4th place — Grad student essay contest: Jaden Kilmer
FFRF awarded Jaden $2,000.
By Jaden Kilmer
During the congressional hearings investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, Arizona state Speaker of the House Rusty Bowers was asked why it was that he refused to go along with a scheme to overturn the results of the election in his state by nominating an alternate slate of electors, rather than those chosen by the people. His response, in short, was that he felt loyalty to the Constitution because it was a “divinely inspired” text, and his faith would not allow him to move against it.
Bowers is on the right side of history in this particular event, but his response, and the media reaction to it, belies how warped America’s relation with religion and state has become.
The talking heads on cable droned on and on about how powerful and moving the “divinely inspired” line was. James Madison, however, the man known to history as the father of the Constitution, was probably feeling sick in his grave.
The Constitution is a miracle not of God, but of compromise and erudition. In preparation for the Constitutional Convention, James Madison ordered books from his close friend, Thomas Jefferson. Through his extensive reading list, we can see the names which inspired the Constitution — Cicero, Herodotus, Montesquieu, Locke, Hume, Aristotle, Voltaire, Plutarch — Madison looked across antiquity and the enlightenment for ideas, but there was not a holy book in sight. Madison and Jefferson recognized God only in the sense of a being who created the universe, then sat back to enjoy its handiwork. (Jefferson also famously owned a copy of the bible in which he had removed all the dogmatic and supernatural passages.)
To call the resulting document divinely inspired is to entirely, perhaps even willfully, misunderstand it. It ascribes a level of perfection it has never possessed. The Constitution did not touch upon slavery, nor did it explicitly establish freedom of speech, due process, or the right to vote beyond landowning males. Evidences of necessary compromises with conservative factions of their day still haunt this nation of ours, in the form of the antiquated Electoral College and the “equal” representation of states in the Senate.
Divine things are perfect things. They are by their nature unchangeable, etched in stone tablets by God itself. But the Constitution is patently human in conception. (As Madison said, if men were angels, there would be no need of government in the first place.) As with all things mortal, the Constitution can be changed. It can be amended or reinterpreted. The Constitution is flawed in some respects, brilliant in others. It is not a flame that will burn unaided for eons, but a fragile thing, locked in a bulletproof case that must be handled with gloves and care.
To infuse religious significance into the Constitution undermines that great pillar of the American foundation — secularism. There is a reason Jefferson called for a perfect wall of separation between church and state. The most pernicious threat to the values of the Constitution is in fact religious dogma — dogma which usually cloaks itself in the ink of the Founders. Yet, the media constantly reinforces the insidious idea that performative displays of piety and faith are tantamount to American patriotism, insisting that we can solve the problems of religion in politics by adding more religion into politics.
Theodore Roosevelt summed up the duties of an American patriot quite succinctly: “Patriotism means to stand by the country,” he said, “it does not mean to stand by the president.” This is a simple creed, and an accurate one. An American patriot can defend the country, its institutions and its security from threats foreign and domestic, without God. It requires being selfless and objective, freeing oneself from the trap of the myopic, looking not to what may benefit ourselves or our party in the short term, but the American republic in the long run. This is the challenge which is becoming so difficult for Americans as they increasingly think of politics in religious terms: They must evangelize, they must win converts, and their cause is just and divine and incapable of wrongdoing.
This line of thinking is the end stage of a failed secular state. Secularism is not simply about the concrete ideas of religion and politics intertwining, but also separating the ways people must think to succeed in either field. A religion succeeds by erasing objectivism. A nation succeeds by embracing it.
Jaden, 26, attends Boston University and is working on a master’s degree in international affairs.
“I’ve been fascinated by history, politics and religion since I was young, and especially the intersection of the three,” Jaden writes. “I traveled to Europe in the summer of 2019 to visit historical places, and was struck at how differently the places I visited treated religion and secularism than they do in America.”