By Olivia Bokesch
Editor’s Note: Olivia Bokesch, a student at A.C. Flora High School in Columbia, S.C., writes about the intermingling of religion and government that she’s experienced, particularly in the South. Her essay placed second in AU’s 2020 Student Essay Contest, winning a $1,000 prize. You can learn more about the contest and the other finalists here. Check back to read the first-place essay on tomorrow’s blog!
Growing up in the South, religion has played a role in every event I have attended and every big decision I have witnessed. Reading the Bible before sports games and praying before dinner at kindergarten birthday parties was commonplace. I never thought to question religion’s intertwinement with society. However, as I grew older, I quickly learned that the negative connotation of the Bible Belt as a nickname for where I live was not given without a reason.
I attended church almost every Sunday throughout elementary and middle school. Yet, one event when I was in sixth grade changed my perception of religion’s relationship with society and, by extension, the government. Soon after the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, the church decided a gay couple, who had been attending our church for years, was allowed to be married at our church. I watched as more and more pews became empty on Sundays as the church membership shrunk exponentially within weeks. I listened as a girl in my Sunday school class told me, “It’s okay if two girls date, but they should never be allowed to get married. The new law is wrong!” She switched churches a month later. Everyone from lifelong members to choir members left and my 11-year-old-self found it hard to understand why the same people who preached that I should “love my neighbor as myself,” were disregarding that very principle. To this day, I still do not understand it.
Another event that opened my eyes wider to the intertwinement of religion in society was in my first year of high school, before my first varsity tennis match. My coach called for everyone to say the Lord’s Prayer after our ritual pep talk. As a now seasoned atheist, who had learned to put my head down out of respect for others during prayer, I was still uncomfortable. When my coach realized I was not saying the prayer, she stopped and said, “All of you better be saying the prayer, not saying it is like kneeling for the national anthem.” I was taken aback, but as it was my first year on the team, I just nodded and went along with it. Then, this past fall, my coach told me to prepare a devotional before an important match. Again, I did what I was told because I thought that by saying no to the devotional, my playing time would be cut. Also, from local school board and town hall meetings I have attended to South Carolina Senate sessions I have watched, a Christian prayer is recited at the beginning of each meeting.
These experiences at my church, school and official meetings opened my eyes to a world where America, the face of religious freedom, was not so free from its Protestant origins after all. I began to understand the flaws in integrating religion into society and politics. Although my personal experiences are small inconveniences in comparison to those suffered by America’s religious minorities, they are still reflective of the effects utilizing religion in government can have. American politicians are the first to proclaim they want to give “power to the people,” but also the first to use religious justification for their governmental decision-making. When this is done, regardless of the specific religion in question, the power of the people actually becomes disregarded and belittled.
Praying under one religion before a legislative or judicial meeting immediately sets apart those in the room who do not practice the particular religion, seemingly making them outsiders to the world of law. Just as I was worried to stand up to my coach about giving a devotional on a God I do not believe in, others in courts or lawmaking meetings may be deterred from sharing their views or ideas for fear of being ostracized. There are many who will speak up, but there are also those who will not take up space in a place they do not feel welcome in. After all, why participate in something that seemingly excludes you from the start? The integration of Christian practices in government also enables those in the religious majority to treat others of different religions as outsiders. A rise in hate crimes like the shootings of mosques and synagogues can be attributed to this ostracism.
The promotion of true religious freedom, and not the version that leads to Supreme Court cases like Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores or Dunn v. Ray, is something that inspires my daily work in the activism field. Last year, I co-founded a media platform called Faces of Feminism. On this platform, we featured over 150 diverse peoples from around the globe through short submissions, interviews, personal essays and informative articles. Part of our main goal was to show that no matter who someone is, their sexuality, race, gender, socioeconomic status and religion does not define the change they can make as an individual in the world. We worked to combat the feeling of exclusion from policy-making that can be created when religion is used in government.
Similarly, there are grassroots actions that can break down the infiltration of religion in government until a total separation occurs. Some examples of grassroots actions are signing petitions, calling representatives or writing letters to government officials. These actions can all help to pressure the establishment to eliminate exclusive practices like praying before meetings or using a religion to back up a bill the representative is trying to pass. Also, joining or starting a lobbying committee to advocate for proper separation of church and state is another simple way to work toward a better country for all. These grassroots actions can challenge the fabric of our nation that we have grown so used to – the fabric that discourages those oppressed by religious factions from letting their voices be heard.
In the end, the separation of church and state is most important to me because if America was truly created by the people, it needs to represent its entire people, regardless of religion or non-religion.