How Secularism Lost its Soul

 Austin Dacey 


          According to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a majority of Americans believe it is appropriate in general for public officials to rely on their faith when thinking about policy decisions. President Bush in particular wins public approval for consulting his conscience. Yet, curiously, the data also suggests that when confronted with actual religious statements by politicians, many Americans feel uncomfortable. What could this mean? Do we like deeply held beliefs so long as they carry no political implications? (If so, how deep could they be?) Or do we prefer deeply held beliefs whose political implications we dissimulate in public? (Hardly a basis for public dialogue in a democracy.)


          Welcome to secularism in America, where this strange tension in attitudes about religion and politics is not just a statistical oddity; it�s a public philosophy. Secularism per se is not to blame. America�s strict separation of religion and state and freedom of conscience remain among its greatest achievements�and its most precious ideological exports. Rather, the confusion stems from a particular interpretation of secularism, now the dominant view, which equates it with the idea that conscience is a �private matter.�


Schools and utilities markets may be another matter, but when it comes to religion, liberal-minded folks have embraced privatization with fervor. Their mantra: beliefs are fine in private, so long as you don�t �impose� them on others. Prayer is vertical; piety is personal. Indeed, Cornell University historians Isaac Kramnick and Lawrence Moore, authors of The Godless Constitution, link the rise of Western liberalism to the privatization of religion: its �removal from the public realm, and its transfer to the private world of individual freedom of conscience, belief, and practice.� In political theory, the privacy argument can be traced at least to the beginning of an intellectual era inaugurated by the late John Rawls in 1971. His monumental Theory of Justice articulated the view, which had been emerging in American jurisprudence since the 1940s, that the state is to remain �neutral� on all contested moral and religious claims, or �conceptions of the good life� as they came to be known. Rawls� equally influential Political Liberalism went further, defending an �ideal of public reason� according to which public discourse about fundamental political questions should appeal only to beliefs and values that are acceptable to all reasonable citizens. �Private reasons� have no place in politics.

Unfortunately, the privacy model is almost entirely misleading. What�s more, staunch secularists should be the first to give it up. The last three years have witnessed an eruption of issues that intersect with religion, ranging from sodomy laws, gay marriage, HIV-AIDS and stem cell research, global family planning, and abortion to relations between the U.S. and Islamic societies and the future of Iraqi democracy. In almost every case, the privacy model confounds liberals� own best efforts to critique the cultural influence of theological conservatism. �Privacy� gets conflated with subjectivity, and subjectivity implies immunity to criticism. If, as the old joke goes, a liberal is one who won�t take his or her own side in an argument, today�s secularists are those who can�t.

More fundamentally, the privacy model severs secularism from theology. This is a recipe for incoherence, for the question of the proper relation between religion and politics is as much religious as it is politico-philosophical. That is nowhere clearer than in the democratic stirrings in Iraq, which offer an illuminating mirror on our own secular founding. The call for separation of mosque and state is dead unless it can be made at Friday prayers. Even America, it turns out, could never have escaped theocracy if our church-state fathers had believed that religious claims are �private reasons.� John Locke, Roger Williams, and James Madison were not just the public philosophers of secularism; they were also its theologians, who believed in the accountability of conscience. Their successors would do well to do likewise. This is not only a matter of simple intellectual clarity and honesty. It is also the only way to do justice to the significance of conscience and its proper place in the public discourse of a pluralistic society.


Personality contested


At William Pryer�s confirmation hearings in July 2003, one would have been hard-pressed to discern that the confirmation in question was a federal judicial appointment, not the Catholic sacrament. When Democrats pressed Pryer on his conservative record, his Republican allies accused them of anti-Catholic bias. The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, spoke for privacy-secularists when he responded, �[c]oncern about Pryor�s nomination focuses on his extreme legal agenda, not his personal religious beliefs.� Yet on closer inspection this distinction appears artificial. Isn�t it plain that the committee members were in fact concerned, among other things, about Pryor�s religious beliefs? After all, here was a man who declared before a Ten Commandments rally in Montgomery that �God has chosen, through his son Jesus Christ, this time, this place for all Christians�Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox�to save our country and save our courts.� Pryer�s opponents were wondering about the ways in which beliefs like this might or might not affect the nominee�s actions as a federal judge. Unfortunately, the doctrine of privacy collapses the logical space between personal attack and good-faith inquiry, thereby fueling the charge of bigotry.

A key meaning of �private� is �personal,� as in intimate matters to which access by others without one�s consent may justifiably be denied. The notion is familiar in the idea of a domestic sphere. A family meal at home is private because the family may appropriately deny others participation in the meal or even information about it without their consent. Most ethicists point out that private affairs have moral importance not just because they give people power over each other, for well or for woe (witness blackmail and or identity theft). The additional moral value, they argue, is persons� autonomy, or self-direction and self-determination. By invading someone�s privacy we fail to respect, or we diminish, that person�s autonomy. The ethical analysis accords with common sense. It seems prima facie out of bounds to drag someone�s personal life in public view. If religion is private (personal), then it falls into this same sensitive sphere. As one American jurist wrote, �we of this country made it an article of organic law that the relations between man and his Maker were a private concern, into which other men have no right to intrude.�

Obviously, in a free society everyone has a right to access information about religion, as anyone at your local library or The History Channel can tell you. So, that can�t be what people mean by the privacy of religion. Perhaps what they mean is that you can�t bring information about my religiosity into view without my consent. But suppose I put it there in the first place. When President Bush tells Ladies Home Journal that he takes great comfort from reading Charles Stanley devotionals every morning, he has effectively invited the public in for a look around the interior of his worldview. When the Pope urges the world to seek peace, he can hardly accuse anyone of intruding on his private thoughts. Whenever citizens or politicians voluntarily present their religious beliefs in politics, it makes no sense for secularists to object on grounds of personal autonomy.

Even when it is motivated by a spirit of toleration, the idea that conscience is personal can actually hinder the possibility of respectful critical dialogue on religiously-charged political issues. For if religion is merely personal, questioning a person�s beliefs is questioning a person�s character. Thus, when Newsweek undertook to scrutinize Bush�s fundamentalist religion, it ended up slamming his character. Religion scholar Martin Marty accused of Bush of arrogance for thinking that he is doing God�s will. It may be easier for secularists to label infallibilism a personality flaw rather than a flawed theology, but it is certainly no more respectful or helpful. The notion that critical inquiry about one�s religious beliefs is tantamount to bigotry could appeal only to adherents of the most extreme form of identity politics. Or Rick Santorum. In a letter to the New York Times, the chairman of the Senate Republican Conference condemned the judicial committee�s treatment of Pryer by describing any such questions regarding �deeply held beliefs inspired by religious convictions� as �dangerous.� Were they to consistently apply their privacy model of conscience, secularists would be forced to agree.


Battle of the sects


 When the Vatican finally spoke out against violence against children (by which it meant gay adoption), secularists were outraged. While a few actually came out and disagreed with Rome�s claim that same-sex marriage constitutes the �legalization of evil,� most objected along the same lines as editors of The Boston Globe, who opined, �[t]he greatness of America is its pluralism, and neither president nor pope can impose his religious beliefs on the public realm.� In so doing, they were relying on yet another meaning of �privacy� in the slogan, �religion is private matter�: Beliefs are private in the sense of sectarian, or not endorsed by all.

The appeal of this meaning of privacy is not hard to appreciate. One important part (although not the only part) of politics is the public discussion and justification of decisions about what governments should do. In such discussions, citizens and officials often present each other with reasons in support of this or that political decision. But in a society characterized by a multiplicity of contested religious, moral, and philosophical positions, the reasons that are endorsed by one person or community may not be endorsed by another. Beginning in the 1990s, many political theorists followed Rawls in arguing that discourse in a pluralistic society ought to be guided by an ideal of �public reason�: participants may introduce only shared reasons, those that can be endorsed by all citizens (or at least all �reasonable� citizens). In a deeply diverse society, citizens must set aside their �private� convictions when seeking a secure grounding for the political order.

However, most experts have since come to reject the Rawlsian ideal of public reason. First, as a number of commentators have observed, it would unduly restrict the liberty of religious citizens by requiring them to refrain from acting on their beliefs in public. Freedom of conscience means nothing if it does not include the freedom to speak and act socially and politically as conscience compels, even when its conclusions are not universally shared. Second, the strictures of public reason would cut against the nonreligious as well. A filter fine enough to keep religious ideals and values out of political debate is likely also to keep out fundamental moral convictions, such as the ideals of freedom, fairness, or benevolence. Matters of morality, as much as matters of faith, are subject to disagreements among sincere and sensible people. There is therefore no rationale for singling out one but not the other for political exile. Yet to exile both would leave citizens with next to nothing to discuss with. Some would reply that religious differences should be singled out because they are inevitably more divisive than differences of other kinds. But that reply is without no empirical support. The bitter disputes surrounding race relations, the environment, tax policy, or the war on terrorism, for example are not theological in nature, but ethical, social, and factual. We are left with the unacceptable choice between arbitrarily precluding religious reasons only, or evacuating politics of all substantive normative and philosophical disagreement. Something must be amiss with the political philosophy that drives us to this dilemma.


Changing the subjectivity


In a series of provocative articles, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has drawn elites� attention to the continuing influence of evangelical Christians in American and their growing alienation from intellectual and scientific culture, popularizing the alarming statistic that more Americans believe in the Devil than in evolution. However, it is not always clear what he is worried about. He says, �I tend to disagree with evangelicals on almost everything, and I see no problem with aggressively pointing out the dismal consequences of this increasing religious influence. For example, evangelicals� discomfort with condoms and sex education has led the administration to policies that are likely to lead to more people dying of AIDS at home and abroad, not to mention more pregnancies and abortions.� Then he goes on to chastise fellow secularists: �liberal critiques sometimes seem not just filled with outrage at evangelical-backed policies, which is fair, but also to have a sneering tone about conservative Christianity itself. Such mockery of religious faith is inexcusable.�

It seems we are being asked to object to the �consequences� of conservative religion without objecting to the moral precepts behind them, as though we could endorse the soundness of a norm while renouncing the behavior it sanctions. What could be more appropriate than to evaluate a system of beliefs on the basis of its consequences for individual and social behavior? If causing more people to die pointlessly is not an objection to a system of beliefs, I don�t know what would be. Once again, the privacy model proves self-undermining to secularists� aims. They must resort to cognitive contortions in order to criticize another�s religion without seeming critical of religion. Why? At the root of Kristof�s quandary we find what is perhaps the deepest, and misleading, sense of �private�: the private as the subjective, that which defies interpersonal examination and evaluation. The consequences of conscience may belong to the public, empirical, objective world we all share, but conscience �itself� lies in the realm of the private, the mysterious, and subjective.

The philosopher Thomas Nagel once argued that the reasons we give for political decisions must make sense to our fellow community members, because government actions have a direct impact on their lives and behavior. Therefore, our reasons must meet a certain standard of �higher-order impartiality� or objectivity. One must be prepared �to submit one�s reasons to the criticism of others, and to find that the exercise of a common critical rationality and consideration of evidence that can be shared will reveal that one is mistaken.� The standard of impartiality is not met, Nagel claimed, when �part of the source of your conviction is personal faith or revelation . . . .� When political reasons fail to achieve higher-order impartiality, political debate amounts to a mere �clash between irreconcilable subjective convictions� rather than a disagreement in �the common, public domain.�

Nagel has an important point, here, but it must not be overstated (as Nagel himself later conceded). Leave aside the fact that many religious contributions to politics (for example, nature law ethics) are thought to be based not in raw revelation but in evidential considerations open to all. Just because you do not or could not share a conviction does not mean that it is beyond your comprehension and critical evaluation. My irrational fear of clowns (rooted in a childhood experience, let�s say) can be intelligible and open to critical evaluation by you, even though you lack it and the experience that produced it. The fact that a belief originates in intuition or revelation does nothing whatever to inoculate it against interpersonal criticism�remember Jim Jones, Heaven�s Gate, and the Branch Davidians.

So long as the reasons we introduce into public discourse�religious reasons included�are regarded by all as subject to public scrutiny, then Nagel�s concerns can be met. Ideally, conversation in politics abides by the norms of all reasoned conversation: civility, mutual respect, rationality, and consistency. If we are unwilling to present others with reasons for what we say that are open to analysis by them, then we are engaging in monologue, not dialogue. A serious, good-faith religious proposal should be held to the same standards�like feasibility, constitutionality, morality, or popular support�as any other proposal. Susceptibility to criticism is the price of admission to public discourse. Of course, it is a price that religious believers should be willing to pay, for if their beliefs cannot be false or pernicious, then neither can they be true or good. Call this the accountability of conscience.

The stem cell debate has provided good examples of the accountability of conscience. Ron Reagan, Jr., in a letter to the New York Times on August 12, 2004 wrote: �Those opposed to embryonic stem cell research are entitled to their beliefs. But those making a moral argument are obliged to be morally consistent. If destroying even an artificially created �embryo� in a petri dish is equivalent to murder, then I would expect the White House to campaign vigorously against in vitro fertilization clinics that routinely dispose of unused early-stage embryos by the thousands.�

Some believers unwittingly adopt the subjectivism of the privacy paradigm. Patrick Scully, a spokesman for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Liberties, recently defended Bush�s White House prayer sessions by analogizing Jesus-worshippers and sports enthusiasts: �If they were . . . Baltimore Orioles fans,� he told ABC News, �they would be able to talk about that without anybody freaking out.� God as team�I root for mine, you root for yours. As Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter observed in The Culture of Disbelief, this is a trivialization of religion, the view that �religion is like building model airplanes, just another hobby: something quiet, something private, something trivial�and not really a fit activity for intelligent, public-spirited adults.� But if privacy as subjectivity is an enemy of the faith, it is ironically no friend of secularism either. If secularism is to fulfill its historical role as a check on the social influence of illiberal creeds, it must exchange privacy for the accountability of conscience.


Conscientious objections


America�s church-state fathers would not recognize themselves in the secularists of today. They never maintained that political discourse must be �neutral� on spiritual questions. In fact, their flagship arguments for disestablishment were overtly theological.

Roger Williams� Rhode Island was perhaps the most secular government that the world had ever seen. And yet the radical Puritan separatist based his political philosophy in Biblical theology. Williams inferred from scriptural-historical evidence that no actual nations since Israel have possessed its special status as God�s nation. Since God no longer makes direct covenants with nations, no government has the right to represent itself as bearing the imprimatur of the divine.

In formulating his secularism, James Madison�s chief interlocutor was Patrick Henry, whose proposed Virginia tax to support religious education provoked Madison�s definitive Memorial and Remonstrance in 1785. Henry stood by the ever-popular hypothesis that civil order cannot survive without a religious populace (as evidenced by the lawless Denmark and Norway). Madision didn�t challenge the hypothesis directly, instead taking issue with the assumption that government is the best instrument for inculcating public religiosity. The debate largely came down to the proper way to promote piety�a �private matter� if ever there was one.

Madison�s basic premise was the voluntariness of genuine belief. He thought state promotion of piety is self-defeating because it operates by coercion, while authentic belief must spring from free choice. This argument had been popularized by dissident English Protestants such as Leonard Busher who in 1612 wrote: �as kings and bishops cannot command the wind, so they cannot command faith.� John Locke�s famous defense of toleration concurs: �Neither the profession of any articles of faith, nor the conformity to any outward form of worship . . . can be available to the salvation of souls, unless the truth of the one, and the acceptableness of the other unto God, be thoroughly believed by those that so profess and practice. But penalties are no ways capable to produce such belief. It is only light and evidence that can work a change in men�s opinions; and that light can in no manner proceed from corporal sufferings, or any other outward penalties.� The voluntarist argument relies on a contested Protestant theology of salvation that stresses inward persuasion, assent, and experience of God�s grace.

Another great Madisonian argument against establishment is that it is bad for religion: �During almost fifteen centuries, has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.� In his view, establishment degrades the spiritual health of the flock by corrupting clergy with self‑interest and self‑indulgence. It saps the dedication and drive of the laity by undermining their confidence in its self-sufficient strength. The effect is to �weaken in those who profess this Religion, a pious confidence in its innate excellence, and the patronage of its author; and to foster in those who still reject it a suspicion that its friends are too conscious of its fallacies to trust it to its own merits.� Again, Madison�s case depends on a religious premise: the value of a particular kind of spiritual flourishing. Far from insisting on the separation of politics and theology, Madison and the other architects of American secularism articulated a political theology of separation.

Are their arguments still relevant today? Just ask Sayyid Iyad Jamaleddine, an Iraqi Shiite cleric, and one of the true revolutionaries calling for absolute separation of mosque and state in Iraq: �I am a Muslim. I am devoted to my religion. I want to get it back from the state and that is why I want a secular state. . . . When young people come to religion, not because the state orders them to but because they feel it themselves in their hearts, it actually increases religious devotion.� Madison couldn�t have said it better.

Those seeking a toe-hold for liberal democracy in Islamic societies: �Secularism is not blasphemy. . . . The Koran is a book to be interpreted [by] each age. Each epoch should not be tied to interpretations from 1,000 years ago. We should be open to interpretations based on new and changing times.� Cultural critics like Ibn Warraq and Pervez Hoodbhoy contend that there can be no lasting democratic reform of Islamic societies without doctrinal reform of Islam so as to embrace reason, science, and free inquiry. Like Locke and Madison before them, these Islamic would-be founders can construct their cases for secularism only by ignoring the confines of the privacy model.

This is not to say that only religious people can be genuine secularists. Madison himself was no orthodox Christian, and Warraq is an unbeliever. Today secularists range from pious Baptists and Jews to born-again atheists, and the great unchurched in between. It is to say that the full defense of secularism inevitably involves controversial religious claims. To the extent that secularism forbids public deliberation about such claims, it becomes self-undermining.

Granted, there is no doubt one sense in which it is unproblematic to say that religion is a private affair. It is and ought to be a non-governmental affair. The apparatus of state power should not be placed under clerical control or used to favor any religion (or religion over irreligion). If that is what secularists mean by �private,� they would do well to simply say what they mean, and retire the troublesome concept of privacy.


Deprivatizing belief


Nearly twenty years ago, Father Richard John Neuhaus denounced the �naked public square.� As he saw it, religion was being driven out of public life by secularism taken too far. Today, politics is pious as never before, and it�s the secularists who find themselves with no clothes.

American secularism has reached an impasse. In a post-theocratic but religious society, the project of �privatizing� conscience can lead nowhere but into strategic blunders and intellectual incoherence. With its ambiguity between the personal, the sectarian, the subjective, and the non-governmental, the concept of privacy is too crude a tool to properly frame secularist arguments. Yet by relegating conscience to the world of subjectivity, the philosophy of privacy insulates it from due public scrutiny. If they want to resist the social agenda of theological conservatism, liberals will have to do better than asking the devout to please refrain from speaking their minds. Better to look to the philosophy of our church-state fathers, and the democratic hopefuls of Islam. They remind us that for secularism to hold sway in a religious society, it has no choice but to engage with the substance of conscience.  (The end)


Dr. Austin Dacey is the editor of Philo, a magazine in Applied Philosophy. He is a published author and currently the Chair of the Center for Inquiry (, Metro New York Branch. 

 �  Mukto-Mona