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  • The Folly of Secularism
  • Jeffrey Stout (bio)

Many people who care about democratic practices and institutions are worried by the power of the religious right in the United States and the rise of militant Islam elsewhere.1 They fear that democracy will give way to theocracy if these forces triumph, and they want to know how to prevent this from happening. One increasingly popular answer to this question is secularist. It says that striving to minimize the influence of religion on politics is essential to the defense of democracy. My purpose in this essay is to raise doubts about the wisdom of this answer.2

The ideal of a democratic republic holds that political power is to be shared by the entire citizenry and that no one is to be denied citizenship simply because of his or her religious beliefs or lack thereof. Theocracy holds that God's representatives on earth should rule everyone else. Democracy and theocracy are therefore at odds. Wherever theocracy catches on, even among a sizable minority, democracy is in trouble. Sooner or later, theocracy disintegrates into conflict over who God's earthly representatives really are. Each band of theocrats takes itself to be God's elect, claims for itself the right to hold earthly power over others, and declares its opponents deluded by sin.

American theocrats appear to have grown in numbers since the 1970s, and they probably played a significant role in the election of George W. Bush. The long-term objective most of them harbor is a Christian America. They seek to use democratic means to achieve an anti-democratic end. What they ultimately seek is the dominance of non-Christians by Christians. Everyone who is committed to democracy has a stake in opposing the new theocrats, however many or few of them there might be.

But not all religious people are theocrats. Why, then, should we take religion as such to pose a threat to democracy?

Secularism comes in many forms, but what they all have in common is the aim of minimizing the influence of religion as such. Secularism comes into focus only when we notice that it takes religion, rather than some particular religion or type of religion, to be the problem. If, however, some forms of religion are in fact committed to democracy and have evidently promoted democracy in the past, why oppose them? Why substitute whole for part and then oppose the whole?

Lenin and Mao were unrestricted secularists; they sought to minimize the influence of religion on all aspects of human life. They considered religion essentially irrational and politically regressive, so they sought to eradicate it. Their antipathy for religion went hand in hand with their reluctance to trust the masses with political power. Democracy will become justifiable, according to Lenin and Mao, only when religious false consciousness and similarly retrograde tendencies have been overcome. Until then, the revolutionary avant-garde must exercise political authority on the people's behalf.

Richard Rorty, in contrast, was a democratic secularist. He saw democracy not as a distant possibility to be achieved in a future classless society, but rather as an existing heritage of reform and social criticism in danger of being lost. This heritage rests, he thought, on "the Jeffersonian compromise that the Enlightenment reached with the religious."3 Religion will be tolerated, according to this compromise, only insofar as it steers clear of politics. Mark Lilla refers to the outcome of this compromise as the Enlightenment's "Great Separation" of religion from politics.4 The trouble, as Rorty and Lilla see it, is that the Great Separation is fragile and under assault. Its emergence was contingent, not inevitable, and it will pass away if citizens stop honoring the compromise on which it is based. Without it, however, there can be no democracy.

When Rorty spoke of the need to "enforce" the Jeffersonian compromise by keeping religion "private," he was not simply referring to legal enforcement of the First Amendment's establishment clause. Rorty was right to think that the government has no business giving tax dollars to religious groups, let alone adopting a religion on behalf of the people. I agree with him, moreover, that any religious organization...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-9731
Print ISSN
1089-0017
Pages
pp. 10-15
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-13
Open Access
No
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