Freethought Today · Vol. 28 No. 8 October 2011

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Honorable Mention

Religious zealots hazardous to nation’s health

Robert received $200 from FFRF for his essay.

The influence of religion on American politics is nothing new. From the establishment of the first colonies, Western European groups seeking religious freedom and tolerance instituted their own versions of Christianity in their respective colonies. They passed so-called “blue laws” to regulate behavior and business on Sundays, many of which are still in force. Those who failed to live up to these religious norms were severely punished. While the hypocrisy was lost on these first European-Americans, it was not so with Thomas Jefferson.

As one of the foremost authors of the Constitution, Jefferson reflected on the European experiences of absolute monarchy and constitutional monarchy. Seeking to build on the freedoms obtained during Britain’s Glorious Revolution, in which the role of Parliament was strengthened and certain individual freedoms were guaranteed, he devised the Establishment Clause creating a “wall of separation between church and state.” No longer would a nation be obliged to shift between religions as its rulers came and went.

As then-President Jefferson wrote later in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god, . . . I contemplate with the sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”

Despite attempts by Jefferson and others to keep religion out of government, its reach into public institutions and spaces remained alarmingly high. At times, it was blatant. Members of Congress stood up in the House and Senate to proclaim that such and such proposal was a violation of God’s law, citing passages from scripture. Slavery, Jim Crow laws, interracial marriage bans, prohibitions on homosexuals and even gender discrimination all have deep religious roots.

While tempered to some extent, religion still plays a key role. Same-sex marriage is banned in most states. Scientific research is hampered by onerous restrictions as a result of Christian beliefs that stem cells are actual human beings. Women die because they are refused abortions in Catholic hospitals when their own lives are in danger. Even something as banal as gays serving in the military was prohibited until being overturned this year after a grueling struggle.

It’s high time that Americans come to terms with the numerous injustices which have been committed in their names by religious zealots. By so doing, our democratic institutions can be purged of religious influences and once again serve a noble purpose.

Fortunately, with the number of religious Americans declining, the time is ripe. Through grassroots efforts, voter education and registration, and collective lobbying, America can once again become that land of equality and opportunity which attracted so many immigrants to its shores.

Robert Kalonian, 30, was born in Yerevan, the capital of Soviet Armenia. When Robert was young, his grandfather told him the harrowing story of surviving the Armenian genocide, which started in 1915 and sparked Robert’s interest in history and politics. His family moved to Los Angeles when he was 10. After high school he worked at a governmental relations firm, volunteered at various community organizations and advocated for same-sex marriage equality. He has an A.A. degree from Santa Monica College and is pursuing a B.A. in American history at Columbia University, with an eventual goal of becoming an attorney specializing in constitutional law.

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