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The New Secular Fundamentalist Conspiracy!
By Frederick Clarkson
One of the most remarkable, and least remarked upon, features of the contemporary discussion of faith in public life is that a defining feature of the religious right worldview has filtered deeply into mainstream and even progressive thought. This defining feature is the idea that somehow God, and/or Christianity, and/or “people of faith” are being driven from “the public square.” It is a powerfully animating idea for many Americans; yet it is rarely factually supported and even more rarely challenged.
Interestingly, much of this distortion hinges on a single word. The word is “secular” and such variants as “secular humanists,” “secular fundamentalists,” and just plain “secularists.” While the word has simple and benign definitions, the word is also the touchstone of a powerful and usually subterranean set of meanings that often makes it a term of derision and demonization.
Tracing the word “secular” exposes how an important and dynamic dimension of religious right ideology has drifted to the top of American political discourse as well as elements of the liberal/left. This has, as we shall see, consequences for the mainstream discussion of separation of church and state, while also fomenting unnecessary divisions among progressives, and even raising the specter of old fashioned red baiting with is echoes of the “Godless Communist”1 smear leveled at generations of American progressives.
Secular Baiting Goes MainstreamFormer Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney staged a speech at the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library, in Midland, Texas early in the GOP presidential primary season in 2007. It was considered a speech of great moment for Romney, particularly given the personal introduction by former president Bush. It was at least a trial balloon on the party’s approach to religious freedom and separation of church and state. Indeed, Romney sought at once to echo John F. Kennedy's famous 1960 campaign speech in which the Democrat declared that the Catholic Church did not speak for him and he would not speak for Rome; that his religious views were private; he believed in the absolute separation of church and state; he would be president of all of the people; and would swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States. In so doing, Kennedy at once dissolved some people's concerns about whether he harbored any divided loyalties to the Vatican — and set a standard for the relationship between organized religion and candidates for office for a generation.
Romney’s task was a little different. He wanted to dissolve concerns about his Mormon faith and simultaneously appeal to conservative Christian evangelicals, many of whom were explicitly anti-Mormon. He cast himself within the broad American tradition of religious liberty and separation of church and state — and then the other shoe dropped. “In recent years,” he declared,
the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life.
In making this charge, Romney tapped a deep vein of religious right ideology; attributing malevolent intentions and considerable power to “some” people; an unnamed “they”—who are somehow seeking to foist a new religion of secularity on unsuspecting Americans — and subvert the will of the founding fathers to boot. He didn't say who, and he didn’t say how, or offer even a hint of a fact in support of his argument. He didn’t have to. He was offering the first few notes of a tune so well known to his intended audience that they could complete it themselves. The tune carries the story of Christian nationalism that has served as an animating vision of the Christian Right for decades. It was heard by those with ears to hear it. And the key word to unlocking the inner tune was the word “secular.”
Chip Berlet, Senior Analyst at Political Research Associates, writes that for decades, the religious right has promoted a conspiracy theory that Christianity is under attack by “secular humanists.”
For example, longtime televangelist and religious right leader, the late D. James Kennedy, offers a typical religious right use of the term: “God forbid that we who were born into the blessings of a Christian America should let our patrimony slip like sand through our fingers and leave to our children the bleached bones of a godless secular society. But whatever the outcome, one thing is certain: God has called us to engage the enemy in this culture war.”4
Perhaps the most infamous example is Reverend Jerry Falwell’s explanation to Pat Robertson of the 9/11 attacks on Robertson’s 700 Club cable TV show: “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’”5
By framing these claims as a conspiracy to provoke a "Culture War," Berlet concluded, “conservative Christians transform political disagreements into a battle between the Godly and the Godless, between good and evil, and ultimately between those that side with God and those that wittingly or unwittingly side with Satan.”
This framing is powerful, highly adaptable, and profoundly resonant. And because that is so, we see the frame employed by rightwing propagandists on specific issues and against groups or individuals all the time. For example, nationally syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, a former spokesperson for Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, drew on the power of the frame in a recent effort to discredit concern about global warming, snidely referring to “the secular fundamentalists who believe in Al Gore as a prophet and global warming as a religious doctrine …” 6 On Fox News, Bill O’Reilly routinely uses the term “secular progressive” in a way that slyly implies that progressives are inherently non- or even anti-religious. But sometimes, the fullness of his meaning surfaces. During a tirade about the alleged “war on Christmas,” he declared: “See, I think it’s all part of the secular progressive agenda—to get Christianity and spirituality and Judaism out of the public square. Because if you look at what happened in Western Europe and Canada, if you can get religion out, then you can pass secular progressive programs like legalization of narcotics, euthanasia, abortion at will, gay marriage, because the objection to those things is religious-based, usually.”7
A New Rosetta Stone
One of the political and intellectual tasks of our time is learning to have an open ear to the way the meanings of secular and its variants shift to accomplish ideological ends. The word offers a Rosetta Stone for interpreting the worldviews of several overlapping factions in contemporary political and religious debate. It is also the key to effectively challenging this central framing of the religious Right’s worldview in public life—and particularly for deprogramming progressives who have unwittingly internalized the frame.
The code phrases are all familiar. In addition to “secular humanist,” the main terms, often interchangeably, are secularist, secular fundamentalist, secular progressive, secular militant, and secular left.
But let’s begin with some basic definitions first. There are two main usages of the word “secular.” One has to do with the rela- tionship between government and public life. A secular government or a secular policy of government is neutral in relationship to religion; not just in the sense of not preferring one religion over another, but also in relation to non-religious persons and groups. This use of the term is epitomized in a 1971 U.S. Supreme Court case, Lemon vs. Kurtzman—a landmark decision in the history of church-state law. At issue was state funding of parochial schools. The court recognized that there is a perennial gray area in these matters, and that the gray area necessarily changes as society itself evolves. So the court identified three guiding principles—called “The Lemon Test”—for sorting out these matters from a constitutional perspective.
Neutrality does not mean that government or its officials must become non-religious or anti-religious. Rather, neutrality affirms the rights of individuals to believe as they will and that government shall serve as the uncompromised guarantor of those rights; and recognizes that within any government agency or program, there will be people who hold a range of religious and non-religious beliefs and that these are to be respected.
The second definition makes “secular” synonymous with non-belief, or more particularly, non-theism. A good example of this contemporary usage comes from the Secular Coalition for America, a Washington D.C.-based "national lobby for atheists, humanists, freethinkers and other nontheistic Americans."
The Secular Coalition’s mission statement further explains: “While the coalition was created expressly by and for nontheistic Americans, we also enthusiastically welcome the participation of religious individuals who share our view that freedom of conscience must extend to people of all faiths and of none.”
And then, the group employs the other main usage of secular: “…our full-time lobbyist and support staff engage public policy makers and the media to increase the visibility and respectability of nontheistic viewpoints and to protect and strengthen the secular character of our government as the best guarantee of freedom for all.”
When the Religious Right uses the term, it means something else altogether. The Religious Right does not buy the notion that government can be neutral with regard to religion. Indeed, secularism is the godless enemy, paving the way for Satan or Satanic agents; thwarting the advance of religion in general, or the kingdom of God in particular.
That is why it is shocking when we hear the religious right-like usages employed by such noted, ostensibly progressive authors as Reverend Jim Wallis, the leader of Sojourners/Call to Renewal; and Rabbi Michael Lerner, leader of the Network of Spiritual Progressives. Both of these men have published best selling and widely influential books that demonize secularism and use the term and its variations to smear the Left. These are, respectively, God’s Politics: Why the Religious Right is Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (2004); and The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right (2006). The way they use the term “secular” is indistinguishable from the way that religious right leaders use the term.
Assailing The “Zombie” LeftTo listen to or read Wallis and to a lesser extent Lerner, one would think that legions of the secular Left are rampaging across the land; that the secularity police are billy-clubbing every expression of religious faith out of public life; ruthlessly blocking “people of faith” from participation in constitutional democracy; and requiring politicians and ordinary citizens to hide their religiosity. But in their respective books (and as far as I can tell, their other published works and statements), neither has ever named anyone who has been driven from the public square, let alone any of the drivers.
“We contend today,” Wallis writes early in God’s Politics, “with both religious and secular fundamentalists, neither of whom must have their way. One group would impose the doctrines of a political theocracy on their fellow citizens, while the other would deprive the public square of needed moral and spiritual values often shaped by faith.”
It is important to note the book opens with this false equivalence between religious fundamentalists and “secular fundamentalists” as if they were problems of the same kind. However, nowhere in the book does Wallis tell us anything about these secular fundamentalists whose "way" must be thwarted or indeed, what that “way” even is. This is not unusual in the world according to Wallis: “In this election,” he wrote in 2006, “both the Religious Right and the secular Left were defeated, and the voice of the moral center was heard.”9 Nowhere in this article did he explain who this secular Left might be, how it was defeated, or why anyone should care.
Sixty-nine secular-baiting pages into God’s Politics, he finally gets around to naming a few names. It turns out that the bad guys are all civil liberties organizations, with Wallis using a tone that echoes leaders of the Religious Right: “Today, there are new fundamentalists in the land. These are the ‘secular fundamentalists,’ many of whom attack all political figures who dare to speak from their religious convictions. From the Anti-Defamation League [ADL], to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, to the ACLU and some of the political Left’s most religion fearing publications, a cry of alarm has gone up in response to anyone who has the audacity to be religious in public. These secular skeptics often display amazing lapse of historical memory when they suggest that religious language in politics is contrary to the ‘American Ideal.’”10
Wallis does not offer a single example of anything these civil liberties groups have ever done to justify these charges. He implies that these groups are militant anti-religionists, when clearly they are not. Indeed, the entirety of his argument is his use of the term secular as a pejorative, adding “fundamentalist” for some extra kick.
All of these organizations are at the forefront of efforts to protect religious freedom in America. Indeed, the ADL represents the civil liberties interests of Jews; and the leaders of Americans United for Separation of Church and State have always been predominantly religious. The current executive director, Barry Lynn is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and formerly headed the Washington office of the ACLU. In fact, all of the named groups are secular in the Lemon vs. Kurtzman sense of the term, in both the composition of their membership and in terms of the public policy agenda they pursue, as well as their general understanding of the meaning of the Constitution.
Wallis tried, unsuccessfully, to clear the air in 2007 in a blog post on Beliefnet. But he made the situation worse by simply repeating himself, passing off hearsay as facts, and refusing to substantiate his claims.
While there are certainly individuals who are hostile to religion, he offered no evidence that they are as big a problem as he infers. Nor does he in any way justify his implied conflation of such people with the civil liberties groups he names in his book.
In the wake of the 2004 elections, the Brookings Institution hosted a discussion of God’s Politics featuring Wallis and religious right leader Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention. According to a report in the Baptist Press News,12 Land was celebrating:
Meanwhile, Michael Lerner also takes a few pages from the religious right playbook and puts them in a chapter of his book: “The Religion of Secularism and the Fear of the Spirit.” He not only fails to define what he means by secular and its variants, he names not a single person, let alone any adherents of, or institutions associated with, what he calls the “Religion of Secularism.”
Lerner goes out of his way to make clear that he supports the rights of nonbelievers. But he sends profoundly mixed messages. For example, while he acknowledges and criticizes the Religious Right for secular baiting the Left—he also takes a great deal of space to do it himself.
Lerner goes so far as to blame the Left (without explanation) for “bad theology” on the religious Right! He claims that “[t]his bad theology has been able to flourish in part because the political Left has given little attention to its own religious Left, presenting itself instead primarily as a secular force.”13 At the same time, Lerner claims that (unnamed) secularists are somehow complicit in fostering a “spiritual crisis” in the nation.
He also implies that no one engaged in the political Left happens to be religious – except for those hiding in the closet. “When I critique the Left in this book,” he writes, “I’m referring to the most militant secularists; I am well aware that these criticisms don’t apply to many spiritual people who are engaged in the Left but feel they need to keep a low profile.”
The many diverse organizations of the liberal/left—Democracy for America, the National Organization for Women, the AFL-CIO as well as the Green and Democratic Parties—are, and have always been populated with people who are religious as well as people who are not. Lerner offers no evidence of people being pressured or silenced regarding their religious identity or views, let alone shows any kind of pattern or trend.
Such claims populate the writings of Wallis and Lerner like legions of the undead. We can illustrate how their argument relies almost entirely on the repetition of the word “secular” by replacing it with the word “zombie:”
Lerner: “What underlies the Zombie Left's deep skepticism about religion is their strong faith in another kind of belief system”; “[Scientism] has become the religion of the Zombie consciousness”; “The Religion of Zombieism: And the Fear of the Spirit.”
Wallis: “Zombie fundamentalists tell us that religion should be restricted to one’s church or family”; “Religion is not inherently undemocratic, as the Zombie fundamentalists want to make it out to be.”16
The Religion of Secular Humanism
It is worth underscoring that Lerner invokes the same phrase “the religion of secularism” as Romney used in his speech and offers no more evidence for it, despite the space afforded by an entire book. In the 1970s and 80s, the Religious Right was quite exercised about what they called “the religion of secular humanism.” Chip Berlet detailed in The Public Eye how “shift in focus from anti-communism to the claim that secular humanism now plays the key subversive role in undermining America” is rooted in the works of leading religious right figures such as John Stormer and Francis A. Schaeffer, and David A. Noebel of Summit Ministries, whose 1991 Understanding the Times was used in 850 Christian schools in the United States. The book, Berlet writes, “argues that secular humanism has replaced communism as the major anti-Christian philosophy.”17
Indeed. The argument that secular humanism, the general idea that humankind can self govern without a god, was cast as the bogeyman. Today’s shorthand is secular or secularism, but the basic worldview remains the same. Litigation was then, as it is now, commonplace. One such landmark case was the 1986 Alabama Textbook Case, in which a legal arm of the Pat Robertson empire sued the Mobile, Alabama school board. They claimed that school text books were promoting the supposed religion of secular humanism.
What happened is a classic example of how the allegation breaks down in the light of factual challenges. Robertson's legal team hired University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter to evaluate the disputed texts and to serve as an expert witness to testify that secular humanism was not only a religion, but that it was somehow advanced by the school books. Hunter testified, “the material is presented in such a way that it is consistent with the tenets of secular humanism.” He also said that his studies had “persuaded me that a secular humanism of a sort is a dominant ideology of public school textbooks, at least the ones reviewed.” Because some of the texts omitted certain historical references to religion in American history, Hunter argued that the “secularization of public life generally, and education specifically is epitomized by the omission of certain references to religion.”
“Is it a tenet of secular humanism,” Hunter was asked on cross examination, “that history be portrayed inaccurately?” Hunter had to not only acknowledge that it was not but that he had in fact found no passages in the elementary school social studies books he had reviewed that were “consistent with secular humanism,” rather that the books “advance a secularistic view of the world. Not a humanistic, but a secularistic.”
Federal District Court Judge Brevard Hand’s ruling that the Mobile school board had unconstitutionally established secular humanism as a religion nevertheless relied heavily on Hunter’s testimony. However, the appellate court promptly overturned Hand. “We do not believe,” the appellate court wrote in reversing the decision, “that an objective observer could conclude from the mere omission of certain historical facts regarding religion or the absence of a more thorough discussion of the role of its place in modern American society that the State of Alabama was conveying a message of approval of the religion of secular humanism.”18
When Democrats Adopt the Frame
What is remarkable today is that the views of Pat Robertson and an obscure judge in the 1980s are almost indistinguishable from some leading Democrats and Republicans who are not affiliated with the Religious Right. Senator Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat speaking at a forum organized by Jim Wallis in 2006, declared that (unnamed) “secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square.”19 In the wake of the ensuing outcry, Obama never again resorted to secular baiting, and later came to adopt an unambiguous public position on the importance of separation of church and state. Nevertheless, some Democratic Party campaign consultants actually advise their clients not to talk about separation of church and state because it raises “red flags with people of faith.”20 This according to Mara Vanderslice of the Washington D.C,- based firm Common Good Strategies— whose clients have included candidates for U.S. Senator and governor as well as the Democratic National Committee.
Just before the November 2006 elections, her partner Eric Sapp wrote:
First, Sapp parrots a standard religious right talking point—the phrase is not in the Constitution.22 True. However, it has been used by the Supreme Court (drawing on Thomas Jefferson’s famous letter to the Danbury Baptists), as a way of explaining the meaning of the establishment clause of the first amendment since the case of Reynolds vs. The United States in 1878 and it has been central to every major religious freedom case since. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in a Ten Commandments case in 2005: “Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?”
Religious and nonreligious leaders long before had used the phrase and its variants to describe this foundational concept23 but perhaps the most famous and influential use since Jefferson was by Senator John F. Kennedy in his landmark speech during his 1960 campaign for president. "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute – where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishoners for whom to vote…”24 Those words would not have passed Kennedy’s lips if he were advised by Sapp’s firm.
Sapp also, like the others, draws sweeping conclusions without offering any evidence or any justification. Just because some unnamed people—secularists of course—allegedly misuse the phrase, no one should use it. Nor does he explain how talking about separation of church and state in any way restricts anyone’s freedom of religion.
ConclusionSo much is revealed by how people use the term secular. Understanding how it is used by the Right helps us to better contend with the way that it is used as a wedge to divide the left against itself; especially between religious and nonreligious progressives. Mindless anti-secular sloganeering makes nonreligious progressives roll their eyes in astonishment at the vacuousness of the argument, the lack of intellectual integrity, and the sheer political ham-handedness of those who write and speak in such a fashion.
But most importantly, when left of center religious and political leaders engage in secular baiting, they are strengthening the religious right-framed argument against the best American ethos and the Constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state.
Frederick Clarkson is a member of the editorial board of The Public Eye and cofounder of the group blog site Talk2Action.org — from which parts of this essay are adapted. He is the editor of Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America — forthcoming from IG Publishing in 2008.
1 See Chip Berlet, “Dances with Devils: How Apocalyptic and Millennialist Themes Influence Right Wing Scapegoating and Conspiracism,” The Public Eye, Fall 1998.
2 Mitt Romney, Transcript, National Public Radio, December 6, 2007. Romney repeated his main assertion on Fox News’ Hannity & Colmes, December 13, 2007, explaining that he wanted “... to make sure that we don’t push God out of the public square, as some secularists would do.”
3 Chip Berlet, “How Apocalyptic and Millennialist Themes Influence Right Wing Scapegoating and Conspiracism,” The Public Eye, Fall 1998.
4 Rob Boston, “D. James Kennedy: Who Is He And What Does He Want?,” Church & State, April 1999.
5 Wikipedia profile of Jerry Falwell, http://en. wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerry_Falwell
6 Cal Thomas, “Secular fundamentalists,” Salt Lake Tribune, December, 24, 2007. Available at http://www.calthomas.com/index.php?news=2135.
7 “O’Reilly: ‘War’ on Christmas part of ‘secular progressive agenda’ that includes ‘legalization of narcotics, euthanasia, abortion at will, gay marriage,’’ Media Matters for America, November 21, 2005. http://mediamatters.org/items/200511210003?f=s_search
8Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971): [463 U.S. 783, 797].
9 Jim Wallis: “A Defeat for the Religious Right and the Secular Left,” Beliefnet, November 9, 2006. http://blog.beliefnet.com/blogs/godspolitics/2006/11/jimwallis- defeat-for-religious-right.html
10 Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the Religious Right is
Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, (New York: Harper
Collins, 2005) 69.
11 Jim Wallis, “Let’s Clear the Air,” Beliefnet, February 21,
12 Tom Strode, “Land: Religious right has won fight with
secular fundamentalists,” Baptist Press News, January 25,
13 Michael Lerner, The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our
Country from the Religious Right, SanFrancisco: Harper-SanFrancisco, 2006) 111.
14 Lerner, The Left Hand of God, 130.
15 Lerner, The Left Hand of God, 132.
16 Wallis, God’s Politics, 69-71, passim.
24 Address of Senator John F. Kennedy to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, reprinted in The Boston Globe,December 2, 2007, on the eve of Mitt Romney’s address at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library.
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