“So, In Brief, What Went Wrong?”

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  • I’m an atheist, but I’m not religious about it. Not like Richard Dawkins or Bill Maher or Penn Jillette. They’re truly devout, trying to proselytize those who lack their faith. I don’t think you’ll go to hell if you believe in God.
  • Spending time arguing there’s no supreme being reminds me of when John Stossel did a 20/20 investigative report to prove that professional wrestling was fake. Um, yes, thanks for the memo.
  • While the righteous point out that religion has been used to sanctify many an atrocity, it’s just one such tool, easily replaced by nationalism or racism or many other -isms. Evangelicals embracing Donald Trump tells us their beliefs might have more to do with a skin color than a holy spirit.
  • Sure, as an American, I’d prefer to live in a country in which no one tried to overlap church and state, but, like Miniver Cheevy, I was born too late. The United States was founded (partly) on booting God from the halls of power–throw the bum out!–but over time religion proved a barnacle attached to the hull of the Mayflower. It just wouldn’t let go and now Jesus is supposedly worried about laws that guarantee Transgender people can use a toilet or gay people order a wedding cake or women acquire birth control pills. It’s enough to make me understand Dawkins’ high-decibel output, though I wish he, and everyone else, could embrace a practical brand of rationalism. 
  • Secularists are the most impressive voting bloc in America that’s never appealed to by any politician running for office. They need to organize and demand fair representation. You’ll put a Bible in my cold, dead hands.
  • Angry so-called originalists often say we’ve lost touch with the Constitution, that the Founding Fathers would not have approved of us forgetting our Christian beginnings. But it was George Washington himself who said that the “government of the United States is not in any sense founded upon the Christian religion.” Those words most accurately express our origins. We were bathed in heresy long before we were baptized. How did we get here from there?

In “American Secular,” Sam Haselby’s excellent Aeon essay, the writer wonders how and why we drove ourselves back into the Garden, a far thornier place than we recalled. He says: “Political life is where American secularism ran into a wall: the simple problem was its unpopularity.” Even George Washington himself, Haselby points out, demonstrated conflicted feelings on the topic. Slavery and the Southern plantation economy also proved foes of secularism. The opening:

In the beginning was the thing, and the thing was against God. So might begin the gospel of American secularism. The sudden flourish of secularism at the time of the United States’ foundation is incongruous, a rogue wave of rationality in a centuries-long sea of Protestant evangelising, sectarianism and God-talk. But it is undeniable. In 1788, with the adoption of its Constitution, the United States became the first modern republic founded on a legal separation of church and state. In a country that holds sacred the intentions of its revolutionary-era founders, those founders’ secular ambitions are clear. Thomas Jefferson wrote a book, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, to try to prove that Jesus was not Christ, that the man was not the son of God. Around the world, his pithy expression ‘a wall of separation between church and state’ continues to represent a particular secular ideal of separating religious and political power.

James Madison, the primary author of the US Constitution, was an even more rigorous and consistent, if less poetic, secularist. On grounds of what he called ‘pure religious freedom’, Madison opposed military and congressional chaplains, believing that they amounted to government sponsorship of religion. Every step short of this ‘pure religious freedom’, he wrote, would ‘leave crevices at least thro’ which bigotry may introduce persecution; a monster… feeding & thriving on its own venom’.

So, in brief, what went wrong? How did the country founded by visionary secularists, and that made historic advances in both religious freedom and the separation of religious and political powers, nonetheless become the world’s most religious political democracy? Understanding secularism better helps to answer the question. Secularism is not one simple thing; it has distinct theological, philosophical and political lives. Its theological and philosophical versions are formed from simple, if explosive, ideas. In its political guise, ideas are less important than institutions, and it is on the shoals of institution-building that American secularism wrecked.•