Weaponized Secularism

by Reihan Salam

For a moment there I considered weighing in on the Hobby Lobby decision. But then I read Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute on the subject and decided that he had basically said all that needed to be said. I’d also recommend reading Ann Friedman’s column on the same subject, as she is a talented writer who perfectly distills the left-liberal take on the decision. Joey Fishkin has argued that Hobby Lobby is ultimately about “the politics of recognition,” and specifically about recognizing various conservative religious claims. Fishkin neglects the extent to which the Obama administration’s decision to fight Hobby Lobby over its contraception mandate, and its initial decision to impose it on religious non-profits, is about recognizing claims made by liberal secularists, as Sanchez makes clear:

The outrage does make sense, of course, if what one fundamentally cares about—or at least, additionally cares about—is the symbolic speech act embedded in the compulsion itself. In other words, if the purpose of the mandate is not merely to achieve a certain practical result, but to declare the qualms of believers with religious objections so utterly underserving of respect that they may be forced to act against their convictions regardless of whether this makes any real difference to the outcome. And something like that does indeed seem to be lurking just beneath—if not at—the surface of many reactions.

It is the rising political assertion of the “nones,” or the religiously unaffiliated, that I find most interesting. America is developing a homegrown anticlerical politics, despite the fact that we’ve never had an established church. While chasing the mirage of theocracy, social liberals are increasingly embracing a weaponized secularism. This has led to sharp conflicts between right and left, and traditionalists seem to be finding themselves on the losing side of these debates as often as not. Going forward, though, I wonder if weaponized secularism will prove more divisive within the Democratic Party, which must appeal to the emphatically secular and the emphatically religious alike.