The Struggle to Make the United States Secular

July 15, 2022   •   By Johann N. Neem

This Earthly Frame: The Making of American Secularism

Johann N. Neem

THE UNITED STATES is — or, at least, until very recently was — a Christian nation, something I understood as an Indian immigrant growing up in the 1980s, even in as diverse a place as California. I knew the United States was committed to religious liberty, but, still, Christianity was everywhere. You could not understand literature and history without knowing about Christianity. Ritualistic appeals to God were integral to American civil religion. Christianity offered Americans a shared vocabulary, and even our shared holidays — Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter — reflect the United States’s Christian roots.

That world is changing fast. In the past decade, the number of Americans who identify as Christian has plummeted, as the children of churchgoers abandon their parents’ faith. According to a 2021 Pew survey, only 63 percent of adults consider themselves Christians, down from 78 percent in 2007, while the number of adults identifying with no religion rose over the same period from 16 to 29 percent. The decline is almost entirely among Protestants. Only six percent of Americans belong to other faiths.

In this context, as David Sehat writes in This Earthly Frame: The Making of American Secularism, the left’s success at secularizing the United States’s public places and institutions has allowed the Christian Right to make claims for tolerance and expression in those same public places. Two cases recently decided by the Supreme Court involving the state’s obligation to avoid discriminating between secular and religious practices and institutions — over a public high school coach’s postgame prayer and using publicly-funded school vouchers at religious schools — demonstrate that we may be entering a new regime in which Christians seek protection from the majority rather than the other way around.

There are some who argue that the United States was never a Christian nation. Sehat makes clear that they are incorrect. Christianity was both supported in law and part of the United States’s background public culture. The story he tells is how, over the course of the 20th century, lawyers and jurists consistently challenged the explicit, and then implicit, presence of “Christian power and privilege.” Today, many progressive Americans presume that any recognition of Christianity by a public institution violates others’ rights. Sehat explores how we came to think this way.

In the 20th century, the Supreme Court embraced what Sehat calls “negative secularism.” Unlike positive secularism, which Sehat describes as “established unbelief,” American courts never sought to silence religion. Instead, “negative secularism requires a separation between an individual’s conception of metaphysical reality and the collective notions within the social and political order.” In other words, American secularism was the effort to find a way to define our national project while continuing to value faith. Sehat argues that negative secularism was promoted both by religious minorities and mainline Protestant organizations.

Sehat locates the Supreme Court’s embrace of negative secularism in the 1943 case West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette. Overturning a prior ruling, the Supreme Court determined that requiring individuals — in this case, two children from a Jehovah’s Witness family — to salute the flag was compelled speech that violated the First Amendment. To Justice Robert Jackson, who wrote the majority opinion, the issue was about protecting the freedom of conscience by allowing an exemption for faith. In contrast, Justice Felix Frankfurter believed that the state was a secular institution and should not offer special privileges for religion. The Court rejected Frankfurter’s positive secularism.

The cases kept coming. Sehat does a splendid job of helping us see Supreme Court justices grappling with complex issues honestly. In the 1947 Everson case, which incorporated the First Amendment into the protections promised by the 14th Amendment, the Supreme Court confusingly invoked Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between church and state to permit using public funds to bus children to Catholic schools. But the wall was raised in subsequent decisions striking down prayer (1962) and devotional Bible reading (1963) in public schools.

As controversial as these decisions were in their time, they were easy ones because they confronted outright efforts by government to support religion. They were landmark decisions because they made clear that the state could not coerce religious expression. The more complex problem concerned the reality that Christianity was, well, everywhere in American culture and provided the foundation for public morals. How to draw a line? One solution that the Supreme Court tried was to disentangle private morality from public culture by defining a zone of privacy secure from the public gaze. This was the Court’s determination in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), which struck down a law prohibiting the use of birth control. But now the Court would have to decide where to draw the line for religion in public venues.

Privacy created a new vocabulary that, Sehat writes, “reached its apotheosis” in 1973’s Roe v. Wade. Yet even as this line was being drawn, it was being undermined. From the left, civil rights activists, feminists, and others argued that the personal was political, and so any line between private and public spheres masked the exercise of power. From the right, Catholics and conservative Protestants, forging a new alliance, used the language of privacy to advocate legally protected spaces for their faith. The right argued — in cases involving segregated private academies, for example — that the law must protect religion from public morality, turning the tables on advocates of church-state separation. Ronald Reagan embraced this framework in 1980 when he argued that the First Amendment was not designed to protect people from religion but to protect religion from state tyranny. As Sehat insightfully observes, the result was, almost by necessity, the culture wars. Because both sides concluded that there can be no line between private and public, politics became about making the political conform to the personal.

Sehat offers a top-down history. He focuses on intellectuals, activists, ministers, lawyers, and the Supreme Court. We do not learn too much about the experiences of religious minorities, except as told through the perspective of court cases. One leaves Sehat’s story with a sense that secularization was an elite, rather than grassroots, movement. Indeed, most Americans did not want or ask for it. The project worked but not as anticipated, spurring a backlash on the right that continues to roil American politics, even as that backlash also alienated a generation of Protestants who left their churches. Christian America, as it lost its central role in American culture, also lost its moderation. Today, many conservative Christians consider themselves a persecuted minority.

By the 1980s, secularists had succeeded in “decoupling American political culture from the notion of Christian civilization.” Yet, Sehat admits, “the loss of a cultural center made it especially difficult to understand or to create religious determinations, to decide what counted as religious.” This is because it became harder to figure out what was an establishment of religion when Christianity was woven into the fabric of American life. Advocates of a secular state sought to vacuum up public Christianity, but it’s an almost impossible task.

Behind Sehat’s story is how the Supreme Court rose to the center of politics as the only institution that could referee the United States’s deep divisions. As a result, Americans channel their disagreements through the First Amendment’s Establishment and Free Exercise clauses. For liberals, this means treating even the slightest expression of Christianity in public institutions as an establishment. For conservatives, it means treating the private conscience rights of large business owners as similar to the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses walking door-to-door selling religious literature, as the Supreme Court determined in its 2014 Hobby Lobby decision. These claims simply make no sense, but they reflect the Court’s significant role as arbiter of our culture wars.

By the 1990s, Christians could no longer take for granted their special place in the American nation. For Christian conservatives, one response has been to ally with the Republican Party to take back the United States, even if that means passing hateful laws that mock Christ’s message to love one’s neighbor, winning elections through draconian rules and gerrymandering, and, if those efforts fail, embracing violence. But Sehat focuses on another strategy: “Christian conservatives,” Sehat writes, “had learned the language of the New Left.”

And so religious conservatives flipped the script. “[P]luralism,” Sehat concludes, “could be used to demand the public recognition of private religious belief via the language of religious freedom.” After Hobby Lobby came the Espinoza decision striking down Montana’s constitutional prohibition against using public funds for religious schools. And then the Supreme Court upheld a Trump administration rule allowing institutions to exempt themselves from offering birth control under Obamacare. This May, in a majority opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer, the Court ruled that Boston violated the Constitution by rejecting an application to fly a Christian flag in front of City Hall. Today, declaring an entity private “shields religious ideas and bodies from the reach of public scrutiny […] even when private groups are using public funds.”

This is what it looks like to live in a multicultural society, something that the left had long sought and now the right demands. We are becoming a confederation of racial-ethnic-religious tribes living together under a common legal framework, united by a state (and really a Court) but not nationality. Sehat recognizes the issue but struggles to resolve it. He urges advocates of secularism to change the terms of debate — perhaps by focusing on religious equality over religious freedom — or to take the next step and embrace positive secularism. To me, this was a disappointing conclusion to a wonderful book. I was hoping for something that would not be about how one side can outwit the other in never-ending culture wars but how we might resolve them. Maybe Sehat can’t do so because of his framing of the problem. If the primary goal is eradicating “Christian power and privilege,” then the issue is neither ensuring the separation of church and state nor protecting religious expression but rather using state power to transform American culture.

A potential alternative would take a cue from former president Barack Obama’s 2016 remarks before the Islamic Society of Baltimore. Obama empathized with the fear many Muslims felt when they were being targeted following 9/11. He made clear that no one should feel insecure because of their faith. Obama reminded all Americans that, “at a time when others are trying to divide us along lines of religion or sect, we have to reaffirm that most fundamental of truths: We are all God’s children. We’re all born equal, with inherent dignity.” Obama’s appeal to dignity offers a way to talk about religious liberty. Dignity depends on mutual respect, not an effort to evacuate every remnant of Christianity from American public culture and institutions. It draws on most Americans’ preexisting moral commitments. It might just allow us to focus on what really is at stake in the United States’s long-standing commitment to religious freedom.

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Johann N. Neem is author of What’s the Point of College? Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform and Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America. He teaches history at Western Washington University.