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Secularism not the default

September 17, 2011

In his book The End of Secularism, Hunter Baker makes the point that secularism needs to be treated as but one ideology among many in America, not the default position.

There are a couple of reasons it became the default. One is secularization theory, a theory now discredited among a number of sociologists of religion. According to this theory, secularism is the end of a natural process. Auguste Comte believed that societies graduate through three stages: the theological, the metaphysical, and the positive (knowledge through the empirical; no room for the supernatural). Similarly, historians of religions have claimed that there is a progression from maya and animism through polytheism and henotheism to monotheism, with the next stage being the advancement beyond religion. So the secular condition in the West is considered by its adherents to be the natural end of this evolutionary development and therefore correct.

Another reason is that encapsulated in the phrase “separation of church and state.” We’re told that our Founders wanted to keep these two separate, so therefore religion has no place in public life (beyond ceremony, perhaps). The confusion here is between separation of church and state–an institutional matter between Congress and organized religion–and the separation of religious belief and politics. Any reading of our nation’s founding will show the Founding Fathers didn’t have that in mind. People could freely try to persuade and cast their vote based upon religious beliefs.

In an article titled “Our Secularist Democratic Party” (, writers Louis Bolce and Gerald de Maio make the case that the rise of traditionalist religious belief in the Republican Party isn’t simply an improper incursion of religion into politics, but marks a shift from an intraparty culture war within the Democratic Party to an interparty war between Democrats and Republicans. A marked change occurred in the 1972 elections when the secularist voice grew much stronger in the Democratic Party and the traditionalist religious voice was squelched (or at least softened considerably). So there wasn’t simply a rise of traditional religion on the right; there was a diminishing of it on the left and a subsequent countering rise on the right.

To return to Baker. The point of this is to make clear that secularism isn’t simply the proper default position in America. It was a choice made by people with an antipathy to traditional religion (reminiscent of the choice made to crowd religion out of the universities and other social centers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; see Christian Smith, ed., The Secular Revolution). In our postmodern day when there is no settled metanarrative that should define all, it should be even easier to argue that secularism is merely one view among many and not to be privileged at all. It isn’t the natural result of an evolutionary development (a paper theory), nor is the secular mentality in its current form what our Founders were pushing for.

Thus, rather than simply focusing on our rights to have our voice heard as though appealing hat in hand to the secular masters of the house, or going further (as some may still do) to insist that this was a Christian country once and we want it back and to spend much effort in denouncing the other side, maybe we should just steadily beat the drum for the recognition that secularism is just one worldview (of sorts) among many and not the default position that has rights above all others. It has as great an obligation to justify itself as traditional religion.


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