A Secular Nation

Watching this video made me feel a bit ill. As far as I know Newt Gingrich is a pretty intelligent fellow, so I can't tell if his ideologies simply leave him with a blind spot, or if he is being intentionally dishonest. Either way, there are so many things wrong with what he is saying in this clip that I couldn't address them all. What I want to focus on is his attack on secularism and his attempt at revising our history.

Secularism is not a campaign to eliminate Christianity or any religion. It is a concept that the government and other public institutions should exist separate from, independent of, and indifferent to religions and religious beliefs.

Quite the opposite from this being an un-American idea, this is one of the founding principles of our country. In the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights we have the establishment clause: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The phrase "Separation of Church and State" was coined by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to constituents:

"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties."

Jefferson felt that this separation was important to the national government, but as the entire governing philosophy of the country was more confederate than federalist at the time, he did not feel that the First Amendment necessarily applied to state and local government. Does this mean that it does not apply to state and local governments even to this day?

The Fourteenth Amendment, passed after the Civil War, states that "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States." The Civil War was our second founding; it was a conflict that defined the future relationships between the states and the federal government as much as it was a conflict over slavery.

Our country decided that the federal government did have power over the states, when the states choose to act in ways that went against our national principles and infringed upon guaranteed liberties and natural rights. It is therefore right and consistent that the state and local governments should also have "a wall of separation between church and state."

We may be a nation of mostly Christians, but we were never intended to be a Christian nation. When negotiating the Treaty of Tripoli with the Barbary pirates, "John Adams and the Senate made clear that the pact was between two sovereign states, not between two religious powers." Article 11 of the treaty, which was ratified by Congress and signed into law, reads:

"As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion, -as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen, —and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries."

The discussion is often confused, and I used to be guilty of this myself, by the accusation that "freedom of religion" and "freedom from religion" are two separate and different things. Freedom of religion guarantees that you can believe and worship in any way you choose that does not infringe upon the rights of others. Freedom from religion guarantees that the government will not impose beliefs or worship upon you. How can you have freedom of Religion without freedom from religion?

To put it in another way, think of the religion that you disagree with more than any other. Imagine that they are the cultural majority in America, and that they make the same claim that Christians make now that "we are a _____ nation." They want to have worship in schools and in the public square, led by government officials who are paid by the taxpayers. They want to use their religious symbols to represent all Americans killed defending our country, rather than allowing each individual to be represented by a symbol of their own religion, or having a secular monument that uses no religious symbolism.

Are you okay with that? They tell you that it's fine, because you don't have to participate, you can stand there and quietly wait. But wouldn't you be upset that your tax dollars are paying to sponsor worship that you don't agree with? Wouldn't this government endorsement of another group's religion make you feel like you're considered a second class citizen? That is what it is like to be a non-Christian in Newt Gingrich's and Sarah Palin's America.

Yes, many of the people that first came to the American colonies were deeply religious. They were fleeing nations who had national religions, nations that were founded on one form of Christianity or another and persecuted them for not recognizing the state religion. Our founding Fathers saw Puritans, Presbyterians, and others trying to force their neighbors into converting, and religious skirmishes in the colonies were a small scale repetition of the religious wars of Europe. That is why the Founding Fathers made it very clear that the Church and the State were to be separate and independent entities. It was a historic change from how things had been done in the past.

When someone says that we were founded as a Christian Nation, that the Founding Fathers intended for us to have a Christian government, they are either ignorant of the facts or purposely misleading you.

Our nation was a great experiment in democratic secular governance. Where all men and women can worship how they want, or not at all, and still be equal in the eyes of the government. Where the laws that we live by are based on facts and Enlightenment principles, not on beliefs or faith.

Gingrich is trying to equate secularism, a principle of the tolerance and equality, with authoritative anti-theism: an undemocratic regime of social control that is equivalent in practice to a theocratic state. Our nation is one of many different believers and non-believers. To be truly representative, and held to the principles it was founded on, the government should remain neutral and indifferent to all questions of religion.

Obama hasn't yet made big pushes in the direction of secularism - he hasn't yet been willing to get into tough political fights over Don't Ask Don't Tell, marriage equality, and the National Day of Prayer - but if he does I'll be celebrating that day.

In search of reason,



  1. While you assert the first amendment as evidence that our country was founded in part on the idea that public institutions and religions should exist separate from each other, you should know that when the first amendment was adopted, some States still had State-supported churches (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and others). The establishment clause was added to the amendment to protect state-established churches from federal involvement (which is to say, from Jefferson et al.) Justice Thomas discussed this history (in less detail) and its consequences (in more detail) in his concurrence in Elk Grove United v. Newdow (I assume you know the case, if not, I can get you a link). It would be a strange consequence of history if the amendment meant to protect state established churches in fact barred them.
    (Personally, I think that history can have some strange consequences, and that the establishment clause does apply to the states. I thought you might find the opposing viewpoint interesting, though).
    Finally, the clause that reads "nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law" is the clause of the Fourteenth amendment which was eventually interpreted to apply the bill of rights to the states. While the Privileges and Immunities clause makes for nice reading, the only 'privilege' it protects is the right to interstate travel.
    (Love the blog, btw, looking forward to future posts).

  2. I like that you took the situation and turned it into a thought experiment (toward the middle of the post), forcing people to put themselves in the shoes of the minority.

    I tried to walk through the thought experiment as such, but halfway through it fell apart when I realized that for me it isn't a thought experiment. Being a religious minority in this country, it's currently my reality.

    Obviously, because I'm Jewish I believe in the 10 commandments, but I'm still deeply offended and troubled by people's insistence that they be posted outside government buildings and schools. It's such a nightmare. Honestly it shocks me that it's really happening.

  3. I was aware of that, the letter from Thomas Jefferson is a response to consituents that had made complaints of discrimination from their state and state church which was of a different denomination. Jefferson's wall of separation was intended to protect all churches from federal government interference - including state churches - but equally to protect the federal government from church interference. In his mind if one was allowed to happen the other was inevitable.

    I agree that it is one of those ironic consequences of history though. The larger debate over the role of government that we fought in the Civil War and Civil Rights movement was about the rights and responsibilities of Federal government, State government, and citizens. Libertarians still want to reverse this progress (if you haven't seen the recent controvery over Rand Paul's stance on the Civil Rights Act you should take a look at his Rachel Maddow interview, it is very entertaining), but for the most part we agree that the States have the same responsibility to protect the rights of citizens that the Federal government does, and that the Federal government has the authority to force States to do so if they falter in that respobsibility. I know Wikipedia is not always reliable, but I'm under the impression it is a decent reference for Amendments and settled court cases (correct me if I'm wrong).

    "Section 1, arguably the most far-reaching section of the Fourteenth Amendment, formally defines citizenship and protects a person's civil and political rights from being abridged or denied by any state. This represented the Congress's reversal of that portion of the Dred Scott decision, which ruled that black people were not and could not become citizens of the United States or enjoy any of the privileges and immunities of citizenship"

    And as far as I can tell there is nothing explicitely refering to interstate travel, or travel and trade at all in the Fourteenth Amendment, am I missing something? This summary of Section 1 is consistent with my own reading and what I learned in US History and Civics, but you're the expert on law.

  4. In regards to Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, to my understanding the constitutional question was never considered.

    "On June 14, 2004, the Supreme Court held Michael Newdow, as a non-custodial parent, did not have standing to bring the suit on his daughter's behalf. The mother was previously given sole custody of the daughter. The Ninth Circuit's decision was thus reversed as a matter of procedural law.
    Thus, the Court also did not consider the constitutional question raised by the case."

    Justices Reinquist and Thomas choose to dissent from the majority that Newdow did have legal rights to sue on behalf of his daughter, I believe so that they would have the opportunity to address the question of constitutionality that the majority declined to consider (because I don't understand why they diagreed that he was not elligible to file suit when he was not a legal guardian).

    "Rehnquist's opinion asserts the term "under God" does not endorse or establish religion but it actually asserts that the term merely acknowledges the nation's religious heritage, in particular the role of religion for the Founding Fathers of the United States. Thus, according to the opinion, the Pledge is a secular act rather than an act of indoctrination in religion or expression of religious devotion."

    This dissenting opinion is making the same attempt to revise our history that my post was talking about, by claiming religion played a larger part in the political philosophy of our Founding Fathers than it actually did. Furthermore, this argument is using the same premise that we have seen before from the conservative wing of the Supreme Court. When a case was brought before them one justice said he didn't understand why a Jewish veteran might object to having a cross represent his sacrifices, because the cross was supposedly a "secular" and "American" symbol rather than a Christian symbol. Yes Amanada, "chuckleheads," I agree.

    "[Justice Thomas] argues that the Establishment Clause ought not be considered a right that attaches to individuals pursuant to the Incorporation Doctrine, because he believes the clause only prohibits interference by the federal government in the right of individual states to establish their own official religions - notwithstanding current majority opinion on the question is against states having such a right, as a result of the Incorporation Doctrine."

    Justice Thomas does agree that the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause are still a protection for the States rather than the individual, but as it says he is in the minority. The Incorporation Doctrine is the "process by which American courts have applied portions of the U.S. Bill of Rights to the states."

    I do understand your arguments, I guess my overall point is that we have come a long way from the time when we considered the States to be entities equal to or greater than citizens. We seem to be having that national debate again today about the status of corporations, and it will be interesting (and a little nerve wracking) to see how that goes. Unfortunately in other ways we have strayed from the path. Our national motto used to be "One from many," implying true pluarlism, where none should be considered a second class citizen. While in legal matters we are closer to full equality today, in the ideals upheld by our government I feel we let the Founding Fathers down everytime we assert the superiority of the Christian citizen.

    Thank you for the comments, you challenged me to do a lot more research! Feel free to continue correcting me whenever you think I have my facts mixed up, I appreciate someone keeping me honest.


Thank you for your thoughts!

Please read our 'No Drama Comment Policy' before posting.