Why I Am Not a Secularist

Why I Am Not a Secularist

Why I Am Not a Secularist

Why I Am Not a Secularist


Religion's influence in American politics is obvious in recent debates about school prayer, abortion, and homosexuality, as well as in the success of grassroots religious organizations in mobilizing voters. Many liberal secularists decry this trend, rejecting any interaction between politics and religion. But in Why I Am Not a Secularist, distinguished political theorist William E. Connolly argues that secularism, although admirable in its pursuit of freedom and diversity, too often undercuts these goals through its narrow and intolerant understandings of public reason. In response, he crafts a new model of public life that more accurately reflects the needs of contemporary politics.

Connolly first shows how the secular division between public and private life conceals the vital role of "the visceral register" in public life itself. Then, while elaborating an ethos of engagement that appreciates this element, he examines capital punishment, the War on Drugs, the liberal idea of the nation, the public role of atheism, and the right to die. The traditional formulations of secularism, Connolly contends, underestimate the vitality and complexity of real-life political judgments. At its best, secularism remains immodest in its claim to provide the authoritative basis for public reason; at its worst, it overlooks possibilities for selective collaboration between religious and nonreligious perspectives in politics.

To correct these limitations, Connolly advances a bold new vision of public diversity that acknowledges questions about its own ideology, incorporates a wider variety of ethical views, and honors the desire of believers and nonbelievers alike to represent their faiths openly inthe civic forum. Throughout this provocative volume, Connolly presents convincing evidence of the need to refashion secularism to foster a more responsive public life and a more generous political culture.


To grow up in a factory town in the American Midwest is to get used to guttural things. On a hot summer’s night in my town you could smell the Flint river several blocks away. On a clear day you could see the class struggle billowing from smokestacks down the street. More palpable yet was the religious fervor displayed by kids in the neighborhood, particularly when Negroes, Jews, or Italians came up for discussion. Many white parents had moved north in the 1940s and 1950s to find jobs, and they often carried the Southern Baptist faith with them. My parents were neither churchgoers nor believers, so my early experience with local Christianity was close to the ground and outside the house. “How do you know the Jews killed Jesus?” Billy would ask. “Because it’s in the Bible,” his friend would reply.

One winter, when he was twelve, Billy attended a Baptist church nearby with his friends. the church organized a contest to see who could learn the most verses in the Bible. the competition among the girls was fierce, with the eventual winner earning more than 400 points. the boys’ contest was more composed. the day before it ended a Sunday school teacher pulled Billy aside. “You know,” she said, “you have 93 points, and that puts you just 5 points behind Allen for first place.” Billy pulled out the stops that night. He was declared winner the next day, with a measly 112 points.

The winner won a free week at the Unified Baptist Summer Camp, sixty miles away. the camp consisted of rules, obligations, and assignments, punctuated by enough regulated fun to discourage the inmates from plotting an escape. and there were also the daily salvation assemblies. Billy kept a low . . .

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