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.