“Secularism” is a late coinage in English, dating from the 1850s, when it was adopted by reformers who regarded the church and capital as the joint enemies of the worker (Holyoake 1854). But because the word is used by cultural critics in many antithetical senses, it occasions great confusion. The United States is sometimes held to be the model of secular democracy and sometimes the most religious of all major modern democracies. Can both be true?

The root “secular” derives from the Latin for “the age”; in the Christian tradition, the secular is the temporal or the worldly. The spiritual/secular opposition is fundamental, but Christian attitudes toward the secular have ranged from hostility to fervent immersion and have seldom been simple. It was at one time possible, for example, to speak of “secular clergy,” by which was meant ordinary parish priests, as opposed to the religious of the monastic orders.

Protestantism heightened the contrast, and Puritans especially differentiated spiritual and secular functions as part of their critique of the established church. Thus they relegated marriage to secular authorities and avoided the ecclesiastical courts. But they did not imagine the secular to be outside of Christianity, let alone outside of the abstract category “religion.” “Religion,” as Wilfred Cantwell Smith pointed out in his classic The Meaning and End of Religion (1964), had until recently the sense of piety rather than of any category of belief systems and institutions. Only in the late eighteenth century could Christianity and Islam be seen as tokens of the same type. So although the new secularism of the Puritans may have fed the growth of the autonomous state, the aim was to purify rather than relativize religion.

“Secularism” refers sometimes to social conditions that can be embraced by the religious and nonreligious alike. Disestablishment is the most obvious of these; it was an idea developed largely by Baptists and other dissenters, at a time when virtually no one in North America expressed open antagonism to religion (Hamburger 2002). Somewhat more broadly, “secularism” refers to the idea that the complex set of social transformations called “secularization” can be embraced as a good thing. This idea, too, can be held for religious or nonreligious reasons; there are many Christian theologians who regard the conditions of secularization as restoring to Christianity a purity that it had lost through the corruption of institutional power and temporal preoccupations. For them, the litmus issues that are widely thought to indicate religious conviction—opposition to abortion, gay marriage, or evolution—are temporal concerns corrupting religion.

“Secularism” can also refer to atheism or freethought, though the term was coined largely to give the sense of a substantive ethical vision rather than the merely negative sense of infidelity or nonbelief. “Freethought” is a continuous tradition in Anglo-American culture, dating from the second half of the seventeenth century, though it was more vilified than evinced in North America. Some versions of freethought are religious in many senses of the term. Most emphasize reason as the guide to religious truth. The earliest proponents of freethought in North America include Ethan Allen, Thomas Paine, and Elihu Palmer; all were deists, and Paine vigorously denounced atheism (Morais 1934). Their innovation was to make freethought a popular rather than elite cause. Nineteenth-century freethought had even more radical aspirations and was frequently elaborated as part of other movements, especially labor, feminism, antislavery, and pacifism. Among its greatest exponents were Frances Wright, Robert Ingersoll, and Ernestine Rose.

More radically still, “secularism” sometimes refers to an active quest for the elimination of religion, a quest that can be tied to projects as different as positivism, structuralism, and the post-Nietzschean move to expunge Christian moralism and redemptive theology from the culture. Despite the prominence of these antihumanist versions of secular thought, “secular humanism” emerged in the twentieth century as the target of fundamentalists, who often identify it with science, mass culture, liberal jurisprudence, and many other phenomena that may or may not be tied to humanist or other views of the secular.

More rarely, “secularism” can be embraced as a kind of spiritual worldliness in a way that is distinguished from Christianity, or the theological, but not necessarily from religion per se. William Connolly’s Why I Am Not a Secularist (2000), despite the irony of its title, advocates a nontheist worldliness that—in contrast to what he regards as liberal statist secularism—would not be sharply distinguished from religious subjectivities or practices. It can be argued that some of the Transcendentalists—Ralph Waldo Emerson and, even more so, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman—represent this kind of secularism as well.

Connolly joins several other recent scholars—Charles Taylor (2002, 2004), Talal Asad (1993, 2003), and Leigh Schmidt (2000)—in seeing secularism not as the absence of religion or as an antagonist to religion but as a specific cultural formation in its own right, with its own sensibilities, rituals, constructions of knowledge, and ethical projects. Schmidt, for example, has documented a reeducation of the senses connected with the eighteenth-century critique of revelation. Secular culture in this sense remains comparatively understudied, possibly because—as Asad argues—one of its features is the consolidation of “religion” as an object of social-scientific knowledge in a way that takes for granted the secular character of explanation itself.

Secularism is often associated with the Enlightenment and with rationalism, but neither of these intellectual movements took hold in British America in the way that is often assumed by critics whose view of the Enlightenment is based on the French version. The deist movement that was so notable in England after the 1690s made only an indirect impact in the colonies before the Revolution. (Benjamin Franklin is one exception, and even he supported evangelical movements and clergy, largely on pragmatic grounds.) The anticlericism that marked the French Enlightenment was also conspicuously absent from the colonies. The American Enlightenment, indeed, was often led by clergy (H. May 1976).

In classic studies by Carl Schmitt (1986), Carl Becker (1932), M. H. Abrams (1971), and others, the Enlightenment is seen historically as transposing religious values into nontheological equivalents, the significance of which often depends on the religious background that has been suppressed. Thus progress is secularized providence, utopia is secularized heaven, and sovereignty is secularized omnipotence. Hans Blumenberg (1983), however, has countered that these stories mistakenly assume a theological origin and neglect the new context, function, and impulse of secular themes.

By the end of the eighteenth century, it had become possible to speak of religion in a comparative sense, defined principally by belief. This understanding still reigns as common sense in the United States, but it does not go without saying; many kinds of religious practice have little to do with belief or sincerity of conviction. The Protestant quest for saving faith no doubt lies behind this assumption, but so does the development of the denominational system, in which churches are no longer taken to be national or territorially comprehensive, as they had been in the long history of the Catholic, Anglican, and even Congregationalist systems. Instead, they began competing for voluntary adherents in overlapping territories. Being outside a particular church no longer meant being alienated from a fundamental institution of belonging and public culture, thus opening more space for the secular. Yet this same system marked the rise of evangelicalism and the aggressive promotion of religious faith to a public of strangers. This association is so strong that it makes sense to speak of an evangelical public sphere, developing first with the so-called Great Awakening and exploding after the 1790s. The way this combination of disestablishment and denominationalism created fertile conditions for religiosity is what struck Alexis de Tocqueville ([1835] 2004) so forcibly.

For many scholars of the sociology of religion (P. Berger 1963, 1969; Stark and Finke 1992, 2000; Swatos and Olson 2000), this pattern is seen as a “marketplace of religion.” The metaphor is highly questionable, since the key features that define a market—including abstract value, price as a mechanism for coordinating supply and demand, territorial integration of regulation—are absent. This model also leads people to think of religion as a constant and thus to overlook its transformation and construction.

Rodney Stark and Roger Finke have argued strongly that the marked and enduring religiosity of US culture refutes what they call “the secularization thesis.” In their view, the secularization thesis is the idea that modernity necessarily entails a decline of religious belief. They point out that religious adherence—at least as measured by church attendance—was much lower in the premodern Middle Ages than in the United States of the past two centuries. “To classify a nation as highly secularized when the large majority of its inhabitants believe in God is absurd,” they write (2000, 62).

But this view depends on an extremely reductive view of secularization. The more robust understanding of secularization is that a variety of social changes—bureaucratization, the rationalization and professionalization of authority, the rise of the state, the separation of the economy, urbanization, and empirical science—change the position of religious institutions in the social landscape (D. Martin 1969, 1978; Weber 1983; B. Wilson 1998). Clergy compete with other public intellectuals, other grounds of legitimacy and authority are available, and the society itself is understood to be distinct from a confessional body. This understanding of secularization does not necessarily predict a decline in belief. In fact, the understanding of religion as defined primarily in terms of subjective belief could be seen as evidence of this larger transformation. Thus it would not at all be absurd to say that US society, marked by high levels of belief in God, is highly secularized precisely because mental and voluntary adherence is the principal way that religion is salient.

Charles Taylor (2004) has elaborated this point. Modern social imaginaries, in his view, are secular in several senses, though they also allow for new kinds of religiosity. They take the social to be an order of mutual benefit in which governments answer to essentially prepolitical ends (natural rights, happiness, flourishing), directly comprehending all constituents. Political and social life is increasingly understood in a secular temporality of simultaneous and directional activity rather than in a higher time of origins or ritually realized eternity. Religion can exist, even thrive, under the conditions of modern social imaginaries, but it is newly enframed. One major change, in Taylor’s view, is the widespread assumption that religious convictions, to be truly authentic, should be the result of an individual path toward spirituality. Thus what is often called the “privatization of religion” is not just a reduction or restriction but involves new ethical imperatives and a backgrounded understanding of the social.

Working against this trend, however, are several new kinds of public religion, from the prophetic character of the African American church (Chappell 2004) to what Robert Bellah (1970, 1975) calls “civil religion,” by which he means not just a veneration of the nation’s founding, documents, and rituals of citizenship but a faith in a deity that providentially superintends the nation. In many contexts, US Americans speak of God in a way that is nominally ecumenical. Eisenhower is supposed to have remarked, “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith—and I don’t care what it is” (Henry 1981, 35). George W. Bush similarly speaks of a nation “guided by faith” without specifying what that faith is in (Bumiller 2002). This vagueness bespeaks secularism, in that it is thought to be multiconfessional and disestablished. But the divine is assumed to be personal and historical: a being that actively addresses individuals and nations and has specially appointed a world-historical mission for the United States. This political religion is secular in an important sense: its proof lies not in spiritual truth or a higher time but in the politics of the present. The Gettysburg Address is a classic example of this crypto-Protestant secular providentialism (Tuveson 1968). This strain of redemptive nationalism explains why those who speak of America’s God believe themselves to be in a mainstream of US history against advocates of church-state separation—who nevertheless also see themselves as in the mainline of Constitutionalism.

Among the greatest challenges in thinking about secularism is that although the term acquired its significance from the development of Christian culture, it was globalized in the period of the European empires to apply to cultures where local religions did not have the same tradition of distinguishing themselves from the secular. Thus in many parts of the world, including the Islamic world, secularism and Christianity are often presented not as opposites but as twin faces of Western dominance. Some of the strongest critiques of secularism have come from postcolonial India (Bhargava 1998). Secularism might thus be seen as a mode of political organization closely connected with global capitalism, and it is ironic but not simply inconsistent that secular governance in other countries is promoted with missionary and even violent fervor by the most evangelical Christian wing of US politicians.

The dialectic unfolding of these ironies is lost on common sense, which continues to hold as self-evident that secularism means governmental neutrality, that religion is a universal category of subjective belief, and that the two are locked in combat. These convictions distort any attempt in American studies, cultural studies, or elsewhere to confront such ultimate questions as finitude, mortality, nature, fate, and commonality.


Works Cited
Permanent Link to this Essay