A few days before the commemoration at Ground Zero marking the tenth anniversary of the World Trade Center tragedy, an article appeared on the front page of the New York Times titled “Omitting Clergy from 9/11 Ceremony Prompts Protest.”* The protesters in question were incensed over Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision to prohibit religious officials from speaking at the official memorial honoring those who perished in the attacks.
Uproar aside, the decision was entirely consistent with the city’s usual practice. In the past, services on this day of national mourning did not feature any official representatives of religious groups. That clerics were not invited to participate on September 11, 2011, was neither unprecedented nor unusual. But leaders of the Christian Right suddenly deemed this arrangement unacceptable.
Richard Land, a major figure in the ultraconservative and highly influential Southern Baptist Convention, was quoted in the article as saying, “We’re not France . . . Mr. Bloomberg is pretending we’re a secular society, and we are not.”* Elsewhere, Land lamented that Bloomberg’s action “demonstrates the mindless secularist prejudice of the political establishment on our nation’s Eastern Seaboard.”*
Doing its own reporting on the growing controversy, the Christian Century cited the president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, who charged that New York’s mayor was “ignoring most Americans and most New Yorkers by pretending religion is unimportant.”* The same article mentioned a right-wing blogger who accused Bloomberg of launching a “de facto jihad” on religion.*
As the controversy crescendoed, the mayor’s detractors certainly had reason to believe that they might prevail. After all, in recent decades the Christian Right had been routing American secularism (a term that, as we shall see, has been defined, derided, used, and abused in a bewildering variety of ways). The growing influence of this movement was evident in the manner in which faith and piety had come to permeate the rhetoric of politicians and, ultimately, law and policy. Reproductive rights had been checked across the country—so much so that legal abortions are extraordinarily difficult to procure in many states of the Union. Science’s role in shaping national dialogue on questions such as the teaching of evolution or the threat of climate change had been degraded. American public education had been challenged by attempts to de-secularize the curriculum or even remove students from its institutions via voucher programs or homeschooling.
Now the conservative Christian “outrage machine” was revving and whirring again.* And in New York City, for the love of God! This must have seemed like a slam dunk for the assembled activists. If the Christian Right could make it unsecular there, they could make it unsecular anywhere! Imagine the mayor of the most secular city in America, and possibly the world, being forced to bend to the will of a few Bible-thumpin’ pastors from the boonies!
That did not come to pass. In the face of a brutal battering from the media, Bloomberg held his ground, often with truculence. The fact that he had always maintained cordial relations with the city’s diverse communities of faith certainly strengthened his position.* Another explanation for his triumph was the refusal of the Catholic Church to join the evangelical Protestants who had initiated the scrum.* The ceremony proceeded solemnly and without incident. The critics quietly decamped from this theater of the culture wars. In all likelihood they’ll be back for another go.
This book is about the recent crackup of American secularism and the therapeutic steps required for its rehabilitation. In understanding how secularism became institutionalized (or, more precisely, de-institutionalized) we will need to make sense of its complex historical past. In order to secure the future of secularism we will need to understand what secularism is and, more important, what it is not. According to its enemies, secularism is akin to atheism, hatred of religion, anti-Americanism and—why not?—radical jihadism.
The stakes are very high. Were secularism to completely collapse, the country might become the type of “Christian nation” that the New York protestors hope (and pray) for. In the mid-twentieth century, the U.S. Supreme Court assiduously labored to purge any such possibility from our political system. Yet the form of secularism they abided by has fallen upon some very difficult times. New ideas, new energy, and most of all new people are needed to resurrect it in America today.
To a large extent, the ceremony of September 11, 2011, exemplified the possibilities of a new vision for secular America, wherein both freedom of and freedom from religion are granted as much space as possible. Under the Bloomberg protocols, no state-sanctioned clergy or prayer was included during the memorial. Yet those citizens who wished to express their faith were completely at liberty to do so.
President Obama opened his remarks by quoting from the Psalms.* Rudy Giuliani read from the book of Ecclesiastes.* George W. Bush invoked Abraham Lincoln’s letter of condolence to Mrs. Bixby, which ends with the words “I pray that our heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”*
Yet some of the speakers said not a word about God. Perhaps they refrained because they wished to keep their faith to themselves. Or perhaps they did not believe in God. One imagines that Bloomberg’s no-clergy directive offered these mourners one less distraction on a day of sorrow.
Still others invoked religion with moderation, dignity, and restraint, which are hallmarks of the secular worldview. One mourner, Debra Epps, noted that her brother’s name was imprinted on the 9/11 memorial next to that of another victim, Wayne Russo. The men had sat next to each other at work. The family of the latter had called and asked for permission for their names to be enshrined side by side on the monument. “Christopher would have loved knowing,” Ms. Epps explained, as she closed a short speech otherwise light in faith-based themes, “that the love he freely gave to others was given back to us in his name. Thank you, and I bid you God’s speed.”
Introduction: Is Secularism Dead?
Secularism is the handy one-word distillation for all that is wrong in the modern world. Consumerism, divorce, drugs, Harry Potter, prostitution, Twitter, relativism, Big Brother, lack of moral compass, lack of community cohesion, lack of moral values, vajazzling—all can be lumped together and explained by the word secular, a kind of contemporary contraction of heathen and barbarian, with undertones of greed, perfidity, and vulgarity.
—Caspar Melville, “Mix and Match Secularism”
American secularism is in a very bad way. Conservative religious leaders rampage against it, demagogues denounce it on the campaign trail, all three branches of government give it the cold shoulder, and among the general public it suffers from a distressing lack of popular appeal. All of these are worrisome developments. But in the triage ward currently housing the secular predicament, one illness demands our immediate attention: a debilitating confusion as to what secularism actually is.
The idea of secularism has been in play for centuries—so...