Fifth place: Graduate/mature student essay contest
FFRF awarded Jemille Bailey a $350 scholarship.
By Jemille Bailey
Modern America has an unhealthy love affair with religion. In recent years, U.S. government leaders have invoked God when addressing their constituents in speeches and writings. For those who don’t believe in a deity, or don’t agree with government’s interpretation of or interference with religious matters, there exists an uncomfortable relationship.
While Americans generally have great respect for the fundamental ideals of the founders, it is obvious that the secular ideological underpinnings so eloquently codified in the U.S. Constitution are frequently contested, circumvented or disregarded for political gain.
Two issues in particular are of concern nationwide: The right of women to exercise physical sovereignty vis à vis their reproductive systems and capabilities are once again being hotly debated. In January, presidential hopeful Rick Santorum gallingly proclaimed in a CNN interview that victims of rape should “accept what God has given to [them].”
Despite that issue having already been addressed and settled by the U.S. Supreme Court for almost 40 years, Santorum dangerously and irresponsibly asserts his religious beliefs as justification for setting or changing public policy.
He also single-handedly reinterprets the Constitution, arguing that “life begins at conception.” Santorum is free to argue his position, but his stance is based not on reason, science or social responsibility but on his religion.
Secondly, thinly veiled government promotion of religion has also seeped into the lives of ordinary Americans through their maltreatment of sexual minorities. The civil rights of lesbians, gays and bisexuals, as well as people who are gender nonconforming or transgender, are too frequently set aside, unrecognized or challenged.
Religion has frequently been a reason why the aforementioned Americans are marginalized and disenfranchised. Speaking to the graduating class of 2012 at Liberty University, a Christian university in Lynchburg, Va., Mitt Romney, then the presumed Republican nominee for U.S. president, reaffirmed his opposition to marriage equality:
“It strikes me as odd that the free exercise of religious faith is sometimes treated as a problem, something America is stuck with instead of blessed with.” He went on, “Perhaps religious conscience upsets the designs of those who feel that the highest wisdom and authority comes from our government.”
Using language such as “blessed” is a clear signal to Christian believers in the audience that they and Romney are on the same team. If he were running for president of Liberty University, he would be well within his bounds to use such language. This speech also doubled as a campaign event.
Such rhetoric implies a divide between religious and nonreligious citizens. Further, it’s concerning that Romney doesn’t trust legislators, judges and other public servants. We elected them presumably because of their perceived wisdom. Logically, as those leaders have been given responsibility through the ballot box or appointment, they are the highest authorities in the nation.
But Romney then shamelessly pronounced that “there is no greater force for good in the nation than Christian conscience in action.” What disappointing news for the nation’s many atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and Muslims.
Often, after all other ineffective social and moral arguments are exhausted, religion is the last, and incidentally, the most illegitimate justification for the restriction of rights or release of responsibilities. It is on the emotionally tempting but judicially irrelevant leg of religion that Romney stands to assert his opinion on what makes a family.
Every year in the U.S., a National Prayer Breakfast is held and televised, attended by Democrats and Republicans alike. While some may view it as mere tradition, its implicit nature makes clear that we are under an ever-growing threat of moving toward theocracy.
When reason and objective analysis are pushed aside or ignored and replaced with tribal and theocratic allegiances and dogma, the resulting separatism can provoke the same unseemly acts of marginalization or restrictions of civil liberties that have led toward slavery, genocide and other atrocities throughout modern history.
Those acts may, in turn, be irrationally justified as divinely inspired or even virtuous at the expense of the physical and intellectual sovereignty of dissenting citizens.
Jemille Bailey, 32, is a Los Angeles native pursuing an undergraduate liberal arts degree with a concentration in financial economics at Columbia University.
FFRF awarded Vicky a $500 scholarship.
I’m an atheist, and this election year, I’m a family values voter. Families are one of the most important institutions in any society. The way we are raised as children influences our views on important issues such as morality, politics, sex, money and religion.
As an atheist, I vote to value the families in which we actually live: single parent households, LGBT partnerships, multigenerational homes and any other configuration that exists. My family values extend beyond families that are healthy and functioning to those that are struggling through poverty, domestic violence, mental illness and other issues.
My family values extend to those men and women who are not yet ready to start a family and want to protect themselves or terminate an unplanned pregnancy. I’m a family values voter because I support the rights of individuals to live in a safe, healthy family environment and make their own choices.
Some politicians, however, foist their religious ideology onto their legislation and decision making, telling the rest of us what we should want and how we should live our lives.
In Wisconsin, Sen. Glenn Grothman proposed Senate Bill 507, which named “nonmarital parenthood as a contributing factor to child abuse,” a slam at single mothers.
In Michigan, Rep. Lisa Brown was censored for using the word “vagina” during a debate on an abortion bill, when she stated, “I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but ‘no’ means ‘no.’ ”
Fellow Rep. Mike Callton said in response: “What she said was offensive. It was so offensive, I don’t even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company.”
On the national stage, presidential candidate Mitt Romney pledged to ensure that his version of marriage is practiced throughout the land. His platform includes support for the Defense of Marriage Act and for an amendment to the Constitution defining marriage as between one man and one woman.
These are people who could be making decisions about how all Americans, secular and nonsecular, live the most intimate parts of their lives. People like state Rep. Don Pridemore of Wisconsin, who told abused women that “If they can refind [sic] those reasons and get back to why they got married in the first place it might help.”
Instead of suggesting a way for women to get out of their abusive relationships and providing support for them and their children, Pridemore encourages them to go back based on his definition of what it means to be a family.
It is one thing to espouse a view against abortion or gay marriage. It is another thing to tell someone else how they should live their lives, and it’s completely unacceptable when it comes from our elected officials.
America cannot ignore these blatant attempts to enforce their religious viewpoints on everyone. The so-called “family values” espoused by the Religious Right are not the values of the families that actually exist. God and government are a dangerous mix in our schools, public meetings, legislation, health care and tax code.
It’s time to fight back, and there’s no place better than at the ballot box. It’s time for the secular community to step up and reclaim “family values” for all families.
Perhaps we should pay more attention to what Brown, who is Jewish, said before her censorship-inducing use of the word “vagina.” She explained her position on the bill, stating, “Judaism believes that therapeutic abortions, namely abortions performed in order to preserve the life of the mother are not only permissible but mandatory. . . . I have not asked you to adopt and adhere to my religious beliefs. Why are you asking me to adopt yours?”
She shouldn’t even have to ask. Her Judaism, Grothman’s Christianity and my atheism are all equally valid. The only way all people can maintain their freedom of choice is to separate god and government and elect those who will maintain this separation.
Therefore, this election year, I am an atheist voting for the values of all families. Are you?
Vicky Weber, 22, graduated with honors from Ripon College in Ripon, Wis., with a degree in communication and a double minor in politics and government and nonprofit business management. She’s pursuing an M.A. in communication studies at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. At Ripon, she co-founded a Secular Student Alliance and plans to be active in the SSA chapter at Colorado State. Another laudable life goal she has set is to eventually enjoy a beer at all 30 Major League Baseball parks.
FFRF awarded Bryan a $500 scholarship.
In a speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy said “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute . . . where no Catholic prelate would tell the president how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference.”
Kennedy emphasized that there were “far more critical issues” that faced the nation than his Catholicism, and the same thing holds true today. In an age where unemployment and poverty are rampant, overseas wars kill our citizens and raise our deficit, and the world’s richest country also has its largest prison population, religion has become a driving force in American politics.
God’s name is used to justify policies in arenas as diverse as health care, civil rights for women and minorities, and even education. Yet invoking the bible does nothing to address the issues behind our country’s problems; it only serves to muddy the waters with arbitrary loyalties, xenophobia, and unwillingness to compromise. The separation of church and state is essential for creating effective, rational policies and ensuring freedom and equality for all.
Government is most effective when it uses empirically proven, logic-based methods for solving real-world problems. These methods can be debated using facts learned through scientific research, from carefully recorded observations and from successful tactics used in other countries. But supernatural justifications for policy require no such vetting process; once God comes to the table, the issue becomes a matter of faith, not fact. Supernatural solutions do not solve real-world problems.
In August 2011, Texas Gov. Rick Perry convened a daylong event in Houston called The Response, a call for Americans to “to pray and fast like Jesus did” to combat Texas’ crippling drought and economic problems. It did nothing, of course, to ease economic and drought woes. His April day of prayer for rain was similarly ineffective.
The funds and time used to promote these events could have been used to research realistic methods of combating drought and deficits, but instead it was used to create a conservative soapbox that did nothing to solve the problems faced by Texans.
Religion is an entirely subjective way to create policy, since doctrine and beliefs differ between religions. Even Christian denominations disagree on the exact nature of the god they worship.
In American history, this has manifested itself in countless ways. For example, slave owners and abolitionists both used the bible to defend their position in the 19th century. In modern times, the LGBTQ movement’s fiercest critics often use God as their primary reason for fighting against marriage equality, yet there are plenty of progressive Christians who support marriage equality and use the bible to justify their claims.
You cannot debate the idea of God in a courtroom or statehouse. You cannot objectively weigh the advantages and disadvantages of a policy that has been dictated by a higher power. When we use unverifiable, subjective reasoning to make decisions, we create unjustifiable, ineffective policy.
With God involved in policy-making, the question becomes “which God?” In the U.S., Christians make up the vast majority of the population, but our country is also a melting pot of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, atheists, agnostics and everyone in between.
Indeed, America was founded in part on the freedom to worship or not worship any way you please, and it’s this diversity that makes America what it is. Part of freedom from religion is protecting freedom of religion.
When the majority religion makes its way into government, it does so not by reconciling itself to all other faiths and nonfaiths, but by the power of demographics. This leads to unequal representation, which creates a government that cannot or will not hear the needs of all its citizens.
Religion-based rule is tribalism at its purest and enforces divisions that are based on arbitrary cultural labels. Recently, Louisiana passed a law allowing public funds to be used on vouchers to send children to a school of the parent’s choosing. But lawmakers didn’t realize those funds could also be used for non-Christian schools: “Republican state Rep. Kenneth Havard objected to the [Islamic School of Greater New Orleans’] request for 38 government-paid student vouchers, saying he opposed any bill that ‘will fund Islamic teaching.’ ”
Inevitably, the rights of minorities are trampled by the majority, especially when beliefs in an exclusive deity are used to justify that power.
Fifty-two years after Kennedy’s historic speech in Houston, separation of church and state brought “vomit” to the mouth of presidential candidate Rick Santorum: “I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country.”
Santorum couldn’t be further from the truth. This is a country founded on freedom of religion, not domination by religion. We need equal rights for all, not just for the majority. We need a country free from the tribalism and petty divisions that politicized religion breeds.
If we are to ever separate ourselves from our country’s economic, social and ideological woes, we need a country where separation of church and state is absolute.
Bryan Johnson, 26, a native of Raleigh, N.C., is a first-year graduate student at Colorado State University in Fort Collins and is pursuing an MFA in creative writing. He has an English degree from Purdue University and worked as a copywriter while writing fiction.
FFRF awarded Lynn a $1,000 scholarship.
The night of May 8, 2012, my young daughter and I awaited the election results of North Carolina’s proposed constitutional amendment. Most of the early results were promising.
Sadly, our hopes turned to dismay as county after county declared “that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state.”
We had both worked the week before at phone banks urging voters to get out and vote against the amendment. While making calls, it had been clear that those supporting the amendment were doing so for religious reasons. Many said things like, “God meant for marriage to be between a man and a woman.”
Amendment One was the result of the Republican-dominated General Assembly and its surge of conservative legislation. As the proposal for the marriage amendment was debated, many legislators asked why social issues were dominating the Assembly while our state had a 10.5% unemployment rate and many other concerns.
It was heavily supported by conservative religious figures and groups throughout the country. Bibles and preachers featured prominently in many TV ads. Voter approval of the amendment brings a new era of discrimination against citizens based on religious principles.
Although my daughter and I constitute a nontraditional family, I am not likely to be directly affected. So why did I take time to work phone banks and get pledges from voters? Why did I spend some of my already thinly stretched income purchasing “Vote No” materials?
One reason is my daughter. Being a mother has made me even more aware of the threats religion poses to our freedoms. What future can my daughter, being raised without religion, expect to find in an overwhelmingly religious political atmosphere? What rights will she have to live, love and learn as she grows as a U.S. citizen? What will her education be like if religious zealots manage to defund public schools and ensure that pseudoscience makes its way into classrooms?
During this election season, we have been subjected to Rick Perry’s comments about teaching creationism, Michelle Bachmann’s belief that her God called her to run for president, and Rick Santorum’s idea that teaching evolution has been used to promote atheism.
We hear revisionists claim that America was founded as a Christian nation and needs to be returned to that ordained state. Public school systems in Louisiana, Kansas, Florida and other states are experiencing challenges to their curriculum led by those who wish to see theologically based ideas taught. The Texas GOP platform states, “We support school subjects with emphasis on the Judeo-Christian principles upon which America was founded and which form the basis of America’s legal, political and economic systems.”
Don’t they know that America’s legal and political systems are rooted largely in ancient, non-Christian Roman and Greek systems? Have they forgotten that our founders were not all Judeo-Christians?
These conservatives oppose teaching “critical thinking skills” which “have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”
The Republican platform in North Carolina says, “We oppose efforts to remove the recognition of Almighty God from our schools, courts, currency and Pledge of Allegiance. We oppose efforts to remove prayer from our public meetings and governmental institutions.”
In Louisiana, a push to allow religious education to be publicly funded backfired on at least one legislator. Rep. Valarie Hodges said, “I liked the idea of giving parents the option of sending their children to a public school or a Christian school.”
Louisiana’s voucher program attracted applications from a Muslim school and 123 other religiously based schools. Regarding the Muslim school, Hodges said, “Unfortunately [the funding] will not be limited to the Founders’ religion. … I do not support using public funds for teaching Islam anywhere here in Louisiana.”
So, will Louisiana fund all religious schools or will it discriminate against certain religions?
Last year I realized that I had to find my own way to combat the growing religious influence in the public sphere. One way to curtail religious indoctrination is to focus on reality.
An important facet of reality is that our universe seems to work quite well without the interference of supernatural beings. How could I speak out in favor of reality? Participating in politics, far from my purview, was not a likely option.
After carefully evaluating my skills and talents, I came to realize that a career in science education would provide a way for me to teach others about reality. I know it is possible to combat pseudoscientific claims of all types through education. After learning how science unearths wholly natural explanations for phenomena, many people begin to question the supernatural explanations they’ve been taught.
If our opinions are grounded in reality, religion will lose some of its luster and the desire to have it permeate every aspect of public life may be reduced. One day, religious belief as a desirable societal guide may be regarded as a ludicrous idea.
One day, maybe I won’t have to worry how religion will affect my daughter’s future.
Lynn Wilhelm, lives in Cary, N.C. She is a single mother to Aiden, 8. She worked 10-plus years as a landscape designer and taught horticulture in a public school after getting a B.S. in agricultural education and extension in 1999 from North Carolina State University. “My teaching experience was riddled with difficulties partly due to the very religious atmosphere I found at the rural North Carolina school. I only taught for one year and thought I would never teach again.” With a recently renewed interest in education, she is pursuing a master’s in teaching science at NCSU and will graduate in May 2013.