Commentary

Leave God out of government

July 3, 2021 4:46 am

Detail of a $20 bill which has on it “In God We Trust.” (Photo illustration by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan)

A minister, a priest and a rabbi go to Washington. There is no punch line. All of them should uphold the separation of church and state.

It often shocks people when I say I don’t believe in God. To them, it’s as if all of my morality hinges upon agreeing to a single, socially constructed ethereal concept. What can I say? I suppose I never needed a pie in the sky to find community or moral ground. Don’t fret. For as shocked as you are that I don’t believe, I assure you that I’m equally as shocked that you do.

The stigma on the anti-theistic may be heavy, but I’m not alone.

In recent polling, only 64% of Americans say they are convinced God exists. Church attendance is at an all-time low, dipping below 50% of Americans. Already 1 in 5 Americans no longer identify with a structured religion, and it’s even higher in younger generations. Who can blame them? When some religious leaders still consider LGBTQ communities and women’s rights a sin, is it any wonder? Add to that the fundamentalists who refute evolution and white evangelicals who are likely to support QAnon, more and more religion looks to be going the way of lava lamps and mood rings.

Thankfully, in America, we don’t need to come to agreement regarding celestial omnipotence. We do, however, need to accept each other’s freedom of beliefs — and that includes my ability not to believe.

Or, at least it should.

As it happens, for a nation that purports to uphold the separation of church and state, we aren’t doing very well. In fact, as a society, it’s not even clear we’ve entertained the idea that a God might not exist.

This is easily seen when considering how often the word God appears as part of American culture and government. From adding phrases such as “one nation under God” to the pledge of allegiance in the 1950s, to forging “In God We Trust” onto almost every coin, bill and document, to swearing in elected officials and witnesses on Bibles, the list of slights is long. For those of us who identify as so-called heathens, these everyday occurrences diminish the legitimacy of our nonbeliefs, as if to suggest that not believing is somehow unpatriotic.

Yet these breaches pale in comparison to the threats facing the separation of church and state today.

In recent years, the far right — a political faction that has overwhelmingly attracted the white evangelical right — has made it abundantly clear that they will simply not respect those of us who think differently from them. From Catholic bishops engaging in punitive attacks on the president of the United States, to the strongly religious Supreme Court making rulings that outright threaten the separation of church and state, there’s increasing political pressure to bend government to the beliefs of a few. Considering that we also permit megachurches to evade taxes while operating as businesses and political entities, one has to wonder what lies in store.

Just once can’t I get my government without a side of God?

Politicians are shy to crack down on the overreach of religion in government. Perhaps it’s out of fear of seeming anti-American. Perhaps it’s a fear of offending core political bases. Either way, neither side seems particularly keen to court the atheists and agnostics of America despite our rising popularity. Even now, it’s said that the most unelectable minority group in America are atheists, as if we’re a Black Plague on sovereignty.

I have no issue with people who choose to believe in God or participate in a religion. I welcome diverse beliefs, and often choose to recognize important traditions out of respect for fellow community members. I do, however, take issue with the lack of reciprocation. Where are those who believe in God welcoming those of us who don’t? It’d be a nice change after repeatedly being told I’m going to a place made with double hockey sticks.

So please, for the love of all that is holy, remove God from government and rein in tax loopholes for religious entities. I assure you, not believing makes me no less American, and the purple mountain majesties will remain just as powerful.

Amen.

Trish Zornio is a scientist and lecturer in behavioral neuroscience and research methodology at the University of Colorado Denver. She has worked for some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals and has focused her personal efforts on enhancing the intersection of science and policy, as well as women in STEM. Zornio is an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.

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