Secularism is one of my highest values. I consider a secular state – a state in which the government neither represents nor promotes any religious affiliation, in which laws are not made on the basis of purely religious arguments, and which remains neutral in matters of faith and conscience – to be one of the surest guarantors of the rights of individuals, religious and non-religious alike. The alternative to secular government is theocracy, and theocracies tend (understandably) to privilege members of the ruling religion to the detriment of others. The battle to defend secularism in America – the constant policing of the protective barrier between church and state (a wall which protects the church from undue political interference as much as it does the state from undue religious interference) – is a heroic and unending one, given the persistence of those who wish to turn america into a Christian theocracy in which non-Christians (and particularly nonbelievers) would be partially disenfranchised.
I am therefore more sympathetic than many to the sorts of lawsuits brought by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, American Atheists, and other groups representing the nonreligious in America which seek to defend the legal basis of secularism. Although these groups are often despised and derided by the Christian majority (who often seem to fail to understand the importance of secular government to their own freedom), they often perform important and righteous work that other groups are unwilling to take on. Due to the centrality of religion to the identity of many believers it is unsurprising that lawsuits seeking to prevent the saying of prayers by officials in local government, or hoping for the removal of blatantly pro-Christian messages from public schools, are frequently highly divisive – but here these organizations are on the right side: not the right side for non-believers but the right side for America, if it wishes to remain a liberal democracy in which people can choose their religious faith freely. The Freedom from Religion Foundation, American Atheists and other such groups are frequently unfairly maligned for work which genuinely protects the freedoms of all Americans by seeking to secure the laws which protect church from state and state from church.
However, The legal battle for a secular government should be complemented by a social battle for a secular culture: and here the legal guardians of secularism make too many errors. To understand how a country can be secular in law but not in culture, consider England, my home. England is, technically, a theocracy. By law the Queen is the head of state, and she is also the head of the Church of England, and therefore the head of state is also the head of the state church. While this is mostly a historical artifact which has little practical effect on politics, it does have some effect: traditionally and to this day, for instance, 26 of the diocesan bishops and archbishops in the Church of England are allowed to sit in the House of Lords, our secondary national legislative body – a privilege not extended to nonreligious organizations. Parliament opens with prayers, and the following exchange from the coronation of the current Queen would send shivers down the spine of any committed American secularist:
Archbishop: Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel?
Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law?
Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England?
And will you preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them?
Queen: All this I promise to do.
For certain purposes the Church of England is in fact privileged by law in England. We do not not have, technically, a secular government. If any lawmaker here proposed anointing the President with oil while charging them to uphold the Christian character of the US government some proponents of American secularism would explode. And yet English culture - including the culture of government - is far more secular than that of the USA. It would be far more unusual to hear, in England, an MP arguing some point from an explicitly religious perspective than it is in the USA. Enthusiastic public avowals of faith by political leaders tend to raise eyebrows rather than cheers. The British public is often queasy when politicians express their religious perspective, as recognized by those advising Tony Blair
Tony Blair’s most senior advisers have intervened to prevent him discussing his faith in public, according to two new profiles of the Prime Minister.
The bar on the topic is so rigid that Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair’s director of strategy and communications, intervened in a recent interview to prevent the Prime Minister from answering a question about his Christianity. “We don’t do God,” Mr Campbell interrupted.
This difference in culture is very significant. I think it fair to say that the influence of conservative religion – so powerful and malign in the US – is far weaker in the UK partly because we have a much more secular culture, despite the fact that the boundary between church and state is much hazier in law. This difference between these two nations, so similar in many other respects, highlights the necessity of protecting secular culture as well as secular law. It demonstrates that even if you have secular laws which seek to protect government from negative religious influences, they will constantly be under attack if the broader culture does not respect secularism in principle. If you protect secular law without considering how to advance secular culture – or, worse, to the detriment of the advancement of secular culture – you risk achieving legal victories while setting back the broader cause of secularism. And this, I believe, is precisely what happens when the FFRF and American Atheists make ill-advised cases against such things as the 9/11 Cross and the recent Ohio Holocaust Memorial. Even if we win such battles – which we do too infrequently – people hate us for it, and these battles do not endear the idea of secularism to the public. Rather, they stoke resentment and opposition to the idea.
I myself have felt the uncomfortable heat this opposition: when I attended the hearing regarding whether Cranston High School West would appeal the removal of a blatantly illegal prayer banner, I was shocked by the strength of resentment and anger expressed by most present toward the concept of secularism. The individuals protesting there were furious, loudly yelling the words “UNDER GOD!” in the pledge of allegiance at heroic student Jessica Ahlquist, who brought the case, while singing patriotic American songs with a Christian nation theme. But they were not furious that they thought the case had been wrongly decided because, in their view, the banner did not in fact represent a breach of the barrier protecting church from state: rather, they were angry at the idea that church and state should be protected from each other at all. They were, in short, theocrats.
If secular organizations win legal victories to protect secular law while creating, in the process, a theocratic culture, our secular laws will soon be swept away. Indeed, in a sense culture is more important than law because, as England demonstrates, you can have a secular culture without secular laws, but you will not long have secular laws without a secular culture. We need better strategy than this.