July/August 2016 Church & State | Featured

By McKenzie Hartman

Editor’s Note: Americans United recently sponsored an essay contest for high school and college students. More than 150 entries from students in 43 states were received.

We are pleased to reprint the winning essay in this issue of Church & State. It was written by McKenzie Hartman, who recently graduated from Metro Early College High School in Columbus, Ohio. McKenzie received a $500 prize for her winning essay, and her school was given a $500 donation from Americans United to use for educational supplies.

McKenzie plans to attend Ohio State University this fall and major in International Studies.

The second-place winner was Trey Brown, a high school senior in Gwinnett County, Ga. Third place was captured by Madeline Glawe, a senior at East High School in Wauwatosa, Wisc. Brown and Glawe received awards of $250 and $100 respectively.


It is primary season, so the cable news headlines are consistently plastered with the latest “breaking news” from the campaigns. Since one of the primaries is for the GOP and many of the candidates’ comments are about the dismaying sectarian conflict across the Middle East, religion is never far from anyone’s mind.

Yet even in the face of the devastation wrought there, some of our candidates seem to forget that this country is not, never was and hopefully never will be, anything other than a secular state.

In middle school history classes, teachers and textbooks love to espouse tales of the brave settlers who crossed the ocean to flee the Anglican Church of England. Catho­lics settled Maryland, Quakers established Pennsylvania, separatist Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth and Puritans settled elsewhere in Massachusetts. Rhode Island and Connecticut were founded to escape the religious fervor of Massachusetts, however, so perhaps the colonists’ tolerance is a bit exaggerated.

When the Founding Fathers pen­ned the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, they forever enshrined the United States as a place of religious liberty. If ever we fail to uphold that freedom, this country will lose much of what made it revolutionary.

The founders knew that to promote one faith is to proclaim the rest inferior in a pluralistic society. For the government to legitimize the discrimination of a set of its people, or people elsewhere in the world, is wholly unacceptable. As James Mad­i­son wrote, “What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny: in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people.”

Despite the country’s foundation in secularism, there are those who perceive the effort to keep religious ideology from the government as an effort to discredit Christianity. But how would those same people feel if a Christian state, instead of criticizing Islam, turned against Baptists in favor of Methodists, or against evangelism in favor of Catholicism?

This is not to say individuals’ mor­ality based in religion cannot influence their opinion on a policy. Rather, they should defend that policy without using quotes from the Bible and should in no way use policy to foist their beliefs upon others. Even though many of the principles of our democracy are consistent with Christianity, “Christianity neither is, nor ever was, part of the common law,” at least according to Thomas Jefferson.

The need to keep the church and state separate is not only theoretical. There are numerous instances where the infusion of religion into government has caused specific harm. Students in schools across the country recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, standing with hand on heart and looking at the flag as they say “under God” in unison. Despite the Pledge being intended to foster unity, those two words never can be completely unanimous.

In addition to excluding those who are polytheistic or who just question why God would support one nation over any other, they exclude non-believers. Atheists and agnostics make up an ever-growing percentage of the population, but so much of our political discourse ignores them.

However, that is a minor issue when compared to the fact that some private religious schools receiving government tax credits, and even some public schools in Tennessee, Louisiana and other states, are teaching creationism. Classrooms are supposed to educate our youth to take care of our society tomorrow. Private schools should, perhaps, have more leeway, but when state legislatures allow teachers to teach factually incorrect information on the government dime under the guise of religious inclusivity, how will our country compete in the expanding technological and scientific sectors?

When people say the Supreme Court cannot vote contrary to “God’s law” after it legalizes same-sex marriage, they undermine the checks and balances so fundamental to our democracy and highlight their inability to accept a great number of their peers. When companies refuse to provide healthcare covering contraception, they unduly burden their female employees, contributing to sexually transmitted infections, unwanted preg­nancies and unhappy families.

Institutionalized religion’s influence over the public sector is also apparent in smaller, day-to-day experiences. My sister’s public high school decorated a Christmas tree in their courtyard last year. A few of the students hung Stars of David alongside the other ornaments on its branches; the next day, they were gone. This type of intolerance should not be tolerated in a public school.

Religion has, both historically and today, been beneficial to many people. Yet when governments bear the mantle of a god, there will always be someone they oppress. The absence of religion from the political sphere should allow people of all religions, and no religion, to work towards progress together.

In 2006, then-Sen. Barack Oba­ma gave a speech on the place of religion in politics during which he said, “At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise.…To base one’s life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy-making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.”

The current Congress is a perfect example of what obstinate inflexibility does to a government.

The separation of church and state was put in place to protect our individual freedoms. It shields the minority from the trampling majority, and it will safeguard the current majority if ever it becomes the minority. Perhaps those attempting to dismantle it should remember that.