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Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

1st place: Grad student essay contest — Elias Rodriguez 

Elias Rodriguez

An increase in religious extremism

FFRF awarded Elias $3,500.

By Elias Rodriguez 

I was 7 years old when a group of religious extremists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center towers. Although I was still relatively young at the time, I can remember being baffled at the thought of someone doing something so heinous. It seems that, with each passing year, instances of religious extremism have increased, especially recently. The instances that have stood out the most to me were President Trump’s photo-op in front of a church and the QAnon conspiracies that culminated with the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol. 

Although these recent events were not as deadly as a terrorist attack, they highlight a serious problem — an increase in religious extremism in the U.S. The events from this past year are evidence of an insidious approach of the encroachment of religious extremism into government, a government that was set up and intended to be secular. These events have threatened the most basic of American principles, such as the First Amendment right to peacefully assemble and the peaceful transfer of power after a democratically held election. These events highlight why we, as a society, should strive toward a secular approach to analyzing our beliefs. 

There has always been a religious divide in this country that affects both politicians and policy, but this divide seems to have come to a head. One of the most egregious displays of this divide was perpetrated by an elected official to the highest office of our government. On June 1, 2020, President Trump commanded law enforcement officers to use tear gas and forcefully remove peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square (ironic, considering how instrumental Marquis de Lafayette was to the American and French revolutions) to pose for a photo in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church while holding a bible. This act of religious extremism not only violated one of the most fundamental rights of this country — the right to peacefully assemble — it also violated the established principle that this country was founded as a secular nation. Trump’s posturing could reasonably lead anyone to believe that he views himself as president to only a fraction of the American electorate and he is willing to use religious extremist acts to pander to his voters, even at the cost of American principles. 

It is said that the sleep of reason creates monsters. This was very much apparent during the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by religious extremists, spurred on by words from Trump just hours before the insurrection. Angry extremists, most of whom viewed Trump as appointed by God or who have delved so deep into QAnon conspiracies that they have turned support for him into a pseudo-religious endeavor, broke into the Capitol to overturn the official results of a democratically held election. There has been documentation of insurrectionists shouting things such as, “Jesus Christ, we invoke your name,” as they broke into the building, culminating with a prayer led by the “QAnon Shaman” in the middle of the Senate floor. Although not all insurrectionists think alike, there seems to be a through line as to the underlying motivations to invade the Capitol outside of the president’s words. 

Either way you slice it, there’s a significant overlap between QAnon followers and evangelicals. These actions to overturn the results of a democratic election, the most fundamental principle of this country and quite literally the reason for the war of independence, were nothing short of a coup attempt. I was watching the most fundamental American principle be eroded in real time. 

Religious extremism can come in many forms, from flying airplanes into buildings to trying to overthrow a democratically elected government. When your religion is the only thing that informs your worldview, you are less likely to critically examine your viewpoints and are thus more likely to fall victim to bad information. 

As it stands, Christian nationalism is the greatest threat to our civil rights and principles as is evidenced over the past year. If we examine our beliefs from a secular standpoint, where no political figure is appointed by a god or is part of a divine plan, then we will be able to see that we are all striving for the same thing: equality. 

Elias, 27, attends the University of Texas at Dallas and plans to get a master’s degree in business analytics. “When I was working on my bachelor’s degree, I knew that I wanted a career in health care to help fix the system that we have,” Elias writes.