Over the weekend, I was pleased to see a thoughtful column about church and state by author and social critic Susan Jacoby in the print edition of The New York Times.
Jacoby takes issue with some claims made recently by other writers that an obsession with politics is replacing religion in America and this is leading to a society that is more fractured than ever.
Jacoby sees these claims as just another attempt to undermine secularism. I agree.
“Looking for a new villain to account for the polarization and sheer meanness of our current politics?” Jacoby asks. “Instead of blaming deep divisions over race, misogyny, immigration, income inequality and the bellicose Twitter reign of President Trump, many have seized on secularism as a scapegoat for everything that keeps politically conscious and conscientious Americans awake at night.”
The theory, championed by columnists like Michael Gerson and Andrew Sullivan, holds that as increasing numbers of Americans stop attending houses of worship, many are substituting a secular model – in this case, rabid forms of hyper-partisanship – for the community and solace religion used to offer.
It doesn’t wash. For starters, while growing numbers of Americans are leaving organized religion, that doesn’t mean they’re abandoning faith and becoming secularists. Americans aren’t embracing atheism, they’re exploring spirituality outside the confines of established houses of worship.
Interestingly, one reason people are doing this is because they’re weary of politicized houses of worship. We know this from the polling on the Johnson Amendment, a provision in federal law that prohibits houses of worship and other tax-exempt nonprofits from intervening in elections by endorsing or opposing candidates.
Secondly, attempts to portray secularism as the font of all problems aren’t new – they’ve been a tiresome part of the Religious Right’s arsenal for decades. Over the years, far-right groups have blamed secularism for just about everything they consider a social ill and have insisted that Americans must re-embrace conservative forms of religion and their accompanying “traditional” social norms to set things right.
All of this besmirches secularism, which, in a legal sense, merely means that the government is neutral – not hostile – when it comes to religion. A secular state allows its people to explore religious questions as guided by individual conscience but does not take sides itself. In an ideal secular state, your decision to worship one, five, twenty or no gods is irrelevant to your standing as a citizen. Because the government doesn’t take a position when it comes to religion, all beliefs are protected. In this way, secularism is the platform upon which religious freedom rests.
Although the U.S. Constitution is a secular document, our country has never fully embraced the idea and these days is drifting from it in alarming ways. Various forms of “civil religion,” from religious slogans on money to invocations before government meetings, have been upheld by the Supreme Court. Some politicians feel free to lecture us on the need to worship and brazenly base public policies on theological rationales. Most recently, the high court blessed government’s ownership and display of a giant cross in Maryland, insisting it’s a war memorial – even though the central symbol of Christianity obviously doesn’t represent non-Christians.
It’s time to stop blaming secularism, as a legal and governmental principle, for our woes. Instead, we should embrace, celebrate and, most importantly, implement that important concept. We can’t be a truly free people without it.