A few weeks ago, I met with a delegation of scholars from several Middle Eastern nations through a program organized by the U.S. State Department. I’ve been taking part in meetings like this for years, and my normal practice is to offer a brief history of church-state separation in the United States, discuss how Americans United protects that principle and then open the floor to questions.
One of the participants, who came from a nation where Islam is infused with the government, was clearly grappling with the concept of an officially non-religious state. Wouldn’t that, he asked, lead people to turn away from religion?
The importance of secular government
This was my cue to talk about the concept of secular government and the rights it provides. An officially secular government, I explained, does not have an opinion on what you believe about religion, so you may choose to believe or not. (That’s the ideal, anyway. We know we’ve fallen short of that in America.)
I told him that secularism, as an official government policy, is responsible for the great religious diversity of America. But it also guarantees people the right not to be religious or to step away from organized religious groups and develop their own spiritual practices.
To be sure, we’re seeing more of that these days. A recent Gallup poll found that the number of Americans who believe in God stands at 74% – down from 91% in 2001. Belief in the devil and angels has dropped as well.
Christian Nationalists fear secularism
Just to be clear, most Americans still believe in spiritual entities. But the numbers have dropped, and this trend, along with a decrease in attendance at houses of worship, had led some conservatives to hit the panic button. Like my questioner from the Middle East, they are suspicious of secular government.
Some argue that secularism is a corrosive force or an example of the government establishing atheism as the state religion. It’s not. Secularism simply means that the government is neutral on matters of religion, neither advocating it nor suppressing it. The irony is that America’s legal secularism has plenty of carve-outs – “In God We Trust” is our national motto and appears on all currency, “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance and politicians routinely end speeches with calls for God to bless America. Yet even with the deck stacked against it, secularism as a cultural phenomenon continues to gain ground in America. This would indicate that people are using the freedom of choice our legally secular Constitution gives them to make up their own minds about religion, as our founders intended all along.
To my friend from the Middle East and even to Christian Nationalists on our shores, I would say that secularism is the platform for religious and intellectual freedom, but it doesn’t push you in one direction or the other. The path you choose is entirely up to you.