Transcript: Religion and Secularism - The American Experience

Source Organization: Pew Research Center

Speaker: Wilfred McClay

SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Venue: Pew Forum Faith Angle Conference

01/08/2008 - Some of the nation's leading journalists gathered in Key West, Fla., in December, 2007, for the Pew Forum's biannual Faith Angle Conference on religion, politics and public life.

Given the recent popularity of several high-profile books on atheism, the Pew Forum invited Wilfred McClay, a distinguished professor of intellectual history, to speak on the historical relationship between religion and secularism in America. McClay argued for a distinction between two types of secularism.

Political secularism, he says, recognizes the legitimacy and even moral necessity of religious faith, while preventing any one faith from being established. Philosophical secularism, on the other hand, views religion more negatively and attempts to establish a common unbelief as a basis for government. Inspired by a recent trip to Turkey, McClay contends that the first understanding of secularism was at the heart of the founders’ vision and has resulted in a unique if imperfect mingling of religion and government in American public life.

Wilfred McClay, SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Michael Cromartie, Vice President, Ethics & Public Policy Center; Senior Advisor, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

Read the full transcript Religion and Secularism: The American Experience on the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Web site.

In the following edited excerpt, ellipses have been omitted to facilitate reading.

MCCLAY: Being a historian by training, I do tend to think in terms of particular cases and situations rather than generalities, vast and otherwise. I'm not convinced that in my subject --religion and secularism and the relationship between them in American history -- that I'm necessarily setting out some model that's going to be universally applicable.

Also, there's a problem with the word "secularism." It means so many different things. [But] the distinction I want to make is between philosophical secularism, which is secularism as a kind of godless system of the world, a system of beliefs about ultimate things, and secularism in a political sense: that is, secularism as recognizing politics as an autonomous sphere, one that's not subject to ecclesiastical governance, to the governance of a church or religion or the church's expression of that religion. A secular political order may be one in which religious practice or religious exercise, as we say, can flourish.

Some of you probably have heard of Diana Eck. She's a professor of religion at Harvard Divinity School, and a great proponent of religious pluralism. She has a saying to the effect that, "If you know only your own religion, you don't even know your own religion." I'm sure she says it more elegantly than that, but that's the gist of it, and I was always dubious of this. It seemed a little too professorial and platitudinous.

But I became a believer, when I took a trip about a year ago to Turkey under the auspices of the State Department. Turkey [is] a country that is 95% Muslim, where other religions have no particular political profile or public profile at all. The imams are paid by the state. Religious garb, as you know, is forbidden in public institutions or by public officials because of the rigid secularism of the Turkish state. The Turks have a certain understanding of the separation of religion and public life.

What I was speaking about [in Turkey] was how Americans understand the separation of church and state, and I went all over the country speaking to various audiences about this subject, and they were absolutely fascinated. In the question period, they asked me all sorts of questions about Turkey, which of course I was not competent to answer, but they immediately wondered if the American model might be a model for their own troubled secularism, which has arguably been too rigid, modeled on the French läicité model, which is a very, very forbidding and strict form of secularism.

There are those [in Turkey] who want to see more religion in public life; they thought the American way was admirable in that extent. Of course, there were others, particularly women, who were absolutely terrified by this because they immediately think of the Iranian example as the sort of thing they can expect to happen in Turkey if the Kemalist secularism of the past 90 years or so is rolled back.

What I ended up having to say to these audiences again and again is that I doubted very much that the American way would be applicable. I was not being the Ugly American saying, "We know how to do it, and you should do it our way." On the contrary, I kept saying again and again, "The United States has a unique history. Our ways of managing the relationship of religion and secularism didn't arise out of abstract theory so much as it arose out of concrete practices that were a result of the particular circumstances that we had to manage, that the circumstances forced us to think as we do." I added that Americans are not in complete agreement about these things or view them as settled, that they're constantly being fought over, constantly being contested, [but that] the American system thrives on conflict.

So let me begin with two propositions. The first one is that in the American experience, the separation of church and state, which by and large we acknowledge as a rough-and-ready principle, does not necessarily mean the separation of religion from public life. Another way of saying this is that America has a strong commitment to secularism, but it is secularism of a particular kind, understood in a particular way.

Second, that the United States has achieved in practice what seemed impossible in theory: a reconciliation of religion with modernity, in contrast, as I say, to the Western European pattern. In the United States religious belief has proven amazingly persistent even as the culture has been more and more willing to embrace enthusiastically all or most of the scientific and technological agenda of modernity. Sometimes the two reinforce one another. Sometimes they clash with one another, but the American culture has found room for both to be present. I won't prophesy this will always be the case, but it's a very solid relationship of long standing.

And perhaps I should add -- and I did this for my Turkish audiences; it utterly baffled them, but it shouldn't be quite so baffling for you -- that all this makes sense in light of the fact of a third proposition: that American institutions and culture are intrinsically and irreducibly complex -- not chaotic, which is of course what they see -- but complex.

Read the full transcript Religion and Secularism: The American Experience on the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Web site.

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