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Varieties of Political Secularism

Barry A. Kosmin
Research Professor, Public Policy & Law Program
Director, Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture
Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut

In public and political discourse worldwide today, Secularism and its variant terms are
much discussed, paradoxically as a consequence of religion seeming to have become
more pervasive and influential. This situation poses a number of questions. First, a
definitional one: What are the spheres of secularity and secularism? According to our
understanding Secularity refers to individuals and their social and psychological
characteristics and behavior while Secularism refers to the realm of the institutions
established by a society.

Secularism, which is the focus of this essay, is an approach, attitude or outlook towards
society and the contemporary world. It makes no metaphysical claims. It is not a distinct
or complete belief system and is not directly concerned about ultimate truth, matters of
faith or spirituality. Thus Secularism is not a personal attribute. Rather, in our definition,
it involves collective behavior, organizations and legal constructs that reflect the
institutional expressions of the mundane, particularly in the political realm and the public
life of a nation. By their nature, these variables are hard to quantify, especially when
viewed globally. Nevertheless, in ideological terms we can assert that secularism
essentially involves the rejection of the primacy of religious authority in the affairs of this
world. This process which is usually referred to as secularization is most evident in the
West in the governmental or political realm where the outcome has meant the
“desacralization of the state” (Stark and Iannaconne,1994).

The Secular Political Tradition

The idea of separating the institutions of the state, government and public life from the
direct involvement and influence of organized religion arose during the Age of
Enlightenment. It became a feasible proposition as a result of the two great revolutions of
the 18th century that were grounded in a belief in human reason and oriented to
transforming the affairs of this world. In fact the American and French revolutions
produced two intellectual and constitutional traditions of secularism and the secular state
- a “soft secularism” and a “hard secularism”. The secular political tradition associated
with the French Jacobins, was suspicious of and antagonistic to religion and its influence
on the state and society. This situation arose from the historical reality of the ancien
regime and the revolutionary experience in France, which involved a joint struggle
against despotism and religion - the monarchy, and the Roman Catholic Church. It
produced a political construction that continues in the present-day French Republic under
the regime of laïcité bound up with La Loi de1905.

This hostile attitude towards religion has only a marginal place in American public and
political life. The reason, of course, is that the United States was heir to the Protestant

heritage of the Reformation, whereby religious individualism and autonomy predated any
concept of political autonomy. The result was that the Americans adopted a more
moderate approach, characterized by indifference towards religion or encouragement of
religious pluralism as promoted by the Deists and Liberal Protestants of the early
republic. In addition and paradoxically, because of the deeply religious nature of a
significant proportion of the American public in combination with its sectarianism and
religious diversity, pure pragmatism suggests that Americans require a secularist state
and public life. Firmly held but divergent religious beliefs and ties need a neutral playing
field. Today as much as in 1790, if there is to be an American nation and republic there
cannot be a national church or religion.

However, there is a paradox to this situation. The “hard” secular tradition of France, later
adopted by Turkey and Mexico, which advocates the privatization of religion, results in
the state actually being much more involved with organizing and supervising religion
than is the “soft secularism” of the United States. This tendency is even truer of the anti-
religious and totalitarian Communist states. The reduction ad absurdum of this policy is a
recent law introduced by the State Administration for Religious Affairs of the People‘s
Republic of China “to institutionalize the management of reincarnation” of Buddhist
monks in Tibet (Newsweek, Aug. 20, 2007 issue). By contrast the United States is neutral
as regards religion but this remains a unique position. In fact a recent international
analysis of separation of religion and state (SRAS) found that “using strict interpretation .
. . – no state support for religion and no state restrictions on religion – no state has full
SRAS except the United States” (Fox, 2006).

Support for theocracy, along with ideas such as “the divine right of kings”, has long ago
evaporated in the West. The vast majority of the Catholic public in the West has come to
the same conclusion as U.S. “founding father” and fourth President James Madison. He
wrote in 1832, “In the papal system, Government & Religion are in a manner
consolidated; & that is found to be the worst of Governments.” Madison argued that this
was because history had proven that such a system had neither been favorable “to
Religion or to government”. (Padover, 1988) It is historically significant that Pope
Benedict XVI accepts the political reality of the demise of theocracy. In his 2005
Encyclical Deus Caritas Est he wrote that “the Church . . . cannot and must not replace
the State.” He has also endorsed democracy. “And as a sheer matter of fact, the
guarantee of shared collaboration in the elaboration of the law and in the just
administration of power is the basic argument that speaks in favor of democracy as the
most appropriate form of political order. (Habermas and Ratzinger, 2006)

It is theoretically possible for a state to be religious and its population to be secularized

and so exhibit low levels of secularity, or conversely for the state to be secular and the
population largely religious (Demareth, 2002). However, over the long haul in a
democracy there is a logical tendency for the superstructure and the substructure to align.
Thus in the complex world of modern western democracies, we can observe the process
of secularization in nations on at least two major levels (Kosmin, 2007). One is the
secularization of national institutions and structures, such as the organs of the state and
government. The other level is the secularization of society - the secularization of human

consciousness that leads to increased levels of secularity in belief, behavior and
belonging among the populace. In a polity where popular sovereignty is acknowledged,
change (or reform) at the institutional level happens as a result of political forces
emanating from developments in society that are reflected in public opinion and attitudes.
However, in order to fully appreciate this thesis it is necessary to return to an explanation
of the intellectual underpinnings of the variants of political secularism that have emerged
to dominate the world scene.

The terms “secular,” “secularism,” and “secularization” have a range of meanings.

The words derive from the Latin, saeculum, which means both this age and this world,
and combines a spatial sense and a temporal sense. In the Middle Ages, secular referred
to priests who worked out in the world of local parishes, as opposed to priests who took
vows of poverty and secluded themselves in monastic communities. These latter priests
were called “religious.” During the Reformation, secularization denoted the seizure of
Catholic ecclesiastical properties by the state and their conversion to non-religious use. In
all of these instances, the secular indicates a distancing from the sacred, the eternal, and
the otherworldly.

In the centuries that followed the secular began to separate itself from religious authority.
The next stage was to create an autonomous existence for the secular. Since the 1780s,
on the reverse of the U.S. national seal, (and since the 1930s, on the reverse of the one-
dollar bill) the phrase Novus Ordo Seclorum has appeared. My interpretation of the
adoption of that Latin phrase is that the founders of the American Republic viewed the
“new order of the ages” quite deliberately as a new era in which the old order of King and
Church was to be displaced from authority over public life by a secular republican order.

George Holyoake offered a clear, commonsense vision in English Secularism in 1846.

“Secularism is a code of duty pertaining to this life founded on considerations purely
human.” He went on to set out the natural constituency for secularism. It was “intended
for those who find theology indefinite or inadequate, unreliable or unbelievable.” In other
words Secularism was the cause for atheists, agnostics, the irreligious, and skeptics.
Political secularism reflected this coalition of interests and became the home for liberals,
progressives, socialists and (most) nationalists all those who saw merit in free thought
and social change. The flag they carried was the secular, republican tricoleur/tricolore
which they intended to replace the cross banners and heraldic symbols of the old order.
For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, anti-clericalism and hostility to established
religion came high on the agenda of those seeking political change, reform and revolution
across Europe, Asia and Latin America. Their practical goals included ending the
religious hegemony over areas of national life such as education and social welfare as
much as ending inherited material privilege.

This connection between political secularism and national social engineering is most
exemplified by the Kemalist revolution in Turkey during the 1920s. In the political
sphere Kemal Attaturk abolished the Caliphate and Shari’ah law. He also attacked visible
public symbols of religion such as the wearing of the fez by Muslims who had completed
the Haj. And with the ostensible aim of “Modernization” he replaced the Arabic alphabet

by the Latin one thus very deliberately closing off to the mass of the people access to the
Koran and the Muslim religious texts. He was also a strong advocate of women’s
emancipation a policy, which among other meritorious goals, was directed at
undermining Islamic patriarchy.

Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries in Russia, China and North Korea adopted an even

harder secularism and more drastic models of social engineering. However, there is an
argument that this form of political secularism became a replacement faith (to Orthodoxy
and Buddhism) with its own theology. These Communist regimes morphed into new
forms of (non-transcendent) religion with sacred texts, holy shrines, infallible leaders
with charismatic authority, a panoply of saints and legions of faithful seminarians (Party


Since the end of the 19th century, there has been a growing recognition among students
of religion that the theologies and institutions embodying religion have been transformed
by the process of secularization. Max Weber described secularization as the
“disenchantment of the world” —a characterization of the process of rationalization he
adopted from the German poet Friedrich Schiller. By this process, Weber sought to
capture the psychic and cultural transformation in which magical elements of thought and
symbolism are progressively displaced by empiricism and rationality. Harvey Cox
described secularization as the “deliverance of man ‘first from religious and then from
metaphysical control over his reasons and his language’… the dispelling of all closed
worldviews, the breaking of all supernatural myths and sacred symbols.” On the wider
societal level, Peter Berger defined secularization as “the process by which sectors of
society are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols.”

It is now widely recognized that the process of secularization is dialectic: the more that
hearts and minds become “disenchanted,” the more institutions that have specialized in
the promotion of the “enchantment” process lose plausibility and authority. The more
such institutions lose plausibility and authority, the less the psycho-emotional processes
of “enchantment” are inculcated in the hearts and minds of individuals. How far the
process of secularization has progressed in different societies since the end of the 19th
century, whether the process is unidirectional or not, and what its consequences are for
social and political organization and human welfare, is the subject of ongoing debate
among sociologists and theologians, as well as politicians and social planners.

Modernity as we have seen has been the trigger for differentiation, with its attendant
process of secularization. It freed the spheres of cultural life, such as art, law, politics,
learning, science, and commerce, from their embeddedness in a comprehensive
Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish or Buddhist culture and allowed them to pursue their
own paths of development. Early on in the process, the U.S. Constitution set politics on a
new course by wisely prohibiting a “religious test for public office.” This is an example
of a political initiative to establish “soft secularism” at the societal level of institutions
that leaves matters of conscience to individual choice.

Politics, in the modern secular understanding, now had its own immanent principles and
values. Religious principles and values were to be more or less differentiated from
political ones. This does not imply that religious principles and values can have no role in
politics and public life in American democracy. It only implies that, in terms of the
perspective of the constitution and the law, religious institutions and governmental
institutions are differentiated. The philosophical term for this condition of differentiation
is pluralism. Its opposite is monism (i.e. theocracy and totalitarianism).

It is now fashionable to criticize the secularization thesis by pointing to the recent

resurgence of religion and religious conflict in the contemporary world. Most critics
accept that the thesis is accurate for Europe but then go on to claim that there is now a
European “exceptionalism” and so deny its validity for the rest of the world. They often
cite the supposed resurgence in the power and influence of religion over society and
politics in the United States since the 1970s to make their case (Westerlund, 1996). This
forms the basis for the myth of a growing “Transatlantic divide” between “secular
Europe” and “religious America”. Though the rhetoric of American politics and public
life indeed has changed and there is more “God talk”, the actual situation in law and on
the ground in society has not mirrored this change. This situation reflects the logjam
created by a divided “50-50, red blue nation” where the intellectual elite, and much of the
business elite, do not subscribe to the agenda of the religious right. In fact in the course of
the “culture war” the reversals suffered by traditional religion and its claims have been
manifold. There has been a measurable decline in religiosity and in religion’s impact in
the economic and social sphere. Key indicators such as identification with religion,
membership of congregations and attendance at worship services have all declined during
the past two decades (Kosmin and Keysar, 2006). The Sunday blue laws and restrictions
on gambling have been abolished in most states. Abortion, contraception and
pornography are available. Prayer in public school remains banned. Homosexuality is no
longer a crime and is largely accommodated in law and society. For example, civil unions
of same sex couples are now recognized in several states.

In the arena of jurisprudence it could be claimed that numerous court decisions since
1990 have reversed the locomotive of secularization of the public square, or at least
complicated its course. The use of public monies to provide tuition vouchers at private,
predominantly religious schools; the failure of legal challenges to arrest the progress of
faith-based initiatives—federal funding for religious social service providers; or the
symbolic retention of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and the public
display of the Ten Commandments under certain circumstances, all illustrate the
willingness of the present “soft secular” order to allow some measure of institutional
intimacy with the sacred order. Popular sovereignty and the decisions of the Supreme
Court reflect the conservatism and recently enhanced piety of some sections of the
American people and so the limits of American secularism. However, using a balanced
comparative and historical perspective it is only from the “hard secular” point of view
that these legal decisions can be regarded as real setbacks. The trend appears towards a
“procedural secularism,” whereby religions and the irreligious converse in public

discussions over sensitive issues of value and the state authority takes on the job of legal
mediator or broker to balance and manage real differences.

One reason for the popular misconceptions of current reality in America is poor judgment
arising from weak analysis. This outcome largely reflects the decline of reason in the
public sphere (Gore, 2007) and particularly the influence of a sensationalist new media
which has little patience for nuance or complexity. The trend for journalists to become
entertainers and instant commentators has led them to become fixated on the unique and
unusual occurrences as well as the colorful rhetoric of extremists. This has led to the
exaggeration, if not outright encouragement, of divisions and conflict in society. As logic
would dictate this situation has had a more negative impact on the forces of reason rather
than the legions of irrationality and obscurantism.

It is possible to argue that neither separation of religion from the state nor the
privatization and state supervision of religion necessarily lead to the undermining of the
public acceptance or legitimacy of religious intrusions into politics.. Although some
variations in national cultures resulting from the different religious and political histories
persist, a common (‘secular’) trend towards public acceptance of political secularism and
a marked preference for the concept of the “secular state” can be observed. The
Enlightenment belief that religion should be divorced as much as possible from
government activity has now spread well beyond the U.S. and France and is now the
overwhelming consensus among public opinion in the U.K, Germany, Spain and Italy
too. That this consensus now extends to self-identifying Catholic public opinion is also

From a historical perspective such evidence of a trend towards convergence in western

public opinion, as shown in table 1, would have been considered truly amazing seventy
years ago on the eve of World War II. Political secularism seems a user friendly political
construction. It is adaptable and can come in both harder and softer forms. These
attributes probably help to enhance its public appeal and acceptability today in the West.
The result is a majority western consensus for “popular sovereignty” and a distrust of
political interference by the clergy of any religion. This “anticlericalism” suggests the
tendency is to favor the French rather than American tradition and form of political
secularism. It aims to constrain organized religion and remove it from the public square.
It tolerates religion only as a matter of private conscience and divorced from the day to
day affairs of the polity.

American Exceptionalism

We noted earlier that the United States is neutral as regards separation of religion and
state but this remains a unique position. Secularity, like religion, takes many forms in
American society. Also like religion, it varies in intensity along the trajectories of
belonging, belief, and behavior. Religion in a Free Market shows that the American
public does not subscribe to a binary system. In America, secularity is one option among
many in a free market- oriented society. The boundaries between religion and secularity,
and between different religions, are not clearly fixed. This confusion is to be expected.

Secularism, like religion, has developed in various forms at different levels and in
different realms. By way of institutional differentiation, modernization has involved a
degree of secularization. As societies modernize, their religious beliefs, behaviors, and
institutions can change in many different ways. This can include forms that are a reaction
to secularism, both hard and soft, that are embedded in modernization. Religious
fundamentalism, which must not be confused with pre-modern traditional religion per se,
is an adaptation to conditions of modern secularization The contemporary United States,
by contrast, exhibits both high modernity and substantial religiosity among the populace
and so shows that secularization has not been sweeping, thorough and total. This situation
is just what many “soft secularist” thinkers of the Enlightenment, such as John Locke,
Adam Smith, and Thomas Jefferson, both desired and predicted. Institutional soft
secularism, combined with endeavors to revitalize religious consciousness at the
individual level, was exemplified in the American tradition of religious liberty. Created
by Roger Williams, William Penn and James Madison’s theologically charged
“Memorial and Remonstrance” it was a product of the moral and religious imagination of
dissenting Protestantism. The very phrase, separation of church and state, which Jefferson
used in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, derives from Roger Williams,
who sought to keep the garden of the church separate from the politics of the world.

Religious liberty as a constitutional principle arose in a world where many people

believed that their duties to God were more primary than their duties to the state; that the
state had to make room for its citizens to conduct a higher business than the business of
citizenship. Thus the achievement of a secular political order was in service to the
religious imperative. Constitutionally, the Establishment Clause was to serve the Free
Exercise Clause, and from this perspective social-structural secularization was not meant
to further the secularization of consciousness, but to inhibit it. Or, to put it more
sociologically, social-structural “soft secularization” was meant to accomplish in part
religious ends. The secular end was democracy as against theocracy, as well as the
unfettered progress of science. Religion was to have an instrumental role in disciplining
individual behavior and making a free society and a democratic, federal republic a viable
collective reality.

Most Americans, regardless of whether they are liberal or conservative, Christian or Jew
or other, adhere to epistemological fallibilism and so are pluralists and, hence, soft
secularists. They accept at a fundamental level that law, politics, art, and learning should
not be controlled by religious institutions or clergy but have their own traditions, spheres,
and dynamics. In the social structural sense, although there are evident strains, America
has been and remains a soft secular republic. Reinhold Neibuhr, one of 20th-century
America’s leading Protestant theologians, observed almost half a century ago that
Americans are “at once the most religious and the most secular of nations. How shall we
explain this paradox? Could it be that [Americans] are most religious partly in
consequence of being the most secular culture?” In his book Protestant, Catholic, Jew,
Will Herberg wrote about the paradox of “pervasive secularism and mounting
religiosity,” a mind-set involving thinking and living within a broad framework of reality
that is far from one’s professed religious beliefs. This apparent paradox still exists today
because it is part of the American cultural tradition.

As soft secularists, most Americans want government to accommodate religious
behavior, even within the domain of government itself. For example, they accept that
institutionalized persons or military personnel should have access to religious services,
guidance, or leadership and that these may be paid for, as in the case of military and
prison chaplains, with taxpayer dollars. They did not balk when the law allowed for
religious pacifists, such as Quakers or Mennonites, to be conscientious objectors. The
mainstream consensus is that it is crucial to a free society to respect the religious
convictions of its citizens; it is crucial to a pluralistic, differentiated, secular political
order to carve out a sphere for freedom of religion and to let that sphere be autonomous,
to the greatest extent possible, of pressures emanating from government. The existence of
religion within its proper sphere, alongside the other differentiated spheres of a modern
pluralistic society, is an exemplification of differentiation, not a rejection of it. This is
why America can be said to subscribe to a soft secularism. Interestingly, that other great
democracy, India, also has an official ideology of political secularism that is similarly
interpreted as pluralism and tolerance of religious differences.

Hard secularism is a term that can be associated with Weber’s transformation of

consciousness. It is usually more purely intellectual and personal than social or political.
A precursor can be found in the writings of Hobbes, who claimed that those who
followed the light of reason are bound to discard faith as intellectually unreliable and
therefore morally dangerous. Following Hobbes and other like-minded philosophers,
Marx suggested that faith was an ideology in contradistinction to knowledge, which was
used by regimes for the purpose of political control. Weber saw the process of
secularization as the culmination of the process of rationalization and as the ultimate
disenchantment of the world by modern science.

In this sense, secular refers to a worldview, a system of beliefs, or a modality of sense-

making that is determinedly non-religious. A disenchanted universe is a purely physical
and material one. It gives no support to either moral ideals — which are the result of
evolutionary processes—or to religious beliefs—which are the perversely lingering
products of more naïve ages, eventually to be swept away by the triumph of a properly
scientific outlook. Disenchantment refers to an emptying out of magic, mystery, hints of
transcendence, or a faith in realities, entities, or forces unseen but intuited and believed to
be essential to human welfare and flourishing. Today’s spokesmen include Richard
Dawkins and California’s activist doctor-lawyer, Michael Newdow. They all take hard
secularism to its logical conclusion, Atheism—the belief in the meaninglessness and
irrationality of theism. Such hard secularists are few and far between in America,
although more common in Western and Eastern Europe.

The soft secularist individual is neither a convinced Atheist nor a principled materialist,
and may not be hostile to religious beliefs and institutions. In fact, the majority are liberal
religionists. The soft secularist is willing to take a live and-let-live attitude toward
religion as long as it doesn’t impinge on his freedom of choice or seek control of
American public institutions. For the soft secularist, religion is properly a private lifestyle
option, which must not threaten liberty and social harmony in a differentiated and

pluralistic society. According to the American Religious Identification Survey 2001
(ARIS) the majority of America’s self-described identifiers with No Religion, the so-
called “religious nones,” also fit this profile of soft secularists. Their level of secularity
shows that they are by no means hard-core Atheists or even Agnostics, who together
constitute less than 1 percent of the population (see chapter 3). Sixty-seven percent of
Nones believe in the existence of God; 56 percent agree that God intervenes personally in
their lives to help them; 57 percent believe that God performs miracles.

The upshot of such findings is that, in America, the majority of secularists are religious in
a sense. Even those who do not belong to religious institutions or identify with religious
communities have theistic beliefs and concerns. Thus, although the self-described secular
population of the U.S. has doubled since 1990, it cannot be said that American society
has become more irreligious or anti-religious, only that there is less identification with
religious groups per se. This is emphatically not the case in some other countries where
separation of church and state—in our terms, social-structural secularization—has been
instituted in order to further the secularization of consciousness.

The prototype for this hard secularism was the French Revolution in its Jacobin phase,
but perhaps the most radical instance was the former USSR and the remaining
Communist countries today. The Marxist-Leninist ideology was based on the conviction
that science was superior to religion from an epistemological perspective and that the
progress of science would inevitably lead to the elimination of religious consciousness.
The ensuing secularization at the social and political levels was designed to assault and
eradicate religion using the state apparatus, often in the most brutal ways, in order to
bring about a thorough and consistently hard secular society. Contemporary France and
Turkey also separate religion and state in order to advance a secular ideology of
republicanism or laïcité. The interesting ancillary feature in such polities is that they have
developed a highly centralized, statist trajectory particularly in the social and educational
realms. The state demands loyalty in terms of consciousness. Its goal is a standardized
and homogeneous, relatively hard secularist society.

In contrast, in the U.S. and India, the polity encourages pluralism among the people. It is
not a coincidence that both are federal states. So America is much less secularized at the
level of consciousness, as well as in the worldview and the moral sensibilities of the
majority of its citizens, than is highly centralized France. Any social configuration has its
benefits and costs. The main virtue of the American constellation is undoubtedly the
peaceful co-existence of diverse religious and non-religious individuals and groups. For
two centuries this regime has avoided religious wars, theocracy, and other forms of

What then are the costs or problems associated with U.S. secularism as we enter the 21st
century? The most obvious political problem in recent years is a “culture war” whereby
the public sphere has become a battlefield for those who do not accept the status quo of
soft secularism, notably the radical religious movements and theocrats. One cost is that
the majority that accepts the traditional American constellation of soft secularism lacks

morale and adequate tools, both intellectual and organizational, with which to defend and
revitalize this constellation.

A major public policy issue is that hard and soft secularism compete particularly in the
arena of jurisprudence. In the mid-20th century, strict separation made the running and
succeeded in removing the daily prayer and Bible reading from the public schools, and
set greater distance between religious practices and governmental settings than had
previously been the case in American history. The conservative political reaction after
1970 limited the trend towards achieving a purer standard of social-structural
secularization. Numerous court decisions since 1990 have reversed the locomotive of
hard secularization of the public square, or at least complicated the course of this mode of
secularization. The use of public monies to provide tuition vouchers at private,
predominantly religious schools; the failure of legal challenges to arrest the progress of
faith-based initiatives—federal funding for religious social service providers; or the
symbolic retention of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and the public
display of the Ten Commandments under certain circumstances, all illustrate the
willingness of the present secular order to allow an institutional intimacy with the sacred

Popular sovereignty and the decisions of the Supreme Court reflect the recently enhanced
religiosity of the American people and so the limits of American hard secularism. From
the point of view of the hard secular population these legal decisions are setbacks. An
additional challenge to secular institutions in the public square is that in the minds of
most of the American public and electorate the perceived social ills, dilemmas and
challenges to family life and values brought by modernity, science, and a free market
economy have paradoxically convinced them to desire a greater accommodation between
church and state and a broader role for religion in society such as faith-based initiatives.
The trend appears towards a “procedural secularism,” whereby religions converse in
public discussions over sensitive issues of value and the state authority takes on the job of
legal mediator or broker to balance and manage real differences.

In other nations, in countries as different as France, Israel, India, and Iran, the tension
between religion and secularism is more pronounced than it is in the United States, where
secularism and religion regularly use and redefine each other. They lack a tradition
whereby religion, as in the United States, frequently sanctifies the goals of a basically
secular society, and the secular society affects and influences the very meaning of
religious identification and association. It is therefore not surprising that America can
appear to be growing more secular precisely at a time when religious identification is
highly pronounced.

Moreover, faced with a myriad of religious options, Americans are aware that not all
religion is narrowness and fanaticism. The answer to the conundrum of how there can be
a secular state for a religious people can be seen throughout American history. Two
historical facts stand out. First, America was the first post-feudal Western society and
therefore a nation that had not experienced the conflict between ecclesiastical and
temporal power. Second, the U.S. was also the first Protestant nation—ab initio a

Protestant society—where the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches and their
hierarchies never held sway. Paradoxically, because of the deeply religious nature of a
significant proportion of the American public, pure pragmatism suggests that they require
a secularist state and public life. Firmly held but divergent religious beliefs and ties need
a neutral playing field. Today, as much as in 1790, if there is to be an American nation
and republic there cannot be a national church or religion.

A Global Perspective

Forms of secularism can be expected to vary with the religious configuration and in
reaction to the local culture in which they developed. This variation arises from the
“historical baggage” that reflects the symbolic and cultural encoding of religious legacies
in national public institutions and mentalities. A contemporary, international, cross-
cultural perspective renders this obvious. The symbolic and cultural encoding of the
religious legacies of Buddhism (Japan, Thailand, Sri Lanka,), Hinduism (India, Nepal),
Judaism (Israel), Islam (Turkey, Syria, Tunisia), Catholicism (France, Italy, Poland,
Philippines, Mexico), Orthodoxy (Russia, Rumania, Greece), and Protestantism
(Scandinavia, U.S. and British Commonwealth countries) in national public institutions
and mentalities is clearly visible today across and within “religious traditions”.

Since secularism and secularization developed differently in America from Europe, and
of course Asia, some cross-cultural variation must be expected in how terms are
interpreted. In the U.S. secularism means opposition to an established religion and
religious hegemony in the political or public arena. Yet even where constitutionally there
are still established churches, as in Britain and Denmark, the secularism that has emerged
clearly rejects their total authority over society and its collective institutions.

The analysis of cross national survey findings demonstrates the complexities involved in
theorizing about the sociology of religion and political sociology especially with regard
to international comparisons of secularity and secularism. What we can observe across
most Western nations is indeed secularization in both realms, the social and the
institutional, but the pace varies. Secularization at the macro-level of national structures
is more advanced in some societies and more unidirectional than is the micro-level of
personal belief. This outcome is possible because there is a general public acceptance in
western democratic states of the need for pluralism and of the privatization or perhaps a
“Protestantization” of religion. Nevertheless this privatization of religion can take
different forms both at the macro and micro-levels as is most clearly illustrated by the
cases of the U.S. and France. In addition, it is necessary to recognize that support for
political secularism, particularly of the softer varieties, is not an indicator of anti-religious
sentiment in other areas of life. Nor does it necessarily correlate with disbelief in the
transcendent on the personal level.

This essay explores the thesis that national values and cultures have a direct impact on
political institutions and deems natural that variant forms of political secularism will
emerge. What then is the link between political secularism and democracy and freedom?

The validity of the claim that secular values are part of the heritage of freedom, tolerance
and democracy is amply illustrated in the negative by a case study of the Islamic
Republic of Iran. This contemporary example of a “fundamentalist” theocratic state
demonstrates the importance of the achievement of the American and French revolutions,
whereby political autonomy was affirmed in relation to the authority of any religious
standard imposed from above. These revolutions forced religion’s exit from government
and led to the invention of political sovereignty, giving rise to a set of standards
governing collective life that was dictated by the people. Secularism in this regard can
thus be thought of as a political project in a broad sense that deploys the concept of the
secular. The cases of India and the U.S. demonstrate that this can occur regardless of the
distribution of religious beliefs among the citizenry—the actual level of secularity
exhibited by the public. This non-linear relationship also operates in reverse so that a
high degree of secularization and levels of secularity among the public can occur
alongside a low degree of secularism (i.e. an established state religion as for example in
Denmark (Dencik, 2007) and Israel (Beit–Hallahmi, 2007). However, church-state
separation is only one aspect of secularism.

Opening up a new field like the study of secularism, which lacks common language or
tools of analysis, is a learning process. Though it is difficult, and perhaps unwise, to
define secularism in one sentence, there appears to be a consensus among secularist
scholars about the common characteristics and principles of the phenomenon they
investigate. The commonality of the secularism they unravel involves legal recognition of
individual liberty and autonomy, freedom of thought and religion, peaceful coexistence
of social groups, aspiration for consensus in much of the public space, respect for the
social contract, and a general acceptance that religious laws should not take precedence
over civil ones. This model or definition of secularism suggests that not only is there a
theoretical boundary with theocracy at the edge of soft secularism but also one at the
edge of hard secularism. The latter excludes states that construct monist conceptions of
political institutions via dogmatic, totalitarian ideologies such as Marxist-Leninism. Such
communist regimes demand that both individuals and social institutions subscribe to an
anti-religious viewpoint and propound atheism. Such policies of state-enforced
secularization reflect a rejection of the values that many would maintain are part of the
essence of secularism. Society and culture in every continent are constantly evolving, yet
alongside new issues, old questions return. The fact is that even the United States is not a
finished product because American society and the Constitution are both works in
progress that continue to evolve. This “secular” truism applies in every nation around the


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