Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. FFRF.org

1st place: Grad student essay contest — Miriam Barnicle

Vol. 38 No. 01 Jan/Feb 2021
Miriam Barnicle                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Threat of religious pandering in a COVID election

FFRF awarded Miriam $3,500.

By Miriam Barnicle

Freedom from religion is granted by the U.S. Constitution and has been a right guaranteed to Americans since our nation’s founding. In the political debates of 2020, there was no time or place for discussing the religious convictions of candidates. The American people deserved to hear how candidates would work in service of their constituents, not their God. When considering reopening the economy in May, President Trump stated: “I’m going to have to make a decision, and I only hope to God that it’s the right decision.”

As economies reopened and coronavirus cases soared last summer, it is clear that he would have benefited from consulting other sources. In 2020, the mixing of God with political decisions presented dire consequences for the health, safety and economic prosperity of the American people.

Religious pandering poses an immediate threat to Americans’ access to healthcare. Trump’s administration was incentivized to enact policies that are favorable among white evangelical voters, a key voting block of Trump’s political success, even if such policies present health risks. Most recently, the Department of Health and Human Services rolled back regulations that barred health-care professionals from denying care to individuals based on their gender identity or expression. This policy may be welcome to evangelical voters, and advantageous for some politicians. But in the face of a deadly pandemic, the U.S. government cannot allow healthcare professionals to deny care based on their own religious convictions. Americans who profess no faith or hold beliefs different than those of their elected officials should not have to wonder whether politicians will deem them worthy of care. Every American deserves health care that is competent, compassionate and based on the facts available, rather than religious doctrine. 

In addition to limiting access to health care, religious pandering poses a threat to the general safety of the entire country. As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, the debate over masks has grown increasingly heated. Elected officials have expressed religious objections to face coverings, such as an Ohio lawmaker who refuses to wear a mask because he believes it dishonors God. Additionally, as many states have implemented mask mandates in public spaces to try to contain the spread of coronavirus, some governors have issued exemptions to places of worship despite a complete lack of scientific justification. Of course, discourse about the factors impacting the spread of coronavirus and the government’s role in mandating such measures should be welcome in America. However, these discussions must be guided by data rather than the religious beliefs of individual lawmakers. 

Finally, the entanglement of religious beliefs with policy creates economic consequences. At the time of writing, roughly 30 million Americans are receiving unemployment benefits, Congress is working to roll out another trillion-dollar stimulus package, and economists warn that the impacts of COVID-19 will continue for months, if not years to come. The U.S. government will continue to need to pump money into the economy, presenting an opportunity for costly religious pandering. The $2.2 trillion CARES Act has already poured millions of dollars into the coffers of religious groups, such as religious schools, megachurches, and Trump’s own private preachers. Americans deserve not only transparency from political officials about where tax dollars are going, but also confidence that public money will not be funneled into the pockets of religious groups in hopes of political gains.

The entanglement of religious beliefs with public policy decisions poses clear threats to Americans’ health, safety and economic well-being. Trump warned that the current situation would probably “get worse before it gets better,” and it is clear that the crises facing America today will remain at the forefront of political debates. As our nation grapples with whether and how to open safely, we find ourselves in desperate need of leadership unclouded by religious beliefs. Now, more than ever, public officials must rely on data, science and the voice of the people, not the voice of God. Failure to do so threatens the founding principles of the United States and the lives and livelihoods of the American people.

Miriam, 23, of Milwaukee, attends Alverno College.

“I am working toward a master’s degree in urban education. I also work as a special education teacher at a Milwaukee high school and enjoy supporting my students as they embark on their own educational and career goals.”