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Religion and government remain a dangerous and volatile mix

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Rick Wingrove is the CEO of  Beltway Atheists, Inc, the Virginia State Director of American Atheists , and a contributor to The Washington Post’s local faith leader network.

Christopher Hitchens famously said that “religion poisons everything.” While a thorough search might turn up technical exceptions to this rule, one of the things religion certainly does poison is politics. Poison politics leads to toxic government.

Religious types have been leaning on government and meddling in elections since they were thanked for their input and given nice parting gifts by the authors of the Constitution. The problem for religious ideologues is this: despite some pretty extraordinary and self serving claims about mandates and dictates received directly from a micromanaging Bronze Age deity, the Constitution simply provides no role for religion in the government of the United States.

Official endorsement of any religion is prohibited. Religious tests for elected office are prohibited. The result of our constitutional non-establishment of religion has been a system of government that is nominally neutral on religion and which, by design, provides equal rights, protection, and access to all citizens regardless of their opinions on religion. What could possibly be fairer than that?

The worst elements of religion, however, don’t consider this matter settled. Rabid fundamentalism, based on biblical literalism, is rampant in our politics.  It would be a tremendous redistribution of the facts to argue that religious adamancy resides equally on the left and on the right. The imbalance has grown so great that the right genuinely believes that the god and creator of the entire universe is a Republican, that they are entitled to govern, that whatever it takes to install them permanently in power qualifies as “democracy,” and that compromise is the work of Satan and entirely out of the question. Claiming a mandate from a supreme deity is the ultimate untrumpable hand.

The result of this intractable ideology is legislative paralysis at a time when we could really use some rational solutions. Instead, democracy is being commandeered and driven into a ditch by those who would inflict faith-based social legislation taken from Leviticus and whose science comes from Genesis.

Doubling down on mean and ignorant is neither a recipe for success nor the character of greatness. Science denial will never result in greater understanding of the workings of the universe. Science denial and its siblings math denial, fact denial, and utter disregard for logic, feed a disturbing resurgence of anti-intellectualism. History instructs us well on this matter.

The religion-based denial of equality and rights for women is a remnant of a life-crushing morality devised by men who thought the earth was flat. Such cultural misogyny is a declaration of war against the very notions of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Religion proposes equally dire outcomes for gays, people who get tattoos, men who get haircuts, anyone who works on Sunday, or who eats shellfish. But the cafeteria religious believers are focused like a laser on gays and find prescriptions for hate in their ancient texts.

It may or may not be unfair to blame every failure of government on religion when some are likely the outcome of plain vanilla ignorance. But the right, currently and openly awash in rapturous faith, is providing a home and a pulpit to the most toxic, coercive, and repressive elements of religion.

Government should be a solution engine, populated by the informed people, focused on outcomes beneficial to all. The government of the U.S. must never become a tool for the imposition of religion on the unwilling and the unconvinced. Done by others, we call it sharia. And Hitchens had exactly that in mind when he called it poison.

 

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