In Praise of Secularism: To Arms, Free Thinkers! Religious Zealots Have Hijacked Your Government!

By Jacoby, Susan | The Nation, April 19, 2004 | Go to article overview

In Praise of Secularism: To Arms, Free Thinkers! Religious Zealots Have Hijacked Your Government!


Jacoby, Susan, The Nation


It is no secret that the Bush Administration is engaged in the most radical assault on the separation of church and state in American history. The apostles of religious correctness never hesitate to broadcast their contempt for the Republic's secular laws and traditions--whether that means committing the federal government to uphold the "sanctity of marriage," as the President did in his State of the Union address, or stocking Grand Canyon National Park's bookstore with fundamentalist tracts claiming that the awe-inspiring canyon was created in six days.

It is equally evident that most Democrats are too terrified of being seen as antireligious to acknowledge that the very survival of America's secular government may be at stake in the 2004 election. Howard Dean's sudden discovery of the value of daily prayer, after being tarred with the dreaded S-word early in the primary season, exemplified the spinelessness of politicians (and others in public life) who fear identification with secularism, nonreligious humanism, even liberal religion--everything once encompassed by the lovely, evocative term freethinking.

Timid twenty-first-century secularists--in sharp contrast to the bold proselytizing freethinkers of the late nineteenth century--are missing a chance that may never come again if the Republicans have four more years to appoint federal judges who share their scorn for secular government.

The campaign offers the perfect opportunity to re-educate Americans about a heritage that has been denigrated not only by relentless attacks from the religious right but also by the failure of public schools to foster awareness of the nation's secular roots, embedded in a Constitution that omits any mention of God and instead assigns supreme power to "We the People."

Right-wing religion, money and political clout have driven the rise of religious correctness during the past thirty years, but an equally important factor is the larger American public's unexamined assumption that religion per se always exerts a benign influence on society. The ultraconservative minority has exploited that assumption brilliantly and succeeded in tarring opponents of faith-based adventurism as enemies of all religion, as atheists, as "relativists."

It takes a drastic example of religion's potential to do either public or private harm--say, a Christian Scientist's denial of a blood transfusion to his dying child or the transformation of a plane into a lethal weapon in the name of radical Islam--to shake the American faith in religion as a positive social force. Indeed, religious correctness demanded that Bush deny any connection between the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and "real" Islam. Yet there is a very real connection--however twisted it may seem to moderate and liberal religious believers--between fundamentalism and extremism in Christianity and Judaism as well as Islam.

The problem, of course, is not religion as a spiritual force but religion melded with political ideology and political power. Since the religiously correct do not acknowledge any danger in mixing religion and politics, evil acts committed in the name of religion must always be dismissed as the dementia of criminals and psychopaths.

What America lacks today is a public figure who talks about the danger of religious interference with government in the uncompromising terms used by Robert Green Ingersoll, the foremost freethinker and the most famous orator in late-nineteenth-century America, though he is scarcely mentioned in standard history texts today. Ingersoll, who was known as "the Great Agnostic," declared that the founders "knew that to put God into the Constitution was to put man out.... They knew the terrible history of the church too well to place in her keeping, or in the keeping of her God, the sacred rights of man."

Today's embattled secularists have failed to tap into a reservoir of respect for separation of church and state that stubbornly persists in spite of the pious drumbeat in the public square. …

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