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One Nation Under God?

Samuel Gregg

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To European eyes, America seems a remarkably united religious country. But the United States is as prey to disputes over secularism as other Western nations

In the wake of the war with Iraq, it has become commonplace to attribute many of the apparent differences between Western Europeans and Americans to the fact that Western Europe has become heavily "secular" in its moral, political, and legal culture. By contrast, America is often portrayed in the press as an increasingly religious country, at least in terms of church-going and other forms of regular religious practice.

But whether we speak of America as a religious nation or secular one depends, of course, on what we mean by secular. As Oxford's John Finnis noted in a 2003 address at Princeton University, the word "secular" was coined by Latin Christians to describe those things which "are not divine, sacred, or ecclesiastical", and that its resonances were not always negative. Finnis then pointed out that Christian faith actually encourages "secularisation" in so far as this means the extension of human understanding and control over fields of life previously inaccessible to human science and technology, precisely because Christian faith insists on both God's transcendence and the intelligibility of his creation through science.

There is a world of difference, however, between this understanding of the secular and what Princeton's Robert P. George describes as "orthodox secularism". By this, George means "a sectarian doctrine with its own metaphysical and moral presuppositions and foundations, with its own myths, and, one might even argue, its own rituals". Implicitly atheistic, deeply utilitarian in its mode of reasoning, and profoundly influenced by David Hume's philosophical scepticism, orthodox secularism, as portrayed by George and other American scholars, has two effects upon public debate.

The first is that it treats concerns about subjectivity and autonomy as the primary reference point for moral, political and legal decision-making. A second effect is its radical privatisation of religion. Religion, it is held, is a strictly personal affair and ought not to exert any influence in the public square. Portrayed in these terms, secularism is a set of commitments that transcends typical right -- left political divisions. Though influential American thinkers such as the now-deceased philosophers John Rawls and Robert Nozick disagreed about bread-and-butter political matters such as appropriate taxation levels, they were as one when it came to regarding a concern for autonomy as the ultimate trump-card in political discussion. Thus it was hardly surprising that both scholars signed a "philosophers' brief" to the United States Supreme Court in 1997 arguing that people enjoyed a right to physician-assisted suicide. Nor did either believe that religiously informed conviction had much if any real role to play in political discussions.

Such views are not, incidentally, a fringe opinion within the American academy. Most secularists themselves would probably concede that these ideas constitute a reigning orthodoxy within many universities, including some with religious affiliations.

Interestingly, few American politicians openly decry the effect of religion upon society in ways that are not unusual in a variety of European settings. Both Republicans and Democrats ritually invoke God at events ranging from fund-raisers to legislative debates. The Democrat National Committee Chairman Howard Dean's recent description of the Republican Party as "full of white Christians" -- with all the arguably racist and sectarian undertones of such a remark -- was quite outside the mainstream of American politicians' commentary on religion.

A more common manifestation of secularist tendencies by some politicians, both Republican and Democrat, is their argument that they cannot "legislate their faith" into law because this would amount to a violation of the US constitution's clause forbidding the government to establish an official religion or state church. Most commonly, this argument is articulated by politicians who insist that while, as a matter of religious faith, they personally oppose abortion, they cannot impose their religious conviction about this issue upon others.

The obvious retort is that questions such as abortion and embryonic stem cell research are not strictly religious issues; that their legalisation can in fact be opposed on the basis of what science and reason tell us about the beginning of each human life and the need to ensure that all innocent human beings, regardless of their stage of development, ought, as a matter of natural justice, enjoy equal protection from the use of lethal force. But for the purposes of this discussion, it is especially revealing that some American politicians' responses to these arguments -- ranging from emphasising their prioritising of autonomy over all other considerations, to hinting at a basic illegitimacy of religiously informed views in the public square -- are drawn, sometimes almost word for word, from works of secularist political philosophy such as Rawls' Political Liberalism (1995).

This secularism has not, however, had its most profound effects within the legislative and executive branches of American government. Instead, secularist intellectual commitments, implicit or otherwise, appear to have exerted greater influences upon American political life through the judiciary, specially the United States Supreme Court.

This was not always the case. In his two-volume study, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Law (2004), the historian James Hitchcock notes that, until the 1940s, Supreme Court judges avoided expanding the scope of the American constitution's non-establishment clause in those rare instances that disputes about religion were actually presented for its judgement.

Hitchcock goes on, however, to suggest that, by the mid-1940s, the majority of the court consisted of men deeply alienated from, and hostile to, their religious upbringing. In the context of the emergence of more active concerns for civil liberties, it was not difficult for the court -- given the absence of much case law on religious subjects -- to begin constructing a legal doctrine for religion that amounted to an agenda for removing expressions of religious faith from the public square. Non-establishment was no longer viewed as simply forbidding the State's establishment of an official religion, but rather as embracing what Justice Hugo Black called "religion in general". It was on this basis that American judges began to rule that, for example, prayer -- even silent prayer -- in public schools was not permitted, or that displays of Christmas decorations amounted to a violation of the non-establishment clause.

The effect, of course, has been to turn issues such as school prayer into classic American cultural flashpoints. The broader and more serious implication of such judgements, however, is that they have effectively "established" a commitment to a type of atheism as the stance underlying much American judicial decision-making. In short, significant portions of American law now clearly require anyone working in the public square or associated in some way with the State to make choices and act "as if" there is no God. This is not, by any standard, a religiously neutral position. It might be said to constitute a desire to impose practical atheism upon the body politic. To paraphrase the Jesuit John Courtney Murray, "articles of peace" have been turned into "articles of faith".

While American religious organisations receiving state funds are regularly required to demonstrate that no such funding is used to support "strictly religious" activities (which has given rise to the curious exercise of courts deciding what is and is not strictly religious), American law is some way from requiring what would amount to religious tests upon those serving in public office. Nor should we underestimate the degree of mischief that has been perpetrated by some under the guise of exercising religious liberty. It is for good reason that that the Second Vatican Council's Dignitatis Humanae insists that the exercise of religious liberty is subject to the just requirements of public order (DH 3, 4).

It remains none the less true that secularism's steady spread throughout American political discourse presents American Catholics with significant dilemmas. This becomes apparent when we recall that in Gaudium et Spes, the Second Vatican Council invites Catholics to work towards ensuring that "the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city" (GS 43). Evidently, there is considerable room for prudential judgement among Catholics about the ways that they might contribute to such a goal. The choice not to work towards this end, however, is contrary to Catholic teaching.

For Catholics, the spiritual and the secular are different, but part of the same reality. Secularism's rigid segregation of the spiritual from the temporal effectively requires Catholics to deny the essence of what they believe humans to be: spiritual and material beings whose ultimate destiny is either heaven or hell, a destiny that depends partly upon their free choices in this life, including their choices in the public square. The implication of secularism is that Catholics should adopt a schizophrenic existence, affirming their faith in their private lives but condemned to inhabit a public square which declares persona non grata anyone who does not indirectly affirm practical atheism as the only legitimate context for public discourse. For a republic such as the United States, whose founding documents proudly proclaim religious liberty as a fundamental right, such a development would surely constitute a tragic paradox.

Samuel Gregg is director of research at the Acton Institute for the study of religion and liberty, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and a visiting professor at the John Paul II Pontifical Institute for Marriage and the Family within the Pontifical Lateran University. He is also the author of On Ordered Liberty (Lexington Books, 2003).

Read this article on the Tablet website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission.

Posted: 28 Jun, 05

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