Christian nationalists often portray secularism as the enemy of religion. The two concepts are depicted as antagonists, locked in a never-ending struggle for dominance.
This portrayal could not be more wrong. An official policy of government secularism is, in fact, religion’s greatest friend. A state that is neutral on faith allows all religions and non-religious philosophies to flourish. This creates a vibrant marketplace of ideas where people are free to align with whatever system speaks to them – or create their own if they can’t find a good match. Secular government is the platform upon which religious freedom rests.
Americans United has been pressing this point for nearly 75 years. We’ve tended to point to our own nation as an example, noting that America is a place where separation of church and state has given the people an amazing amount of religious diversity.
Now a major study of 166 nations spanning 10 years bears us out. The study, “Paradoxes of Pluralism, Privilege, and Persecution: Explaining Christian Growth and Decline Worldwide” is by scholars Nilay Saiya and Stuti Manchanda. As Jeff Brumley of Baptist News Global put it, the study’s results “overturn common assumptions about secularism and persecution, showing they can instead be conducive to the growth and vibrance of religion. On the other hand, achieving political power usually has the opposite effect.”
In their abstract, Saiya and Manchanda write, “Our findings provide support for our theory that Christianity suffers in contexts of privilege but not in environments of pluralism or persecution.”
Saiya told Baptist News Global that politicized Christianity is turning people away from the faith.
“The politicization of Christianity is repelling potential converts to Christianity who see the Christian faith as nothing more than a political movement,” he said. “It is also driving away Christians themselves who no longer can tolerate their faith being equated with a particular party or the ideology of Christian nationalism.”
Saiya made another point, one that has often occurred to us at Americans United: State-favored churches are gradually drained of all their strength and vigor.
“In settings of privilege, Christians do not have to worry as much about religious competition because they have the favor of the state,” he said. “Christians do not have to win the battle for hearts through the strength of their arguments. This naturally weakens Christianity theologically and numerically.”
He’s right. Many Western European and Scandinavian nations are historically and, in some cases, legally Christian but are de facto secular today. What happened? Hundreds of years of state support sapped the churches of their strength and turned them into government lapdogs. The situation got so bad in Sweden that in 2007, the official state church agreed to separate itself from the state after 500 years, hoping for a shot in the arm. It is probably too late: Only a small fraction of Swedes attend church regularly, and the country has been called the least religious nation in the West.
In the U.S., Christian nationalists have been campaigning for state support for decades, including demanding taxpayer subsidies for their schools and social service programs (even as they demand special privileges, like exemptions from nondiscrimination laws that public schools and secular service providers must follow) and pressuring legislators to enact their theological positions into law.
They’ve managed to convince courts to give them some of this support, but it may be coming at the expense of their membership, their vitality and even their continued existence. Watching the irony meter explode, Americans United hates to say we told you so, but well, we did.