Religion is a pervasive aspect of American culture.
It’s in our history; the first colonists were Separatists, Utah was founded by Mormons, etc. It’s in our communities; it’s nigh-impossible to traverse a city without encountering a place of worship of any kind or a religious private school. It’s broadcast over our televisions and radios. It’s in our stores. It’s in our literature.
However, where it does not belong is in our politics.
While separation of church and state is a concept that is often referred to, it’s nothing more than a myth or a pipe dream, and there is nothing about the current political climate in the United States that can prove otherwise.
Consider the following: The faithfulness — or lack thereof — of potential presidential candidates is now a valid talking point in debates. Most organizations pushing for anti-abortion legislation and the closure of abortion clinics are vocal about their religious motivations. People like Kim Davis receive praise for breaking the law in the name of their warped beliefs. The list of examples is exasperatingly long.
These problems are only further exacerbated by this year’s Republican presidential hopefuls, who are markedly more outspoken about their faiths than any other politicians I can remember. Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and Bobby Jindal in particular are especially vile with their campaigns; specifically, the three of them attended and spoke at the recent National Religious Liberties Conference, where the leading pastor explicitly called for the deaths of gay Americans. Jindal, during debates, constantly pushes for “traditional” marriage. Cruz recently went on Fox News and claimed that we should turn away Syrian refugees and instead focus on the “Christians who are being targeted for genocide” in the U.S. Huckabee said last year that every atheist in government should be fired, as they “refuse to hear God’s heart.” Hillary Clinton said near the beginnings of her campaign that her favorite book was the Bible. Another list, more exasperation.
Now, I would be okay if all of this vitriol remained contained within the political realm. Many Americans have gotten used to disingenuous, sensationalized political discourse (now, instead, laughing nervously at it on “The Daily Show” and other shows), so it’s just another throwaway talking point to ignore. However, what cannot be ignored is the fact that this same discourse drips down to the dregs of society and galvanizes Americans into doing awful things.
For starters, many white supremacist groups thrive in a religiously-radical climate. These organizations show no compunction for hurting or killing people in the name of their “Christian” beliefs, and probably only feel encouraged when their same perverse ideologies are spewed by highly-publicized politicians. On this list are groups like the infamous Ku Klux Klan, a group called the Army of God (an intensely anti-abortion group that, on its website, lists affiliated, incarcerated abortion bombers as “American heroes”) and a group called the Phineas Priesthood (a member of which was responsible for shooting 100 rounds at and attempting to burn down a Mexican consulate in Texas just last year), to list only a few.
Separate of these terroristic groups, however, is the exciting new phenomenon of what analysts are calling “lone wolves”: people independent of any type of group affiliation that go ahead and carry out attacks on their own, which the Department of Homeland Security has called “the most significant domestic threat.” Two quick examples: In July of this year, a Christian minister was arrested and indicted after attempting to organize an attack on the small Islamic town of Islamberg, New York, saying he wanted to “cut [its residents] to shreds” with a machete. Last November, a white supremacist killed three after opening fire on a Jewish community center; in interviews after the fact, he said “finally, [he’d] done something.”
I’m not going to pretend that these above examples are only possible because some shabby politician slumps over his or her podium and spin yarn about his or her love of Jesus. Being realistic, the people spoken of above probably had the motivation to do the terrible things they’ve done without any sort of higher-level goading; even so, it’d be careless to say that this venom being dispensed has absolutely no effect on the public. Countless articles and studies, online and elsewhere, explicitly show that this sort of fervent Christian sensationalism only leads to heightened Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and racism amongst receptive groups, potentially leading to more incidents like the ones listed.
On a less life-threatening level, there’s also the fact that corporations and other institutions are using religion to deny people benefits and rights. Hobby Lobby famously went to the Supreme Court just so it could deny its female employees coverage for birth control. A private Catholic school in Indiana fired a teacher for attempting in vitro fertilization, calling her an “immoral sinner.” Different stores across the country feel justified in denying members of the LGBT community service on the basis of religious differences. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
Ultimately, the point I’m trying to make here isn’t that religion is bad; I’m saying misuse of religion is bad. Religion is meant to bring communities together, not aggressively push campaigns of discrimination and ostracism.
And honestly? I’m not really sure how to make things better. The interplay between religion and politics is so tightly-wound that, at this point, I’m not sure there’s any way to tear them apart. The best way to combat these things, though, is to just be aware that they’re happening and react accordingly. Vote for people whose paths to power don’t travel over the bodies of the people they’ve thrown under the bus. Be a little bit more open-minded. Research a little bit. And remember: even though 70 percent of the country may identify as Christian, that never means that other beliefs or ways of life are less important or less valid.
Evan Siegel is a second-year literary journalism major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.