I don’t know if secularism was ever as much a consensus position as we sometimes think. But I do think it’s weaker today. Consider some recent examples of conservative religious pushback against even rather mild secularist political positions.
First, the United States. Take a look, if you can, at “In Defense of Religious Freedom A Statement by Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” There’s an awful lot of theological blather in it about justifying “religious freedom,” which tries to make it to be an obvious order of God, setting aside the history of Christianity as a religion notoriously intolerant of the freedom of non-Christians. But they still don’t subscribe to the same notion of religious freedom as secular liberals, as paragraphs like the following make clear:
While the Supreme Court has protected the right to determine religious leaders, the capacity of religious believers to form and sustain distinctive institutions is threatened today. The United States Department of Health and Human Services has proposed “preventive services” regulations that require provision of FDA-approved contraceptives, including abortifacients like Ella, and sterilization. These regulations threaten the religious freedom of insurers, employers, schools, and other religious enterprises that conscientiously oppose contraception and abortion. Limiting conscience protections to those in religious institutions that serve only their own members, as some have proposed, criminalizes the public witness of religious organizations such as Catholic universities and other religious social welfare institutions.
Administrative and regulatory policies pose further threats to religious freedom. Christian doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other health-care providers are being put at professional risk by policies that compel all health-care workers to undertake procedures and provide prescription drugs that many of them regard as immoral.
We also note that the attempt to redefine marriage through coercive state power has already brought pressure to bear on Christian ministers, despite exceptions provided in legislation. Further, in no state where the redefinition of marriage has passed the legislature has the religious institution exception provided all the religious freedom protections needed for individuals and groups that oppose the legalization of same-sex unions in those states.
Such statements suggest that “religious freedom” as understood by conservative Christians should be interpreted as protecting their ability to impose their views about morality on a large scale, including where many people who do not belong to their religious tradition are involved. Public policy, in other words, should be solicitous of conservative Christian notions of moral purity, otherwise the freedom of Christian communities to live fully according to their religious conscience will be violated.
This is not entirely implausible—people who identify first and foremost with their religious community or institution will naturally be concerned when a broadly applied public policy fails to align with church-supported views. It may even be true that if they don’t get their way, their purity of religious living will be compromised. (Treating the hell-bound equally has a way of doing that.) But at the least, this notion of “religious freedom” conservative Christians are defending is then something quite different from an individual freedom of conscience. It seems closer to a desire for religious communities or institutions to be free of constraints that derive from secular public policy.
In Egypt, there’s a minor crisis going on while drafting a new constitution. The secularist minority in the relevant commission is boycotting the Islamist-led process which is leading toward a stricter application of Islamic law. Some Islamists now accuse the boycotting liberals of attempting to impose a Western liberal ideal on a Muslim country—charging them with a tyranny of the minority. Many conservative Muslims genuinely feel that their religious freedom is violated by secular policies, as it interferes with their ability to fully live in compliance with Islamic ideals as a community. Hence, according to their concept of religious freedom, it is secularist interference with their ability to impose their moral ideals through public policy that constitutes a violation of religious freedom.
Meanwhile, in Turkey, conservative Muslims in power see provision of religious education in state schools as a duty. Fatma Şahin, the Minister of Family and Social Policies, says that an elective course on the Quran and the Holy Prophet is appropriate, since “humans don’t just have material and physical needs; they are material and spiritual wholes.” Apparently “a social state [their watered-down notion of a welfare state] has the duty to meet humans needs in order that they live happily and in peace,” and this includes meeting spiritual needs as understood by a dominant majority of the population.
Secularists typically confine legitimate public policy to meeting the worldly needs of citizens. But then, why should not a democratically affirmed religious government not recognize “spiritual needs,” declaring that the strict separation of material and spiritual needs is an artificial imposition?
Again, I should emphasize that views that demand recognition for the “rights” and “needs” of people in the context of religious communities they are attached to do not merely coopt secular liberal language about religious freedom and so forth. Religious conservatives have developed, under the influence of liberal political language, partly overlapping but also partly rival and incompatible notions of freedom. Those of us who prefer secular, liberal, and individual conceptions of rights and needs have a significantly different view about religious freedom.
None of these notions of freedom are necessarily more genuine—we have, I think, to take this seriously as a political rivalry. If the political environment I live in recognizes and protects my version of liberty, this will be at least in part at the expense of conservative religious people who will not be able to fully live their religious commitments as a cohesive community. And in an environment that favors their version of religious freedom, people like me will be more easily pushed around by religious institutions.