Someone once defined a puritan as a person who lives with the gnawing suspicion that his next door neighbor is having more fun than he is. When you get right down to it, what the religious conservative hates about American democracy is his own suspicion that his neighbor isn’t as Christian as he is.
It is a lie propagated by wishful-thinking conservatives that America is a Christian country. But it would also be a lie to say that this country was founded by atheists. It wasn’t.
It’s also untrue to say that America was founded by humanists. In the eighteenth century, the term had already come to describe attitudes associated with classical idealism, reborn during the Renaissance–especially the Italian branch of the movement. Nothing frustrates the modern humanist more than to be told that both Erasmus, a pretty devout Catholic, and Calvin, a pretty devout Protestant were not just humanists but typify their respective branches of the humanist Zeitgeist of the sixteenth century.
America’s founders weren’t humanists, though they were fair examples of humanistic learning–especially Franklin and the polymathic, almost disgustingly smart Jefferson. If anything, both were too skeptical of religion to have been good humanists in the renaissance sense of the word.
But for the most part the founders of the Republic were secular. When they trusted in God it was simply a homonym for trusting in themselves–a real “All others pay cash” approach to the slogan that finally adorns our currency.
They knew what they were doing when they rejected Hobbes and reinvented Locke’s theory of government.
Secularism and self-reliance (the word Emerson assigned an almost mystical value to) granted them the ability to move in less than a century from the narrow religiousness of the Bay Colony puritans and the cavaliers of Virginia Anglicanism to a new position that would be neatly summarized in the idea of “toleration.” If there was ever a miracle in American history, it was that.
The British Parliament had passed a completely useless Act of Toleration in 1689 when the Plymouth Colony was only sixty five years old (Boston was founded in 1630, ten years after Plymouth. Harvard in 1636, a century and a half before the United States and, remarkably, over a century before most Oxford colleges).
The Act did not extend its tenderness to Roman Catholics or non-Trinitarians (thus not Jews or Unitarians) and excluded them from university education and political office. It is why,vestigially, to this day, a special act of Parliament would be required for an heir to the throne to be anything but a Protestant. Perhaps even to marry one.
Only in the nineteenth century did England get round to upgrading the 1689 law; it was beat at the hustings by the Maryland Toleration Act of 1649 that mandated religious freedom for anyone living in the colony, though it was a bit tough, in British fashion, on anyone denying the divinity of Jesus. The penalty for that was death. Hardly a model for the First Amendment.
The turning point for American law was the belief that individual liberty entailed freedom of conscience. That meant that colonial protections of particular religious practices–Baptists in Rhode Island, Anglicans in North Carolina, Catholics in Maryland–gave way to a more spacious principle based not on the status quo of religious numbers but to the belief that conscience is more sacred than deity.
That principle gets enshrined in the Virginia Statute of 1786, “That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
Thomas Jefferson wrote it; James Madison oiled its way through the Virginia Legislature.
In the long preamble, Jefferson jabs for the idea that argument and debate are the only tests of religion opinion, and that religious tests insult the divine gift of reason:
“Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as it was in his Almighty power to do; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible tests.”
Let kings, tyrants, and all Gods but Reason beware.
It was a short step to the concise language of the First Amendment to the Constitution. To paraphrase: Congress is not in the religion business. It is not in the anti-religion business. Public institutions funded by government may not be in the religious business. And politicians who curry public favor by suggesting otherwise walk a very fine line, fraught with the danger of betraying the republican and secular values that resulted in American democracy.
I assume that the absurdist “reading” of the Constitution at the opening of 112th Congress of the United States included a reading of the Bill of Rights. But of course, like their reading of the Bible, the Conservative Christian reading of the text made little sense to its readers. For example: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” It took until the Illiterate Century, our own, for a Supreme Court to say that this meant a private citizen is entitled to carry a concealed weapon.
And this is why secularism, far more than disbelief in God, is considered threatening by religious conservatives. Mere atheism has no political implications. None. Secularism on the other hand requires the religious conservative to defend the proposition that belief in God is an entitlement in a nation where that opinion is, basically, outlawed by writ even they want to consider sacred.
Secularism is more than a recipe for religious toleration, however. And both religious persons and non-religious persons need to realise that. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and the obsessively odd John Adams would not have been atheists. It is a waste of intellectual time to think that they were or would have been.
But they would vomit at the obsequious language of both Democrats and Republicans–especially at the necessity of having to proclaim religious faith in order to qualify as a serious contender for political office.
The secular factor in American democracy is not only on trial at home; it is precisely why American democracy is a hugely unlikely option abroad–especially in the Middle East. More’s the pity that we have fought wars to export it, without recognizing its non-exportable features as a philosophy that does not trust in God at all. I do not know what is sweeping through the Middle East at the moment. But I know it is not the Spirit of ’76.
American secularism does not enshrine any opinion or movement. In fact, it exposes the reality than any opinion or movement that cannot be argued and reasoned deserves to be treated, like the divine right of kings, as a new superstition.
It’s important to realize that while the American experiment in secularity came from a time when gentlemen and ladies were questioning core religious doctrines like the divinity of Jesus, it also came from circles that had a quiet belief in the divinity of reason.
To the extent we share something like a demythologized vision of that faith in ourselves, we are secularists.
To the extent we don’t–or ascribe it to the power of an unseen God to help us out of our misery–we are mere partisans, peasants to our passions and private agendas.