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.


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.



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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.


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.

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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.



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.

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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.


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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.


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