Reason Embattled Secularism in Peril

by Susan Jacoby 

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 24, Number 6.

Secularism in PerilIn January 2002, Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia made a major speech so sweeping and extreme in its contempt for democracy, and so willfully oblivious to the Constitution’s grounding in human rather than divine authority, that it might well, in an era when American secularists were less intimidated by the forces of religion, have elicited calls for impeachment. Delivered at the University of Chicago Divinity School and revealingly titled “God’s Justice and Ours,” Scalia’s address opened with an overview of the death penalty in America but moved quickly to the justice’s disdain for secular government. The death penalty does not violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, in Scalia’s opinion, because executions were not considered “cruel and unusual” when the Constitution was written. Indeed, as the justice pointed out, the death penalty could be imposed in the eighteenth century not only for murder but for many other felonies like horse-thieving. To Scalia, the Constitution is “not living but dead, or as I prefer to put it, enduring.  It means today not what current society (much less the Court) thinks it ought to mean, but what it meant when it was adopted.”

The real underpinnings of Scalia’s support for the death penalty are to be found not in constitutional law but in the justice’s religious convictions. He believes that the state derives its power not from the consent of the governed—“We the People,” as the “dead” document plainly states—but from God. God has the power of life and death, and therefore lawful governments also have the right to exact the ultimate penalty. “Few doubted the morality of the death penalty in the age that believed in the divine right of kings,” Scalia noted in his speech. He would have been just as accurate had he pointed out that most subjects in absolute monarchies also supported the right of kings to torture and to impose the death penalty by drawing and quartering. To bolster his argument, Scalia turned to that perennial favorite of conservative politicians and theologians, the evangelist Paul, who famously proclaimed in his epistle to the Romans, “the powers that be are ordained of God.”

Scalia then laid out a philosophy in which democracy can never serve as a sufficient basis for governmental authority. “It is easy,” he asserted, “to see the hand of the Almighty behind rulers whose forebears, in the dim mists of history, were supposedly anointed by God, who at least obtained their thrones in awful and unpredictable battles whose outcome was determined by the Lord of Hosts, that is, the Lord of Armies. It is much more difficult to see the hand of God—or any higher moral authority—behind the fools and rogues (as the losers would have it) whom we ourselves elect to do our own will. How can their power to avenge—to vindicate the ‘public order’—be greater than our own?”

In other words, if our elected leaders are merely human, with power that can be granted and rescinded only by humans, there is no reason for the rest of us to respect their authority. That citizens might respect themselves enough to respect the authority of their elected officials—even without being threatened by the sword of the Lord of Hosts—is a possibility that Scalia does not even consider.

As evidence of the religious faith upon which the nation was supposedly founded, Scalia cited the inscription “In God We Trust” on coins; the phrase “one nation, under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance; and the “constant invocations of divine support in the speeches of our political leaders that often conclude, ‘God Bless America.’” Scalia failed, however, to mention the relatively recent and opportunistic origins of these supposedly sacred symbols and practices. It is fair to say that the first six presidents of the United States did not invoke the blessings of the deity as frequently in their entire public careers as President George W. Bush does each month. And somehow, the republic survived. In Scalia’s pantheon of American religious symbols, there is one conspicuous exception—the Constitution itself. He did not explain to the Chicago divines exactly how he reconciles the Constitution’s deliberate omission of any reference to God with the contention that the American government derives its ultimate power not from the people but from the divinity. Of course, the two cannot be reconciled. The founders were fully aware of all of the ministerial predictions that the deity, furious at being left out of the Constitution, would “crush us to atoms in the wreck”—and still they preferred to invoke the authority of the people. The eloquent omission of God is one instance in which self-styled, strict constructionists like Scalia choose to ignore what the Constitution actually says—or rather, does not say.

The virtue of Scalia’s extremism is that it lays bare the messianic radicalism at the heart of the current assault on separation of church and state. This is not merely a constitutional or legal argument, though it is that too, but a far more fundamental attack on secularist and nonreligious humanist values. For the warriors of the religious Right, governmental power is not an end in itself but merely one more mechanism, along with institutions of education, communications, and finance, for advancing their values within society. The official White House Web site says it all: the Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives offers a long list of “do’s [sic] and don’ts for faith-based organizations” attempting to negotiate the federal grant system. Fifty-six years ago, in a landmark decision forbidding “released time” for religious instruction in public schools (McCollum v. Illinois), Justice Hugo Black asserted that “Jefferson’s metaphor in describing the relation between Church and State speaks of a ‘wall of separation,’ not of a fine line easily overstepped. . . .” Reasonable people may disagree about how high the wall should rise in specific situations, but the White House’s manual inviting churches to begin feeding at the federal trough—and providing detailed instructions on how to strike the best deal within the government labyrinth—does not even acknowledge the existence of a line, much less a wall. Short of erecting a cross atop the White House (and perhaps a menorah, crescent, and statue of Buddha to show that America respects all faith-based institutions), the current administration could hardly do more to demonstrate its commitment to pulverizing a constitutional wall that has served both religion and government well for more than two hundred years. It is demoralizing, and a measure of the intimidating power of religiously correct rhetoric, that so many Democrats have jumped on the faith-based bandwagon, practicing a form of religious “me-tooism” in an effort to challenge the Bush administration’s supposedly impeccable religious credentials. (Only recently has the Kerry-Edwards ticket begun to point out that the religious credentials of the Bushmen are impeccable only to those who adhere to the most retrograde brand of fundamentalism—as opposed to reasonable religious believers who have allowed their faith to be influenced by secular knowledge.)

Religion is so much a part of the public square that a majority of Americans say they would refuse to vote for an atheist for president, even though they would consider voting for an African-American, a woman, a Jew, or a homosexual. Americans are probably not telling the truth on this issue to pollsters; it is difficult to credit the assertion that a majority of citizens, in the privacy of the voting booth, would cast their ballots for a gay or a black presidential candidate, and I also have my doubts that a Jew or a woman could be elected. It is clear, however, that Americans find it much more socially acceptable to express prejudice against atheists than against other groups. One can only imagine the outcry from the religiously correct if, say, the Council for Secular Humanism applied for a grant to provide pregnancy counseling for teenagers.

The capture of the Republican Party by a militant religious minority, and the marginalization of libertarian conservatives like Arizona Senator John McCain and the late Senator Barry Goldwater, has produced decades of judicial appointments that have moved the entire federal bench to the right. The Supreme Court now decides most abortion cases by a 5–4 vote, and the resignation of just one pro-choice justice would give Bush the chance to make an appointment that could finally fulfill the most cherished dream of the religious Right—the overturning of Roe v. Wade. However, the initial right-wing focus on abortion has long since been expanded into a much larger agenda designed to obliterate the distinction, to borrow Scalia’s words, between “God’s justice and ours.” From well-publicized campaigns such as the revived battle against the teaching of evolution—now repackaged as “creation science”—to quieter efforts like the push by fundamentalist broadcasters to drive “liberal” public radio stations from the airwaves, the Christian Right tirelessly works to insinuate its values into every aspect of public policy at every level of government.

Yet it is a mistake for secularists to view the rise of religious correctness as a phenomenon driven exclusively by right-wing money and political clout. An equally important factor—indeed, an indispensable condition for the successes of the ultraconservative minority—is the larger American public’s unexamined assumption that religion per se is, and always must be, a benign influence on society. The extreme Right has exploited that assumption brilliantly and succeeded in tarring opponents of faith-based adventurism as enemies of all religion, as atheists, as “relativists.” It takes a drastic example of the religious potential to do either public or private harm—say, a Christian Scientist parent’s denial of a life-saving blood transfusion to his child or the transformation of a plane into a death-dealing weapon in the name of the extreme fundamentalist wing of Islam—to shake the general American faith in all religion as a positive social force. Indeed, religious correctness demanded that President Bush deny the existence of any connection between the events of September 11 and “real” Islam. The problem, of course, is not religion as a spiritual force but religion melded with political ideology and political power. Since the religiously correct do not acknowledge any danger in mixing religion and politics, evil acts committed in the name of religion must always be dismissed as the dementia of criminals and psychopaths.

For secularists to mount an effective challenge to the basic premises of religious correctness, they must first stop pussyfooting around the issue of the harm that religion is capable of doing. In a peculiar essay in the Atlantic titled “Kicking the Secularist Habit,” the conservative writer David Brooks (now an op-ed columnist for the New York Times) admits to having discovered the astonishing fact, in the wake of September 11, that humans “yearn for righteous rule, for a just world or a world that reflects God’s will—in many cases at least as strongly as they yearn for money or success.” To understand that yearning, Brooks argues, it is necessary to move “away from scientific analysis and into the realm of moral judgement.” The crucial questions are, “Do individuals pursue a moral vision of righteous rule? And do they do so in virtuous ways, or are they, like Saddam Hussein and Usama bin Laden, evil in their visions and methods?”

But fanatics throughout history have always been convinced of the virtuousness of their visions. The fundamental issue is whether the melding of religion and government, or religion and a transnational terrorist movement in the case of bin Laden, enables fanatics to pursue their particular religious/political vision with devastating consequences for those who do not share it. If bin Laden did not have political and financial support from radical Islamists dedicated to extending the sweep of their theocracies, the morality or immorality of his personal vision would be of little consequence: he would be just another aggrieved prophet crying in the wilderness.

It is precisely because secularists do understand the power of religion, and the possibility that any intensely felt drive for righteousness may overwhelm dissenters in its path, that they insist on the fundamental importance of separation between church and state. Bin Laden is an easy case; the hard cases, which the Constitution was designed to prevent, involve political decisions in which both virtue and evil may be in the eye of the beholder. There is no doubt that Bush, in many areas of foreign and domestic policy, is pursuing his vision of righteous rule in a fashion compatible with his religion-based personal morality—but he is pursuing it through a governmental mechanism that represents millions of Americans who do not share his religion or his personal idea of righteousness.

Nor is it enough for secularists to speak up in defense of the godless constitution; they must also defend the Enlightenment values that produced the legal structure crafted by the framers. Important as separation of church and state is to American secularists, their case must be made on a broader plane that includes the defense of rational thought itself. The great nineteenth-century freethinkers, heirs of the Enlightenment, are often mocked today for their faith in human progress and the ascendancy of science and for their predictions that a secular religion combining humanism and scientific rationalism would soon replace the orthodox creeds of the day. Men like Robert Green Ingersoll were certainly wrong in their predictions of the imminent demise of religion—even in its most retrograde and cruel forms—but whether they were wrong under the long arc of the moral universe remains to be seen. The need for a strong secularist defense of science is particularly urgent today, because many of the antisecularist right’s policy goals are intimately linked to an irrational distrust of science. There is a particularly strong utilitarian and philosophical connection between the revival of antievolutionism since 1980 and the political attack on separation of church and state, because the Christianization of secular public education has long been a goal of the forces of conservative religion.

There is also a connection between the antievolution campaign and the general decline of American scientific literacy. During the past two decades, study after study has documented the declining knowledge of basic scientific facts among American public-school students and their teachers. This ignorance is generally attributed to lax American educational standards, and there is, of course, a great deal of truth in the charge. But fundamentalist, antimodernist religion has, since the twenties, been a significant player in the dumbing down of the scientific curriculum at the elementary and secondary school level.

Just as the word evolution was removed from many textbooks in the twenties, evolutionary development as a scientific fact began to be downplayed in the nineties in school districts where organized fundamentalists brought pressure to bear on school administrators and elected school boards. The obfuscation of scientific terminology to placate the religiously correct cannot help but undermine Americans’ general ability to make crucial distinctions between scientific fact and theological opinion. The heated political debate over embryonic cloning, for example, has been characterized by a stunning inability on the part of many in Congress to distinguish between duplicating embryos for the purpose of extracting their cells to treat disease and cloning humans by nursing embryos in hatcheries `a la Brave New World. This lack of scientific understanding has enabled religious opponents of the research to obscure the fact that their real objection to all medical uses of embryonic stem cells is that they consider any interference with the embryo a form of abortion. That is a theological position that should not be permitted to masquerade as a general ethical principle.

The attack on science is a prime secularist issue not because religion and science are incompatible per se, but because particular forms of religious belief—those that claim to have found the one true answer to the origins and ultimate purpose of human life—are incompatible not only with science but with democracy. Those who rely on the perfect hand of the Almighty for political guidance, whether on biomedical research or capital punishment, are really saying that such issues can never be a matter of imperfect human opinion. If the hand of the Almighty explains and rules the workings of nature, it can hardly fail to rule the workings of the American political system.

The great obstacle to public debate on these questions is that religious fundamentalists care more about religious issues than the rest of the public does, and they do more to see that their views are heard. They have dominated public discourse and have trapped American secularists between two poles. On the one hand, secularists are credited with exaggerated importance by those who have swallowed the argument that the nonreligious have already won the day; on the other, secularists are attacked (sometimes by the same people) as enemies of majoritarian, by definition religious, American values. The antisecularists cannot have it both ways. If secularists are in charge of everything, then America is not as religious as the religiously correct claim; if secularists are an insolent minority trying to erode the values of the majority, then they are not in charge of everything.

To make an effective case to their fellow Americans, secular humanists must reclaim the language of passion and emotion from the religiously correct.  The revitalization of American secularism in the 21st century depends upon its ability to convey the passions of humanism as Ingersoll did in the 19th, to move hearts as well as to change minds.  In a speech (appropriately titled “A Lay Sermon”) delivered before the American Secular Union in 1886, Ingersoll quoted “the best prayer I have ever read”, Lear’s soliloquy when, after raging on the heath, he stumbles upon a place of shelter.

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your unhoused heads and your unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these?  Oh, I have ta’en
Too little care of this!  Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.

This is the essence of the secularist and humanist faith, and it must be offered not as a defensive response to the religiously correct but as a robust creed worthy of the world’s first secular government. 

©2004 Susan Jacoby

This article is excerpted from Susan Jacoby’s book Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (Metropolitan Books, 2004).