How Secularism Became a Dirty Word: Susan Jacoby

This speech was delivered at the 27th annual national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 30, 2004. Author Susan Jacoby was named Freethought Heroine of the Year.

By Susan Jacoby


“Freethought Heroine 2004” Susan Jacoby
Photo by Brent Nicastro

Ten score and 15 years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and founded not on the authority of God but on the rights of humankind and the bedrock of human reason. Now we are engaged in a crucial test to determine whether a nation so conceived as the first secular government in the world can further endure.

I began the research for Freethinkers six years ago, because I was convinced that most Americans are woefully undereducated about the secular side of the nation’s heritage, beginning with the rationalist Enlightenment values that shaped the revolutionary generation. Today, nearly four years into a presidency that has mounted the most radical assault on the separation of church and state in American history, secularism is in even greater trouble in the United States.

This attack on secular government is especially ironic, because it comes at a time when people around the world are witnessing extraordinary and terrifying new demonstrations of the power of religion to do harm when it is united with political and state power. The Taliban reduced Afghanistan to a near-medieval society, destroying the lives of women in the name of radical Islam as completely as it smashed the great Buddhist monuments of the past. Both Islamic and Jewish fundamentalists have played a role in sustaining the seemingly intractable conflict in the Middle East: it is difficult to negotiate agreements when representatives of each side are convinced that God himself has given them the right to occupy the same piece of land. Chechen terrorists, who were once merely nationalists, use Islamic fundamentalism to justify shooting Russian children in the back. A celibate pope in Rome declares that condoms do not discourage the spread of AIDS, and his words resonate in areas of the world where people are too poor, and too poorly educated, to understand that the pope’s religious belief, however deeply felt, indeed, because it is so deeply felt, is medical nonsense.

Perhaps nothing could better demonstrate the wisdom of the framers in creating a godless Constitution than the controversy in France over a new law banning the wearing of Muslim head scarves, Jewish yarmulkes, and conspicuous crucifixes in schools. In America, such a law would clearly violate the First Amendment, which of course prevents the government from interfering with expressions of individual religious liberty, such as the wearing of head scarves. But the framers also protected government from religious interference by prohibiting any religious test for public office, omitting any mention of God from the Constitution, and reserving supreme governmental authority for “We the People.” Think about the singular nature of that achievement in a world not far removed from a time when Protestants and Catholics massacred one another over doctrinal differences, a world in which Christians were still massacring Jews for the crime of deicide. The new American nation was almost entirely Protestant, yet the founders said, “We are not going to have a Protesant government. Or a Christian government. Or, for that matter, a government that requires anyone to believe in any deity.”

The fundamental question, one that was not joined in the 2004 presidential campaign, is why in heaven — or more to the point, on earth — would we want to change an arrangement that has served both religion and government so well for more than two centuries? Why are Americans and their elected leaders not proclaiming from the rooftops that secular government, coupled with complete religious liberty, is the cornerstone of a decent society? Why do we tolerate the preachings of a Supreme Court justice, Antonin Scalia, who bases his support for the death penalty on his belief that government derives its power not from men but from God, and since God has the power of life and death, so too should governments? Why are we still fighting fundamentalist Christian attacks on the teaching of evolution in American public schools, nearly 150 years after Darwin?

Last October, a front-page story in The New York Times revealed an absolutely astonishing break with American traditions regarding the separation of church and state. The Bush administration announced that it was offering federal employees a “faith-based” health plan, based on the doctrines of the Roman Catholic church, that specifically excludes coverage for contraceptives, abortion, artificial insemination, and voluntary sterilization–which just happens to be the No. 1 contraceptive choice of American married couples who have all the children they want. The plan, which began enrolling workers in Illinois at the end of 2004, is sponsored by a unit of the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis, which runs six Roman Catholic hospitals in Illinois and Michigan.

A senior official in the office that manages the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan — the nation’s largest purchaser of health insurance — declared proudly that this is the first plan for federal workers “that has tailored its benefits in line with a set of tenets that are supported by the Catholic Church.” This unapologetic statement just took my breath away. But what really stunned me is that there wasn’t a word of criticism from the Democratic ticket.

What’s next? A Jehovah’s Witness plan that won’t cover blood transfusions? A Christian Science “health plan” that won’t cover any standard medical care at all, because Christian Scientists don’t believe in medicine? Or perhaps an ultra-Orthodox Jewish health care plan that prohibits male doctors from examining women and women doctors from examining men because that violates the strictest interpretation of Jewish law–an interpretation, by the way, not subscribed to by millions of Jews. The real horror here is that the Democratic candidates were too intimidated by the political power of right-wing religion–too fearful of being called antireligious–to speak out against a plan that truly runs counter to, dare I say it, our most sacred traditions. This is precisely the sort of thing that the framers of the Constitution intended to prevent.

Why have we reached a point in our history where candidates don’t have the guts to say that the government has no business spending tax money on health care plans designed to satisfy the doctrines of any religion? Where is a modern candidate with the courage of Abraham Lincoln, who, when ministers in his home town of Springfield, Ill., called him an “infidel” and excoriated him for not joining any church, replied that he would make haste to join a church–if he could only find one that did not require belief in elaborate supernatural doctrines and instead simply preached the word, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself?”

Where is a candidate with the forthrightness of John F. Kennedy, who in his 1960 speech to the Houston ministers famously declared, “I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.” Note how much has changed in the past 44 years: Kennedy had to speak about his religion because he was suspected of insufficient dedication to the Constitution’s separation of church and state. Today’s candidates are suspect if they display too much dedication to secular government.


Susan Jacoby signing books for convention-goers

The conventional explanation for the timidity of politicians today is that they are terrified by the financial and political power of the religious right. Right-wing religion, money, and political clout have certainly driven the rise of religious correctness during the past 30 years, but it is too easy to blame them exclusively. To paint the right wing as the sole actor in the demonization of American secularism evades the role of larger forces in American society and absolves secularists themselves of their responsibility to educate the public about the neglected and noble secular heritage of this republic.

One essential factor in the stigmatization of secularism is the larger American public’s unexamined assumption that religion per se always exerts a benign influence on society. The ultra-conservative apostles of religious correctness have exploited that assumption brilliantly and succeeded in tarring opponents of faith-based adventurism as enemies of all religion, as atheists, as “relativists”–yet another demonized word. 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 9/11 terrorist attacks and “real” Islam–just as extremist antiabortion groups invariably deny any connection between their demonization of abortion and the assassinations of doctors who perform abortions.

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 exponent of freethought and the most famous orator in late 19th century America (though he is scarcely mentioned in history texts today). Known in his own time as “the Great Agnostic,” Ingersoll declared that the founders “knew that to put God into the Constitution was to put man out. They knew that the recognition of a Deity would be seized upon by fanatics and zealots as a pretext for destroying the liberty of thought. 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. They intended that all should have the right to worship–or not to worship; that our laws should make no distinction on account of creed. They intended to frame a government for man, and for man alone. They wished to preserve the individuality of all; to prevent the few from governing the many, and the many from persecuting and destroying the few.”

What is left out of public discourse today is the fact that the tension between secularism and religion has been present since the creation of the American republic, and it has been a creative tension. Indeed, evangelical Christians teamed up with 18th-century freethinkers to bring the Constitution into being. Like former president Jimmy Carter, who has denounced attempts by right-wing fundamentalists in Georgia to strike the word “evolution” from the state high school biology curriculum, the early evangelicals were confident that religion could do well without any assistance from government. They knew that government support for religion inevitably led to government interference with religion, just as their freethinking allies knew that government support for religion inevitably led to religious interference with government. This is precisely what the religious right denies.

What should the opposition candidates–and I don’t mean only the presidential candidates–be saying on these issues that isn’t being said? First–and in spite of the pious drumbeat in the public square–many Americans do retain a healthy respect for everything that the separation of church and state has given our country. But the embattled secularists of today–because they are so frightened of being labeled antireligious–have failed to tap into this stubborn and persistent reservoir of public respect for the principles of the founders. John Kerry should have taken a look at the results of a 2001 poll by the highly-respected Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. This poll revealed an astonishing disconnect between Americans’ general approval of faith-based funding and their deep reservations about what specific churches might actually do with government money. While 70% of those questioned endorsed tax support for faith-based social services, nearly 80% would exclude religious organizations that hire only members of their own faith. There is no reason to believe that this overwhelming public sentiment has changed, yet President George W. Bush pushed ahead with executive orders exempting church groups from the usual prohibitions against religious discrimination in hiring. And as you know, the administration made attempts to exempt churches from the IRS requirements for nonprofits–that they not participate directly in the political arena.

One reason why Bush may have felt free to disregard public opinion is the near-total absence of press coverage highlighting the kinds of reservations expressed in the Pew poll. The most striking finding was that nearly 60% of Americans oppose any tax funding for groups that encourage religious conversions. That is significant, because Judaism is the only faith among America’s major religions that does not have a tradition of proselytizing. Christian evangelicals, the staunchest supporters of faith-based funding, are also the most ardent seekers of converts.

Finally, the poll results underline the most obvious peril inherent not only in government subsidies for social services but also in tax vouchers for parents sending their children to religious schools. On what basis do we decide which religions, and which factions within religions, are “moderate” enough to be eligible for tax money? That is precisely the question that the framers of the Constitution never wanted to fall within the authority of any government agency or official. The poll showed that Americans want to limit tax funding to the Big Three, Protestantism, Judaism and Catholicism. More than 60% said that synagogues and mainstream (whatever that means) Protestant and Catholic churches should be able to apply for government money but only 38% would allow grants for Muslim institutions (and the Pew poll was taken before 9/11).

Americans’ qualms when presented with specific questions about faith-based funding — as distinct from a general question that never discusses exactly which religion will get money and for what purpose — suggest that many would respond positively to an honest discussion of church-state issues. But for that to happen, secularists must stop pussyfooting around the larger issue of the harm that extremist religion is capable of doing.

In “Kicking the Secularist Habit,” a peculiar essay in the March 2003 Atlantic, the conservative writer David Brooks (now an op-ed columnist for The New York Times) admitted to having discovered the astonishing fact that humans “yearn for righteous rule, for a just world or a world that reflects God’s will — in many cases at least as strongly as they yearn for money or success.” The crucial questions, Brooks argued, are: “Do individuals pursue a moral vision of righteous rule? And do they do so in virtuous ways, or are they, like Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, evil in their visions and methods?”

But fanatics throughout history have always been convinced of the virtuousness of their visions. The crucial question is not whether individuals pursue a vision of righteous rule but whether the melding of religion and government, or religion and a transnational terrorist movement in the case of Bin Laden, enables fanatics to pursue their particular religious-political vision with devastating consequences for those who do not share it. If Bin Laden did not have financial support from radical Islamists dedicated to extending the sweep of their theocracies, the morality or immorality of his personal vision would be of little consequence. He would be just another aggrieved prophet crying in the wilderness.

Better than most, secularists understand the power of religion, and the possibility that any intensely felt drive for righteousness may overwhelm dissenters in its path. That is why they must insist on the fundamental importance of absolute separation between church and state — not namby-pamby partial separation in which religion can insinuate itself into government by the back door — which is what tax breaks for school vouchers allow churches to do.

But it is not enough for secularists to speak up in defense of the godless constitution; they must also defend the rationalist values that produced the legal structure crafted by the framers. I would like to see candidates come out swinging on the issue of teaching evolution in public schools, because many of the anti-secularist right’s policy goals are intimately linked to a profound distrust of science and scientists. There is also a strong connection between the revival of anti-evolutionism since 1980 and the attack on separation of church and state, because the Christianization of secular public education has long been a goal of the forces of conservative religion. We have a president who encourages this on every level, stating explicitly that evolution is “just a theory” and that creationism also should be taught in schools.

Few Americans realize that evolution was already being taught in high school biology classes in the first two decades of the 20th century. Then, after the Scopes “monkey trial” in 1925, the “E-word” began to be removed from biology texts. In the 1990s, many biology teachers once again began to replace “evolution” with the less inflammatory–to fundamentalists–word “development.” The most recent example, of course, was the recommendation of Georgia’s state superintendent of schools–a right-wing Republican and fundamentalist Christian–that the word be stricken from the state biology curriculum and replaced by “biological changes over time.” That decision was reversed only after former President Carter denounced it and said Georgia would become the laughingstock of the nation if it stood. And the impact of Carter’s statement shows just how vital it is for public officials to weigh in on these issues.

The fact that an overwhelming majority of Americans believe in God and (in much smaller numbers) regularly attend church does not mean that a defense of secular government and science will fall on deaf ears. Most Americans, for example, disapprove of the sacralization of government decisions on such matters as biomedical research. Polls show that a large majority–among Catholics and evangelical Christians as well as others–support embryonic stem cell research even though their church leaders oppose it.

The problem is that fundamentalists care more about religious issues than the rest of the public and do more to see that their views are heard. They have dominated public discourse and have trapped American secularists between two poles. On the one hand, secularists are credited with exaggerated importance by those who have swallowed the argument that the nonreligious have already won the day; on the other, secularists are attacked (sometimes by the same people) as enemies of majoritarian, by definition religious, American values. The antisecularists cannot have it both ways. If secularists are in charge of everything, then America is not as religious as the religiously correct claim; if secularists are an insolent minority trying to erode the values of the majority, then they are not in charge of everything.

Campaign 2004 could have been an important “teachable moment,” as educators say, for politicians with the courage to challenge the religiously correct rhetoric we all became accustomed to under the ministry of George W. Bush. When Bush claimed, as he so often did, that the American government was founded on religion, and that the founders were men who were only concerned about protecting religion from government, a secular candidate could cite a quote from Thomas Jefferson, a once-famous quote hardly known to the public today:

“The legitimate powers of government extend only to such acts as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Jefferson was called an infidel and an atheist as a result of this quote; it was repeatedly cited in the 1800 campaign as an example of his unfitness for the presidency. The majority of Americans voted for him anyway.

Candidates should not try to hide their support for separation of church and state, but should proclaim it on every possible occasion. They should also challenge Bush’s oft-repeated rationale for faith-based funding for social services–that religion was responsible for the civil rights movement of the ’60s. It is one of the most repellent ironies of modern religious correctness that politicians whose political and religious predecessors “stood in the schoolhouse door,” opposing the civil rights movement at every bloody step, should now try to wrap themselves in the mantle of Martin Luther King.

As anyone with a scintilla of historical memory knows, fundamentalist white southern Protestants were the strongest supporters of segregation in the 50s and 60s. We should never talk about religion per se as a moral force against racism; instead, we should make distinctions between and within religions. Men and women of faith–but very different faiths from the kind of retrograde religion that used the Bible as a justification for first slavery and then segregation–joined with men and women of no religion to fight for racial justice. And isn’t it curious that socially progressive religious believers almost invariably are strong supporters of church-state separation? King and other African-American ministers were able to use their moral values for social action precisely because their churches were independent of government control. Would they have been free to do so if they had been dependent on faith-based funding that came from the government? There’s a question that should have been put to minister-manqu Bush.

Finally, secularists–if they are to regain a powerful voice in the public square–must reclaim the language of passion and emotion from the religiously correct. Secularists frequently present themselves, and are perceived by others, as a cool lot, applying intellectual theories to social questions but out of tune with the emotions that move religious believers. In the summer of 2004, when federal courts ordered the removal of the hefty Ten Commandments monument from the Alabama State Supreme Court Building, thousands of Christian demonstrators converged on Montgomery. They were not only outraged but visibly grief-stricken when the monument was moved out of sight. It was, one demonstrator said, like a death in the family. In Montgomery, Christian demonstrators kissed their bibles; for a secularist, kissing a copy of the Constitution would be a form of idolatry.

Today’s secularists would do well to take a lesson from their freethinking 19th-century predecessors, who, with a combination of passion and rationalism, sought to change hearts as well as minds. In a speech (appropriately titled “A Lay Sermon”) delivered before the American Secular Union in 1886, Ingersoll quoted “the best prayer I have ever read”–Lear’s soliloquy when, after raging on the heath, he stumbles upon a place of shelter.

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your unhoused heads and your unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? Oh, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayest shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.

And show the heavens more just. This is the essence of the secularist and humanist faith here on earth, and it must be offered not as a defensive response to the religiously correct but as a robust and ardent creed worthy of the first secular government in the world.

Susan Jacoby, author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, began her writing career at the Washington Post.

She is author of six other books. Jacoby directs the Center for Inquiry-Metro New York.

Freedom From Religion Foundation