Is Neutrality Possible?

We’ve been having some interesting conversations here recently. One of them took place in the Jefferson vs. Story post. In a discussion of separation of church and state, one of the commenters suggested that this was a battle between people who want a government that advocates Christianity or a government that advocates secularism.

This is an old accusation. It’s been a staple since the Reagan revolution. The idea is that secularism is itself a religion, usually called “secular humanism.” Put baldy, the government must advocate some religion, be it Christianity, Judaism, Islam or Secular Humanism. Neutrality is impossible. And since the government must advocate a religion, it should be the majority religion of the country, and the religion of our founders.

(There’s usually some tactical vagueness here. The historical and majority religion in America is Protestant Christianity. Historically there has been a lot of opposition to Jews and Catholics having equal rights. This is buried under calculated phrases like “Judeo-Christian tradition”.)

This is frustrating. Most of us view secularism as just what the word implies: non-sectarian. Secularism is a neutral state in which no particular revelation is advanced over any other. That fits not only our preconceptions, but about ninety years of American jurisprudence, which has established that the government had no competence in matters of religion.

But I can see how the argument goes. To people who view modern science with suspicion, teaching evolution is anti-Christian. People who are used to Christian cultural hegemony see the loss of a school yard nativity scene as an attack on the religion of the local community. They see secularism as an intrusive force, and respond accordingly.

From my perspective, they’re wrong. Secularism is liberating. It’s also far more stable in this time of increasing religious diversity. But I’m not sure how to get that across.


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