The death of American Secularism
Last night’s analysis via reductio ad absurdum by Jon Stewart of the Greek elections results (how two dead & defeated ideologies, Nazism & Communism, are making major comebacks in 2012), made me think that a similar take on the dead & defeated ideology Christianity represents (well, in Europe at least, where it is not in power except for the Vatican enclave) is much needed in view of its current absurd advances in this country. Faute de comique, on mange de l’essai: Below an article from the UK magazine New Humanist by Jacques Berlinerblau (an American scholar — it may be worthwhile to speculate why this is published in the UK & not the US?):
The death of American secularism
Lest he be misunderstood, recently withdrawn Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum wanted to make it perfectly clear that he did, in fact, want to vomit upon reading a famous 1960 address by John F Kennedy. “Because the first line, the first substantive line in the speech,” a revving Santorum explained to journalist George Stephanopoulos in February, “says I believe in America where separation of church and state is absolute.” Santorum then disgorged: “To say people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes me want to throw up!”
Needless to say, not one syllable of JFK’s famed oration suggested that believing Americans have no role in the public square. The first substantive line in the speech (pace Santorum) was that “war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers.” The young senator, soon to be president, proceeded to envisage a country “where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all … where religious intolerance will someday end; where all men and all churches are treated as equal; where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice.”
Sentiments such as these outrage the current, outrage-prone iteration of the GOP and its base. This is a base, incidentally, that has made quite a name for itself throughout the election season’s many raucous debates: it lustily booed the Golden Rule, wildly cheered the death penalty, and did not bat an eye when governor Rick Perry of Texas proposed that the United States re-invade Iraq.
The present Republican frontrunner, Mitt Romney, already canvassed the Church/State beat during his first presidential run four years ago. He too invoked Kennedy, albeit respectfully and without reference to bodily fluids, as he lamented the establishment of a “religion of secularism”. That alleged faith sought “to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God”. Candidate Newt Gingrich, mired in the second division but seemingly enjoying himself nonetheless, routinely decries “Obama’s secular-socialist machine” on the campaign trail.
Which seems to be a baseless accusation since the president, like so many other Democrats, has given secularism the old heave-ho. How else to explain his supersizing of George W Bush’s much-maligned Office of Faith-based Initiatives? How else to make sense of the quasi-Christological disquisitions he delivers on occasions like the National Prayer Breakfast and Easter Prayer Breakfast? It was, after all, junior senator Obama who once cautioned his party against equating “tolerance with secularism” in The Audacity of Hope – a warning heeded by disconsolate Democrats who watched Bush flutter to a narrow victory in 2004 on the wings of Conservative Christian “values voters”.
When, how, and why did secularism become such a problematic and controversial idea in America? Why have both of the nation’s major political parties and three branches of federal government turned their backs on it? Why has jacking-up (as the American footballers like to say) an already woozy secularism become such a lucrative sport for political and religious demagogues alike?
The sheer volume of persuasive answers to these questions testifies to the current malaise of the secular idea in the United States. One failsafe explanation, however, is the 40-year ascent of religious conservatives in the United States. An almost direct correlation exists between their rise and the fall of those seemingly unobjectionable principles espoused by a figure like Kennedy. What happened to secularism? The Christian Right happened to secularism.
From humble beginnings in the post-Roe v. Wade maelstrom of the ’70s, this movement has grown into an immense, diverse, well-funded, political and cultural juggernaut. Its activists are everywhere, from local PTA Boards to statehouse to Washington DC. Its worldview is articulated and defended by a formidable cohort of pundits and intellectuals. Its ideological concerns (e.g., abortion, opposition to gay marriage or gay anything) dictate many of the policies of the Republican Party. And its convictions about America being a “nation under God” and/or a “Christian nation” do not lack for sympathisers on the United States Supreme Court.
That a traditionalist Catholic and anti-secularist such as Santorum could garner so much primary support in the South among White Evangelical Protestants – interestingly, his co-religionists can’t seem to stomach him – is significant. His success in Dixie casts light on the unprecedented and reactionary voter formations that began to coalesce in the middle decades of the 20th century.