Most people allow that democracy’s historical roots are somehow related to biblical religion. Most, but not all. Some textbook tellings of democracy’s story attribute the whole idea to classical Greece. In this version, the influence of Christianity was entirely negative. Religion as the enemy of democratic freedom is epitomized, it is said, in the Inquisition. The classic period and our modern era of enlightenment are the opposite of everything represented by the Inquisition. Those who tell the story this way overlook the fact that in 300 years the Inquisition had fewer victims than were killed any given afternoon during the years of Stalin’s purges and Hitler’s concentration camps. Nonetheless, it is asserted that the modern era is uniquely friendly to democratic freedom.

The American experiment, which more than any other has been normative for the world’s thinking about democracy, is not only derived from religiously grounded belief, it continues to depend upon such belief. In his first year as vice president under the new Constitution, John Adams said, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Our constitution was made only for a moral and a religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”

Secular historians and social theorists typically assert that a new and different grounding is now necessary, for in a “secular society” religion cannot provide the cohesion required. The assertion that we have “moved beyond” the possibility of a religious grounding of democracy says more about those who make the assertion than it does about American society.

Americans, as a people, are as religious, probably more religious, than they have ever been. Their religious allegiances are identifiably Judeo-Christian. Dissent from a broadly defined religious orthodoxy is perhaps more marginal today than it was in the heyday of eighteenth-century deism. The militantly antireligious campaign of, for example, a Thomas Paine would likely have little influence today.

The discussion of religion’s demise in “secular America” is a discussion carried on within a relatively small elite. All the while, ordinary people have gone along assuming that of course morality, public and private, is derived from religion. Most are mildly puzzled and a minority is outraged when told in textbooks and television that ours is a secular society.

Desire Disguised As Fact

Among the outraged, the suspicion grows that there is some kind of conspiracy afoot. It is said that certain elites declare things to be the way they want things to be. They declare the demise, or at least the decline, of religion because it is required for the kind of emancipation they seek. They declare the nuclear family to be moribund because the family is seen as repressive.

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Meanwhile, however, the great majority of Americans, heedless of the wisdom imparted by their presumed betters, continue to go to church and to rate the “traditional” family as among life’s highest goods.

I served as presidential appointee on the ill-fated White House Conference on Families. One of the forces there was a cluster of activist homosexual organizations. It, in alliance with some feminists, was instrumental in having the name of the conference changed: from White House Conference on the Family to White House Conference on Families. The plural was critical because, they asserted, the sixties and seventies had witnessed a revolution in “alternative lifestyles” and alternative ways of defining what constitutes a family.

In a public hearing a gay activist spokesman, a medical doctor, was urging that the conference recommend changes in family law that would reflect this “revolution.” He agreed that the government’s legitimate interest in the family was protecting children and other dependents. In the ensuing exchange we explored the nature and extent of the revolution.

Stipulating for the sake of the exchange that 10 percent of the population is homosexual in inclination, it was allowed that there are about 25 million homosexuals in America. How many of those who are homosexual in orientation are exclusively and actively homosexual in practice? The doctor said his organization estimated the number to be 20 percent, thus arriving at the figure of 5 million “gays.” Since one-night stands could not qualify as a “family unit,” it was agreed that there should be a “longevity test” for such qualification, say of five years living together.

While lacking precise statistics, the doctor’s “informed guess” was that about 5 percent of homosexual couples had lived together for five years or more. Of these 125,000 “married couples,” how many would have a child or elderly dependent in their care? Again, he thought about 5 percent, meaning 6,250 homosexual “families” of legitimate interest to government policy. The doctor’s figures may be greatly inflated, but even if they are accurate, in a society of more than 230 million people the revolution he and others declare is an almost imperceptible ripple. A few thousand or a few hundred people are very important and, for the sake of children and dependents, public policy must take them into account. But that a national commission should spend millions of dollars recommending the overhaul of family law in America on the basis of such “revolutions” is, not to put too fine a point on it, absurd. Yet it is but one in a long list of absurdities by which desire is disguised as declaration of fact.

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For better and for worse, traditional values are very much alive in America. Some who view all tradition as oppressive earnestly desire that such values should die. Toward that end, they propagate “the fact” of their demise. However many there are who actively promote a revolutionary reevaluation of values, there are many more who quietly assimilate the dogmas of secularism.

Among those dogmas, few have been so widely assimilated as the proposition that ours is a secular society. Religion may be indulged in privacy, but it is no longer available for the reconstruction of the public ethic. What has happened in recent decades is a redefinition of what constitutes “the real world.” Under the current guardians of public perceptions, religion only shows up on the screen when it impinges upon a real world defined apart from religion. We have all agreed, have we not, that ours is a secular society?

Media And Secularization

Those of us who received the grace of working with Martin Luther King, Jr., know how profoundly his life and work were empowered by religious faith. Following King’s assassination, a television announcer spoke in solemn tones: “And so today there was a memorial service for the slain civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was a religious service and it is fitting that it should be, for, after all, Dr. King was the son of a minister.”

How can we explain this astonishing blindness to the religious motive and meaning of King’s ministry? The announcer was speaking out of a habit of mind that was quite unconscious. The habit of mind is that religion must be kept at one remove from the public square, that matters of public significance must be sanitized of religious particularity.

The misunderstanding of King is not an isolated instance but is symptomatic of the way our world is interpreted by prestige communicators. These interpreters are not the mastermind of a secular humanist conspiracy, but victims of the secularizing mythology of which they are hardly aware. Thus, were the mythical Man from Mars to watch television news and read the prestige press for many months, he would likely be quite oblivious to the role of religion in the society. He certainly would not know that, next to family and work, the things that Americans do most are called religion.

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The point is not to excoriate the media. The point is that the widespread exclusion of religiously grounded values and beliefs is at the heart of the outrage and alienation of millions of Americans. They do not recognize their experience of America in the picture of it purveyed by cultural and communications elites. At the heart of this nonrecognition—which results in everything from puzzlement to crusading fever—is the absence of religion.

At one level, it can be said that the prevailing situation is extremely non-democratic. At another level, more closely related to sociological theory, it must be said that the situation cannot be sustained. The emptiness of the public square will be filled by a state-promulgated civil religion, which poses a threat of totalitarianism. Or the emptiness will continue until the public square is finally invaded by one or another existing belief system, whether of the Left or the Right.

Church And State: Not A New Problem

It is important to caution ourselves against the crisis mongering of those who would tell us that these problems came into being only yesterday. The role of religion and the democratization of public values have been problematic from the beginning of the American experiment. Thomas Jefferson was hardly a conventionally religious person. Unlike many of those who signed the Declaration of Independence, he thought one of its central purposes was to free people from “monkish ignorance and superstition.”

Monkish ignorance and superstition, in his view, is what is ordinarily meant by Christian orthodoxy. Jefferson thought his “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom” in Virginia one of the three greatest achievements in his life. The same Jefferson, however, had no illusions that democracy had resolved the religious question by establishing “the separation of church and state.”

Consider, for example, his well-known reflection on the immorality of slavery: “And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.…”

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Jefferson understood that the naked public square is a very dangerous place. No constitution or written law is strong enough to defend rights under attack. Their “only firm basis” is in their being perceived as a transcendent gift. At the same time, the denial of such rights, as they were denied by slavery, cannot be sustained without invoking the dreadful judgment that follows upon the defiance of that moral basis.

Law And Secularization

Jefferson’s understanding of the unstated religious foundation of this democracy has been seconded frequently by the Supreme Court. A problem has been, and continues to be, how to state the unstated. In other words, the goal is to acknowledge the “only firm basis” of democracy without running into the difficulties of a government establishment of a particular way of expressing that religious basis. The careful balancing and nuancing that is required is evident in Zorach v. Clauson (1952) in which the Court declared, “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.” This is a statement not of establishment but of acknowledgment.

Determined secularists sometimes dismiss the Zorach decision as something of a quirk in American judicial history. The statement in Zorach, however, was not an idiosyncratic aside. It was accompanied by reasoned explanation that bears a closer look: “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. We guarantee the freedom to worship as one chooses. We make room for as wide a variety of beliefs and creeds as the spiritual needs of man deem necessary. We sponsor an attitude on the part of government that shows no partiality to any one group and lets each flourish according to the zeal of its adherents and the appeal of its dogma. When the state encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events (such as “released time” in schools) to sectarian needs, it follows the best of our traditions. For it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public service to their spiritual needs. To hold that it may not would be to find in the Constitution a requirement that the government show a callous indifference to religious groups. That would be preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe.”

A little over 10 years later, in 1963, Abington came before the Court. The quarrel then had to do with Pennsylvania’s practice of Bible reading in government schools. Justice Clark wrote for the majority and attempted, as is required, to demonstrate that the decision was in agreement with prior Court pronouncements. Quoting from an earlier finding, he acknowledged that “the history of man is inseparable from the history of religion.” He observed that many of the founding fathers believed in God and cited other instances in which the state continues to recognize religion.

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Scholars have pointed out, however, that there is a significant shift from Zorach to Abington. In the second there is no affirmation that our institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. Nor is it said, as it was said in Zorach and earlier statements, that people do in fact have religious needs that the state must respect. Nor is there admission of the need for public encouragement of religion. As Prof. Glen Thurow writes: “All that is recognized [in Abington] is that our people do in fact participate in religious observances.… The Court does not say whether it is good or bad that our national life reflects a religious people.”

Abington is curious in another way. Historically, religious freedom was thought to be in the service of religious practice. Religious freedom was not primarily freedom from religion—although the freedom to espouse no religion or even to oppose all religion was carefully protected—but freedom to exercise religion in whatever way a person deems fit. In Abington, however, religious freedom is set against religious observance. Again Thurow: “Religion and the policy of freedom of religion are no longer seen as having a common root in recognition of presumed spiritual needs and institutional dependency on a Supreme Being. There is not one tradition, but two.”

Abington set asunder what had been a unified tradition, as articulated in Zorach and innumerable other statements from our legal and political history. Some of the other justices recognized the ominous implications of Abington. When “religious freedom” is set against religious observance it tends to become the same thing as secularism. If, in addition to that, the burden of constitutional guarantees are put on the side of this version of religious freedom, the state’s alleged neutrality to religion easily slides into hostility. Justice Stewart said as much in his dissenting opinion: “And a refusal to permit religious exercises thus is seen, not as the realization of state neutrality, but rather as the establishment of a religion of secularism, or at the least, as government support of the beliefs of those who think that religious exercises shall be conducted only in private.”

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Although agreeing with the decision, Justices Goldberg and Harlan also had grave misgivings: “But unilateral devotion to the concept of neutrality can lead to invocation or approval of results which partake not simply of that noninterference and noninvolvement with the religious …, but of a brooding and pervasive devotion to the secular and a passive, or even active, hostility to the religious.” In their reservations, the justices edge up to the insight that the naked public square cannot remain truly naked. The need for an overarching meaning, for a moral legitimation, will not go undenied. What is called neutrality toward religion is an invitation for a substitute religion. That substitute will be constructed from reasoning that is compatible with “a brooding and pervasive devotion to the secular.”

While the 1952 decision is more satisfactory than that of 1963, Professor Thurow is correct, I believe, in arguing that both miss the public character of religion and of religiously based values. Thurow’s point is worth quoting at some length:

“Justice Douglas asserts that our institutions presuppose a Supreme Being, but he discusses only the accommodation of private desires and needs. Neither opinion raises directly the question of the public good involved. As under the theory of laissez faire in economics, the theory of the Court is that it is the function of government to allow or facilitate and to harmonize the private religious or irreligious desires of individual citizens, without any explicit consideration of the public good. But we may wonder whether the conflicting private desires of citizens can be harmonized for the public good without considering what the public good as a whole requires” (emphasis added).

This supposed neutrality to religion is a novelty, a break with the one tradition of the republic. Along with many other students of the subject, Thurow points to Abraham Lincoln as the exemplar of that tradition. Before the tradition was split and religious freedom was set against religion, it was understood that reference to the transcendent was a public reference by which public purpose was defined and judged. To be sure, that way of speaking of God in public lingers on in presidential Thanksgiving Day proclamations and in inaugural ceremonies. But such references are thought to be no more than elements of a vapid and residual “civil religion.”

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Private Religion

As in the media, then, so also in the courts and centers of higher learning it is more or less taken for granted that ours is a secular society. When religion insists upon intruding itself into public space with an aggressive force that cannot be denied, it is either grudgingly acknowledged, or alarms are raised about the impending return of the Middle Ages. Then the proposition becomes more explicit: if ours is not a secular society, it should be. Unless overwhelmingly countered by the evidence, the tendency is for that desire to be presented as fact. For an event to be legitimately public, it must be secular. If it is touched by religion, that is to be viewed as a private and somewhat idiosyncratic factor. King was a legitimate public figure, despite the fact that he “was the son of a minister.” One “happens to be” religious, but it is not a factor that warrants public consideration.

Public consideration of the religious beliefs of others is an invasion of privacy. The public assertion of one’s own beliefs is an imposition upon carefully sterilized space. In the modern version of civility we agree not to lay uncomfortably ultimate burdens upon others. Our highest religious duty is not to offend those who might be offended by the idea of religious duty. There is much that is necessary and even admirable in this understanding of civility. But civility is vacuous when separated from the civitas of shared values. More than being vacuous, it is untenable; it inevitably results in the construction of values that are hostile to those values that might have given offense in the first place.

The democratic vitalities of America are today being stirred by those who were not consulted when it was decided that this is a secular society. Groups like the Moral Majority come to the public square not with the political religion of the republic but with the revivalist politics of the camp meeting. Confession of sin, repentance, decision, walking the sawdust trail—all is transferred to political campaign and ballot box. Revivalist politics is also not new in American life. It is usually populist in nature and can erupt on the political Right or Left. In 1972, George McGovern accepted the presidential nomination in a ringing speech that catalogued America’s iniquities, its wanderings from the path of righteousness. Again and again he cried out, “Come home, America!” Condemnation, contrition, turning, and returning—such are the elements in what the theologians call the ordo salutis, the steps of salvation, whether for persons or nations.

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The alliance between religion and the protest against perceived cultural directions is not accidental. That is, the protest could not have allied itself with some other institution, such as the university, or labor unions, or a political party. This is true because other institutions have narrower interests and lack a base in mass participation. But it is most importantly true because only religion must, by definition, insist upon moral truth that is transcendent, intersubjective, and therefore normative. True, science and the university that limits itself to scientific knowledge speak about normative truth; but, again by definition, scientific knowledge does not address the issue of moral purpose, not to mention the question of transcendent judgment.

Without a transcendent or religious point of reference, conflicts of values cannot be resolved; there can only be procedures for their temporary accommodation. Conflicts over values are viewed not as conflicts between contending truths but as conflicts between contending interests. If one person believes that incest is wrong and should be outlawed while another person believes incest is essential for sexual liberation, the question in a thoroughly secularized society is how these conflicting “interests” might be accommodated.

Since the person who practices incest can do so without denying the rights of the person who abhors incest, the accommodation will inevitably be skewed in favor of incest. Similarly, one person believes the government has an obligation to assist the poor through tax dollars while another denies that there is any such obligation. Since the “interests” of the first person cannot be accommodated without interfering with the “interests” of the second person (by imposing higher taxes), the accommodation will be skewed in favor of the second.

What the justices described as a “pervasive and brooding devotion to the secular” leads to the extreme forms of libertarianism that erupt from time to time on both the Left and the Right of the political spectrum. It is tenuously based upon the split in the one tradition by which historically our public life was held accountable to critical judgment. In a thoroughly secular society, notions of what is morally excellent or morally base are not publicly admissible. That is, they are not admissible as moral judgment: they have public status only as they reflect the “interest” of those who hold them. Only when we are forced to talk about morality within the context of the formal polity as, for example, in court cases, do we discover that the secular theory about our common life is frustrated by the moral and religious character of our common life.

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In New York State a law has been passed forbidding the use of young children in the making of pornographic films. In order to protect it against challenges from extreme civil libertarians, it is specifically stated that the law is not based upon moral or religious reasons. The reasoning offered is that making pornographic films is injurious to the mental health of young children. Such are the results of what Philip Rieff described as “the therapeutic society.”

A secular polity requires that we profess more confidence in the “scientific” notions of psychiatry than in our moral judgment. In fact, while psychiatric and a host of other considerations might inform moral judgment, the law reflects the moral judgment of legislators who are responsive to the moral judgment of their constituencies. But they cannot admit that the law is based upon moral judgment. In a court challenge, expert psychiatric witnesses would no doubt be produced to testify that child pornography is perfectly healthy. Perhaps even a professional association of therapists might so testify, much as American psychiatrists in recent years “scientifically” determined that homosexuality is no longer an illness. Were that to happen, the legislature would have to resort to some other excuse by which to disguise its acting upon its moral judgment that child pornography is wrong.

Aristotle speaks of the impossibility of discussing virtue with people who are “handicapped by some incapacity for goodness.” The notion of a secular society compels political actors to pretend to be more morally handicapped than they are. It might be argued that this is the price to be paid for a pluralistic society. The price is too high. What is meant by “pluralism” in such arguments is frequently indifference to normative truth, an agreement to count all opinions about morality as equal (equal “interests” to be accommodated) because we are agreed there is no truth by which judgment can be rendered. The result is the debasement of our public life by the exclusion of the idea—and consequently of the practice—of virtue.

Virtue And Politics

A familiar statement from Aristotle is pertinent: “Anything that we have to learn to do we learn by the actual doing of it: people become builders by building and instrumentalists by playing instruments. Similarly we become just by performing just acts, temperate by performing temperate ones, brave by performing brave ones. This view is supported by what happens in city-states. Legislators make their citizens good by habituation; this is the intention of every legislator, and those who do not carry it out fail of their object. This is what makes the difference between a good constitution and a bad one.”

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It is only in recent years that the Constitution of the United States has been interpreted to mandate that legislators fail, or at least pretend to fail, in carrying out their object. As “by habituation” we pretend not to be concerned for the good, we become what we pretend to be. The intervention of religiously based values in public affairs is a protest against that pretense. Whether that intervention speaks to our obligation for the hungry of the world or to the necessity of protection of the unborn and other endangered humans in our own society, it is a call for us to assume the dignity of being moral actors.

We are not merely atomistic individuals with interests to be accommodated but persons of reason and conviction whose humanity requires participation in the process of persuasion. From Aristotle through Jefferson, and up to the very recent past, politics was thought of as that process of persuading and being persuaded; a process engaged in by a community brought into being by its shared acknowledgment of the existence of truth beyond its certain grasp.

It is not that the greats of Western political philosophy did not understand the importance of accommodation. Burke, reflecting on the American experience, observed: “All government—indeed, every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue and prudent act—is founded on compromise and barter.” Persuasion often reaches its limits. It is one thing for you to propose a compromise when you realize that you will not persuade your neighbor of your understanding of the truth. It is quite another to conclude that there is no question of truth involved. In the first instance you remain a moral actor, acting according to the virtue of prudence. In the second instance, it is merely a matter of ciphers with conflicting interests splitting the difference.

Were the battle against a cabal of “secular humanists,” as some would have it, there would be reason for greater optimism. They could be exposed and driven from their positions of influence, perhaps. Our difficulty is greater than that. It is the pervasive influence of ideas about a secular society and a secular state, ideas that have insinuated themselves also into our religious thinking and that have been institutionalized in our politics.

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The proposition that America is a secular society is contrary to sociological fact. The American people are more incorrigibly religious than ever before. The proposition is impossible in principle. The American experience is not self-legitimating; it requires what it has until recently possessed, some sense of transcendent meaning. And the proposition is politically unsustainable. There are simply too many people who are no longer prepared to pretend that we are not the kind of people we are.

Whatever he may have meant by it, and whatever he did with it, Jimmy Carter’s intuition was democratically sound: the task is to provide government as good as are the American people. More precisely—since Americans are not necessarily more “good” in their behavior than others—a government responsive to the good to which most Americans aspire. Whatever our political persuasion, if we care about a democratic future, we have a deep stake in reconstructing a politics that was not begun by and cannot be sustained by the myth of secular America.

Tim Stafford is a free-lance writer living in Santa Rosa, California. He is a distinguished contributor to several magazines. His latest book is Do You Sometimes Feel Like a Nobody? (Zondervan, 1980).

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