Contrary to popular belief, secularism is not a threat to Christians. Secularism is not about imposing its beliefs on everyone. In fact, it is quite happy to let people do what they want to do. Secularism, by definition, is invested in diversity, including the diversity of religion that is protected by the right to freedom of religion. Listen to what the National Secular Society says about it:
“Secularism is a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.”
That seems pretty clear, doesn’t it? But Christians in America seem to have this idea that secularism means eradicating religion, specifically the Christian religion. What’s the deal with that?
This morning on Salon I read an article titled “I’m Christian and happy atheism is on the rise: America’s right-wing theocracy needs to chill.” It’s a very interesting perspective from a practicing Catholic and one that I have not come across before. It’s a response to a Pew Research poll that more Americans are identifying as some form of non-religious. This is how the article concludes:
“There’s something else too. I want those of us who look at the world one way to understand, on the regular, that we are not the default. I want people who are questioning and skeptical and straight up non believing to not feel invisible. As Pew points out, “The United States remains home to more Christians than any other country in the world, and a large majority of Americans – roughly seven-in-ten – continue to identify with some branch of the Christian faith.” So you know what? We’re fine here. We don’t need to fear being wiped out in some secular apocalypse.”
To me, this is a refreshing perspective. I was raised and am still used to religious opposition to any form of secularism. I was raised believing that secularism was diametrically opposed to religion, specifically the Christian one, and to view any attempts at enforcing secularism as an attack.
But that’s simply not the case. Really, secularism is part of what has protected religion from encroachment by government and preserved its right to free practice. The National Secular Society again:
“Secularism seeks to ensure and protect freedom of religious belief and practice for all citizens. Secularism is not about curtailing religious freedoms; it is about ensuring that the freedoms of thought and conscience apply equally to all believers and non-believers alike.”
That, to me, seems like a good thing. After all, secularism is what kept America from declaring a state religion and has preserved and created one of America’s foundational freedoms: freedom of religion.
But here’s the thing: freedom of religion is not what today’s Christian conservatives want. As the Salon article notes, the recent pushes by conservatives are essentially “about inserting God, in particular a very narrowly defined vision of God that a diminishing number of people believe in, into public policy.” As the writer clearly believes, there is a push to live in a theocracy and she, as a Catholic, opposes that.
I’m inclined to agree with her, though before now I would not have used the word theocracy. When we think of theocracy, we think of something extreme, something pervasive, something that persecutes those who are not part of the state-sanctioned religion. Frankly, the example most people think of today is probably Islamic State. But an equally apt example right now is the aim of conservatives to enforce the idea of a “Christian nation.”
Interestingly, one of the first founders of the separation of church and state was Roger Williams, a puritan minister. He was the founder of Rhode Island, one of the first places in the world to provide religious freedom as we understand it and an early abolitionist. He was also one of the very earliest people to argue for the separation of church and state. Smithsonian Mag explains how this came about:
“The American part of the story began when John Winthrop led 1,000 men, women and children to plant the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. These Puritans were disgusted with what they regarded as corruption in the Church of England and the tyranny of the crown. Seeking simple worship and personal intimacy with God, Puritan ministers were compelled—upon pain of imprisonment—to wear the surplice and use the Book of Common Prayer, and their congregants were compelled to participate in what they regarded as rote worship. As they set out from England that April, Winthrop reminded them of their purpose, to establish a “citty upon a hill” dedicated to God, obeying God’s laws and flourishing in God’s image as a model for all the world to see.
Williams did not differ with them on any point of theology. They shared the same faith, all worshiping the God of Calvin, seeing God in every facet of life and seeing man’s purpose as advancing the kingdom of God. But the colony’s leaders, both lay and clergy, firmly believed that the state must prevent error in religion. They believed that the success of the Massachusetts plantation depended upon it.
Williams believed that preventing error in religion was impossible, for it required people to interpret God’s law, and people would inevitably err. He therefore concluded that government must remove itself from anything that touched upon human beings’ relationship with God. A society built on the principles Massachusetts espoused would lead at best to hypocrisy, because forced worship, he wrote, “stincks in God’s nostrils.” At worst, such a society would lead to a foul corruption—not of the state, which was already corrupt, but of the church.”
So there you have it. Roger Williams, the minister who would oppose conservatives today.
Roger Williams is a model for Christians today. He offers a blueprint for the religious support of the separation of church and state. In fact, he was an early founder of the idea. His idea was simple: keep religion safe by keeping it out of the state. It’s a pretty good idea. Even I, who am not particularly religious, think that keeping religion (all religions) focused on matters of the spirit and the like is important. Government is corrupt and I would not want it interfering in telling me what I have to believe about God.
But in order to protect religion and beliefs of conscience in general, the separation of church and state needs to be maintained. Secularism is dedicated to doing just that. It is, in fact, one of the biggest allies religion has. For this reason, Christians should support secularism. After all, it is based on that quintessential moral rule: do unto others what you would want done to yourself. Secularists want their beliefs free from interference and they want the same for Christians, too.