The subtitle of Ten Tortured Words is instructive: “How the Founding Fathers Tried to Protect Religion in America . . . and What’s Happened Since.” I can see the secular atheist types sharpening their metaphorical pens, but they have a minor problem: History. The distortion of the Founders intent regarding religion and state goes back to the 1947 Supreme Court’s majority decision in Everson v. Board of Education. But it wasn’t the opinion itself that offended the right ordering of the 158 years of history that came before, but Justice Hugo Black’s majority opinion in which he completely and totally perverted the Founders’ intent by absolutising Thomas Jefferson’s metaphor of a “wall” separating church and state. (A metaphor, it should be added, that was found in a letter Jefferson wrote in 1802 to the Danbury (CT) Baptist Association.)
Ever since that decision, those who long for a totally secular utopia devoid of any public affirmation of religion have literally worshiped those words as inviolable absolute truth from on high. Nothing else the Founders wrote or did is allowed to alter the meaning of that phrase as defined and asserted over and over again since 1947 by our legal and cultural elites. To say otherwise is to instantly be branded as one who wants to establish a theocracy and be called a variety of epithets.
How ingrained this willful distortion is in these elites I mention came to me in a short e-mail interaction I had with a very intelligent atheist (there rarely are any other kind). He had been a professor of English at Yale and an atheist who obviously had very little grasp of actual history. In a passing assertion he thought beyond question, he stated, no doubt with a straight face, that all the Founders were deists. You know it is pretty much impossible to have an intelligent conversation with someone who is so brainwashed by their ideology that they would make such a statement. In fact, religion, and Christianity in particular, was an important part of the lives of most of the Founders, regardless if they were orthodox believers or not.
Unlike our rabid secular elites, the Founding generation had a completely different view of religion, one that embraced its salutary effects on a self-governing people. And as we know, religion of that time was primarily a Protestant view of the Christian faith. Contrast this with modern secularists who outright fear and loathe religion, especially any of the various varieties of the conservative Christian kind. Author Stephen Mansfield states something in the book about America’s founding generation (page 23) that to me is beyond doubt:
There is no evidence in all the debates and proposed language of an attempt to erect a secular State similar to the one that arose during the French Revolution. There is no evidence of an attempt to keep the government from supporting religion. There is no evidence of any concern that religion might influence government. There was only concern that the government might officially establish a religion that would destroy the religious liberties of the people.
No evidence at all. None. Yet, we are led to believe by our supposed betters that Christian thought has absolutely no place in the public square. If an argument stems from a religious premise, is it out of bounds, and even worse to the secularist, threatening; If we let the camel’s nose under the tent just once, in short order the camel will end up tearing the tent down.
But what is the alternative? Liberty. That’s right, liberty. Christians regularly have their liberties to speak in the public square curtailed, because the unquestioned assumption is that secularism is a neutral philosophy that produces the greatest amount of social peace. In contrast, in the secularist’s view, religion has been historically the greatest contributor to social conflict. So for them, the only valid place religious thought can be exercised is in private, its only legitimate sphere of influence. That this was not the case in the years prior to 1947, and that religious wars didn’t break out in all those years, seems to have fallen into an historical secularist black hole.
Yet secularism as a public philosophy, according to Hunter Baker in the excellent The End of Secularism, cannot stand up to the scrutiny of its own stated purpose. According to Baker, supposedly, “secularism is a superior strategy for attaining social peace in a pluralistic setting.” Given the centuries of religious wars and conflict there is some plausibility to this assertion. Yet dogmatic secularism has given us what has come to be known as the “culture wars.” Not a pacific phrase, that.
This brings us back to the founding of America and how it has been interpreted by the secularists to bolster their position. According to them, America’s founders didn’t just intend to restrict the federal government from establishing a state church, but to scrub the influence of religion from public policy and statecraft. In this context the secularist is fond of bringing up how important the Enlightenment’s influence was upon the founding generation. According to them, the Enlightenment was inimical to religion. But Baker points out that the Enlightenment wasn’t a monolith, with every thinker as every other hostile to religion.
There were a variety of streams to the Enlightenment. Far from a hostile approach a la the French Revolution, Christianity and Enlightenment were wedded in the American mind of the time. That’s why it is so valuable to read both of these books together. The history and the results simply do not support the absolutist secular interpretation. As Baker states, “The American founding was a joint enterprise between Protestants and enthusiasts of a moderate Enlightenment.” A key distinction “is that while the institutional separation of church and state had many champions, those who proclaimed the separation of religion and politics were deeply in the minority.”
So what does this liberty look like once secularism loses its pretension to neutrality? Basically reality takes over, and we admit there is no common ground from which to claim one set of doctrines or beliefs or policies or ideas are superior while others are out of bounds. Secularism is just as partisan as any other view, and as such it comes to the public square as one partisan view among many. It cannot claim neutrality or superiority over any other view, and thus religious views are just as valid. It is a real competition of competing orthodoxies, may the best man win.
Here Baker makes an excellent encapsulation of his argument:
The foregoing analysis demonstrates that the oft-raised concern of “inaccessibility” of public arguments and assertions having some connection to religion is a chimera. There is no neutral view from nowhere, and thus we speak to each other from different Bergerian structures of plausibility. Worldviews—philosophical, religious, non-religious, antireligious, gender-focused, race-centered, class-based, environmentally directed, Marxist, etc.—contend freely with one another in the public square. To single out one of those plausibility structures, the religious, and to treat it as uniquely inaccessible to those outside of that structure is to attempt to win a game by controlling the rule-making function. Robert George writes tellingly on this point when he notes that secularism has no more claim to neutrality than a starting pitcher of a baseball team who anoints himself umpire in the middle of the game and begins calling balls and strikes. Much of what others propose to us is “inaccessible” in the sense that we simply cannot buy into it and would probably never do so. Inaccessibility, posed as a unique feature of religious argumentation, and assertion, is a public relations stunt, not a reality.
It will take a very long time for this to become a reality in the public arena in America, if only because the “reality-defining institutions” as he calls them (education, media, entertainment) are dominated by committed, ideological secularist who will brook no place for religion. But truth has a funny way of winning out in the end, and just as one wall fell that exploded the lies of communism and socialism, so too this fictitious wall will one day fall of its own weight into the dustbin of history.