Secularism is under threat – and worth fighting for


Western leaders need a reminder of the value of JFK’s words. By Chris D 2006 on Flickr. Licensed for non-commercial reuse.

The theocrats are on the march in the west and beyond. Our complacent societies must learn again the value of separating religion from public policy. 

His first 100 days are almost up, and Donald Trump has put religious rhetoric front and centre. In his inauguration speech he quoted the Bible, spoke of “God’s people” living together and said his country was “protected by God”. He has told Congress that “we are all made by the same God”. At the National Prayer Breakfast he said “America will thrive, as long as we continue to have… faith in God”.

It is tempting to shrug it off. He is just playing to the gallery, we say. American presidents seem to say “God bless you and God bless America” almost without thinking. We know they have to do it: more than half of American voters would be less likely to vote for a candidate who did not believe in God.

But when these words come from Trump’s mouth, we should worry. There is little evidence to suggest he has strong religious convictions. But he is also no rational thinker. He has promoted conspiracy theories such as birtherism. He has backed false science on vaccinations and called climate change a hoax. Much of his support comes from so-called alternative media sources which have disdain for standards and evidence.

Trump embraces evangelicals

Trump’s shallowness and changeability make him a threat to the US’s secular tradition. A leader with his record has no problem embracing the religious right – and Trump will play to any gallery that empowers him. In 2012 his lack of support from evangelical Christian leaders cost him votes, so in 2016 he declared himself “proud” to be pro-life and said the Bible was his favourite book.

It worked: last November he won 81% of the white evangelical vote, more than any of the Republican party’s previous three presidential nominees. He openly thanked these voters when he spoke to CPAC in February. When he suggests policies such as prioritising Christian refugees for resettlement, this is the context behind it.

Consider also the people around him. His main adviser, Steve Bannon, has criticised secularism and called for a return to “Judeo-Christian values”. His vice-president, Mike Pence, has advocated the teaching of creationism in public schools; government funding of gay conversion therapy; the criminalisation of abortion; and abstinence-only sex education.

Most US presidents, however religious they are personally, understand that the separation of church from state is a crucial element of their country’s constitution. This one sees it either as just another idea which is up for debate in a big power game or as an “establishment” shibboleth which has weakened America.

Britain turns against secularism

A similar pattern is unfolding in the UK. Many of the free schools set up since 2010 are run by religious bodies. Faith schools are back in fashion under Theresa May’s government. And it was little noticed last year that all five candidates to become prime minister were Christians.

Their private faith is their business, but it illustrated the fact that Christianity is a political advantage in a country where fewer than 1m people go to church each week. At the time the magazine Christian Today wrote that a “re-awakening” was taking place, where politicians felt more comfortable talking about their religion in public. This was also true in last year’s London mayoral race, when both Sadiq Khan’s supporters and detractors talked a great deal about the fact he was a Muslim. These trends should alarm those who believe religion – or the lack of it – is a private matter.

And this is part of a global phenomenon. India’s Narendra Modi is a Hindu nationalist. Vladimir Putin has embraced his country’s orthodox church, with intolerant results. Geert Wilders has said he wants to entrench the “Judeo-Christian tradition” in the Dutch constitution. In France, many of those claiming to defend the country’s long secular tradition are in fact posing a threat to it (for example, by pushing bans on burkinis).

An unfashionable cause

Lobbying for freedom of and from religion, and against special privileges for religious practices and ideas, has become unfashionable on left and right. The Christian right in America presents secularism as a threat to religious liberty – when it is the very opposite. Right-wing religious advocates often say the west’s moral codes come from religion. But the moral basis for values such as pluralism, tolerance and equality before the law is in the Enlightenment, which challenged the institutional power of religion.

On the left secularism has fallen out of favour because it clashes with multiculturalism and moral relativism. If you want to blame the west for everything, you need to deny that its societies are founded on better ideas than theocracies. Those who uncritically embrace globalisation prefer to water down the achievements of western nation states than protect them. Above all secularism is denounced by those who play identity politics and generically support groups of people instead of principles. For many leftists, this means supporting religious exemptions on animal welfare laws or criticising the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists after they were shot.

Both sides tend, deliberately or not, to characterise secularism as an elite ideology – when in reality it is a way of keeping the state humble. And their contrasting critiques feed off each other. When sections of the left – secularism’s traditional supporters – turn to relativism, the right’s attacks seem more credible. When the right embraces intolerant nationalism, the left can present all anti-relativists as intolerant nationalists.

Our complacency will hurt us

We have learnt to take secularism for granted. When I worked as a history teacher few people in power seemed to care that children should understand how the free societies they lived in had emerged. Many university students – or at least, those with the loudest voices – now seem to view free speech itself as a threat.

Even the grown-ups seem to have little understanding of why religion should remain a private affair. Last week the press and rival politicians questioned Tim Farron’s personal views on homosexuality – missing the point that as a liberal politician, he does not wish to impose his views on others.

In an age of polarisation, it is tempting to give in to outrage, pick a side and shout as loudly as we can at those opposite us. But if we cannot make the case from a principled position in the centre, extremists will have their way. Islamists kill people for drawing something they dislike; the left shrugs. The US elects a man who says he will “defend Christian Americans”; the right shrugs.

Continue like this and we will get a painful lesson. When you do not stand for the principle that everyone deserves the same treatment, you get poisonous divisions based on identity. When you say all value systems are equal, you throw away the privileges which free societies have created. And when you stop believing that public life should be guided by reasonable people with limited power, you get fundamentalism.

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