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Religion and Secularism: an American Experience

And while it is difficult to deny that religion is almost always at the forefront in the history of humankind, that does not discount its particularly powerful role in certain moments in time and in certain locations. Ironically, religion in the United States has been a particularly powerful tool in the development of a secular state and culture.

Adrian Pagan is a guest writer for the Journal on World Affairs. The JWA is a non-partisan organization that seeks to present nuanced cases from all shades of the political spectrum. The views offered in this piece do not necessarily represent the JWA’s.


The United States has always had a special relationship with religion. Perhaps a statement like this to a history aficionado sounds silly: any cursory overview of history will uncover a rather obvious intertwining of human events and their corresponding religious motivations. Their objection would be: of course the United States has a strong connection to religion, and so does every other country in their history. And while it is difficult to deny that religion is almost always at the forefront in the history of humankind, that does not discount its particularly powerful role in certain moments in time and in certain locations. Ironically, religion in the United States has been a particularly powerful tool in the development of a secular state and culture. Before this argument can be unpacked, its terms must be defined clearly. The term secular of course refers more or less to a sort of prohibition of religious influences and considerations, and the term religion refers to, as Merriam Webster puts it, “(1): the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2): commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance.”1 

While Webster is appropriate in its broad description of religion, for the purposes of this discussion on American history, the term religion will mainly refer to Christianity, as it has had arguably the most impact on American history of all established religions. That is in no way meant to discredit the contributions and importance of other religious groups in the United States. The fact that Christianity has always been this nation’s most prevalent religion means only that it is often the more pragmatically relevant religious faith in reference to major American historical events.

It indeed may seem controversial or logically incoherent at first glance, that religion has played a vital role in the development of several secular protections, but a close examination of a few key periods in American history seems to strongly support this notion.  The first period of note is that of the founding of the United States. When the founders first looked to formally establish equal human rights among all men, they looked no farther than God to justify such a venture. The next period is the Civil War. When Abolitionists called for the end of slavery, they appealed to the Christian faith and Biblical ideals of equality under God to vie for their cause, and used the imagery of slavery as America’s national sin to justify its bloodiest war. The third period of note is the Civil Rights movement, in which Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr (and other Civil Rights Activists) appealed strongly to God and the Christian faith to gain the traction needed to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a bill recently used by the Supreme Court to extend legal workplace protections to members of the LGBT community.2

The last period that will be analyzed is that of the last 10 years or so, where once again, secularism and religion find themselves deeply intertwined, but in a far different sense. In 2020 it seems that religion and secularism have finally found their place opposite each other, with a right dominated by religious conservatives and a left dominated by secular liberals. However, the left uses religion as a scapegoat to paint the right as uneducated, ignorant, religious bigots, just as the right pegs the left as immoral and secular agents who threaten to destroy this great “Christian nation.” So, while religious imagery used to powerfully aid in the achievement of secular goals, now this imagery is used in the opposite sense, as a scapegoat and political advisory (among certain secular liberals). Nonetheless, even in this negative sense, once again the effectiveness of religious imagery is undeniably apparent. So to reiterate, and as will be seen later in this discussion, there is a common historical trend (certainly found in each of the aforementioned periods), namely that of religion acting as a sort of fuel to secularisms fire, a heavily utilized means to secular ends.

It’s important to note that Secularism does not need religion; its definition in fact suggests an absence of religion entirely. But the ideals, legal protections, and cultural progress of this nation that are understood as secular achievements might never have been achieved without the effective tool that is God as an authority and the Christian faith as a moral mandate. We understand our basic human rights as a secular protection, since we reference our nation’s documents and not the Bible when those rights are in question. Furthermore, as secularism has become increasingly dominant in the United States, the once semi-unifying middle ground that God and the Christian faith once functioned as, has all but disappeared from our political landscape, contributing in part to the political polarity of the last decade. 

Founding of the United States

The first instance in which religion acted as a motivator for secular goals was in the Declaration of Independence, when the founders wrote “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”3  The idea of basic human rights, and a government for the people, by the people that protects those rights is somewhat secular, but the justification for these sentiments comes from religion in a sense. God created everyone equally, and as such, each and every person has a sort of divinely ascribed value and deserves to be treated fairly.

Instead of maneuvering the power of religion and using it to support a regime or monarchy, as kings historically did with the idea of divine right of rule, the founders used the role of God to fuel their ideas of human rights. This was especially important because the role of God helped to bridge a logical gap that purely enlightenment secularism could not. Today, in the United States (and in several other nations in the world) it seems a given that all humans have inalienable rights, with or without the intervention of God. This is especially clear in the some important legal documents, that purposefully omitted the inclusion of God as a source of human rights, instead sourcing human rights to simply the fact that humans are intelligent, sentient agents. For example, in the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there is no mention of God: 

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”4

 But in 1776, this was in no way a given. The very reason that many early Americans came to the United States was in the hopes that they might be able to freely exercise their religion. Great Britain had a monarchy, and for most of the world’s history, there were levels of importance given to humans based on their status in society. A king self ascribed as divinely chosen to rule would have little reason to support the idea of inalienable human rights: their status as a divine ruler would likely undercut this very notion. So, how then could the founders create a society that protected the basic rights of its citizens, and change course from the monarchy filled history of Europe? Where could they possibly go to support this notion? If they said something like, as rational and conscious beings, all humans deserve equal treatment, it would have seemed somewhat logically contentious, and at the very least, unconvincing to several elitist scholars.

Moreover, the idea of inalienable rights could not be relegated to academia: every citizen needed to understand that they had rights and so did their neighbor. Logic alone could not function persuasively enough to establish a foundation as important as inalienable human rights. Then, to achieve this goal (that is now understood as a secular protection), the role and power of religion and God as an authority proved essential. Nietzche notes this phenomenon in The Will to Power, where he argues that God is used by the masses as an authority figure to force the hand of those in power to accept their version of morality, namely to grant them rights.5 Omar Bin Salamah, in his paper published by the University of Iowa, “Nietzsche’s Critique of Morality and Revaluation of Values,” elaborates on Nietzche’s observations. He states

Given that a slave is not capable of asserting himself, of standing up to the noble, the slave had to look for a source of power somewhere else: ‘One sets up the opponent of one’s ideal as the opponent of God; one fabricates for oneself the right to great pathos, to power, to curse and bless.’ So, for instance, instead for the slave to confront the oppressive master, the slave characterized the tension between himself and the master as being a tension between the ‘disobedient’ master and the almighty God, and whoever disobeys God is ‘evil.’”6

So, religion to the founders provided both a pragmatic use, in that it helped simplify and mass market the idea of equal human rights, and it served a logical role as well to justify those inalienable rights. 

Civil War

The next period that will be analyzed is that of the Civil War. Perhaps more than any of the others, this era of war and abolition relied heavily on religion. Before, during, and after the civil war, Northerners and Southerners alike almost exclusively used the Bible and God to justify their ideological positions. Just as slaves rightously rebelled against their shackles by turning their masters religion back on them, so too did free slaves and abolitionists use the Christian faith in their call to end slavery by whatever means necessary. One of the most influential abolitionists in American history, Frederick Douglass, did this very thing in his speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” In it, Douglass calls on Biblical morality, arguing that America….

Is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery-the great sin and shame of America!7

Douglass could have said that slavery spat in the face of the Declaration of Independence, and ran contrary to the tenets of the Constitution, and never have brought in God or the Bible at all. But legal documents change. They are the result of human minds, and are thus liable to imperfection and corruption. The Constitution, for all its genius and power, still allowed for all sorts of evils to thrive in the United States. God is omnipotent, omniscience, and omnibenevolent, and not victim to the sort of shortcomings so frequently found in the works of humans, and as such, abolitionists like Douglass logically appealed to God as a moral authority, urging Americans to move away from the evil that was slavery.

Of course, it was not only before the emancipation proclamation that religion came into spotlight. Indeed, Harry Stout, Charles Wilson, and Randall M. Miller note in their book, Religion and the American Civil War, that:

It is now clear how, in fundamental respects, religion stood at the center of the American Civil War experience. Politicians on both sides of the conflict invoked God to justify their actions, soldiers and their families prayed for God’s blessings, religious-based organizations mobilized relief and urged reform, and the slaves reaching for freedom praised God for their day of Jubilee. Throughout the struggle Americans spoke in religious metaphors because, save for constitutional rhetoric, that was the only language that had common meaning for them. They had already one war for National Liberation as a ‘sacred cause.’ And in 1861 they would fight another. Americans believed that God was on the side of those who were right with Him.”

Freedom, the condemnation of slavery, legal protections against it, and the true implementation of inalienable rights for all members of the United States were all goals that could each stand on their own as secular. And today, arguably many would likely look at those topics within the Civil War period under a secular lens. Very few, it seems, would think to thank God and the Bible when studying the Emancipation Proclamation, and this is so because it is now understood that slavery is evil on its own account irrespective of a God who condemns it. But nonetheless, while many of the achievements of history can be isolated to the secular, it would be ludicrous to not acknowledge the fact that these achievements that now may exist under a secular purview, were achieved in no small part due to the active usage of God and religion.

Civil Rights Movement

The Civil War and Civil Rights Movements both share a notable amount in common, especially in regards to their heavy usage of religion. However, in this case, examining their differences will prove more illuminating in the investigation of the way religion was utilized differently by Civil Rights activists as compared to abolitionists. During the Civil War, which took place almost one hundred years before the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, the general state of the country was one of high religious potency. Nearly everyone polled in 1860’s America would (likely) ardently respond yes to a questionnaire asking if they were Christian.

The 1960’s were different. Not only was far more of the nation’s population atheist, or non-Christian, but so too had many institutions moved a bit farther from an overt connection to any one religion. While Christianity was still part of the mainstream culture in the 1960’s, as it was in the 1860s, discussion on civil rights and the legal discrimination of Jim Crow did not chiefly revolve around technical biblical interpretations. Instead, while Civil Rights activists certainly still invoked notions of biblical morality and God as an equalizing authority figure, religion served an organizational role, and less an ideological one. Aldon Morris writes on this very topic, arguing:

The black church functioned as the institutional center of the modern Civil Rights Movement. Churches provided the movement with an organized mass base; a leadership of clergymen largely economically independent of the larger white society and skilled in the art of managing people and resources; an institutionalized financial base through which protest was financed; and meeting places where the masses planned tactics and strategies and collectively committed themselves to the struggle.”9

During the Civil Rights movement, as Morris notes, the black church was the means by which activists could achieve their ends. While the church and Chrsitianity certainly provided ideological and ethical support for the moment, that was not its chief role. To be fair, during the Civil War, as has been noted, the church provided all sorts of organizational support, and while that was certainly an aspect of religion during the Civil War that cannot be discounted, that role of the church still was subordinate to the role biblical ideology had in the project of abolishing slavery. This is especially interesting because in the two previous periods, religion served chiefly an ideological role, but during the Civil Rights movement, its role was split between ideology and organization. The church was not only aiding a secular cause with its ethical ideology, but also influencing through organizational prowess. 

Modern Era

Finally, the 21st century comes into focus. This period, of the last twenty years or so (but more specifically the last 10 years) has arguably not had any sort of single event (save for 9/11) that can tidily tie religion and secularism together. Rather, in the last few years in the United States, secularism and religion have become overt and forceful rivals, not only in definition, but in the modern political landscape. In the 1960s, the 1860s, and the 1770s, both left and right, liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat, shared Christianity as a middle ground. Certainly the 1960s featured far more resistance to this norm than the earlier two periods, but nonetheless, even during a time of counter culture and social unrest, both sides of the aisle often appealed to and had a strong political footing in religion. This is patently not the case in 2020, nor the case in the last few years. Indeed, whereas religion acted as an effective means to secularism’s ends in much of American history (not to say that those same ends were not desired by religious adherents as well), at present secularism is a position understood as incompatible with religion. Jean Cohen writes of this, pointing out that:

Polarization between political religionists and militant secularists on both sides of the Atlantic is on the rise. Settled constitutional arrangements are becoming destabilized in regions that were the seedbed and locus classicus of political secularism and liberal constitutional democracy, and the assumption that these must or even can go together is now being questioned. Political religionists and many post-secularists reject what they take to be characteristic of political secularism–the privatization of religion–and regard the principles of non establishment and separation of church and state with suspicion. Secularists are equally suspicious of escalating demands for accommodation …. Each side enlists the discourses of pluralism, human rights, and fundamental constitutional principles on its behalf.”10 

So why has the competition between secularism and religion led to such a drastic upheaval in political polarity? Well, for the first three periods that have been reviewed in this paper, secular goals could not realistically be achieved without the assistance of religion and its institutions and ideologies. But the United States is now at a point, with more legal protections than ever and the most atheists in this nation’s history, where secularists no longer need to work with religion to achieve their goals. They can attempt to make secular changes to this nation without religion’s aid and in antagonism to it. Because there is no longer a sort of symbiotic relationship between the two, it has become very difficult for either side to approach the other in an innocuous way. This difficulty in having civil discourse between two conflicting ideologies stems from the very fact that each has been painted as completely and impossibly opposite to the other and in essence, evil. For the “religious right,” the left’s apparent absence of religious affiliation indicates a lack of moral character, an absence of values, a culture of sin and worldly pleasures, who use the government and popular culture to force the masses to accept all sorts of hypocritical and ethically abhorrent policies.

Abortion would be an example for this group. The left is not innocent in this scapegoating. Not in the least. They categorize the right as a group obsessed with religious freedom and economic success. In turn, the right argues that the left’s position on politics is said to be the only virtuously acceptable position; better said, anyone who disagrees with progressive policies is a malicious and selfish person. Herein lies the issue. In the Civil War, as horrible as the violence may have been, there was far less of a comprehensive approach in terms of the description of the opposing side. Southerners and Northerners, or perhaps more aptly said, abolitionists and those in favor of slavery, certainly had a great deal of disdain for the other, but in general this disdain was on account of their disagreement on the specific topic of slavery. While it’s certainly more complicated than only one issue, it seemed even during a time of secession and war that there was more common ground between Northerners and Southerners than there is between the modern political left and right. As concerning and disheartening as this may be, it still seems to fit into these paper’s overall thesis: once again, religion and secularism use the other for a certain purpose; in this case, to demonize the other side of the political isle as much as possible by painting their enemy ideology as completely irreconcilable with their own. 

The United States has a rich history of the positive usage of religious ideals to achieve secular goals. Slaves, women, and several other marginalized and discriminated populations have been able to call to God, to the Christian faith, its ethical principles, and the promises of inalienable rights in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence to hold accountable the powerful, and remind them that their abuses of that power run contrary to everything this nation stands for. Certainly, the United States was never only a Chrsitian nation, nor has it ever truly or chiefly been a religious entity or state. But nonetheless, all Americans, black or white, religious or atheist, and everyone in between, should look back into this nation’s history and take stock of the fact that two seemingly contradictory ideologies have been able to work together to change this nation for the better. In definition, religion and the secular are opposites, but those who lay claim to either camp can look back into history and see that several of today’s secular protections, that many hold so dear, were achieved in no small part because of contributions of religion and ultimately because of the effective collaboration between the two forces.



ENDNOTES:

1. “Religion.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Accessed September 14, 2020. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/religion.

2. Bostock v. Clayton County (Supreme Court June 15, 2020). 

3. Thomas Jefferson, et al, July 4, Copy of Declaration of Independence. -07-04, 1776. Manuscript/Mixed Material. https://www.loc.gov/item/mtjbib000159/.

4. The United Nations. 1948. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

5. Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Will to Power. London: Allen, 1924. 

6. Salamah , Omar Bin. “Nietzsche’s Critique of Morality and Revaluation of Values.” The University of Iowa’s Institutional Repository, 2018. https://ir.uiowa.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1383&context=honors_theses. 

7. Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?.” Extract from an Oration, at Rochester, July 5, 1852,” My Bondage and My Freedom, Lit2Go Edition, (1855), accessed September 14, 2020, https://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/45/my-bondage-and-my-freedom/1517/what-to-the-slave-is-the-fourth-of-july-extract-from-an-oration-at-rochester-july-5-1852/.

8. Miller, Randall M., Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson. Religion and the American Civil War. New York: Oxford University, 1998. 

9. Smith, Christian. Disruptive Religion The Force of Faith in Social Movement Activism. Florence: Taylor and Francis, 2014. 

10. Cohen, Jean L., and Laborde Cécile. Religion, Secularism, and Constitutional Democracy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. 





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By Adrian Pagan

Adrian is a philosophy, history, and political science triple major at UCLA. His interests include public policy, social media as a political medium, and historical patterns of political polarity.

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