A number of forces are fueling the current debate about religious liberty in the United States: among them, good-faith efforts to promote the continued improvement of the Union, senses of cultural grievance, anti-religion paranoia, ignorance, self-righteousness, opportunism, partisanship, and new-wave authoritarianism. However, it might be helpful to see this debate as taking place against the backdrop of a clash between two different views of the role of religion in public life. On one side stand sectarian secularists, who want to remove religion from public life altogether, and on the other stand pluralists, who support a more open society.
Modeled in some respects on the French tradition of laïcité, sectarian secularism holds that appeals to religious ideas have absolutely no place in the public square, and its adherents will ridicule as out of bounds any appeal to the divine. This position goes well beyond a separation of church and state, which is about distinguishing the institutions of religion from those of governance, and instead suggests that the religious and the political should be entirely separate spheres. Unlike a more moderate and open-minded secularism, sectarian secularism seeks to police the bounds of public debate by rendering religious approaches to politics illegitimate.
This sectarian-secularist approach seems to inform Chris Cuomo’s much-mocked declaration in February on CNN about the source of our rights: “Our rights do not come from God. That’s your faith. That’s my faith, but not our country.” Particularly telling, and demonstrative of a sectarian-secularist viewpoint, is Cuomo’s insistence that it is somehow un-American to believe that our rights do come from God — that’s not “our country.” In a later Facebook post, Cuomo continued to insist that the language of the Declaration was not really part of American life: “Because the US does not draw on divine authority for recognition of rights. Founding documents were the beginning of course but the first amendment in that seminal constitution, which has infinitely more authority than the dec of indep obviously keeps faith out of government.” Cuomo is far from an outlier here. The past few weeks alone have offered numerous examples of attempts to stigmatize religious references in public debates. The sectarian secularists have defined once and for all what the U.S. is: a society where religion should be kept in the closet and not influence politics or policy-making.
One advantage that pluralism has over sectarian secularism is that the latter is forced to obscure much of American history in order to maintain a narrowly secular vision of “our country.” Leaving aside the religious and political beliefs of Americans before 1776, appeals to the divine suffuse American culture and politics. Many of the Founders — along with Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Martin Luther King Jr., and countless others — would have a bone to pick with those who say that our foundational rights do not come from God. The nation recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma, and many of those who marched did so under the banner of religion. It is true that explicitly secular arguments have also been made on behalf of many worthy causes, and that atheists as well as believers have fought for valuable social reforms. But while the clear invocation of religious ideas by many prominent Americans poses a problem for sectarian secularists, pluralists admit that both the religious and the secular shape public life.
The agenda of a closed-minded secularism is distinct from efforts to curtail religious liberty, but there are connections, particularly the emphasis on exclusion and a haughty presumption of absolute knowledge. The sectarian secularist has decided what the acceptable bounds of public debate are and seeks to exclude those whose understanding differs from his. To mangle H. L. Mencken, the enemies of religious liberty and freedom of conscience suffer the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may disagree with them. Those who seek to suppress religious ideas do so in part because they think that they have discovered what is true and just. They believe that dissent from this truth and justice is an admission of an atavistic worldview and that those who hold such worldviews should be exiled from the public square.While sectarian secularism is primarily about exclusion and intolerance, pluralism is about inclusion and tolerance. An imperialistic secularism has grown in recent years (Bill Clinton’s 1993 remarks about the legitimacy of religious faith in public life would be denounced by many sectarian secularists today), but this growth brings into sharper focus the importance of pluralism. If we are interested in defending the promise of the Republic, strengthening civic pluralism has much to recommend it. In contrast to sectarian self-righteousness, pluralism is about moral modesty, the exchange of viewpoints, and an openness to experience. The politics of anger bear bitter fruit, and the purification of history demanded by sectarian impulses hampers the understanding of human complexity that aids the enterprise of self-government. Defending civil pluralism should be of interest to both atheists and believers, and to both the Right and the Left. Pluralism affirms that, despite our differences, we have equal claims to the public square. Furthermore, a pluralist politics can help create a cultural infrastructure for the respect of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.
Self-appointed Solons may cluck their tongues at the primitive zeal of Americans who turn to God in discussing politics, but the men who marched by the millions to preserve this Union, end slavery, and keep alive the hopes of self-governance sang a rather different tune:
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.
Imperialist secularists might not recognize those men as part of “our country,” but we would be wise not to expunge their words from the record of history and the public square.
— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm, and his work has been featured in numerous publications.