antidotes must be rational thinking and commitment to the true meaning of secularism.
Armed with these, we can protect ourselves from the infection.
Kristen Webster, 30, was born in Lynchburg, Va., and lives in Seattle. She earned a B.A. in English at the University of Virginia and an M.Ed. in community counseling from the College of William & Mary. She’s now pursuing a B.S. in computer science and systems at the University of Washington-Tacoma. Her long-term goal is to integrate the disciplines of literature, psychology and computers in new ways.
Max received $500 for his essay.
Is America a Christian nation? The answer depends upon what is meant by “Christian nation.” One prominent interpretation, which is promulgated by religious and political conservatives, is that America was founded on Christian teachings, but has subsequently turned its back on this tradition. But is this claim true?
An examination of America’s founding documents — the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — shows that neither is based on Christian teachings.
The Declaration of Independence is sometimes thought to be clear evidence that America was founded as a Christian nation. This is because its authors make four references to a being that some think is the Christian god.
First, they claim that “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” entitle Americans to “separate and equal station.” Second, they assert that all humans have “unalienable Rights” that are “endowed by their Creator.” Third, they appeal to the “Supreme Judge of the world” to determine the “rectitude of [their] intentions.” Finally, they affirm their reliance on the “protection of Divine Providence.”
However, all these references are to the god of deism, a stripped-down form of theism inspired by the teachings of the Enlightenment. Deism’s god is a supremely intelligent being who is responsible for creating and governing the world, but who does not directly intervene in human affairs. This fact explains why god is referred to as “Nature’s God (emphasis added),” as the “Creator” of humankind, and as a source of “Divine Providence.”
Finally, the appeal to the “Supreme Judge of the world” is a reference to a god that judges people not on their religious belief, but on their actions. This is the god that Thomas Jefferson believed in.
In addition to being influenced by deism, most of the drafters of the declaration rejected core teachings of Christianity (e.g., the Holy Trinity, the divinity of Jesus Christ and the divine inspiration of the bible). This fact explains why the declaration contains no reference to just “God,” the bible, Christianity or Jesus.
When the Constitution does mention religion, it is only to specify limitations on its ability to influence America. In particular, it requires that there be no religious test for public office and that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Thus, as Susan Jacoby writes, the Constitution is a secularist document both because of “what it says and what it does not say.” Jacoby also importantly notes that the Constitution’s rejection of religious tests for public office was unique for its time, both in America and worldwide.
In fact, the Constitution’s silence concerning Christianity has repeatedly inspired religious groups to propose amending it. In both 1864 and 1946, evangelical Christian groups tried but failed to get references to God and Jesus Christ inserted in the Constitution.
The purpose of the Constitution is explicitly stated in its preamble: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty.” Nowhere does it mention Christianity or God.
Additionally, some of the governing principles found in these documents conflict with Christian teachings:
• The Constitution (Article VI) lists itself, along with treaties and federal statutes, as the “supreme Law of the Land.” This claim contradicts the Christian teaching that either God or God’s word is the ultimate authority.
• The Declaration of Independence asserts that the government derives its power not from God, but from “the consent of the governed.”
• The 13th Amendment of the Constitution bans slavery, but the bible does not (Exodus 21:2-7, 21:20-21; Leviticus 26:44-46; Luke 12:47-48; Colossians 3:22). The biblical acceptance of slavery contradicts the declaration’s assertion that all humans have the unalienable right to liberty.
• The First Amendment holds that Congress cannot enact laws prohibiting religious exercise or freedom of speech, which conflicts with the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2-17). Freedom of religious practice contradicts the commandments to only worship the God of the bible, to not make or to worship idols, and to not work on the Sabbath.
Freedom of speech contradicts the commandment to not take the Lord’s name in vain. Neither document contains principles of governance that mention the other commandments, i.e., they are silent about honoring parents, murder, adultery, stealing, lying and coveting.
Given our analysis, it should be clear that the principles that the founding fathers chose to govern America are not based on Christian teachings. Perhaps America could be considered a Christian nation under a different interpretation of “Christian nation,” but that is a question for another occasion.
Max Lewis, 28, Boston, graduated summa cum laude from Brandeis University in 2009 with a B.A. in religious studies. In 2013, he earned a master of theological studies from Harvard Divinity School. He’s pursuing an M.A. in philosophy at Brandeis and is interested in normative and applied ethics.
Anna received $1,000 for her essay.
Like any debate that begins without clearly defined terms, the discussion of whether the U.S. is a Christian nation is erratic and nonsensical, a mess of unconnected arguments and sloppy rhetoric, because the term “Christian nation” has no standard definition.
If the term were separated from its context as a descriptor for America, it would indicate an independent, politically organized state that identifies itself as practicing the Christian religion. This is indeed the sense of the semantically equivalent “Muslim nation,” which is applied to countries whose governments officially operate under Islam. But since the U.S. does not officially operate under a religion, the term “Christian nation” does not carry this meaning.
When users of the term “Christian nation” offer an explanation for its use, they tend to rely on two main points: that Christianity is the majority religion in the United States, and that the United States is founded on Christian principles. These points both become shaky under examination; the first is weak, and the second, false.
First, if the term “Christian nation” refers to Christianity as the religion of the majority of American citizens, then the meaning is not logical, but merely metaphorical. It uses a label of a part (the Christian majority) as a label for a whole (the entire population).
This type of generalization is a stylistic device often used in poetry and advertisements. In academic text, its careless use is called a logical fallacy. Since the term “Christian nation,” when taken to refer to the majority religion in the United States, is true only in this figurative, rhetorical way, it should not be used in serious discussion about national issues. It also, of course, disenfranchises the growing minority of non-Christian Americans.
If America is founded on Christian principles, what are those principles and what makes them Christian? The basis of the Christian religion is that an afterlife in heaven, as opposed to hell, can be obtained only through belief in Jesus. In keeping with this doctrine, Christians throughout history have gone to extensive and sometimes violent lengths to compel non-Christians to become Christian, whether through foreign missionary work, evangelistic preaching or campaigns such as the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem witch trials.
Doctrinally, Christianity does not favor individual religious freedom; it favors trying to convert everyone to Christianity. The only way the principle of religious freedom could be considered Christian is by taking the term “Christian” to mean “of Christendom,” meaning Western civilization. But this is a stretch, and Americans rarely use the term “Christian” in this sense.
The only references to religion in the Constitution and Bill of Rights are exclusionary — it must be kept separate from government. (The Declaration of Independence does refer to God, but its purpose was to justify separation from Britain.) Because the founders lived in a world much more dominated by Christianity than today’s, they had to go out of their way to create a Constitution that kept Christianity firmly out of the government.
The Christian nation term is ambiguous, inaccurate and misleading. Why then does it persist? Largely because Christians toss it around to boost themselves and rhetorically emphasize their statements before Christian audiences. In such contexts, “Christian nation” tries to equate Christianity with good morals and traditional ideas. Christianity does embrace many traditional ideas, but Christians do not have a monopoly on moral goodness. But they think they do.
The term thus fosters an attitude of moral superiority, which in turn encourages moral laziness, for which Americans have indeed earned a reputation. The stereotype of the arrogant American traveler has been reduced to a catchphrase, “ugly American.” Of course “Christian nation” is not solely responsible for individual citizens’ arrogance, but neither can it help, considering the moral superiority it engenders.
This side effect of the term, when considered along with the bickering it tends to ignite, shows “Christian nation” to be not merely false and imprecise but also harmful. “Christian nation” is therefore a toxic, inaccurate, and sloppily debated nickname for America. It is long past time for this moniker’s retirement.
Anna Kelly, 27, Charleston, W.V., moved to a remote part of Wisconsin after graduating from high school to attend a small missions-oriented bible college, graduating five years later. Eventually, she rejected Christianity for atheism and moved back to Charleston to work full-time in her father’s insurance agency, take online courses from West Virginia University in multidisciplinary studies and write in her free time.
Nicole received $2,000 for her essay.
With America’s beginnings founded on the desire for religious freedom, it is a disconcerting irony that the majority of Americans today believe the U.S. Constitution establishes America as a Christian nation. Yet the Treaty of Tripoli, signed by President John Adams in 1797, says otherwise: “[T]he Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
Nonetheless, the myth is understandable: “In God We Trust” is emblazoned on coins and currency; children recite “one nation, under God” every day before class; and pandering politicians reinforce the misconception for political ends.
An example of the latter involves Sen. John McCain, who asserted that America is “a nation founded on Christian principles” in an interview during his run for presidency. When a presidential candidate makes such claims, it is not hard to understand why so many Americans are confused.
Some argue that because most of America’s founders were Christian, the government must have been founded on Christian ideals. But on the contrary, these men subscribed to a diverse mixture of belief systems and philosophies that influenced the language set forth in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
Gregg Frazer maintains that many founders followed “theistic rationalism, a nondenominational belief system that borrowed from Christianity and from deism,” which enabled the founders to “describe the projects of the Revolution and the Founding in terms that did not offend popular religion.”
Both documents contain ideas from several Enlightenment philosophers, including John Locke’s “consent of the governed,” Thomas Hobbes’ contract theory of government and Charles Montesquieu’s theory of balanced forces.
The founders were educated, thoughtful men, many of whom believed religion was integral to a successful society. But they were careful to protect religious freedom, including freedom from religion: “[T]he insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Muslim, the Hindu and Infidel of every denomination.” (Thomas Jefferson on the failed vote to insert “Jesus Christ” into the Constitution’s preamble.)
Lawmakers today continue to push the Christian agenda with legislation that stunts progress toward equality and separation of religion from public education. It’s also shameful that closed-mindedness, coupled with religiously motivated laws such as the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8, have prevented gay couples from enjoying the same benefits afforded to straight couples for so many years.
The dangerous attitude that made such discrimination possible is encapsulated by Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s not-so-eloquent presidential campaign ad in which he complained that “There’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military” while “kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas.” Perry then promised to end the “war on religion,” claiming that “faith made America strong.”
There are also laws that impose on Americans the “creationism” narrative that God created humankind in its present form. Despite there being “no controversy in the scientific community about whether evolution has occurred,” a 2012 Gallup poll shows that 46% of Americans believe in creationism.
Creationism is allowed to be discussed alongside evolution in several states’ public schools. The Louisiana Science Education Act, for example, lets teachers use “supplemental textbooks” in order to “help students understand . . . and review scientific theories” such as “evolution and the origins of life.”
While the law states it “shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine,” critics scoffed as Louisiana teachers began incorporating creationist texts into their lectures, with one school district adding a “critical thinking and creationism” section to its science courses.
As a freethinking group, many of the founders would be disappointed that their religious views have been misconstrued to enable the discrimination of a sexual identity and the restriction of scientific inquiry in schools. With over 70% of Americans today identifying as Christian, the founders’ beliefs are often misrepresented on the technicality that they were Christian, while the wildly changing religious landscape over nearly three centuries is overlooked.
Sidney Meade captures it best: “Societies create their concepts of the attributes and character of the god they worship in the likeness of the pressing practical problems of their time.” In the Declaration of Independence, the founders proclaimed that every citizen is “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
This “Creator” is not the Christian god: That god is incompatible with the founders’ views on religious freedom and consent of the governed. Rather, the god they are referring to is human-made.
This god embodies the qualities suitable for their new republic, a republic that can stand up to the “tyranny of the majority,” for “what is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right.”
Nicole White, 22, Lee’s Summit, Mo., has a B.S. in economics (mathematics minor with specific interest in statistics and probability) from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. She’s pursuing an M.S. in business analytics at the University of Texas-Austin, with a goal of becoming a statistical programmer for a major Web-based company.
Faith killing. A young mother maintained that voices in her head told her to test her faith in God, causing her to repeatedly slam her infant son to the ground and down a flight of stairs. Jennifer Cisowski, 21, of Connecticut, killed her 8-month-old son Gideon Fusscas in his grandmother's upscale Florida home on Aug. 21, later saying she believed he would rise from the dead if her faith were strong enough. Source: Tampa Tribune, Aug. 22, 2001
"Mama, I love you." A Talladega County jury in August found Teresa Ann Archie, 40, guilty of the 1996 murder of her daughter Shavon Jackson. Archie, a paranoid schizophrenic, chased her daughter through their home, shooting her twice in the back after becoming convinced her 16-year-old was possessed by Satan, and that God wanted her to cleanse her home of all Satanic influence. She told police Shavon's last words were: "Mama, don't shoot me, I love you." She replied, "I know, Baby, but I have to do the Lord's will." Source: The Daily Home, Aug. 15, 2001
"Killer, we support you." "I killed the women for the sake of God, and for the protection of my religion because they were prostitutes and [were] corrupting other people," Iranian construction worker Saeed Hanaei admitted to reporters in July, after police fingered him as their suspect in the killing of 19 prostitutes in Mashhad. Each was killed on a Sunday--strangled with a headscarf. Neighbors gathered outside his home chanting "Hanaei, the killer of corrupt people, we support you." Source: Associated Press, July 26/30, 2001
"Possessed woman." Andrea Yates, the religious Dallas mother charged with drowning her 5 children in the bathtub, told family members from jail she thinks the "devil" is in her.Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July 1, 2001
Naked avenger. A naked man who pelted rocks at a woman walking her dog and struck her with his car in January told police "demons wanted him to destroy her," and he was naked "so he could enter the kingdom of God." Jessica Fulcher, 28, survived the assault. Source: Loveland Reporter-Herald, Jan. 15, 2001
God's crime spree. God made him commit a crime spree was the defense of bible-toting Henry Glen West, sentenced by an Okahoma County judge in April to two life terms. During West's 5-hour crime spree in January 1998, he severely beat his brother, raped his brother's girlfriend, broke into a house, robbed a convenience store clerk and then tried to run her over twice. At a second convenience store, he repeatedly shot the husband-and-wife owners. Source: Daily Oklahoman, April 21, 2001
Religiously-motivated stabbing. A man who fatally stabbed his son and tried to kill his mother-in-law and daughter was motivated by religion, according to relatives. Joseph Herman Dartez, Jr., 31, Houston, was pondering whether to leave a Christian church to join the Muslim faith when he assaulted his family in the middle of the night. Source: San Antonio Express, May 30, 2001
Sainted mob. A mob summoned by a church bell in Mexico City beat to death a man accused of trying to steal a statue of the neighborhood's patron saint. The 3-hour beating occurred next to a local police station. Source: AP/Tulsa World, July 27, 2001
Stealing in the Name of God
"I've been a securities regulator for 20 years, and I've seen more money stolen in the name of God than in any other way," Deborah R. Bortner, president of the North American Securities Administrators Association, said at a news conference on Aug. 7.
She warned that "affinity fraud"--the building of trust through religious and other loyalty, is increasing. In the last three years, religious con artists in 27 states have scammed at least 90,000 investors, costing more than $1.8 billion.
By comparison, about 13,000 investors lost $450 million in religion-based fraud over the previous 5-year period.
"Con artists are clearly preying on the faithful more than ever before," said Bortner. "The con artist makes faith in God synonymous with faith in the investment scam."
The caveat by the Association came a day after the sentencing of Gerald Payne, founder of the Tampa-based Greater Ministries International Church, to 27 years in prison for one of the nation's largest Ponzi schemes. Payne and his partners took in almost $580 million by promising 20,000 investors that the ministry would double their money through "divinely-inspired investments."
Another recent high profile case involves the Baptist Foundation of Arizona, created in 1948 under the auspices of the Southern Baptist State Convention of Arizona, which raised $590 million through 120 shell corporations.
I'll never forget the moment of first hearing the voice of my own reason after 17 years of complete immersion in Mormonism. My divorce was almost final and I had become increasingly angry at the treatment I had received at the hands of local "priesthood" leaders, since having the temerity to leave my abusive husband against their counsel. Mormon women are assigned to go to each other's homes every month to give a "spiritual" lesson and to make sure that their "sisters" are staying strong in the faith. I had been asked to give the lesson that month, as my partner had not had the time to prepare. (In reality, I was probably asked to teach the lesson as a way of forcing me to read it myself, in hopes of reining in my recent rebelliousness.)
The lesson was a typical Mormon church history story. The author had crossed the plains with her family in the 1840s. She had come from a prosperous family that was able to make preparations to leave early in the season so as to arrive in Salt Lake City before winter. Her father was told by a church leader to wait and leave later with some of the poorer members. As a result of the delay, her family suffered great distress, with the mother and several children dying during the trip.
The woman who wrote the story had been forced to cross an icy creek whose waters froze her feet, necessitating the amputation of both legs. At the end of the story the woman "bore her testimony" and mentioned how thankful she was that her family had been called upon to make such a sacrifice for "the Lord and His Church." She talked about how glad she was that they had waited and of the many blessings that would be due to them when they were all reunited in the "celestial kingdom" where they would be together forever as a reward for their faithfulness in following the Prophet.
While reading this story I had a sudden moment of clarity. I shook my head and internally screamed, "NO! No more sacrificing my children to follow the words of some man who promises an eternal reward! No more!" A story that would have moved me to tears a few years earlier now filled me with complete horror as I thought of a woman feeling gratitude that members of her family died in the name of religion.
I joined the Mormon church at 18, after being exposed to its teachings by friends a year earlier. My mother, who has had the sense to stay away from organized religion for most of her adult life, would not give her permission for me to be baptized, hoping that this was a passing phase that I'd soon outgrow. Unfortunately, I didn't outgrow it until I began to think for myself so many years and heartbreaks later.
Why did I join? The church doctrines satisfied a deep need that I had to feel bad about myself. I grew up with the deep conviction that I was truly a person who needed redemption. I had read a lot of the bible, and if there was an all-powerful god out there, then I wanted to do whatever I needed to make sure that I didn't get whacked over the head the next time the hammer might fall. The more requirements the religion had, the more likely I could please the all-powerful god with the hammer.
Another powerful attraction that the church had for me was the answers. I didn't have to make any decisions for myself, and more importantly, I didn't have to be responsible for any of the outcomes. It was all in "God's" hands. I didn't need to decide when or whom to date, or even an appropriate time to return from a date. When the time came, I didn't even need to choose a husband--only remain righteous enough for the right man to find me. As one of a group of college coeds at Brigham Young University, I was counseled not to worry, for when the appropriate time came, God would give me to a righteous man. Once given, I needn't worry, for as long as I followed my husband, he would take care of everything. I shudder that I was not offended by those words--only happily complacent that that my future was taken care of. All I had to do was be obedient.
And obedient I was--quitting school as soon as I married so as to concentrate on being a wife and mother. I gave birth to four children over the next eight years and supported my husband as he lost job after job. I learned how to bake bread and grind wheat and make do on too little money, all the while praying and reading and trying to understand why God was punishing me by not making my life easier with all this obedience!
As the years rolled on I continued to apply the formula I had been given by the missionaries: prayer, scripture study and following the words of the Mormon prophets. I became more and more depressed with the pressure of each addition to the family and each added responsibility. My returned missionary husband was not financially responsible, leaving much of the burden of how to pay the bills on my shoulders. He lied to me frequently, often hiding bills and at one point even having a second post office box for bills to keep me unaware of our financial status. I was not allowed access to the checkbook and often went without needed food and clothing while my husband spent money whenever and wherever he wanted. When I would turn to my church leaders for help, I was told to pray harder, study more and "love him more." I was constantly reminded of the New Testament scripture that God would not give us any burden we were unable to bear. Divorce was not an option for me--after all, we had been married in the Mormon temple for "time and all eternity."
After 17 years I gradually became aware that my life was not improving. I decided to get off my knees and start taking care of myself. I went back to school to finish my nursing degree. I told my husband that he had until I finished school to decide if he wanted to become more responsible and continue the marriage. When things didn't improve I found an attorney and obtained a divorce. When he quit his job as an accountant and started working as a Pizza Hut delivery boy to avoid paying child support, I went back to school again. I posted this quote on my bedroom mirror: First do the necessary, next do the possible; soon you will find yourself doing the impossible. The more responsibility I took for myself, the more my life and the lives of my children improved.
I found my new life incompatible with the teachings of the Mormon church. Was I the only one? While searching the internet I found www.exmormon.org, a website that contains the stories of more than 100 former Mormons. I read with fascination the stories of people who sounded just like me. There is an email newsgroup associated with the site and there I found the support that I needed to disentangle my life from the church.
How different the ceremony was when I married David Kent almost two years ago. We were married in a candlelight ceremony by a justice of the peace with only our children and closest friends present. There were no words of obedience spoken. When we chose to spend the rest of our lives together it was with the precious knowledge that this life is all we have--no promise or pretenses of eternity.
A woman I work with asked me my story one night. When I told her of the years of unhappiness in my former marriage, she said to me, "Wow, you have had such a hard life--it just isn't fair!" I was quick to correct her. I told her that there wasn't anything unfair about it--I had made the choices that led to the life that I had then. Now I make different choices.
About the author: Valerie Kent is a registered nurse and graduate student in Gonzaga University's family nurse practitioner program. She is also the mother of four wonderful freethinking children.
By Edmond Lau
Thirteen years of Catholic indoctrination have neither elucidated the truth about God and about heaven and hell, nor budged me from my state of agnosticism. Grasping these spiritual matters provides enough trouble for me, yet priests and nuns assert the existence of Purgatory and Limbo and the cleansing powers of baptism as if these claims would somehow be more believable than the rest. The lack of definitive knowledge that members of the Catholic Church actually possess concerning the nature of God doesn't ameliorate the situation either. When questioned about the source of their Catholic faith, believers point to the divinely inspired writings of the bible that supposedly embody the words of God. When asked how they know that the bible contains God's words, they respond that this assumption constitutes a part of their Catholic faith.
The circular reasoning and meaningless confusion remind me of how fortunate I am to live in America--a country where such Christian instruction exists primarily within parochial schools and private religious institutions and does not fully permeate to other realms of society. In our land of the free, freedom of religion remains as fundamental a tenet as any other democratic principle. An examination of American history indeed manifests that America was not founded as a Christian nation and that a separation of church and state must continue to be preserved in order to maintain the legitimacy of the democratic principles for which our country stands.
Myriad believers of the Christian foundation of America point to the Pilgrims at Plymouth Bay or the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony's bible commonwealth as proof that the first European settlers did maintain a Christian outlook. In reality, however, only a few of the original colonies shared the spread of Christianity as a reason for establishment. On the other hand, Europeans founded Jamestown for its promise of gold and tobacco, the Carolinas for sugar and rice, Georgia for a buffer colony to protect the English colonists against the vengeful Spaniards of Florida and the hostile French of Louisiana, New York for fur and fishing, New Jersey for grain, and Delaware for its rich fur trade. Thus, to purport that the original settlers founded a Christian America ignores the fact that the majority of the first thirteen colonies did not possess any religious, let alone Christian, purpose. Furthermore, the actual founding fathers of America did not even arrive until over a century later.
As for the founding fathers, proponents of a Christian America claim that the religious nature of the Declaration of Independence, such as its inclusion of the phrases "Nature's God," "Creator," and "Divine Providence," prove that the founders' intention for a Christian America did exist. On face value, these facts may seem to suggest a religious foundation of a Christian nature. However, analyzing this proposition within its proper socio-historical context of the American Revolution reveals a different truth.
At the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, only a third of the Americans--the Patriots--actually supported the revolution; another third--the Loyalists--continued to support the royal crown; the final third remained apathetic to the colonial revolt. Thus, in order to instill a greater sense of unity within American hearts, Thomas Jefferson required a carefully crafted document that appealed to more colonists. Jefferson's rhetoric regarding divinely endowed natural rights fulfilled that purpose by aiding the American patriots in gaining a sense of moral superiority over the crown, portraying the king as someone who had unjustly usurped the colonists' inalienable rights. The religious undertone, which exists only in the beginning of the document, served as a provisional political tool and nothing else. In fact, the greater part of the Declaration of Independence called for a redress of grievances and listed specific complaints against King George III, signifying that the Deist Thomas Jefferson indeed wrote the document based on political motivations, not on a religious motivation to create a Christian America.
Not only do these colonial myths of the Religious Right crumble based on the actual context surrounding them, but the secular nature of the Constitution further debunks their fallacies. If the Declaration of Independence had in fact attempted to serve as a precursor to a religious constitution, then it blatantly failed. The United States Constitution, as ratified in 1789, provides no explicit mention of God or Christianity. Furthermore, the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights that James Madison authored in 1791 even states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." By definition, the Constitution, as the "Supreme Law of the Land" (according to Article VI Clause 2), does not and cannot favor Christianity or any other religion. In other words, America's own founding document affirms this country's secularity and denies any affiliation with Christianity.
Even though this line of reasoning dates back over two centuries ago, the principles set forth by the free-exercise and the establishment clauses of the First Amendment must not stop at the doors of modern society. Even though today's culture may call for an individual's religious and spiritual affairs to become increasingly intertwined with his personal affairs, a wall of separation must be preserved between church and state. The establishment clause especially endeavors to prevent the formation of or even the incipient roots of a national religion, as a national religion would definitely infringe upon the religious and personal freedoms of other American citizens who may not share in the mainstream beliefs. Any preferential treatment of a religious group, such as a favored bias towards the growing number of American Christians, would jeopardize the basic religious freedom that each and every citizen should be allowed to share. Even in a democratic nation ruled by the majority, the constitutional rights of the minority must be preserved or else justice everywhere will perish.
Recent initiatives in America's public schools, such as the teaching of creationism and the advocacy of prayer during sports competitions, graduation ceremonies, and regular classes, regardless of whether the prayer is nonsectarian, voluntary, or restricted to bible readings, threaten to efface the separation of church and state necessary for a secular and free America. The Supreme Court has ruled correctly that such religiously inspired actions are unconstitutional and must stop at the schoolhouse gate. Other issues, such as the posting of the Ten Commandments inside judicial courtrooms, impart reminders that the wall of separation between church and state must be erected beyond the realm of public schools as well. Thus, formulating stricter tests, such as the three-prong test developed in the 1971 case of Lemon v. Kurtzman, to check permissible laws becomes progressively important if the state is to remain unfettered from the shackles of religion.
To contend against a Christian America does not mean that individual Americans should be denied the right to be or to become Christian, however, for that would contradict the very essence of religious freedom. What it does signify, though, is that Christian principles should not be imposed upon the unwilling. Thus, even as our nation becomes ever more populated by American Christians, we must work to ensure that our country does not become a nationally Christian America.
I have just graduated from Saint Ignatius College Preparatory, San Francisco, and will attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall. I intend to double major in electrical engineering and computer science. My high school interests and activities include serving as the Vice President and the Secretary of the Speech and Debate Team, participating in the Service Club, volunteering as a teaching assistant at Day School Summerbridge, writing for the school's literary magazine The Quill, and partaking in my school's Asian Students Coalition, Biology Club, and California Scholarship Federation.
Despite fervent claims to the contrary, the United States was not founded as a Christian nation. Since the inception of American democracy, our government has resisted religious intolerance by maintaining the clear separation of church and state. The notion that the United States should affiliate with a specific religious denomination defies America's traditions of equal protection, freedom of belief, and individualism. As the Religious Right and proponents of school prayer encourage church/state lines to blur, we must clarify those lines and reinforce the framers' intent of secular government.
The religious wars that plagued Europe and their own religious diversity deterred America's forefathers from endorsing any particular form of Christianity. Freedom of religion was inescapable; already, the United States reflected deep religious diversity. The Puritans who had initially populated New England to escape religious persecution were joined by Catholics in Maryland, Quakers in Pennsylvania, Anglicans in Virginia, and even a sprinkling of Jews. Thus, America's founders opted to establish a government free from religious ties. Their secular objective became evident in the passage of the Constitution's Bill of Rights. The First Amendment expressly grants freedom of religion by setting up "a wall of separation between church and state." The free exercise clause of the Constitution guarantees Americans' right to practice--or not practice--the religion of their choice. Additionally, the establishment clause of the First Amendment outrightly forbids Congress from establishing a religion. The argument that America is a Christian nation plainly collapses at this point. By refusing itself the power of a nationally-instituted religion, America's government stands impartial on the issue of faith.
Despite the adoption of a secular Constitution, threats to the separation of church and state continue to emerge. The most vocal opponent of the establishment clause, the Religious Right, continues to allege that America was founded as a Christian country. By infiltrating both the media and politics, this fundamentalist Christian group has generated a strong, devoted following. The growth of the Religious Right suggests the need for increased protection of state/church separation.
For instance, in order to supposedly restore moral character, the Religious Right sought passage of a resolution by the United States Congress encouraging citizens to pray and fast in recognition of God. Frighteningly, the resolution--which had more than 40 cosponsors--was rejected in the House by a slim margin: 275-140, only nine votes shy of the two-thirds majority necessary.
By cultivating political myths, such as the dangerous "New World Order," the Religious Right inspires followers to confuse morality and Christianity. It presents the separation of church and state as underlying contemporary social and moral problems. Yet these problems have been present to some degree even in theocracies. As the Religious Right expands to dominate numerous radio and television networks, newspaper publications, and politics (leader Pat Robertson even ran for President), the danger to separation of church and state has intensified.
The intrusion of prayer into public schools, prompted by Ronald Reagan's presidency, has sparked national debate. As lawmakers wrestle with the subject of public school prayer, the importance of protecting church/state separation again surfaces. Schools already permit voluntary prayer, and moments of silence have even been established by numerous school boards to encourage spiritual commitment. Parochial schools provide an option for parents intent on raising their children with a religious education. But the introduction of compulsory prayer in public schools would seriously undermine the existence of secular government.
Because of conflicting religious views (Muslims consider the depiction of God and idolatry sacrilegious while some Christians use images of Christ in their rituals; Buddhists depend upon specific references to the Buddha by name in their religious practices while Jews never write out God's name, referring instead to "the holy one;" and atheists reject the idea of God altogether), the state would be forced to regulate the kind of religious messages used by schools. In other words, government would judge religion, a blatant violation of the U.S. Constitution. It is unfair, and certainly undemocratic, to impose this burden on the state. Publicly-financed education in the United States is, and always should be, secular in control and content.
In the words of the Constitution, America's forefathers divined an impartial government free from religious ties, a government championing the freedom of choice. We cannot allow rumblings of opposition from the Religious Right and school prayer advocates to skew their remarkable vision. By rejecting preferences or alliances, the United States government has adhered to its own Constitutionally-ordained dogma . . . and in the process, fostered a special kind of religion: a religion of respect. By equally respecting Americans of all faiths or no faith, our government functions with an integrity unmatched by any of the world's theocracies. Perhaps the religion of respect is the most sacred course, after all.
"As a newly graduated senior of Herndon High School, Class of 2001, I'm anxiously anticipating the start of college. Leaving my hometown will be an eye-opening experience . . . I have lived here since age eight, and know little of my new destination--Charlottesville, VA--where I will attend the University of Virginia this fall. I have always had a deep interest in theater, much to my parents' and younger sister's delight. Over the years, they have loyally supported my professional and school theatrical endeavors. I plan to major in theater, and possibly English, at UVA."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has announced the winners of its annual high school essay competition for the year 2000, aiding newly graduated high school seniors going on to college this fall.
This year's topic was "Why the United States Is Not a Christian Nation."
Winner of the Blanche Fearn Memorial Award for first place of $1,000 is Jonathan Koffmann. The Pennsylvania student will be attending the University of Pennsylvania.
Jennifer Roberts, who will be attending the University of Virginia-Charlottesville this year, won $500 for her engaging essay on "The Religion of Respect," placing second.
Edmond Lau, a San Franciscan, placed third and receives $250 for his essay, "Removing the Shackles of Religion." He will be attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Additionally, honorable mentions of $100 each were awarded to Lisa Mitchell, Massachussetts, Sharon Sukumar, Delaware, and Brian Shiau, Arizona. Their essays will be excerpted in a future Freethought Today.
The October issue will announce the winners of the Foundation's other annual essay competition, open to ongoing college students.
Guidelines for the two annual essay competitions are posted in February at the Freedom From Religion Foundation website (www.ffrf.org). Next year's topics will be announced in the January/February Freethought Today. Essays are due each year by July 1st.
A tree-lined view of Lake Hypatia Freethought Hall. The activist Cleveland family generously deeded some of their rural property to the Freedom From Religion Foundation for its southern outpost. The hospitable Clevelands make their campgrounds and lake available for the use of freethinkers at an annual 4th of July gathering and other events sponsored by the Alabama Freethought Association, a Foundation chapter.
About 150 freethinkers around the country attended this year's gathering.
George Whatley, M.D., was presented with a certificate of thanks from the Alabama chapter for his generosity over the years. The Freedom From Religion Foundation staff also presented Dr. Whatley with a box of Wisconsin goodies as a thank you for his very special support. The auditorium is named for Willa Mae Whatley, Dr. Whatley's late wife.
Meals at the weekend event were efficiently served on the breezy lakeside pavilion constructed by Roger Cleveland and friends. The pavilion is known as "Sara's Place," in homage to Sara and James Howard, who helped make the pavilion a reality. Feeding fish from the pavilion is a nightly freethought "ritual."
Hardworking Bill Teague crafted this eye-catching roadside sign. Lake Hypatia's three rules: "No preaching. No praying. No walking on water."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation's unique monument to Atheists in Foxholes resides at tree-shaded Lake Hypatia, Alabama.
Grad student and quipster Adam Butler presided at a freethought trivia quiz and served, inimitably, as MC.
Ilene Sparks, AL, was recognized by the chapter for her special contributions.
Dr. Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, California, focused on the latest creationist threat, so-called "intelligent design."
An activist workshop. From left: Steven Schafersman, TX; Dan Barker of FFRF staff, Patsyann Pitts, AL; Annie Laurie Gaylor of FFRF, and Eugenie Scott, CA.
Sidney Wilson of Georgia spoke on art and censorship.