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By Tom Gjelten
Christian conservatives who are battling for the right to promote their faith in public or official settings see themselves locked in an epic contest with a rival religion. But that rival isn’t Islam. It’s secularism.
“Secularism and Christianity are distinct, immutable religions,” writes David Lane, founder of the American Renewal Project, a group he organized to promote more political participation by conservative pastors. “Secularism advances the fundamental goodness of human nature, where historic Christianity sets forth a pessimistic view of human nature.”
The notion that secularism can be seen as a religion is ridiculed by many nonreligious people, but Lane and other Christian conservatives have their own Supreme Court hero to back them up: the late Justice Potter Stewart, who served on the court from 1958 to 1981.
The lone dissenter in School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, a 1963 Supreme Court decision that banned Bible readings in public schools, Stewart argued that prohibiting such religious exercises put religion in “an artificial and state-created disadvantage.” Such a ban, Stewart said, “is seen, not as the realization of state neutrality, but rather as the establishment of a religion of secularism.”
Defining Secularism And Its Relation To The State
That view of secularism as a religion has since become a key part of the conservative argument against a strict separation of church and state. It suggests that when government authorities ban prayers or Bible readings or Nativity scenes on public property or in official settings, it isn’t avoiding the appearance of state support for religion, it’s unfairly favoring one faith tradition over another.
In 1984, President Ronald Reagan cited Stewart’s dissent in arguing for a constitutional amendment authorizing school prayer.
A secular viewpoint is normally understood as one that excludes religious references, so Stewart’s claim is controversial, even among some people of faith.
“Secularism is a way you look at the relation between government and religion,” says Barry Lynn, a Christian minister who also directs Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “If you say religion should keep its hands off government and government should keep its hands off religion, that to me is what a secularist is. You can have any or no theological beliefs backing that up.”
Some scholars nevertheless say some advocates of secularism do have their own worldview and belief system. Among them is Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and a leading lay Catholic intellectual.
“I don’t think there really can be any question that there are forms of secularism, including some that are very prominent today in universities and other elite sectors of our society — belief systems that are comprehensive views — that function in people’s lives the way that religions function in the lives of traditional religious believers,” George says.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission at the Southern Baptist Convention, goes further.
“In some virulent forms of secularism, you have a moral code that is being imposed [that] often comes with the force of penalty of law,” he says. “It acts as a religion in terms of demanding conformity and seeking out heretics.”
Recent polling by the Pew Research Center suggests that secular attitudes are gaining strength in the United States, with fewer Americans saying they pray daily or attend church regularly.
But can secularism really be considered a religion?
No way, says sociology professor Phil Zuckerman of Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. He specializes in the study of “nonreligious” people.
“To me, what makes religion religion is the supernatural beliefs,” he says. “So a scientist who is gazing out at the universe and trying to make sense of it by looking at facts, physical properties, material reality, is not engaging in religion. The person who looks out at the universe and thinks there’s a magic deity behind it is engaging in religion.”
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