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Secularism: The Essential, Fatally Weak Guardrail of Democracy

The free exercise of religion — or, more precisely, the free exercise of conservative Christian religions — is increasingly assuming the cultural, and even legal, stature of an inalienable American right. In the name of "religious freedom," county clerksdoctors and bakers openly discriminate against LGBTQ citizens. Our rightward-charging judiciary lets worshippers congregate during a pandemic; religious devotion, apparently, trumps public safety.  

To understand where this free-exercise fundamentalism may lead us, we need look no further than the insurrectionists of last January and their boundless sense of religious entitlement. Michael Sparks, who was among the first to breach the Capitol, enthused on Facebook: "We're getting ready to live through something of biblical purportions [sic] be prayed up and be ready to defend your country and your family." Jacob Chansley, the so-called QAnon Shaman, intoned a prayer about the rebirth of America — on the floor of the Senate, whose evacuation he and his co-rioters had just triggered.

On Jan. 6, 2021, a mob filled with religious extremists, among others, nearly upended one of the world's oldest and stablest liberal democracies. Could any comparable display of free exercise have occurred in France or Canada or Uruguay or India, or any country with clear constitutional guidelines about the relation between government and religion?

This unfortunate instance of American exceptionalism has many explanations. I call attention to one: the weakness of secularism in the United States. "Secularism" is a term that has been so relentlessly maligned by its enemies that its meaning is difficult to discern. Having just written a primer on the subject, let me note that political secularism, at its core, is a philosophy of governance.

Far from being equivalent to atheism, as its critics allege, secularism's origins may be traced to medieval Christian disputes about the papacy's expanding powers. During the Protestant Reformation, the terms of the debate shifted. The dilemma no longer involved curtailing the authority of the church, but rather how a government could prevent unfathomable violence between churches. Enlightenment thinkers concluded that religions — those force-multipliers of human passions — needed to be governed.

In "A Letter Concerning Toleration" (1689), John Locke outlined secular protocols of governance. The state must let citizens believe anything they wish about the divine (this is known as "freedom of conscience"). It must never establish, favor or ally itself with one or more faiths (this is often referred to as "disestablishmentarianism" or "state neutrality''). It must treat all religions and religious citizens equally (I call this the "equality" principle).

Naturally, a secular state must permit citizens the free exercise of their religious beliefs. Yet here Locke added one crucial caveat. The right to free exercise, he insisted, is not absolute. Free exercise cannot diminish or endanger the rights of others, or the security of the state.

Read entire article at Salon