FFRF awarded Tyler $300 for his fourth-place essay.
The common perception that 21st-century America successfully celebrates religion without infringing on the nation’s democratic process is a misconception. By continuing the infamous practice of amalgamating politics, law and religion, the U.S. has failed to maintain a healthy balance between church and state, resulting in a social climate ripe for disaster.
In the midst of a cataclysmic financial meltdown, a decade-long war and after the worst ecological disaster on record, effective leaders are needed now more than ever. Yet, more incumbents seem to be interested in the moral ethics of their party’s religious affiliation rather than in coming up with solutions to the nightmares that loom over our heads.
What is increasingly suspect is the extent to which both Democrats and Republicans pander to their spiritual constituents. In doing so, an important question is raised: Is America as religious as it appears? To answer this, one must first look at the breakdown of our population by faith.
In February 2008, the Pew Research Center released a 143-page report entitled “The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.” It said that 16% of Americans defined themselves as unaffiliated, while roughly 75% subscribed to the Christian faith. Similarly, a 2010 Gallup Poll of 100,000 Americans reaffirmed the notion that 16% were, indeed, unaffiliated.
It behooves a politician to make face time with God.
But any survey taken via landline telephones can hardly be called perfectly accurate. The New York Times displayed a Nielsen report in 2008 that concluded over 17% of American homes no longer have landlines, which means those people were excluded from both studies. Curiously enough, of this group of cellphone-only users, two-thirds are under age 35.
Another Pew report outlining the religious makeup of the 2011-12 U.S. Congress show that the bulk of our legislative branch is comprised of Protestant (including many Baptists) and Catholic believers, while virtually no members claim unaffiliated status. Why is there such a bold contradiction? The answer is chilling.
The translucent truth unclothes a sordid power play: The candidate who is a nonbeliever limits his or her fan base to like-minded citizens, while the thrifty politician who applies just the correct amount of dogma will be able to obtain nods from the spiritual and unaffiliated alike. In other words, nonbelievers are forced to vote for a person who proclaims a faith whether they like it or not, so it behooves a politician to make face time with God.
With the heathen vote secure, a candidate is free to solicit in other markets by posing as a card-carrying member of a given faith. Having an “in” with a religion translates to results at the polls. One can assume that obtaining realistic demographic reports on religion will never be high on Washington’s to-do list (the Census Bureau doesn’t collect information of religious affiliation or practices). An accurate estimate of the unaffiliated population would only make the abuse of the First Amendment that much more noticeable.
Evidence of this quid pro quo relationship between religious groups and candidates is abundant. The [Lyndon] Johnson Amendment of 1954 limits interaction a nonprofit organization can have with an elected official. Orators in a house of worship are expressly forbidden to confirm their personal preference for a candidate from the pulpit, but many preachers are no longer abiding by the federal law, and reports of dissent are popping up everywhere. The Internal Revenue Service periodically investigates religious institutions for tax law violations, but penalties are rare.
As the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause continues to be challenged by the criminal acts of fundamentalists, the fragility of this law is often placed into the hands of our country’s higher courts for interpretation. Yet, can the same judges appointed by a pressured president be considered unbiased? With the nation’s highest office being won and lost over a spiritual preference, it should come as no surprise that not one nominated or confirmed Supreme Court justice, past or present, has ever admitted publicly to being a nonbeliever.
The progress and security of abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research have all been undermined because of spiritual constituent appeasement. Again, the unaffiliated are easily ignored.
As long as our beliefs are used against us as a form of political control, no American can claim that they are free from persecution. We must demand that religious references be cleared from all aspects of our government, be it in the form of a campaign speech or an incumbent’s routine address. Places of worship that violate tax codes must be punished so that their appointed shepherds keep true to both the notion of public service and the Constitution.
When religion is coveted above a healthy democracy, even the greatest of civilizations will topple under the accrued sacrifice.
Tyler Vunk, 34, Edgartown, Mass., is a third-year premed student at the University of New England, Biddeford, Maine. After completing a B.A. in music at age 21, he worked as a musician and songwriter. Tyler writes: “However, a few years ago, my love for science crept back in and so, after a lot of soul searching, I’ve decided to go to medical school to become a physician.”