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Honorable mention: Grad student essay contest —Ruth Dickey-Chasins

Ruth Dickey-Chasins

Preserving Democracy: The Dangers of Religion

By Ruth Dickey-Chasins

In discussing the separation of the religious and the political, it is impossible to ignore the ongoing crisis of COVID-19. Particularly in light of the presidential and congressional elections, involving “God” and religion imperils the democracy of the nation and the safety of its citizens. When leaders hold a power above the duties of their office, their accountability is compromised, and in pandering to one religion above another, leaders hold the dangerous power of alienating the public from the democratic process. Both these pitfalls are exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.

First, if leaders rely upon religion above all else, then they may find it easier to ignore experts, science and facts. For example, many elected officials have supported those still holding in-person religious services, even after shelter-in-place orders were issued and evidence in support of social distancing had been presented by scientists. Such reckless action not only endangers those who attend the services and betrays their trust, but lowers public confidence in the elected official, and by extension in the democratic process. This is doubly important in an election year, especially given the beating democracy’s reputation has taken in the past few years.

Furthermore, when public officials pander and mix religion with government, they do so to the alienation of other faiths and of nonbelievers. For instance, officials regularly reference the bible and God in their addresses or overtly indicate their Christianity as motivation for their legislation. This has the power to endanger lives, as when legislators restrict access to abortion on religious grounds or treat some lives as more disposable than others. Additionally, constant religious overtones mean that in a nation as diverse as the United States, there will inevitably be constituents who do not feel their voices are being heard. As an atheist who grew up in rural Iowa, I frequently found myself disillusioned and discouraged by what I felt was a lack of representation from my elected officials. This is particularly alarming when individuals feel disconnected from their elected officials, they are less likely to participate in the democratic process, and the cycle will perpetuate itself. This robs the nation of a diverse array of voices, which is critical to building a just and equitable society.

In sum, it is imperative to keep religion out of political debates, as it poses dangers not only to individual citizens but to the democratic system itself. As made evident by the COVID-19 crisis, public officials who cannot separate their political power from their religious beliefs directly endanger the lives of their constituents. In addition, the elevation of one religious belief above another creates division between the official and people of other religions in the public, which in turn harms the democratic process. Both of these elements are especially salient in light of not only the 2020 presidential election, but of the equally important congressional and local elections. Public officials have no business pandering and mixing religion with government, since by doing so they compromise their legitimacy, ability to govern and the foundation of our democracy itself.

Ruth, 26, attends George Washington University.

“I work at the Society for Science & the Public as part of the Outreach & Equity team. I am working on my Masters of Public Health, where I plan to focus on the mental health impacts of climate change. Previously, I have worked with the anti-poverty nonprofit YouthBuild and as an intern at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Outside of school and work, I am part of the Food Recovery Network, a local feminist percussion group, and I am (trying to) learn Arabic.”