The Sorry State of Secularism

By Jacques Berlinerblau

As Election Day draws near, can we secular Americans claim to be better off than we were four years ago? Besieged by the Christian Right, assailed by Republicans, shunted aside by Democrats, completely ignored in the presidential campaign and debates -- heck, are we even better off than fifty years ago?

That was an era in which John F. Kennedy could envision "an America where the separation of church and state is absolute." It's exceedingly unlikely, as we shall see, that such an America ever actually existed. Still, the past few weeks alone offer more evidence of the collapse of the secular status quo.

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In October, one thousand four hundred conservative clergy participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday. In this annual ritual, pastors dare the Internal Revenue Service to prosecute them for endorsing political candidates (a violation of the government's 501c3 provisions). The IRS, not enticed by filmed evidence the pastors sent them of clerics making partisan declarations in flagrante delicto, is apparently performing its own yearly rite of turning the other cheek.

Meanwhile, a Texas judge has issued an injunction against a school district's prohibition of banners inscribed with biblical exhortations waved by cheerleaders at sporting events. Thus continues the judicial clawback of American secularism's signature accomplishment: guaranteeing equal rights for religious minorities and the nonreligious.

Vice-presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan recently offered a blueprint for further undermining that accomplishment. The Wisconsin congressman suggested that the question of school prayer, deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1962, should be decided by individual states. This strategy exemplifies the GOP's overarching disdain for secular ideals. It's no coincidence that Sen. Rick Santorum complained that Kennedy's 1960 affirmation of separationism made him want "to throw up."

Compounding secularism's difficulties has been the loss of old allies. The Democrats are no longer the party of Kennedy (or Mario Cuomo, or John Kerry), but of Barack Obama. While the president sporadically defends secular ground (see his stare-down with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops over the HHS's contraception mandates), he often engages in behaviors once unthinkable for a Democrat. Obama has super-sized George W. Bush's Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. He often cites the Scriptures and makes public pronouncements on the order of: "My faith in Jesus is legitimate and real. I do my best to live out my faith, and to stay in the Word." His recent call for days of prayer and remembrance to commemorate 9/11 was by no means out of character.

But if secularism is experiencing another dismal election season, let us confess that many wounds are self-inflicted. The movement has perennially lacked effective leadership. There has never been a secular counterpart to conservative Christian rainmakers such as the late Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Ralph Reed, to name but a few. Nor has secularism matched the Christian Right's vast and dynamic network of pressure groups, public interest law firms, think tanks, scholarly heavyweights, media outlets, and donors.

That network has advanced a ferocious, legal challenge to Kennedy-era assumptions, most notably the idea of "a wall of separation between church and state." Conservative Christians point out, correctly, that the Constitution says nothing about aforesaid wall. That image, they observe, surfaces in Thomas Jefferson's private 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists (but never again in his subsequent writing).

Separationism, critics argue, not only lacks constitutional warrant, but robust historical precedent. As a legal doctrine it garnered little explicit interest from the judicial branch until the mid-twentieth century. It was only in the 1947 Everson case that Justice Hugo Black resurrected Mr. Jefferson's preference for walling off. When Justice William Rehnquist dissented in 1985 that the metaphor was "bad history" that "should be frankly and explicitly abandoned" he prophesied the end of the separationist age. For some court watchers, it is not a question of if the wall collapses, but when. Oblivious to these developments, many secular groups today respond to church-state trespasses by doubling down on separationism.

But secularism's most serious failure has been an inability to define itself. When it is not being equated with separationism, it is taken as a synonym for atheism. Far from having anything to do with godlessness, secularism is a political philosophy with deep roots in Christian theology. At its core, it is skeptical of any and all entanglements between church and state. That skepticism need not always be expressed through separationist policies.

It cannot be stressed enough that this skepticism is shared as much by religious believers as it is by nonbelievers. Herein lies the key to the secular future: the movement needs to reassemble and re-energize its own faithful base. At mid-century, religious minorities (e.g., Jews, Catholics) as well as Baptists, Mainline Protestants, and religious moderates of most stripes were champions of secularism. Only a few of these groups today still venerate the wall. But nearly all are committed disestablishmentarians.

Few are the Americans who want to live under someone else's religious rule! This is where we begin.

Secularism, I propose, ought elevate the adjective over the noun. Those of us made uneasy by too much contact between the government and communities of faith are secular Catholics, secular Jews, secular Sikhs, secular Muslims, secular Methodists and secular Baptists.

In light of a recent Pew Forum finding that twenty percent of Americans were religiously unaffiliated, we could plausibly speak of secular "Nones." Within that cohort there are an estimated 13 million atheists or agnostics. Most of them are crucial secular allies, save a vocal minority of extremists whose abhorrence of religion veers into rhetorical Stalinism. Secularism posits two central variables: church and state. Those who wish for the church (poof!) to disappear, float outside the orbit of secularism.

While secularism needs people, it also needs fresh ideas. The movement must think critically about the fraying separationist paradigm and pose hard questions. To what degree is absolute separation achievable, or even desirable? Is it still useful to sue over crèches and crosses popping up on federal property? Should secularism ponder alternatives to separationism, such as accommodationism (the view that government can assist religion as long as it does so in a non-preferential manner)?

The headlines mentioned above indicate that new legal strategies are needed. The bourgeoning states rights movement needs to be checked. Government agencies like the IRS must be persuaded to enforce their own rules. Last, a Texas-sized strategy for neutralizing the occasionally poor judgment of religious majorities across the country must be crafted.

These are but a few of the dilemmas that confront an American secularism drained of membership, energy, and vision. If we secularists, believers and nonbelievers alike, hope for better things in 2016 then now is the time for self-critique and innovation.

Jacques Berlinerblau is an associate professor and director of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University and author of How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom.

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