Excessive Religiosity In America Is A Threat To The Separation Of Church And State

We establish no religion in this country, we command no worship, we mandate no belief. Nor will we ever. Church and state are, and must remain, separate. All are free to believe or not believe, all are free to practice a faith or not, and those who believe are free and should be free, to speak of and act on their belief. At the same time as our constitution prohibits state religion, establishment of it protects the free exercise of all religions. And walking this fine line requires government to be strictly neutral.

Ronald Reagan

Religious freedom in America has allowed the nation to become one of the most religiously diverse places on Earth. This religious diversity has, at times, allowed competing religious values to clash with one another, and not always productively or peacefully. At the core of all this religious conflict is an issue that affects the whole of American society and culture: the separation of church and state.

The Constitution forbids the government from making any laws respecting an establishment of religion. However, there are some groups who think that their religious beliefs should be allowed to influence public policy, even if it means violating the Constitution in doing so.

When the founders of America put pen to paper, creating the Declaration of Independence and the U.S Constitution, they created a document that has served as an example for all other nations around the world ever since its inception in 1776. However, these founders were not just creating any kind of constitution; they were creating one that was meant to separate church and state from each other.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

America has become increasingly religious over time, with the percentage of American adults who identify as Evangelical Protestant increasing from 8% in 1982 to 24% in 2021. The United States was founded on the principle that religion should be voluntary and that no particular religion should be preferred over any other—so why are Americans more religious now than they were thirty years ago?

Excessive religiosity in America would not seem like such a bad thing, especially for religious people, who feel obligated by their faith to do certain things for themselves or for others so that their lives can conform to God’s will as much as possible. However, excessive religiosity in America is a clear violation of this principle, and there are many potential negative consequences of an excessive religious population. These include higher levels of societal conflict due to the greater polarization between various religions; discrimination against those who do not follow any one specific religion; reduced acceptance for those who come out as LGBTQ+; and higher levels of domestic violence.

Religious extremism is a global problem, but it also poses significant challenges to social stability within our own borders. A quick internet search reveals countless statistics and articles about how extremists have led groups that commit extremist actions in order to create social instability. They want the whole world to adopt their way of life, which might include beliefs about what women should wear, how children should behave, etc. But, it is never okay for anyone outside of them to tell them what they should believe.

Allowing these extremists to take control of our country would mean giving up freedoms that we hold dear—namely freedom of speech and freedom of religion. We need to resist anything that would force us into following strict rules set by a single group instead of allowing all voices to speak out freely without fear of persecution. Separation of Church and State protects not only non-religious citizens, but religious ones, too. Extremists tend to view the separation part of the phrase separation of Church and State as a euphemism for destroying Christianity altogether (see Justice Clarence Thomas’s dissent in Lynch vs. Donnelly). There is simply no room for extremism in modern society because its goal is to eliminate all difference. But, differences are what make life worth living!

When it comes to churches, there are just so many out there; how does one find which ones are good for them? Not only that, it’s become stereo-typically American for church to be a family affair. Do you really want your children exposed at such an early age to this type of dogmatic teaching as set by organized religion? Fundamentalist churches only further perpetuate these harmful stereotypes, which end up dividing our country instead of bringing it together.

The Constitution was put in place specifically to prevent this from happening; yet, we see politicians going against the grain with this very issue on a daily basis. If we’re serious about progressing as a nation, then we need to be willing to open up our minds to new ideas instead of staying stuck on old beliefs. All I see happening now is more people fighting over whose way is better and less people coming together on common ground.

No one should have the right to control other people’s thoughts. This idea of brainwashing will never get us anywhere, especially not towards progress. But, organized religion provides simplistic answers to the world’s problems, which is very attractive to many people. Unfortunately, these inadequate explanations not actually based in reality are offered instead of providing solutions.

Many parents will take their children out of public schooling and place them in religious private schools, very often with nothing but good intentions. The trouble is these schools actually are harmful to children, which teach that everything is fine and dandy as long as you follow what your religion tells you to do. While religious freedom is obviously important, the major issue with this is these schools not only discourage you from ever questioning whether or not it actually is fine and dandy, they will outright punish you.

Of course, all religions have been divisive since antiquity. Christianity in particular teaches that everyone needs Jesus, while Islam teaches Allah alone should be worshiped; these two polar opposites are meant to tear each other down. This sort of divisiveness and the ignorance it breeds are two major reasons why we need to stop putting all our faith in something like organized religion because it isn’t doing anything productive.

A third reason that organized religion is a dangerous force in our society is that fundamentally religious people use fear as a motivator to keep people believing. This includes telling them things such as how a nonbeliever will go to hell if you don’t believe in their religion. This is a major reason why many so-called Christians, Muslims, and others don’t think twice about love before blaming someone else for all of their problems.

From a purely logical and humanist perspective, it would seem paramount to break away from organized religion altogether and instead follow some moral code based off compassion rather than intolerance. People need to be educated; they need to know that some people are born gay, or otherwise gender divergent, and they don’t have any choice in it. They need to learn that different ethnic groups and skin colors are based on tiny genetic differences which occur over generations, and they are no worse or better than the rest of us on account of these differences.

People also need to know that women can be just as powerful as men, and are equally suited to pursue a career and be in charge of their own lives. Strict gender roles and gender-critical arguments exist primarily due to these religious influences in human society.

Having freedom of speech and freedom of religion are two pillars of American greatness. Equality amongst genders should be a third, even if the legal founding is currently shaky at best in America. These are the three pillars necessary in order to establish a society built on morality and unity. Religion has taken those ideals and distorted them, convincing people that God is male, and even homophobic and gender-critical. This, of course, is ridiculous, as why would any God intentionally allow the very existence of people who are born in direct opposition to this alternative truth.

Yet, the American Congress continues to have many members who not only have these religious views, but act upon them on a regular basis. However, the first amendment to the United States Constitution specifically states that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. This means that it is illegal for the government to promote or suppress any one faith over another, or be biased towards one over another. Members of Congress, therefore, can have whatever views they like, as long as those views are not allowed to influence the process of lawmaking. To date, this Amendment has been interpreted very loosely, as arguments based in religious beliefs are still quite common in the Congress chambers, and have continued to be since the very founding of America to now.

It is religiously motivated positions which have led us into today’s predicament where we need more understanding of one another than ever before. Religious liberty will always be a contentious issue, simply because there are and forever will be so many different ideas on the topic. However, with secularism on the rise and increasing dialogue between those of different faiths finally trying to find some common ground, Americans can hope they will finally get the peace they’ve been waiting for since officially separating Church from State with the Bill of Rights back in 1789.

What started as a solution turned into a problem when everyone forgot why they separated Church and State in the first place. The First Amendment was never meant to silence anyone, but rather prevent those with extreme views from unfairly influencing legislation. If everything in politics were purely secular, then every politician could be held accountable purely by their conduct in the course of their job, leaving personal beliefs completely out of the picture. Of course, we are all human and our personal beliefs influence our actions whether or not we realize they do.

When it comes to personal beliefs, they are just as important to respect under the auspices of the First Amendment. But, in order to stop this religious divide, we need greater understanding and openness among our country’s citizens instead of stubbornness and hostility. There’s plenty of room for disagreement here, but letting our differences cause disunity should not be tolerated. Holding personal beliefs and religious views is one thing; but allowing them to influence politics towards the ends of perpetuating those views is extremely problematic.

So, all this being said, should we continue letting people legislate according to their religious beliefs if they happen to be discriminatory? If a person happens to believe that abortion is wrong, and therefore passes laws making abortion difficult or impossible for women in certain circumstances (such as rape), then isn’t this exactly the kind of thing separation of church and state was designed to protect against?

Second, does eliminating religion from government really mean eliminating personal opinions from influencing the political process, as well? This is absolutely not the case. It’s still very possible for someone whose worldview wasn’t based on faith to all the same hold discriminatory views while also being free from having those views imposed upon others through legislation. It would also allow people whose worldviews do incorporate faith-based values access to holding public office without fear of discrimination.

Finally, how should we define religion when it comes to interpreting the First Amendment? Who gets to decide which religions are acceptable? Should there be quotas on how much time politicians spend talking about religion? Religion is just one aspect of life, after all, and by trying to control it we lose something else entirely: freedom of speech.

Of course, it’s very unfair to allow one set of religious views to influence public policy. The way I see it, people with strong religious convictions are entitled to their opinion on matters such as abortion or the “sanctity” of marriage, but they should keep these opinions separate from governmental affairs because their opinion may infringe on another person’s rights.

I believe that excessive religiosity has eroded American democracy and decreased the quality of American society by threatening the secular framework on which our country was founded. This phenomenon impacts everyone: religious or not, Democrat or Republican, or otherwise.

It is time for Americans everywhere—indeed, all people—to stand up for their rights as citizens and speak out against religious tyranny in every form it takes. Freedom from religion does not mean freedom from God; rather, it means freedom from any particular religion being forced upon someone. The less government interferes with private lives and personal decisions, the better off we will be.

The photo featured in this article was taken by Jon Tyson and was featured on Unsplash.

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