FFRF awarded Colin $200 for his essay.
Freedom is paramount in the U.S., although at times it seems more like a motivating war cry mindlessly repeated by pandering politicians rather than an actual ideal to be actively pursued. But for those of us who find ourselves denied what others take for granted, the issue of freedom couldn’t be more real.
The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause guarantees separation of church and state. But like any freedom, it must be defended by those who cherish it.
Popularized in elementary schools nationwide, the semi-mythical tale of pilgrims fleeing England on the Mayflower illustrates the wrongheadedness of the Christian Right in terms they should be able to understand. The distraught worshippers fled the Church of England because it dictated what they must believe. Yet here we are, nearly 400 years later, facing the same issue from some of our political leaders.
A number of politicians are happy to let religion infiltrate government because their constituents can’t comprehend why anyone, properly introduced to the concept, would refuse to be a Christian. It appears to not matter that Christians already have a venue to espouse their beliefs in their churches. But they find themselves unsatisfied by that and have the gall to declare themselves oppressed.
The recent New York law legalizing gay marriage came with an opt-out “conscience clause” for clergy whose beliefs conflict with such unions. Yet, in typical hypocritical fashion, Christians are not willing to show the same respect to government institutions that are required by the Constitution to show no preference to any religion at all.
Christians wail about oppression when denied the chance to teach creationism in public schools, oblivious to the fact that non-Christians find creationism as distasteful as a Christian would find evolution in Sunday school.
The crux of the issue is power. Each generation is more secular than the previous one. Churches can feel their influence waning, so the obvious last-ditch solution is to indoctrinate young minds. Fortunately, many young minds are not so easily coerced.
Stuck in my own memory is the mockery I suffered as a fourth-grader in Oklahoma for being the only kid who admitted aloud believing that “people descended from monkeys.” It is very reassuring to see students today standing up for their right to science-based biology education, but it is a battle that must continually be waged.
We do not mean to prevent anyone from worshipping whatever god they may choose. Tolerance is the watchword of religious freedom. Most bible interpretations do not allow for tolerance or compromise, and in a multicultural nation we cannot survive without those virtues.
Christians would like to pretend that Quran-burning pastors and “God hates fags” sign-bearers are extremist outliers, but as someone who lives in a rural and very religious area, I can vouch that they are not. The xenophobic and sometimes racist sentiments are pervasive in areas where people rarely come into contact with anyone different from themselves. Atheism is synonymous with devil worship. Never mind the logical fallacy involved in thinking that.
Most disheartening is that many Christians don’t seem to care that freedom of, or from, religion is vitally important to every person on a very deep and personal level. Their perceived majority should be as unimportant to government policy as any racial or ethnic majority.
We will not allow any single, power-hungry group to jeopardize the freedom we value so dearly.
Colin Gillen, 32, was born in Skokie, Ill., and has lived in Washington, Oklahoma, Norway, Delaware, Nevada and Bedford, Pa. He’s a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown and is pursuing a double major in chemistry and applied mathematics. His interests include playing golf, watching baseball, writing, cooking, drinking wine and reading Christopher Hitchens and many other authors.