Scholarship winners 2018
Essay Topic: Secular Government
Enlightenment. Governance. Things one might like to think go together. However, since flawed human beings are our only option for leadership, meshing these ideas is a long haul. Likewise, placing spiritualists, who claim to have already discovered the parameters of enlightenment, in state positions could seem expedient to accelerate the collision of these two concepts… yet even if gods direct them, believers are also human. Examining the situation more deeply, it is clear that injecting religions into the state would likely negatively affect both entities.
It’s very difficult to determine what gods intend. In the Aeneid, the harpy queen Celaeno is allowed to curse the Trojans to eat their own tables—but this ends up referring not to wooden structures, rather flatbread improvisations. Once the vague words of the divines seem to have been accurately interpreted, the overwhelming temptation is to stick rigidly by that ‘translation’. Some religious branches have concluded that women were meant to be inferior, that non heterosexual-and-cisgender people are criminals or worse, or that other groups also have negative status which undermines their human rights. Obviously, modern societies consider human rights important. Again due to the temptation of a set interpretation, religious institutions have historically changed very slowly, problematic in our swiftly-altering world—in a democracy, people have opportunity to express their desire for change instantly, and if the arguments are convincing, politicians are usually pressured into modifying their behavior or eliminated in the next election. Modifying a tenet of faith, however… A third issue stemming from fixed dogma is a tendency to respond to information perceived as outside of orthodoxy with censorious disbelief, as when Christian sects objected to heliocentrism. Legitimate facts are key for the formulation of valid public policy; hence, a government inertly less open to data (e.g. a theocratic one) would be less capable of effective policymaking. All of these issues are made more severe by the tendency of the most extremist sects claiming any religion to be the most politically active (e.g. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula).
Yet what if a beneficent religion is presupposed in power? A bigger pulpit means more pressure to ‘stick to one’s guns’ ideologically; some of this can be seen with generic political parties, but would—as noted above—be more severe for religious entities. However, additional problems abound. Running a modern state takes substantial organization, dedication… and paperwork. The overwhelming obligations of governing which have nothing to do with ideas or ethics could distract religious-cum-state officials from their sacred duties—or these secular necessities could be neglected. Either way, important aspects of anyone trying to hold a dual function would be compromised. Moreover, politics is often a base and dirty exercise, while faiths’ ostensible goal is bringing forward the best and highest in humans. Especially as our political discourse descends ever more precipitously, religions could well be corrupted by this environment. Religions can be far more free and effective advocates for policy positions they consider ethical outside of the state, with its immense load of extra obligations and conflicting groups to balance.
There are many valid reasons that government broke up with theology—and as has been seen, there would be disadvantages for both involved in renewing the relationship. Religious institutions are great advocates for higher values, but not necessarily for where to set the Federal Reserve’s baseline interest rates. Governments and religions are each valuable in their natural role, but ought not seek each others’.
Essay Topic: Secular Government
Thomas Jefferson set the ethical and legal standard that justified religion and government’s independence in 1802 when he wrote to Connecticut Baptists that “religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his [or her] god.” If Jefferson’s opinion can be trusted, it behooves civic leaders of today to take heed his insights and conduct their business accordingly. If the experiment of the United States has any hope of yielding ideal results, it is best that it remains untainted by any dogmatic scripture and instead depend on its foundational documents: the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. A strict adherence to the First Amendment defends not only the right to practice religion freely, as Jefferson assured his Baptist audience, but keeps those that would claim divine domain over the rule of law at bay. Equating religion with governance undoes Jefferson’s advice along with the First Amendment.
The clear distinction between the governing of the people and the forms they take to worship must be maintained in a time when those that speak on self-proclaimed divine authority are doubling-down on their dogma. Zealotry, while having fringe appeal and opens itself up to fodder for pundits and satirists, threatens a republic by producing a cooling effect. If a secular or even centrist citizens sees that dogma creeping into either side of a debate, the impulse will be to disengage completely. Religion by its design, despite many religions having mandates of charity and goodwill, is inherently divisive. As a politician, if you want to alienate the largest portion of the population in the shortest amount of time, barring the obvious sexual or racial slur, simply praise Allah, Jesus or Apollo your next press conference. This alienation is not unique to multi-cultural democracies. Take into account a Baha’i in Iran, a Rohingya in Myanmar, an atheist in the United States.
Elections, their credibility among U.S. citizens already on shaky ground, become even more outrageous when nominees have to seemingly placate their constituents with their devoutness. What occurs may be a zealot being voted into office or a transparent ploy to con the blindly religious out of their better judgment. Kennedy had to assure 1960s America that he was an American first and a Catholic second. Mitt Romney had to assuage voters in the same fashion by playing down his Mormonism. Both had to waste speech time on what should have been and what has to be an issue irrelevant to duties required of the Commander in Chief. How one engages with the ethereal realm is a matter left to the individual, not one that should concern a voter or the stalwart Evangelical coalition.
The cooling and, ultimately, silencing effect of religion on civic dialogue can be seen festering in the U.S. When women are denied access to healthcare due to them as employees, citizens and free-thinking humans, there is a righteous rationale from Roger Severino behind the injunction. When antiquated legislation need justifying, such as the institution of slavery or Jim Crow laws, the Almighty is invoked. Data, expression, a mandate from the masses cannot shake the devout and dogmatic. In a system dependent on checks and balances, there is no check on a supreme being.
Drawing specifically from the First Amendment, any liturgical endorsement of a religion negates the rest of the provisions. Free expression must first pass through the needle’s eye created by the catch-all cry of blasphemy. Freedom of assembly becomes a compulsory congregation. The importance of keeping faith and governance detached is evidenced by those republics embracing a religion before their citizens. The Islamic Republics of Iran and Pakistan, and until recently, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria brought with their revolutions honor killings, stonings and public hangings, all derived from religious law and litigation.
There are lately diminishing returns for those claiming to be called by God into public service. More and more Americans aren’t buying the act. In 2018, politicians that deny healthcare, the sanctity to choose sexual and marital partners and open discourse on religious grounds open themselves up to ridicule, scorn and unemployment. But there is still further surgery required to complete the separation that Jefferson prescribed. Children, every morning refer to this nation as one under God before it is indivisible. The division begins when our leaders give preference to a deity in place of the people themselves.