The Difference Between Secular Law and Secular Culture

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.


About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • Cornelioid

    I agree with you on the need for greater promotion of secular culture, but i can’t agree that the cases you cite, or others like Newdow’s, are necessarily wrongheaded. Perhaps i’ve missed it in your writings elsewhere, so feel free to redirect me.

    What, first, is your response to the case that such lesser breaches of secularism as those you cite provide ammunition for those who push continually for theocratic culture? They may not provide much in the way of legal precedent (though i don’t feel confident brushing off the idea), but the classical infractions on the currency and in the pledge are widely cited in regions like mine as “evidence” (meaning launch points) for the equivalence of American and Christian culture.

    How, second, do you respond to those non-Christians in the most Christian nationalist areas who look to these cases as reminders of their own importance to the national character? (This may be a rhetorical or emotional rather than a practical objection, and i don’t know that a purely practical answer would suffice.)

    • jflcroft

      First, the two “cases” I cite: one American Atheists lost (the 9/11 Cross case, on grounds very similar to the grounds I suggested they would lose on in my analysis of the issue when they first brought the case); the other (this holocaust memorial) is not a case but merely a letter from FFRF to lawmakers in Ohio. I imagine they are not bringing a case because they think it might be difficult to win. Both of these facts seem to support my judgment that there is no breach of separation here, even a small one.

      As for the question of how existing breaches are used as currency to support theocratic culture, I agree – which is why I support attempts to get “In God We Trust” off the money and God out of the pledge.

      The third objection I don’t understand, particularly in this case, because I would think a recognition of Jewish suffering in the holocaust would help Jewish people remember their importance to the national character.

      • Cornelioid

        (I mean “cases” only in the vernacular.) Certainly the (expected) outcomes support your judgment, but i don’t see that that evidence—the decision of a federal judge and the tactics of the FFRF—alone are weighty enough to be more persuasive than the substance of actual argument, especially given that several church–state separation cases have been overturned by appellate courts. But i did really only mean to touch on the two specifics.

        I did, as you allude to elsewhere, presuppose that these infractions were minor rather than, as you argued previously, nonexistent. I apologize. On reflection, i think you make a convincing case for the Holocaust memorial. Also, you’ve addressed my second question elsewhere in the comments.

  • Doug B.

    For belief systems that breathe symbols and icons as part of their faith, they use those “trivial” complaints as a sledge hammer to the wall between church and state. I wouldn’t hold out the UK or much of Europe out to emulate because they may not have religious battles in the legislatures but they sure have them in the streets.

    • jflcroft

      No they don’t – this is a rather strange mischaracterization of Europe which some American secularists like to indulge in but isn’t true. The amount of sectarian religious strife in the UK is not hugely greater than here in the USA.

      • Doug B.
        • jflcroft

          Yes, really. The article you link simply ignores the tens of hate groups in the USA which foment racial, ethnic, and religious hatred on a daily basis. There are plenty of parallel organizations in the US which spend much time demonizing Muslims (and other groups). I suspect the reason why the commentator is not noticing them so easily is not because they are less powerful in the US but because the US is much bigger than the UK. The EDF is a fringe organization rather like the KKK and has similarly little influence.

          The fact that the number of hate crimes reported in the UK since the terror attack on May 22 (a nation) is larger than those reported in Boston (one city) is not that surprising: particularly given the fact that in much of the US such crimes would go unreported and unremarked, so prevalent is the religious animus against Muslims. There were countless reported attacks against Muslims, Sikhs, and even Germans after 9/11. Prominent politicians in the last Presidential election openly favored discriminating against Muslims – something which would NEVER happen at a similarly high level in UK politics. And remember the uproar which greeted the Islamic Center in New York, complete with protesters driving MISSILES around the proposed site.

          This article simply romanticizes US culture and mischaracterizes British culture.

  • Simon3456

    “If secular organizations win legal victories to protect secular law while creating, in the process, a theocratic culture”…you make it sound like its secularists who are the ones responsible for creating this theocratic culture. I do hope that is not what you mean to say.

    As for your contention that finding unpopular battles may be counterproductive, I would ask you to look at getting out of prayer in school for instance. At the time this was a HUGELY unpopular battle for secularists. But if we look at today’s youth -the generation that is the most secular probably in American history- we can’t deny that this didn’t play a significant role.

    This is not to say that all battles are worth fighting, but laws have a demonstrable impact on culture and vice versa.

    • jflcroft

      I agree with this, and nothing I’ve written here suggests otherwise. As I say at the beginning, many unpopular battles must be thought. I make this point myself in the post.

  • Ryan Jean

    There are strategic costs to every decision. Secular culture is indeed a crucial element to nurture, and things that progress secular law may or may not advance secular culture — or as you point out, may in fact hamper such culture.

    Where I disagree is that, as a few others have pointed out, every little piece we let slide is actively and aggressively used as ammunition against us. Despite the fact that tradition cannot cure a constitutional infraction, it is quite strongly pushed by the Christian majority in the U.S. and the courts still bend over backwards to allow exactly that; our legal victories tend to be in those cases where judges were either entirely honest about the requirements of the law or. more often, unable to think of more cunning sophistry to cover their tracks in reaching their desired outcome. Remember, we’re dealing with people who often honestly believe that the founders put “Under God” in the pledge and “In God We Trust” on our money, not that they were irrational reactions to the perceived threat of “godless” communism, and that somehow even if it were true it would make a difference; they don’t even care that they have both law and history wrong.

    I find myself repeatedly in the last year or so coming back to the accommodation vs. confrontation arguments, which were so perfectly lampooned as “deep rifts.” I’m drawn to that comparison in questions of all aspects of the secular movement, from political connections (think of the hoopla over Edwina Rodgers) to the ongoing and horrendously vitriolic issues of sexism (at least since “ElevatorGate”). I think that skeletons like these deserve significant scrutiny (one’s political history is relevant, though it should hardly be a total block – being a sexist secular doesn’t mean you can’t achieve anything worthy for the secular cause, but it is right and proper that you be a subject of criticism for holding on to such vile views) but you have to be careful of taking it too far.

    What we have here is an utter inability of a large portion of one side (those wanting secular culture as the primary point of any effort) to recognize anybody of the other side (those wanting legal victories even if they don’t advance secular culture) as possibly having any legitimacy in their actions for the secular movement at large. It is beyond simply disagreement, and is borderline full-out condemnation. That is incredibly narrow thinking, akin to Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshembaum’s actions and words at “The Intersection” that were a major inflection point in the “accommodation vs. confrontation” issue.

    There is something further, though. I could stop and leave the impression that the “my way or the highway” mentality of most of the “secular culture über alles” crowd is narrow thinking simply because of the tendency of the christian nation crowd to use every piece of “tradition” as ammunition. Unfortunately, it goes one step further. The religious groups of the past that used to champion the secular state because of the persecution they had undergone – the Catholics, the Baptists, etc. – have jumped ship on secularism. Now that they don’t feel they have to worry about their own persecution, they have pulled a near-perfect “I’ve got mine so screw you” pulling-up of the ladder behind them (Ayn Rand would have been proud if she hadn’t ironically been an atheist herself). What this means is that increasingly the accusation trying to (negatively) equate secularism and atheism is becoming accurate, at least in so far as the overlap of those two groups is leaving fewer and fewer secular people who are religious. That is the real problem, and I think the only way we have to defeat that is to show by our daily acts that we are not the moral monsters they wish to paint us as, but also simultaneously to stand very firmly on secular principle and be willing to fight for secularism as being as much of a virtue as we claim it is. What we cannot do is in effect say “well, that’s secularism of law, not of culture, so we really shouldn’t be focusing effort there.”

    • jflcroft

      I appreciate you full response, but I think you mischaracterize my position here quite drastically. You say:

      “What we have here is an utter inability of a large portion of one side (those wanting secular culture as the primary point of any effort) to recognize anybody of the other side (those wanting legal victories even if they don’t advance secular culture) as possibly having any legitimacy in their actions for the secular movement at large.”

      This is absolutely not my position. I frequently support the attempt to gain legal victories even when they are detrimental to the cause of promoting secularism in the culture, as I do in this post with Jessica Ahlquist’s prayer banner case. I supported that case from the beginning and, as I say, I think the campaign was heroic and necessary. I am absolutely not arguing here that we should let a minor infringement slide because to fight it would hurt the attempt to build a more secular culture.

      Rather, I am arguing that this is NOT an infringement AT ALL, and that there is a good secular reason for allowing the memorial to go ahead. Therefore, in fighting it, we are working toward an outcome which itself would be undesirable. That is quite a different argument, and it frustrates me when I am read as saying “let this one slide for strategic reasons – it’s minor”. When I make that sort of case I will make it explicitly.

      One of the reasons we are losing religious allies of secularism, I argue, is because we are pursuing cases which are legitimately NOT infringements, and making a huge fuss about them while we do it. We are not protecting secularism as much as promoting our own atheist organizations through generating controversy. And were I a religious secularist I would not want to be an ally to such a movement either.

      • Ryan Jean

        Thank you for your response. I don’t have time to do much now, but I will come back here and ponder what you wrote a bit more later (I don’t know if I’ll be replying and/or rebutting anything, but I want you to know that you’ve given me something to think about).

      • Doug B.

        Your view that the large Star of David on the memorial is not an infringement is just that – your view. So when would it be an infringement? Where is your line?

        • jflcroft

          I think I explain that quite clearly in my post – I make the case that this simply isn’t reasonably construable as government promotion or endorsement of Judaism.

          • Greg

            I have to say I’m somewhat amused by your willingness to call for a moderate & well thought-out approach in the push for a secular society in America.

            I’m from the UK & though I don’t live in a country that’s “technically” a secular state, I enjoy the fact that I know actually it is, in respect to a real world application.

            I agree that there needs to be a moderate approach, I myself often advocate for the end of the belligerent attacks from “Strong Atheists”. Especially when these attacks are not based in evidence. The notion that Theists being “delusional” is the most prominent one. When I do advocate for this change, I end up on the end of attacks myself, as I see you are.

            Many “Strong Atheists” seem to respond to any criticism, even when backed up by evidence, by putting their fingers in their ears & going LA LA LA LA. I’ve even had a “Strong Atheist” tell me the he wasn’t going to follow what Psychiatry had to say about delusion, because Psychiatry is “lying to the world.” Even though the peer reviewed evidence within Psychiatry states that Theism isn’t a delusion.

            I’m finding that the Atheist movement in many ways is becoming like a religion, with notions like critical thinking going out of the window. When someone asks me what my beliefs are, I tell them I’m Agnostic. That way I can avoid being associated with our less insightful members.

            I also think that the Atheist movement thinks secularism is all about Atheism, when in reality it’s an inclusive philosophy, not an exclusive one. You can be religious & still be a proponent & a member of a secular society.

            Anyway good luck, you’ll need it.

  • Steve Ahlquist

    As a person directly involved with virtually every secular battle that has taken place in Rhode Island over the last two years, I have a small amount of experience in this area, and would suggest that one way to minimize the negative impacts of secular victories is through visible and vocal service work, and by supporting the kind of community efforts many in our movement refer to pejoratively as “mission creep.”

    Don’t be a one trick pony. Join coalitions. Engage actively in the legal system against church-state infractions but also work on human rights issues: reproductive justice, LGBTQ rights, even poverty. These are all issues that avail themselves of serious secular, Humanist, freethinking and atheist thought. Team up with religious leaders on certain issues. You can’t catch cooties from doing so, but you can demonstrate that you are a person of moral character who fights for a secular state because it protects both religious believers and non-believers.

    That’s all I have. I have made many allies and opponents in my work here in Rhode Island, but I have also earned the respect of both.

  • Buckley

    Very excellent article. I have family in England and they are exceptionally secular. England is where I hope the US will be some day. As for your thoughts on the Monarch and the religiousness of the Crown and Lords, etc. I often think that for all the religious ceremony in the Coronation and the fact that Lords allows the sitting of the Anglican Bishops, that these remain with a wink that the religious power of these items is moot. Most in Britain, including my family, don’t get too upset at this display of Christianity. I think because no one really cares and public policy isn’t shaped by the beliefs of the religious. I think your point about how here in the US we have this weird litmus test regarding the religion of our elected officials and yet in Britain people get rightfully upset when a politician brings their religion to the fore. Here, I have seen too much policy set and attempted passage of laws solely on the basis of religious belief. I think that’s a main difference between there and here: In Britain religious conviction is rarely acted upon in public, whereas here it happens all too frequently. I think this is why many in Britain simply let slide the religious ceremony intertwined with the Monarch and Lords. They cause no real harm to the secularists, so there is little push-back.

  • johndowdle

    I am not familiar with the court cases cited in the above article but I think I can suggest one way in which American secularists might be more successful in spreading secular culture. Most European countries are far more secular than the USA, even though they are countries which were abandoned in order that people could live in a new and more secular country than the old religion-dominated former European countries. Where Europe has changed is that we have embraced social democratic values and the establishment of welfare states.
    This factor, I believe, underpins European secularism in a very big way.
    The US religious right – like similar groups in other countries, like the Muslim Brotherhood – realise that they can gain political power through welfare provision.
    “Believers” are desperate not to lose access to welfare services provided by religious organisations. If you threaten these organisations, you threaten the welfare life-lines of these people, usually poorly educated and unintelligent.
    As secularists, you need to get behind state-sponsored provision of welfare services which does not permit religious organisations to be involved in them. This way, people grow in feelings of security and feel much less need for religious groups to provide them with the welfare safety net they desperately crave.
    With regard to the holocaust industry, Israel uses US taxpayer dollars to buy up US congressional influence. They promote the holocaust industry as a way to keep influence in America over the general population and Congress.
    Attempts to question them result in smear tactics and meaningless accusations of antisemitism. While 6 million people consuming the Mosaic code did die in Nazi death camps, a similar number of others – Poles, Russians, Roma, LGBT people, Freemasons, Christians, Atheists – also died in Nazi death camps.
    What united all of these people? They were all – or largely – Europeans.
    The Israel lobby has appropriated Europeans – some indoctrinated by religions; others not – and tried to claim the holocaust solely as their own. It clearly was not. Most European Jews were assimilated into European society. Most of them wanted nothing to do with the religious and non-religious Zionists in Palestine. The role of the Zionists during the Second World War is hugely questionable – yet they survived to write the post-war history, which they are still trading on successfully to this day.