Religion stifles democracy’s growth – Elizabeth Pipal

FFRF awarded Elizabeth a $3,000 scholarship.

Politicians like to deify our nation’s founders. Asserting that the founders would have wanted this, or would not have recognized America today because of that, is one of the quickest ways to add authority to any claim.

Mitt Romney did this, for example, as concerns gay marriage. He said that “at the time the Constitution was written, marriage was between a man and a woman,” implying that this is why marriage should continue to be defined this way. The nation’s founders lived like this, so we should too, the argument goes.

In fact, we know that our founders were imperfect. Some held slaves, were bigots and didn’t want women to vote. But what makes them greater than their flaws is that they recognized that they were not all-knowing, that they could not predict the future and what changes it would bring.

Instead of leaving us with a Constitution that dictated their beliefs on every subject, they left us with a succinct document and simple instructions. They left room for change and reinterpretation. It was this humility that makes them seem omniscient.

The ability to change is what makes our republic great. It’s precisely the reason why religion and the state are institutions fundamentally at odds with each other. We are where we are today despite the dead weight of religion.

As a country, we have recognized the equality of (almost) all people, we have ended slavery, given women the right to vote. We are in the process of asserting the total equality of gay men and women. The Judeo-Christian holy books, on the other hand, are saying the same things they have always said: Women are property, slaves are useful, sex is evil and sodomy is even worse. The holy books cannot change; that is their nature.

Religious doctrine is meant to be eternal. It set out to legislate the lives of people centuries from the time it was written. It leaves no room for growth and enlightenment, no room for change. Our nation, on the other hand, has a Supreme Court that once upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson, and then completely reversed that decision 60 years later in Brown v. Board of Education.

No matter how important change is, or how embedded it is in our government, it can be scary. That is why religiously flavored politics are so dangerous, especially in an election year. An election offers the chance to revert to times previous.

There are those who are convinced that the best way to solve the nation’s problems is to go back to the good old days. In an election year, their flawed logic is turned up to deafening levels. One of Mitt Romney’s main super PACs is called “Restore our Future,” implying that the future is safe if we revert to the way things were.

This type of thinking is not conservative. It is regressive, and religion is the backbone of the voices for regression. People rally to bring America back to glory using biblical teachings, to reboot the nation in terms of the founders’ religious beliefs.

Suddenly, we are talking about contraception again. Didn’t we settle this in the 1960s? Isn’t stirring up this debate a little — regressive? The most fundamentalist believers want to move our laws backward, not forward.

Because religion is purportedly tied to morality, some Americans pay close attention to candidates’ religious ties. Religion becomes a moral litmus test, a cheat sheet for comparing values. It distracts us from substantive issues. Its institutions — church, synagogue and mosque — take on dangerous powers in an election, because they can tell their congregants how God would want them to vote. Suddenly, our democracy is beholden to the stubborn dogmas of the distant past.

Many will argue that religion is a moral anchor for the government, telling us what is right and good and making sure that in our progress, we never lose sight of our core values. This is patently false. I agree that religion offers valuable moral teachings, but these teachings are not monopolized by the faithful.

These ideas are just as strongly held by nonreligious people. Morality was not invented with the writing of the Old Testament. In its most basic forms, it is programmed into us as a cooperative species. The religious and nonreligious simply trace the roots of their morality differently. 

I like to think of our government as a tree. The founders planted a very small seed hundreds of years ago for the benefit of future generations. They had no way of knowing where its branches would emerge and what shape they would take, so they gave the seed ample room to grow.

This tree has been watered by generations of Americans and has been shaped by the winds of change, by flood and drought. We have grown and become strong.

Religion in government is an axe aimed at the base of this tree. Religion believes that reducing it to its roots is the only way to save it. To me it sounds like a good way to kill it.


Elizabeth Pipal, 23, was born in Oklahoma City and moved to California when she was 4. She’s a proud atheist who loves dogs, drawing, cooking and collecting maps. She graduated in 2011 with a bachelor’s in linguistics from Columbia University and is pursuing a master’s in architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.

Freedom From Religion Foundation