Grad student essay contest fourth place: Religion and politics — a toxic cocktail – By Landon Poe

FFRF awarded Landon $750.

By Landon Poe

If there’s ever a sure-fire way to get support for a political directive, it is to frame it in religious language.

When President Reagan’s critics attacked his Cold War policies as hawkish and provocative, he cast his message as peace through strength and his dramatically increased military budget as a moral battle against an “evil empire.” When President George W. Bush framed his past drinking problems under a theme of redemption and strength, he gained fervent support from the Religious Right.

Religious pandering, church politicking and political religious litmus tests are all examples of the dangerous cocktail of religion and government. Religion masks the bitter aftertaste of policing social norms and creates societal division. At some point, this manipulation of promoting particular religious beliefs begins to violate our freedom from religion. While the 14th Amendment actually brings freedom from religion to the states, the same amorphous and highly debated Establishment Clause oftentimes ensures just the opposite.

Arguably, the Framers of the Constitution did not interpret the Establishment Clause as an absolute separation of church and state. They originally wanted to prevent Congress from establishing an official state religion while foreseeing some grey areas. However, following the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, the Jeffersonian “wall of separation” has become rather porous. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014) was the first time that the court recognized the religious beliefs of a corporation as legitimate grounds for exemption from the law.

In a blasphemous attempt at justifying sexism through religion, Hobby Lobby argued that providing contraception to its employees would lead to “the maximization of sexual activity” and cause men to only want women for “satisfaction of their own desires.” In the aftermath of this case, 15 states have already filed briefs arguing that businesses would be able to deny coverage for transfusions, stem cell treatments and psychiatric care. This case enabled organizations to use religion to justify their own absurdity.

Even as the Constitution expressly tries to prevent the establishment of a national religion, there is an unequivocal bias toward Christianity. It is no wonder that the presidential race has become so intensely laced with religious demagoguery. Donald Trump assuages his Christian followers by saying he would keep a database of all Muslims in the country, presumably to police their activities. Hillary Clinton waxes lyrical about prayer and campaigns in churches that endorse her in services. The intrusion of religion into politics is dangerous because religion camouflages the real intent of elected officials and diverts attention away from issues that need it.

Despite religious people holding such power over political rhetoric, they feel that they have lost the moral war at home, and have taken it abroad. The Bush administration spent more than $1.4 billion on HIV prevention, and to please domestic conservatives, a third of that money went toward programs teaching faithfulness and abstinence before marriage. Stanford researcher Nathan Lo found that after nearly $1.7 billion was spent to launch a public health campaign focused on abstinence in Uganda, rates of HIV infection soared and violent homophobia ensued. These false, ideologically-driven programs put sexually illiterate young people’s lives and health in literal danger.

We see the same bifurcation of ideology and pragmatism right here at home when religion prevents a woman from getting an abortion or when it torments the mental health of an LGBT teenager. In his presidential campaign, Sen. Ted Cruz exhorted that, “Companies and small businesses should absolutely not only have the right to turn away gay customers, they should exercise that right. Universal condemnation may convince these people to choose to stop being gay.” Religiously justified absurdity and hate is not unique to Cruz nor does it take a logical leap to understand that religion is at odds with reality. The mix of government and religion is dangerous because it puts the lives of innocent people on the line, regardless of truth.

On the bright side, it appears that religion in government will wane as we move to the future. This is because the burgeoning millennial generation is weary of the tirade of orthodoxy that excludes secular voters. Denying facts about abortion, homosexuality and climate change under the mask of religion is becoming less credible as young people search for pragmatism in political rhetoric. It is a damning castigation of the growing distance of the parties from their electorate when four out of 10 young Americans no longer identify with political parties. Pragmatism requires compromise, and there is little room for ideologues in this conversation.

In 2016, religion remains a robust undertone beneath political rhetoric in the upcoming election. In the decades to come, I believe “we the people” will change that.

Landon Poe, 22, is a grad student at University of Cambridge Wolfson College, where he is studying planning, growth and regeneration. As an undergrad, he attended The Citadel in South Carolina, getting degrees in political science and business administration. He aspires to a career in public policy.

Freedom From Religion Foundation