During his talk at St. Thomas More on Tuesday, Jim Towney, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, remarked that “you institute a secular religion if you don’t allow religion in social services.” The phrase “secular religion” looks weird in a post-Enlightenment world where “secular” and “religious” are opposites. Still, it’s a very useful term.
Everyone knows what a “religious” person is like: she practices her faith, and you can tell. Less obvious, but still not uncommon, is what I will call the “secular” person of faith, whose observances are strictly private. His exterior life does not obviously stem from any particular set of religious values. Both the religious and the secular person may be truly devout, but the former tends to grate against a differing faith context, while the latter moves in the wider world with ease. “Secular religion,” in this sense, is extremely common at Yale and elsewhere.
Towney is technically talking about something different. He wants to suggest that anyone who separates government money from religious-religious organizations is proposing an alternative religion of secularism, one that seeks to shut out traditional religions. Evangelical Christians have been pressing this point for years without convincing much of the public, and I don’t need to add to it. But his concept of secular religion does describe something that American governments are willing to support.
The Salvation Army, for example, has the public face of a secular-religious organization. Many people who give to its bell ringers and shop at its thrift stores don’t even realize that there are Salvation Army churches. Those churches’ fervency comes out in the Mory’s standard “It’s,” originally an SA revival song; but SA social service work has no overtly religious content, to the point that governments have never felt uncomfortable funding its activities. The Salvation Army of greater New York State got over half its services budget last year from government sources. Such secular-religious organizations have always been fully welcome in the public square, without the First Amendment suspicions that accompany religious-religious social-service work.
Secular religion as we know it in the West, like secularism in general, is a very strange animal. It only shows up after the Enlightenment, which rules out those parts of the world where majorities have not been socialized in Enlightenment values. Moreover, it is far more common in nations and regions that have lived under a strong established church. Thus, Europe’s religious population is especially secular. Tony Blair sleeps with a Bible by his bed, but seldom invokes his Anglican faith in public. Millions of French citizens practice their once-official Catholic faith, but they have raised little outcry over a proposed ban on visible religious garb in public schools.
In America, Congregationalists and Episcopalians are the descendants of the established Puritan and Anglican churches; the famously secular Howard Dean is a product of both those traditions. Indeed, the old Puritan stronghold of New England is often a byword for secularism. By contrast, places like the American South and the Midwest, which have known the Enlightenment but not an established church, become centers of religious religion, such as Towney’s evangelical Christianity. Plenty of places in the world know about the Enlightenment or have a history of an established church, but relatively few have both. Secular religious people, as a result, are unusual globally.
Liberal democracies don’t try to stamp out religion, but they do have a way of giving the secular kind more room in the public square. It causes less trouble. Sometimes it’s better for the religious folks: supporters of the French religious-clothing ban say it will prevent anti-Semitic violence. It’s better for the nonreligious folks: if the religious folks are all secular, confining their faith to private expression, you may never have to meet the disquieting suggestion that the universe is larger than it looks.
And, perhaps most of all, it’s better for the state. Religious-religious people have a way of radically questioning the way things are. While I impute no sinister motive to the state’s support of secular religious organizations, it still serves to reward those who are willing and able to separate their conduct from their truth-claims. Most faithfully, usefully religious people throughout history have been neither.
Society changes for the better because of the imagination and the action of its citizens, through what Yale constitutional scholar Jack Balkin calls social movement contestation. Some movements, however, are more readily accepted than others, as they should be. The unique urgency that religious-religious movements bring to their causes often denies them a hearing, from the state and the comfortable secular society That is not only religious discrimination, it hurts our democracy.
The irony here is that the Salvation Army in the early 20th century was a significant force for social change. Some of its projects, like prohibition, proved to be bad ideas; others, like getting child prostitution banned in Japan, were undoubted goods. While its present work helping the homeless is both important and useful, the secular SA is no longer the sort of organization that could fearlessly and publicly attack the root causes of human suffering. States don’t support that kind of work. As a liberal, I’d like to think they could.