War on Secularism

Rick Perlstein has a great new article up at the Rolling Stone with the apt but cumbersome title, “Behind the Right’s Phony War on the Nonexistent Religion of Secularism.” I particularly like the background he provides:

One of the most robust and effective conspiracy theories on the right, the notion that “secularism” – or, just as often, “Secular Humanism” – is a religion is meant to be taken entirely literally: right wingers genuinely believe it refers to an actually existing religious practice. How do conservatives know? Because, they say, the Supreme Court said so. It was, as religious historian and Lutheran minister Martin E. Marty has written, “an instance where one can date precisely the birth of a religion: June 19, 1961.” That was the day the Court ruled in the case of Torcaso v. Watkins striking down the Maryland Constitution’s requirement of “a declaration of belief in the existence of God” to hold “any office of profit or trust in this state” — specifically, in atheist Roy Torcaso’s case, the office of notary public. In his decision, Justice Hugo Black, writing for a unanimous court, further asserted that states and the federal government could not favor religions “based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs” – and, in a fateful, ill-considered, and entirely offhand footnote explained: “Among religions in this country which do not teach what would be generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others.”

From here, things get wacky. As unearthed by the outstanding scholar Carol Mason in her masterpiece “Reading Appalachia from Left to Right,” in 1974 a Jesuit priest and Fordham University law professor named Edward Berbasse argued that “since humanism is now considered by the court to be a religion , it must be prevented from being established by the government.” An activist asked him if that meant they could win their fight to ban the satanic textbooks being forced down their children’s throats in Kanawha County, West Virginia by taking the matter to the Supreme Court. “I think you may have the material if you can get a crackerjack lawyer,” Father Berbasse responded. A Supreme Court case was never actually attempted – not least because, as Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyons have pointed out, “While historically there has been an organized humanist movement in the United States since at least the 1800s, the idea of a large-scale quasireligion called secular humanism is a conspiracist myth.” In Kanawha County, the textbook fight was fought out with dynamite instead. Nationwide, however, the conspiracist myth took on a life of its own – even unto the halls of Congress.

I also loved this part:

Liberals, dumbfounded by irrationality in that patented liberal way, pointed out that the number of people calling themselves “secular humanists” was only a handful, so how could they possibly possess such omnipotence. Well, fundamentalists would counter, doesn’t that just prove the success of their conspiracy?

Ain’t America grand?

*groan* America was founded on that kind of thinking. Is the British Government placing a minuscule tax on tea? It’s a conspiracy! The small size of the tax is just proof that they’re trying to lull us into a sense of complacency. Paranoia: America’s first founding principle.

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