Grad student essay contest fifth place: The divided state of America – By Garrett Pekarek

FFRF has awarded Garrett $500.

By Garrett Pekarek

America has always embodied a message of freedom. Of tremendous importance in our country’s past and present are our freedoms of — and from — religion. Throughout the years, America has espoused a message of unity, and yet the politics of today are filled with divisive tactics and fear-mongering.

One can scarcely turn on the news without seeing a policymaker urging us all to worry more about this group or that. The idea of “us vs. them” is not a new one, and yet it is an all-too-common view in this election season. In some cases, the “us” refers to America as a whole, and the “them” refers to our faraway enemies. In all too many instances, however, the “us” is the Christian majority that dominates our political process, and the “them” can be any one of several other groups. On some occasions, Muslims are the target of vitriol. On others, perhaps it is Planned Parenthood doctors. Many times, it is those of us without faith who find ourselves suffering the scorn of our elected officials.

Earlier in the year, Sen. Ted Cruz, a seemingly strong candidate to be the Republican nominee for president, said something that was worrisome: Cruz suggested that anyone who did not begin the day with a prayer was unfit to run the country. While this comment found a great deal of support from many on the right, it painted a stark picture for nonbelievers.

Atheists, agnostics and others of no faith are undoubtedly a minority in the United States. In many parts of the country, an elected official would be committing political suicide by admitting that he or she did not believe in a higher power.
However, Cruz’s statement and its largely positive reception illustrate how strongly many Americans oppose those of us with no faith. A great many Americans would completely discount a presidential candidate, other qualities notwithstanding, simply for his or her lack of beliefs.

Cruz did not manage to secure the Republican nomination. Instead, Donald Trump will be representing the party in the upcoming general election. Trump says some terrible and reprehensible things, but one cannot ignore the fire that he is lighting in the Republican camp. Even young voters, tired of dishonest career politicians, are coming out in droves to support the mogul.

The alarming issue is the fervor that Trump and other ultraconservative politicians are stirring up in the name of God. Many Christian political figures make wild accusations regarding those of other faiths and those with no faith. Every December, we hear the laments of the “war on Christmas,” and it is not uncommon to hear a member of Congress make mention of the liberal agenda or radical atheists. While much of this is likely no more than political rhetoric, it only serves to deepen the divide between devout followers of these extremely conservative politicians and, frankly, almost anyone else.

Politicians make a living crafting speeches and platforms for the sole purpose of winning over the populace. Our elected officials have an opinion on presumably any topic that one could imagine. However, when it comes to God, our governmental officials should have nothing to say. The First Amendment of the Constitution prohibits the government from establishing a religion or preventing the free exercise of religion.

The constant barrage of religious messages from those in the political sphere seems to suggest that America is a country of and for Christians; in fact, many politicians go so far as to say that America is a Christian nation. I have no issue whatsoever with a senator going to church every Sunday and beginning every day with a prayer, but all aspects of religious beliefs should cease when it comes time to voting on legislation or addressing the public. The “us vs. them” mentality is a dangerous one, as it implies that some of us are on a different team from the others.

Many people would fight and die in the name of their God, and when politicians allude to some imagined enemy in those of other faiths or those without, it creates an unsafe atmosphere of hatred and distrust. Couple that with the frenzy that Trump and the media are creating among some members of the population and real violence could ensue.

Bringing God into politics creates division. We, as citizens of the United States, need to remain united. There is no “us vs. them,” there is only “us.” We are one people, and we deserve laws that serve us all, not only those of us with a particular religious affiliation. As a secular voter, I deserve to feel just as safe and just as included in the political process as anyone of the Christian faith, as do those of any other faith.

Garrett Pekarek, 27, is from Joplin, Mo., and attends Missouri Southern State University. He is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in sociology. He is a member of the Secular Student Alliance and intends to get a doctorate in either anthropology or sociology.

Freedom From Religion Foundation