Inaugural grad essay contest launched a career
Lifetime Member and FFRF donor extraordinaire Brian Bolton of Texas reminded FFRF that it is the 10th year of the graduate/‘older’ student essay contest. Bolton has been underwriting the competition since its inception in 2010. This year’s prize money totaled nearly $18,000 and the winning essays are printed in this issue.
“It’s hard to believe that this is the 10th anniversary of the graduate student essay competition,” Bolton writes. “The cash awards for the first contest totaled $5,000, indicating just how much this contest has grown. And how appropriate that the second-place winner in the inaugural competition published a book on the subject of his award-winning essay.”
That second-place winner back in 2009 was none other than Andrew L. Seidel, who is now FFRF’s director of strategic response and author of the new book, The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American. Seidel’s essay back in 2009 was titled, “The wall of separation requires vigilance.”
“I was so interested in the topic that I began writing a law review article on the myth that the Ten Commandments influenced the American founding,” Seidel said recently. “It got out of hand. That law review eventually became my book — eight years later. But an outline of that article became my award-winning FFRF essay. Nearly
all its themes are reflected in my book. Indeed, some of its central themes are right there in the essay: ‘The idea that patriotism requires religious belief is revolting. To truly love freedom, to support the Constitution, to honor our founding generation and our nation is to strive to build up the ‘wall of separation,’ not tear it down.’”
Seidel added that doing the research for the law review and essay made him want to become personally involved.
“The more I researched and wrote, the more I wanted to work on state-church separation, not just write about it,” he says. “I began volunteering to do legal work for FFRF, took Dan Barker out to breakfast when he was in Denver, and eventually, after a damn good letter full of begging and pleading on my part, received an offer from Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan. Was I going to abandon my promising career in environmental law and a lovely salary at a private firm to pursue the dream of fighting to uphold the First Amendment, of battling bullies who want to use government offices that belong to ‘We the People’ to promote their personal religion? Damn right! But my sister actually made the most convincing argument. When I was contemplating the offer, she said, ‘Andrew, there are thousands of talented attorneys working to save the environment, one more may not make a difference. But how many are fighting for the atheist or Jewish or Buddhist kid whose Christian teacher is ostracizing him in his public school classroom?’ Very few, and now, I know them all. I accepted the job after we hung up the phone.”