Why did the secular ambitions of the early United States fail?


EXCERPT: [...] How did the country founded by visionary secularists, and that made historic advances in both religious freedom and the separation of religious and political powers, nonetheless become the world’s most religious political democracy? Understanding secularism better helps to answer the question. Secularism is not one simple thing; it has distinct theological, philosophical and political lives. Its theological and philosophical versions are formed from simple, if explosive, ideas. In its political guise, ideas are less important than institutions, and it is on the shoals of institution-building that American secularism wrecked.

In theological terms, secularism is an Anglo-Protestant heresy that arose on the periphery of the 18th-century British Empire. In the past two centuries, it has developed offshoots in Catholicism and Islam, and genealogies in these and other faiths have been produced, but the influence of secularism is due in good part to the rise of US power in the modern world.

Prior to 18th-century Anglo-America – specifically revolutionary-era Virginia – no other modern society had sought to separate law, politics, social life and civic institutions from the divine. [...] Because of secularism’s Protestant origins, its history must include the thought of Martin Luther. He argued that man needed no institution, no hierarchy of learned clerics, to broach God. [...] It marked the creation of the modern sovereign individual.

Of course, Luther himself was anything but a secularist. For a start, his motive was to protect religion from politics, not politics from religion. [...] He would have found the relatively modest revolutionary-era American ideas about equality not just absurd but criminal, heretical.

Nonetheless, in the Age of Revolution, when America’s Virginia planters embraced the sovereignty of the individual in the name of religious freedom, they were clearly following in the footsteps of Luther. Catholicism, Islam or Judaism presented no similar path to the sovereign individual. [...] That men possessed equal physical or intellectual capacities. It meant that all men could reason and were capable of acting as responsible and accountable moral agents. There is a clear intellectual link with Luther’s valuation of individual judgment.

For Luther, however, the implications of the sovereign individual were narrowly and entirely theological, rather than social or political. [...] [Thomas] Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom grants no protections to actions taken on the basis of religious beliefs, only to the quiescent holding of private beliefs. The idea that belief and action, faith and life, can be so easily separated is central to the secular heresy. The Virginians’ goals were in a real sense the opposite of Luther’s. They thought they were protecting the nation by separating politics from religion, protecting political society from the poison of religious passions. [...] While it is a matter of history that secularism was in origin an Anglo-Protestant heresy, it is also true that America’s 18th-century secularists were not themselves moved by theological concerns. Rather, philosophy drove them, and their goals were thoroughly political.

[...] Economists and statisticians still use the term ‘secular’ in the same sense as Jefferson’s ‘secular acceleration and retardation’. [...] For Enlightenment thinkers, the authority of science was such that these findings in physics and geology carried direct political consequences. If physics made the cosmos, and geology the Earth, that left men to make political society. [...] Since God had not authorised political obligations, people could choose to dissolve and remake them. That is why the same line of the Declaration goes on to say that sometimes in history ‘it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another’. By contrast, one cannot dissolve divine obligations, they are made by God and are eternal.

[...] It is not so difficult to understand the trajectory that led from the original Protestant championing of the sovereign individual to the heresy of 18th-century secularism extending that right of individual conscience to the masses. Nor is it so difficult to see that philosophical secularism provides strong grounds to separate the political and the religious into different spheres. But when it comes to secularisation itself – that is, the building of institutions to cultivate secular ideals deeply into the society – that’s when things get difficult.

[...] Political life is where American secularism ran into a wall: the simple problem was its unpopularity. [...] Typically, big political ideas come into the world with names and words: they have champions and proponents, usually in writing. The Declaration of Independence announced US national independence, and a new theory of sovereignty, to the world. It soon entered world political literature. [...] But there was no statement detailing secularism, no birth announcement, no manifesto. [...] No one stepped up to offer a theory of the concept, or a formal statement of its principles. No one used the word. The thing itself was not even, on principled grounds, popular.

But private communications between Madison, Jefferson and their allies in the effort to push secularising measures through the Virginia legislature in the mid-1780s reveal a plan that never came to be, a plan fully cognizant of the fact that a secular society would depend on secularising institutions. [...] a secular society required the founding of public schools and libraries, served by qualified teachers. Scientific and philosophical education was necessary to replace the moral influence, social programmes and historical teachings of the churches. [...] An ally of Jefferson’s described the ambition of the measures. They ‘propose a simple and beautiful scheme, whereby science… would have been “carried to every man’s door”.’

Churches would have been the big losers of this ‘systematical plan’, but their opposition was not the only reason, nor even the main reason, it failed to materialise. The nature of Southern plantation society did not permit potential alternatives, such as state-run school systems and libraries, to planter authority. [...] the Bible was the only book slave-owners allowed to circulate freely on plantations. ‘Slaves, obey your earthly masters in fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ,’ states Ephesians, one of many places where the scriptures authorise slavery, and counsel submissive obedience. Slavery was simply more important to US nation-building than secularism.

In hindsight, American secularism has experienced both clear victories and stark defeats. [...] American secularists have generally failed at building institutions that rival the special breadth and depth of religion’s involvement in people’s lives...
(May 26, 2016 10:25 PM)C C Wrote: https://aeon.co/essays/why-did-the-secul...tates-fail

EXCERPT: [...] How did the country founded by visionary secularists

I think that's an expression of a common myth about the American founders and their motivations: the idea that they were "visionary secularists".

In real life virtually all of them were at least nominal Christians. Their concern wasn't somehow insulating American life from what fashionable atheism today imagines as the evils of religion. Their concern was making sure that the new American republic avoided the errors they associated with the then-common European practice of establishment of mandatory state religious denominations. (Such as Catholicism in Spain or the Church of England in that country.) In Europe, failure to belong to the state religious denomination often meant disqualification from public office, from university admissions and all sort of difficulties. It could even lead to death. The American colonies were settled in part by religious minorities who were trying to escape persecution on the old continent: Catholics and Puritans from Britain, Anabaptists from Germany, the Quakers and obviously the Jews. The American founders didn't want that crap to start up again over here.

Quote:and that made historic advances in both religious freedom and the separation of religious and political powers, nonetheless become the world’s most religious political democracy?

Another myth, this one popular among European and American ruling left-elites. I'm sure that Barack Hussein Obama and his circle believe it. They have always been more comfortable with European elites in places like Paris than with regular Americans out in middle America. Not because there is anything wrong with the American people, but because of how our ruling elites perceive the rest of us as caricatures instead of humans. That's why they are so concerned with gun control (guns makes the little people, crude and savage as we are imagined to be, potentially dangerous to the supposedly superior elites).

In real life, I don't think that Americans are more religious than people elsewhere. We are far less religious than most people in the Islamic world. We don't have explicitly religious political parties like Europe does. (German Chancellor Angela Merkel is from the 'Christian Democratic Party'.) More Americans might say that they belong to a religious denomination than people do in Europe, largely for historical reasons. For many people, religious belonging is part of ethnic identity in America (think 'Irish Catholic' or 'Jewish'). And religious adherence isn't stigmatized here, it's associated with the exercise of liberty and religious freedom.

In the US, the word 'God' has a slightly different meaning than in Europe as well. Many Americans claim to believe in God when they just mean a higher power of some sort. Europeans would be less likely to call that 'God'. So while more Americans than Europeans might say they believe in God, the percentages are a lot closer if Europeans who believe in 'a higher power' are added to those who believe in God. The underlying religiosity seems to me to be quite similar.

What's more, secularism is alive and well in the United States. Most Americans have pushed religious observance off to Sunday, before football. During the rest of the week, when they are at work or shopping, religion typically doesn't cross their minds. That's very different than Pakistan with its madrasahs, daily prayers, its seclusion of women and its hijabs.

Part of what makes the left assume that religion is out of control in America are things like the abortion controversy. That's interpreted as religion trying to enforce its morality on everyone else. Of course then the left goes on and on and on about racism and expanding the welfare state, that's equally the imposition of morality on the public. In a way, that's what politics has become in our contemporary age, the imposition of controversial (and often self-serving) morality on everyone else. Most contemporary examples of it occurring have nothing explicitly to do with religion.

Quote:Understanding secularism better helps to answer the question.

A 'question' [why did the secular ambitions of the early United States fail?] that is based on false premises. It assumes that the early US was historically founded on some atheist desire to eliminate religion and religious belief, which is demonstrably false. And it assumes the secularism has failed in the United States, which seems to me to be equally false.

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