December 3, 2007

Religion and Secularism: The American Experience

Some of the nation’s leading journalists gathered in Key West, Fla., in December 2007, for the Pew Forum’s biannual conference on religion, politics and public life.

Given the recent popularity of several high-profile books on atheism, the Pew Forum invited Wilfred McClay, a distinguished professor of intellectual history, to speak on the historical relationship between religion and secularism in America. McClay draws a distinction between what he calls “political secularism,” which recognizes the legitimacy and even moral necessity of religious faith, while preventing any one faith from being established, and “philosophical secularism,” which attempts to establish a common unbelief as a basis for government. McClay contends that the first understanding of secularism was at the heart of the founders’ vision and, that it, aided by those features of Christianity prevalent in America, have resulted in a unique if imperfect mingling of religion and government in American public life.


Wilfred McClay, SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga


Michael Cromartie, Vice President, Ethics & Public Policy Center; Senior Advisor, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

In the following edited excerpt, ellipses have been omitted to facilitate reading.

MCCLAY: Being a historian by training, I do tend to think in terms of particular cases and situations rather than generalities, vast and otherwise. I’m not convinced that in my subject –religion and secularism and the relationship between them in American history — that I’m necessarily setting out some model that’s going to be universally applicable.

Also, there’s a problem with the word “secularism.” It means so many different things. [But] the distinction I want to make is between philosophical secularism, which is secularism as a kind of godless system of the world, a system of beliefs about ultimate things, and secularism in a political sense: that is, secularism as recognizing politics as an autonomous sphere, one that’s not subject to ecclesiastical governance, to the governance of a church or religion or the church’s expression of that religion. A secular political order may be one in which religious practice or religious exercise, as we say, can flourish.

Some of you probably have heard of Diana Eck. She’s a professor of religion at Harvard Divinity School, and a great proponent of religious pluralism. She has a saying to the effect that, “If you know only your own religion, you don’t even know your own religion.” I’m sure she says it more elegantly than that, but that’s the gist of it, and I was always dubious of this. It seemed a little too professorial and platitudinous.


But I became a believer, when I took a trip about a year ago to Turkey under the auspices of the State Department. Turkey [is] a country that is 95% Muslim, where other religions have no particular political profile or public profile at all. The imams are paid by the state. Religious garb, as you know, is forbidden in public institutions or by public officials because of the rigid secularism of the Turkish state. The Turks have a certain understanding of the separation of religion and public life.

What I was speaking about [in Turkey] was how Americans understand the separation of church and state, and I went all over the country speaking to various audiences about this subject, and they were absolutely fascinated. In the question period, they asked me all sorts of questions about Turkey, which of course I was not competent to answer, but they immediately wondered if the American model might be a model for their own troubled secularism, which has arguably been too rigid, modeled on the French läicité model, which is a very, very forbidding and strict form of secularism.

There are those [in Turkey] who want to see more religion in public life; they thought the American way was admirable in that extent. Of course, there were others, particularly women, who were absolutely terrified by this because they immediately think of the Iranian example as the sort of thing they can expect to happen in Turkey if the Kemalist secularism of the past 90 years or so is rolled back.

What I ended up having to say to these audiences again and again is that I doubted very much that the American way would be applicable. I was not being the Ugly American saying, “We know how to do it, and you should do it our way.” On the contrary, I kept saying again and again, “The United States has a unique history. Our ways of managing the relationship of religion and secularism didn’t arise out of abstract theory so much as it arose out of concrete practices that were a result of the particular circumstances that we had to manage, that the circumstances forced us to think as we do.” I added that Americans are not in complete agreement about these things or view them as settled, that they’re constantly being fought over, constantly being contested, [but that] the American system thrives on conflict.

So let me begin with two propositions. The first one is that in the American experience, the separation of church and state, which by and large we acknowledge as a rough-and-ready principle, does not necessarily mean the separation of religion from public life. Another way of saying this is that America has a strong commitment to secularism, but it is secularism of a particular kind, understood in a particular way.

Second, that the United States has achieved in practice what seemed impossible in theory: a reconciliation of religion with modernity, in contrast, as I say, to the Western European pattern. In the United States religious belief has proven amazingly persistent even as the culture has been more and more willing to embrace enthusiastically all or most of the scientific and technological agenda of modernity. Sometimes the two reinforce one another. Sometimes they clash with one another, but the American culture has found room for both to be present. I won’t prophesy this will always be the case, but it’s a very solid relationship of long standing.

And perhaps I should add — and I did this for my Turkish audiences; it utterly baffled them, but it shouldn’t be quite so baffling for you — that all this makes sense in light of the fact of a third proposition: that American institutions and culture are intrinsically and irreducibly complex — not chaotic, which is of course what they see — but complex.

The complexity takes a particular form: that politics and culture are designed around an interplay of competitive forces, which is, I think, the key to understanding a lot about the United States. The Constitution was based on the assumptions that in any dynamic society there would be contending interest groups, and [that] one could best counteract their influence by systematically playing them off against one another. That was the reasoning behind separation of powers, behind the federal system. People from abroad look at the American government and think it’s always on the brink of collapse. They don’t understand, and many of us don’t understand, that this is, in fact, the way it’s supposed to work. There are supposed to be countervailing forces holding one another in check. There is supposed to be common and constant tension.

Socially and culturally speaking, the country has evolved in a similar way, not intentionally but with similar effect. No one at the time of the American founding envisioned the nation as a great bastion of cultural pluralism, in which a wide variety of cultural forms and religions would coexist. They probably would have found the idea unintelligible, but it turned out to be one of the most salient features of American life. Some of this was driven by religion — the desire of Puritans and Quakers and Baptists and other Protestants to worship God as they pleased — but a lot of it was driven by economics. When you have a country with an abundant supply of land and a scarce supply of labor, and you want to grow economically, you cannot be terribly choosy about the people who come into your country, and the nation couldn’t afford in the long run to be too choosy about the religious beliefs of these new immigrants. Hence, the history of American religion and the history of American immigration often track with one another pretty closely.

The point is, however, that no one group ever entirely dominates, at least not for long, when the competition of political and social forces becomes as institutionalized as it has in the United States. Paradoxically, this competition has engendered habits of tolerance.

So what I’m arguing here is that social and religious tolerance became practical necessities before they became enshrined principles. The wars of religion in the 16th century in Europe fostered tolerance simply because of the inability of one religious party to dominate over the others, which meant that religion itself could no longer be a basis for public order and public culture. Something of the same thing happened in a far less violent way in the United States. This is one of the keys to understanding the relationship of religion and secularism in the United States. American secularism derived from the strength of religion, not from its weakness.

The ability of the United States, then, to reconcile religion and modernity depended in part on its ability to hold groups and ideas in competition with one another, and this ability has roots that go even deeper than the country’s actual beginnings. Ultimately, they are grounded in certain characteristic features of Christianity itself, which is one of the reasons why, when we talk about religion as if all and any religions can impart the same results, I think we’re misleading ourselves. There is something very particular about Christianity, a particular virtue it brings to the table in this matter, and that is its emphasis on what is variously called the two spheres or two kingdoms or two cities that have always been taken to divide up reality.

You’ll recall, that Jesus of the Christian scriptures surprised his followers by declining to be a political leader and declaring that his kingdom was not of this world; but at the same time he and his early followers, notably Paul, insisted on the legitimacy of worldly authorities and insisted that one should, in Jesus’ famous words, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” — a really astonishing statement because it credits the secular authority with having a proper and independent role to play in the scheme of things. In other words, Christianity had certain theological resources available already at the very beginning for a kind of separation of church and state, although it did not come to pass fully until after those bloody wars of the 16th century had made the principle of religious toleration seem inevitable, and therefore, the need for a secular state.

Two kingdoms, two cities, two spheres — this feature of Christianity is one of the chief resources it has always brought to the problem of the organization of political life in a religious society, and it’s one of its chief resources now. [It is] something I’m not as knowledgeable about, but Islam seems to me to have a problem in this department.

Another feature that helped to establish the religious tone of early American history was the curious fact that the Europeans settling British North America were not merely Christians but the modernizing rebels within the Christian world. Protestant Christian Reformers, whose agendas were various and much conflicted among themselves, had in common a rejection of the standard traditional hierarchy, priestly authority, and traditionalism of Roman Catholicism, and to some extent Anglicanism as well.

Many of these immigrants were openly seeking to bring back the simplicity and mutuality of the church of Christ’s time and strip it away of all of the traditional encumbrances and barnacles that [had] accumulated over the centuries. They all shared a belief, to a greater or lesser extent, that individuals could approach the Holy Scriptures unaided and enjoy through the scriptures an unmediated relationship with God, and that the measure of one’s faith was not a church membership or the reception of the sacraments from an authorized priest, but whether one had experienced the relationship with God through Christ freely, firsthand, and in a way that was most reliably expressed by conversion. This very individualistic, voluntaristic, Protestant approach to religious faith and the absence of any serious opposition to it led America to a high degree of democratization of religion. Religion was more market-driven, more even consumer-oriented. People could affiliate or not affiliate by choice precisely as their consciences dictated.

Also helping along the reconciliation of religion and modernization was the fact that both secular and religious thinkers so often agreed on things for a long time in American history. There was very little conflict between the more secular-minded and the more religious-minded over, for example, the drafting of the Constitution. The conception of the Enlightenment as essentially anti-clerical, irreligious, rationalistic [and] philosophically materialist is a generalization from the French experience, which doesn’t fit the American one, just as the American Revolution was a very different kind of revolution from the French Revolution, [in being] much more self-consciously backward looking and even restorationist.

The U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment to the Constitution were not intended to create a purely secular government, neutral or indifferent to religion as opposed to irreligion. The Constitution itself, at the time it was drafted, was largely a procedural document, which sought to enumerate carefully the powers of the national government while leaving the police power and most substantive questions of morality, religion, education, and such, to the states — I’m talking about the Constitution as it was drafted; not as it’s been interpreted.

Furthermore, the First Amendment, which prohibits the establishment of a religion and protects the free exercise of religion, was not intended to secularize the national government, but instead to protect against sectarian conflict and exclusiveness and the power grab by some national church. The founders understood the term “establishment” in a very specific way as referring to a state church established by a national government that could command assent to, or at least privilege, its doctrinal statements, receive tax monies — that’s the important thing — to support it, and perhaps require attendance at its services The founders did not want this. They prohibited the national government from doing it, but they prohibited only the national government from doing it. They did not prohibit the states from doing it. The First Amendment not only leaves open the possibility of state establishments, but in fact there were state establishments of religion, mainly in New England, I think, up to the 1830s.

Whatever the theological differences [were among] figures such as Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, [these men] were of one mind in endorsing the crucial importance of religion for the sustenance of public morality. Now, they may have thought religion was “a good thing” — as people used to say about neoconservatives, [they think] religion is a good thing for other people to have — but [they made] a very strong endorsement of the need for religion to be a force in public life, as a part of public discourse affecting the public sphere.

Alexis de Tocqueville was very impressed by the degree to which religion persisted in the American democracy and that religious institutions seemed to support American democratic institutions. What Tocqueville was describing, in fact, is a distinctly American version of secularism. It points in the direction of a useful distinction, which I made briefly at the outset, between two broadly different ways of understanding the concept of secularism, only one of which is hostile or even necessarily suspicious of the public expression of religion.

The first of these is a fairly minimal, even negative, understanding of secularism in the same way that Isaiah Berlin talks about negative liberty. It’s a freedom from imposition by any kind of establishment on one’s freedom of conscience. The second view, what I called the philosophical view or positive view, is much more assertive, more robust, more positive by affirming secularism as an ultimate and alternative faith that rightly supersedes the tragic blindnesses and, as [Christopher] Hitchens would have it, [the] “poisons” of the historical religions, particularly so far as activity in the public realm is concerned.

The first of these secularisms — the limited one, the political one, the negative one — resembles the language and the practice of the First Amendment as it’s evolved over much of American history, although Supreme Court decisions [have gone] back and forth on different aspects of it. It looks toward a non-established secular political order, one that’s equally respectful of religionists and non-religionists alike. Such an order preserves a core insistence on the freedom of the uncoerced individual, that fundamental Protestant principle, but it also has a more liberal, more capacious understanding of the religious needs of humanity, and therefore doesn’t presume that the religious impulse is merely an individual matter; or as one Supreme Court decision put it, something that we tell ourselves about the mystery of human life. On the contrary, it would insist that religion is a social institution for whose flourishing the rights of free association are necessary.


This American understanding of secularism is different from the strict läicité of the French and the Turks, and one should admit it is not perfectly observed by Americans themselves. It’s a very difficult ideal, I think. There’s a tremendous and understandably human desire to have our philosophical and political and other convictions all in accord. But it may be [required] in the long run, as many political things require us, to renounce the things we would like to put in a line. It may be a far more workable approach to the idea of secularism than the alternative, precisely because it can draw on the moral energies of the historic Western religious traditions at a time when, arguably, the West is badly in need of them And one need not be a religious believer of any kind to accept that this may be so.

Let me say make one final observation about the relationship of religion and secularism in American life, and that is this: The most successful movements for social reform in American history are likely to have had, at the very least, a respectful relationship to the country’s religious heritage, if not being driven by it. One might cite, not only the civil-rights movement, certainly the movement for the abolition of slavery, which was an even more religious movement, or women’s suffrage, or even the American Revolution itself are examples of this. The interesting thing in each case is that one can find both religious and secular rationales for change, in which the two sets of justifications were mutually supportive and even mingled to an extent that would be unthinkable in other cultures.

That congruency, that mingling, is a key element in the genius of American politics and of American religion. That’s why Martin Luther King’s finest rhetoric can, with equal plausibility, not only invoke the prophetic books of the Bible, of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, but also the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and the words of the founders. And why when Stewart Burns wrote a biography of King, he was not being fanciful in calling [King’s] lifework “a sacred mission to save America.” We enshrine the separation of church and state, but at the same time we practice the mingling of religion and public life. It’s not always logical, but there are times when it makes good sense. There are almost no examples in the American past of successful, widely accepted reforms that do not pay their respects to both America’s religious and secular sensibilities. The way I like to put this [is that] they are required to pass through a bicameral body politic, both religious and secular.

Read the full transcript