Sunday, October 24, 2004
In the American Prospect this month, Robert Kuttner conducts an extensive survey of recent works on the relationship between religion and democracy. He comes out in favor of a robust secularism, citing Jefferson as an important historical and intellectual influence. Long-time readers will know that I am no particular fan of Jefferson- I have generally ended up on the Hamilton side of the historical ledger. But the issue of religious liberty is one where Jefferson spoke with real and consistent force. Jefferson was convinced deist and the author of the Virginia statutes on religious liberty. I believe he even coined the phrase "wall of separation." So I am going to give props to Jefferson for this.
Moving on to the substance of the piece...
Kuttner's article raises a couple of interesting points. First, while there are more avowed secularists in this country than ever before, secularism as a whole is at one of its historical low points in this country. Second, the political base of support for separating religion and politics in this country does not come from "freethinkers." It came from dissenting Protestants (Baptists, particularly) and Catholics who feared that mainline Protestantism would impose its views on them. This coalition held up for a very long time, but in recent years right-wing Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants have become the most active foes of separation. I am beginning to think that the alliance had less to do with theology ("give unto Caesar what is Caesar's", combined with the individualistic character of Protestantism) than with power. Perhaps the only reason they ever supported secularism is because they thought they would be the victims any state-sanctioned religion. These days they are likely to be the beneficiaries.
Liberal securalists should learn from this experience that they have few reliable allies among people of faith. Of course some religious folks believe as a matter of principle that church and state must be divided. But the greater part would abandon us if the balance of forces were to change. It reminds me of Palmerston's comment: "A nation has neither permanent allies nor permanent enemies, but permanent interests."
It is vital that we broker alliances with devoted people of faith who stand outside the conservative Catholic/fundamentalist Protestant coalition. Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and Jews are logical places to look. We will only be able to do so if we aggressively challenge the legitimacy of mixing church and state. Respect people of faith, of course- that can only win us credibility with those we are trying to persuade while perhaps defusing the animosity directed at us by our enemies. But our potential allies will never join us if they do not realize that their interests are as much at stake as ours.