American Secularism

Secularism forms the heart of a long and sometimes contentious political debate that has been ongoing in America since the 1800s.   Should the United States embrace, reject, or be indifferent to religious considerations on principle when conducting the business of governance, and what are the constitutional limitations regarding such a question?  There are generally two sides to this debate: those that wish to embrace the Judeo-Christian heritage and tradition upon which the nation was founded and those that believe the “separation of church and state “ is the only proper way of governing a free society.  But reality, as it so often does, bears out a somewhat less unilateral answer to the debate.

In the Constitution, the words “separation,” “church,” and “state” do not appear in any combination in relation to each other.  In fact, religion in general is mentioned but three times in the document, with very specific contexts.  Article VI declares that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States” and the 1st Amendment prevents the Congress from establishing a state religion or making laws which infringe upon an individual’s free exercise of their chosen religion (or right to not subscribe to any particular religion for that matter).

But it is a nonetheless undisputable fact that the founding of the United States included significant religious considerations.  For example, Judeo-Christian values were espoused as a partial basis for the rationale of unification when the individual states deliberated ratifying the Constitution.  In Federalist No. 2, Founding Father and later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Jay cited Americans “professing the same religion” as a compelling commonality (among others) to justify embracing the Constitution, to form a single federal republic incorporated of the many states.

So what did the Founders mean when they sought to unite a people based on demographic commonalities while simultaneously protecting spiritual diversity as an individual right?  The original intent behind the conceptual separation of church and state is rooted, at its base, in the derivation of governmental authority.  During the Middle Ages, the widely held mantra throughout most of Europe was that the Pope, as head of the Catholic Church, derived his earthly authority through the linear succession from the perceived first Pope – St. Peter – and, thereby, from God Himself.  This power was generally viewed to take precedence over a king’s “mortal” claim to rule in many cases and thus the Bishop of Rome possessed the authority to coronate or depose kings in Christian nations (which made up most of Central and Western Europe).  If a king did not maintain the favor of the Church for any number of reasons he could be excommunicated – a status of perceived damnation that obviously had a direct impact on the king himself but also indirectly affected the entire people of his realm.   As crusades against “infidel” lands were common practice during much of the Middle Ages, only papal-acknowledged Christian (i.e., Catholic) nations were protected from them via his authority.

This relationship was amplified in a manner that had a direct impact on later Anglo-American colonists when King Henry VIII of England broke away from the Catholic Church in the mid-1500s and founded the rival Anglican Church, with himself as “pope.”  This reformation effectively removed the theoretical, albeit minor, separation of church and state that existed between the de facto state church and England’s monarch and properly established an official state church, thereby unifying the head of government and faith in a single, all-powerful ruler with hereditary, regal, and divine right to rule over his subjects.  This transition marks subtle but very relevant differences.

When Americans formed their new government, they took these events and others into consideration and properly decided that a nation’s standing domestically or internationally does not equate directly to an individual’s standing with God.  The American concept of church and state separation derives its importance from the same perspective that led the Founders to denounce and reject monarchism – both kings and clerics claimed authorities to govern individuals and their choices that are not wholly consistent with democracy and individual rights.  Thus, the only authority the United States government legitimately possesses is that granted to it from the people.  The Constitution was intended to limit government power not restrict individual or collective religious expression, and that is where many modern proponents of the separation err in their unilateral interpretations.

If a leader is elected by the people with the full knowledge that their particular values, beliefs, and perspectives – whatever their source (including religion) – directly influences their decision making this is not a violation of the constitutional framework.  For example, if the somewhat persistent urban legend that President Obama is a Muslim were true this would only be a legitimate problem if he failed to disclose such an important point before he was elected.  The same would have been hypothetically true of George W. Bush’s evangelical Christian values as well.  American secularism was not implemented with the intent to preclude public officers from the free exercise of their religion, even in the execution of their duties, provided this exercise does not violate individual rights (e.g., others’ free exercise of religion) or violate legal statutes (e.g., discriminatory preferential treatment to/against certain groups or individuals).

One of the more famous examples of overreach in this context is the opposition to religious motifs, such as the Ten Commandments, that often adorn government buildings such as court houses.  This is not an unconstitutional practice in my mind because it is does not technically violate the 1st Amendment; these motifs relate in no way to Congress passing legislation, regulations, or policy affecting religious practices or pursuits of belief.  It does not violate the spirit of the law either because while the exemplary Ten Commandments may form the foundation of some legal processes, such as criminal statutes for example (i.e., Thou shalt not kill), this does not establish a state church, religion, “pope,” or infringe upon the free exercise (or lack thereof) of individuals.

Further, opposition to such symbolism demonstrates an embrace of doubles standards.  I have long maintained that, in a sense, everyone has a god – money, fame, material things, science, earth, etc.  Much of science is as theoretical and unproven as most religious canon, and yet like religion, it can engender deep faith and comfort for those who choose to adhere to and embrace it.  Given the parallelism between the belief in a singular, omnipotent, and unknowable God and the sometimes competing belief in a single system of near omnipotent and as yet not entirely defined or understood set of theoretical physics, it should be equally troubling that the National Science Foundation – a government institution – is involved in such controversially theoretical scientific pursuits as evolution, extraterrestrial life, and global warming.  What truly is the difference other than perspective?

This point becomes especially troubling when children are introduced into the issue.  I subscribe to the school of thought that children should be taught how to think but not what to think, so schools (themselves pseudo-government institutions) teaching an unproven, faith-based dogma to highly impressionable children is entirely unacceptable in this context.  On this point I agree with proponents of church and state separation, but where I disagree is that human evolution, or more specifically the transmutation of species from a common ancestor, is somehow differentially acceptable under this same reasoning.  Creationism and “Darwinism” are virtually identical in terms of lacking in empirical proof to support their respective theses, so it seems obvious from a religious freedom perspective that they must be equally and impartially covered by a neutral authority (if such a thing is possible) in government-funded institutions or not addressed at all.  Perhaps the best course of action is to allow parents to teach these particular subjects to their own children without interference.

Everyone is religious, if not in the traditional understanding of the term.  Everyone is influenced by some external system of belief(s) that helps form their values, perspectives, decision making, etc.  Though it may be called by a different name and may not take the traditional form that we recognize symbolically in typical theology, these external systems exist nonetheless.  We would all do well to remember this when we pettily seek to attack and dismantle others’ religious beliefs and heritages when we misuse the Constitution to facilitate erroneous interpretations of the concept of separation of church and state.  As much as we must diligently guard against the obvious religious abuses that can come from a government-sponsored church we must also guard against the pendulum’s return swing into unilateral secularism.

*The phrase “wall of separation of church and state” was written by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 and is typically used as justification to remove all references to any and all religion from government and public places, institutions, buildings, etc.  Notwithstanding the fact that this phrase is often taken out of context to misleadingly make this overreach, Jefferson was not even present when the 1st Amendment was deliberated and written.  As America’s minister to France at the time, he was in fact out of the country.


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  1. #1 by Doug Indeap on May 26, 2011 - 7:00 PM

    The principle of separation of church and state is derived from the Constitution (1) establishing a secular government on the power of the people (not a deity), (2) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion, (3) saying nothing to give that government power over matters of god(s) or religion, and (4), indeed, saying nothing substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in a provision precluding any religious test for public office and the First Amendment provisions constraining the government from undertaking to establish religion or prohibit individuals from freely exercising their religions.

    James Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, confirmed that he understood them to “[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government.” Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820). He made plain, too, that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that even as new principles are proclaimed, old habits die hard and citizens and politicians could tend to entangle government and religion (e.g., “the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress” and “for the army and navy” and “[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts”), he considered the question whether these actions were “consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom” and responded: “In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.”

    It is important to distinguish between the “public square” and “government” and between “individual” and “government” speech about religion. The principle of separation of church and state does not purge religion from the public square–far from it. Indeed, the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause assures that each individual is free to exercise and express his or her religious views–publicly as well as privately. The Amendment constrains only the government not to promote or otherwise take steps toward establishment of religion. As government can only act through the individuals comprising its ranks, when those individuals are performing their official duties (e.g., public school teachers instructing students in class), they effectively are the government and thus should conduct themselves in accordance with the First Amendment’s constraints on government. When acting in their individual capacities, they are free to exercise their religions as they please. If their right to free exercise of religion extended even to their discharge of their official responsibilities, however, the First Amendment constraints on government establishment of religion would be eviscerated. While figuring out whether someone is speaking for the government in any particular circumstance may sometimes be difficult, making the distinction is critical.

    Wake Forest University recently published a short, objective Q&A primer on the current law of separation of church and state. I commend it to you.

    • #2 by The Observer on May 26, 2011 - 8:34 PM

      Thank you for your thoughtful contribution to this often difficult subject to discuss. I concur with your dissection of the constitutional premise of the separation. I suppose the main point underlying my philosophy on this topic is that many folks do not understand the history and intent that serves as the foundation for this all-important concept necessary to a free society. Therefor sometimes this idea in application amounts to a catchphrase cause celebre to justify marginalizing, disenfranchising, or otherwise discrediting spirituality in general, and Christianity especially, in the United States. There are certain circles in America that, for any number of reasons, place a high precedence on delegitimizing religious values and beliefs in society. But believe me when I say that I do not advocate a marrying of religion and governance, only that the principle of the separation not be misused or abused at the expense of the very rights and freedoms that the clauses themselves were intended to protect in the first place. Focusing on the removal of the Ten Commandments from courthouses, as one example, is a petty act that does nothing substantively realistic to affect the separation (or right some wrong therefrom) but quite publicly delegitimizes contributing values of belief that this nation was undeniably founded upon and that a great portion of its society embraces.

      I do not disagree with your point that government personnel, acting within their appropriate and official duties, should not use their authoritative position to officially endorse any particular religion. But one thing that I tried to illustrate is that if a candidate for office were to publicly announce that he or she were a Christian, Muslim, Buddhist (or whatever) and accordingly that particular belief system would form the foundation for much if not all of their decision making processes, it is therefore not a violation of the separation so long as the people freely elect this person with that knowledge beforehand (my opinion). In this hypothetical scenario, the president (or whomever) would be wrong to publicly assert that only their beliefs are correct during the discourse of their official duties for example, but it would not be inappropriate to base a subsequent official decision on religious values and morals (such as making laws with the Commandments in mind, in relation to above). This point is actually acknowledged in Wake Forest’s assessment in section 4 (and I thank you greatly for introducing me to the publication). This is undoubtedly a fine distinction that can be abused but this is also precisely why discussing such topics civilly is so important, so that the distinction can be recognized and the delicate balance that is necessary to freedom for both sides of the debate may be retained. This ultimately goes back to my point that the concept of separation of church and state is sometimes used by special interest lobbies and organizations to actually stifle religious expression socially – in the private sector and in individuals in government. Unilateral “all or nothing” approaches to this issue are not tenable in my estimation because they virtually guarantee that one side or the other will be persecuted under the auspices of freedom for the other.

      Additionally, I am truly trying to demonstrate that in many cases this debate has turned into special interest-inspired, government-sponsored endorsement of one particular life perspective over another – as if such a thing can be done in a way that satisfies individual freedom requirements. At its most basic definitional form religion is nothing more than a specific system of framing beliefs that are not universally accepted as fact. To this end, and to use my own example, I think the de facto endorsement of controversial and as yet unproven science over equally unproven faith-based explanations for the origins of man are as much a violation of this separation as if a teacher stood up in the classroom and asserted that there is only one God and He created everything around us. To me, this would also not satisfy your well-articulated delineation between individual and government practice of a given religion (or theoretical paradigm, if you will). Much like certain sexual education that conflicts with a given family’s spiritual beliefs I think topics related to creationism or transmutation of species should really be left out of government-sponsored schools altogether (or as a less desirable alternative, covered equilaterally and impartially).

      Thank you again for your comments, they were wonderfully composed and thought provoking. Please feel free to return anytime to continue this discussion or another :-).

  2. #3 by Doug Indeap on May 26, 2011 - 10:54 PM

    I appreciate your thoughtful approach to the issues and civil manner of discussing them as well. I agree, too, if I understand you correctly, that some on all “sides” sometimes misunderstand or misuse the principle of separation of church and state–some overstating and others understating its purview and effect.

  3. #4 by The Observer on June 2, 2011 - 5:49 PM

    As if on cue, here is a perfect example of just the kind of nonsense that I am referring to in this post. The government is supposed to protect religious freedom and expression, not stifle it under the disingenuous interpretation of freedom of religion displayed in this case. To deny students the right, on pain of criminal prosecution, to express their religious beliefs at their own graduation is criminal in itself. People do not possess a right to be free from exposure to religion, only to be free to make up their own minds regarding it and to be free from government dictation in that context. If other messages or topics not directly relevant or related to education can be referenced, invoked, mentioned, or otherwise acknowledged (such as sports, politics, family, etc.) at this graduation then the government has an undeniable obligation to protect the students’ rights to do the same spiritually.

    I suppose if this is the approach that we are taking today then people do not possess a right to express anything in the presence of others who do not share that particular point of view –the consequences of which, I think, are clearly antithetical to any legitimate concept of freedom of expression.

    • #5 by The Observer on June 3, 2011 - 3:46 PM

      UPDATE – The 5th Circuit reversed this social activist order today in a display of government appropriateness in protecting individual rights in America. Obviously I am quite pleased by this decision, if admittedly surprised by it. Congratulations to expression and religious freedom advocates everywhere, including students participating in a public event at a public forum.

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