The Freedom to Work for Others: Alex Diedrich

Alex received a $2,000 cash scholarship from the Freedom From Religion Foundation for his first-place winning entry in the 2008 essay competition for new high school grads who are college-bound in the fall.

By Alex Diedrich

“The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” This very explicit statement about the separation of church and state is written in the Treaty of Tripoli, which was ratified by the Senate in 1797. The treaty is a clearly worded statement declaring to all the world, as well as our own citizens, that this is a nation where the majority religion will not be imposed on the minority. Unfortunately, odds are that this treaty could not be passed in today’s society.

The idea that this is a Christian nation has emerged and is threatening to take hold. One of the most dangerous results of this political philosophy is the reemergence of religious tests for public office. This particular representation of the Christian nation philosophy is far more dangerous than “In God We Trust” on our money or “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Religious freedom is one of the central, founding principles of our government and its loss will have significant and far-reaching impacts.

The concept of a religious test for public office is not without precedent. The English Test Act of 1673 created an oath for public office holders, which stated a lack of belief in transubstantiation as grounds to discriminate against Catholics. Various states in America also had, in their constitutions, religious tests for officeholders. These generally established a belief in God, but some were more specific to certain sects. However, with the ratification of the Constitution, including the statement in Article Six that, “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States,” it was established that there could be no legal requirement of belief for public officeholders.

Unfortunately, in modern times, there is a widespread belief that only religious, and generally Christian, people should be allowed to hold office. In the 2000 census, approximately 76.5% of people identified as being Christian. In the 107th Congress (2001-2002), approximately 91.6% of the Senators and Representatives were Christian. Even more striking is that there were no Congresspeople then who identified as nonreligious. There were six that were unknown and could have been nonreligious, but not a single member was at that time openly nonreligious. In the country, however, 13.2% of the people identified as nonreligious or secular.

Obviously, in modern times there is some pull toward having Christians hold office in greater percentages than is truly representative of the population as a whole.

Religion has become the central point when discussing a candidate’s values and morals. The general impression has become that, without religion, a person is incapable of being moral and is striving to crush our common values. This has led to candidates wearing their religion on their sleeves and emphasizing their faith. At this point, it would be almost impossible for any nonChristian person to become President, and it would be even more difficult if the person were entirely nonreligious. Interestingly, these close ties to religion have caused problems for some of the most recent candidates. Barack Obama has had issues raised about his connections to Reverend Wright, while questions have been asked about John McCain’s connections to Pastor John Hagee. In these situations, the religious affiliations have caused serious difficulties for both campaigns, due in large part to both Obama and McCain attempting to show strong ties to religion.

One of the most perilous aspects of the current form of religious tests is that it is not a written legal standard but a societal one. This means that there is no legal course of action which can change the system. In The Federalist Paper #51, Madison warns that if a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure. The majority can be oppressive of a minority in a democracy, which is why the Founding Fathers created a republic with the hope that the representatives of the people would look out for the minority as well–that the rule of law could reign, not the rule of majority. Unfortunately, now that religion is so tied up in how a person is elected, the politicians are driven to promote religious, and especially Christian, ideals. This causes the rights of the minority to become very insecure indeed, because if Christian ideals get people elected, they will be what is enacted into the laws to the detriment of all people, especially those who do not share in these ideals.

The increasing power of religion within the public sphere is detrimental to all people in this country. By limiting public officeholders to primarily one religion, it discourages diversity of opinion and perspective. It encourages the idea that this is a Christian nation and that other religious perspectives don’t have to be valued or respected. The de facto religious test that exists today promotes religious intolerance and lends credence to the idea this is a Christian nation. Indeed, the election of only Christians to public office will do more than any law to make this a Christian nation. Given that about a quarter of the nation is not Christian, this is definitely not the direction we want the nation to take.

This nation was founded with, above all else, the ideals of freedom. The freedom for people to do what they want, say what they want, to think what they want. This freedom is threatened by the specter of an oppressive religious majority. I do not believe that this drive of de facto religious tests is generally motivated out of hatred or a desire to force beliefs on others. I think that it is an unconscious decision that has been culturally reinforced and is now so widely accepted that no one thinks to question it. Albert Camus said, “The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.” I feel that people do not understand the danger that is posed by the creation of de facto religious tests.

The freedom to work for others, to help fellow human–this is the freedom that is needed. The desire to help others through public service is not a Christian or even a religious value. It’s a human value. Altruism is inherent in all people and it is unreasonable to deny people the right to serve others simply because they believe in something different. To do so trivializes all people and makes further discrimination possible and more likely to occur. Ultimately all religious tests for public office come down to one thing – discrimination. And that is one thing that is never good for a society.

“My name is Alex Diedrich and I am a graduate of Rochester Century High School in Minnesota. I will be attending the University of Wisconsin – Madison in the fall, majoring in computer science and biochemistry. I hope to get an advanced degree in bioinformatics and pursue a career in research. In addition to my involvement with science, I have been politically active with a group of students who lobby for education funding at the state level. 

Freedom From Religion Foundation