Can There Be a Truly Secular Government?

Can there be a truly secular government? It all depends on what we mean by the term secular, of course. The word comes from Latin saeculum, the span of time after which no one alive at present will still be living. Eventually, the church used it as a way of referring to worldly power, and this seems to have stuck. To be secular is to be distinguished from the church. On this older view, secular government is any that is not run by a clergyman. Clearly, these governments exist and have existed for millennia.

But this isn’t what most people mean by the phrase “secular government”. Usually, the idea is a government free from overt religious influence. It is this definition to which my question refers. This other conception of secular government includes the original definition but expands upon it.

The Wall

Lets look at the United States as a means to answering the question, since the United States and its constitution represent a major development in the modern notion of secular government. It has the quintessential “secular government”. I also live there.

The first amendment to the United States constitution reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The common understanding of this amendment is that it provides for a wall of separation between religion and government. But this notion of a wall originated not with the constitution, but with a letter by Thomas Jefferson.

As Daniel Dreisbach writes:

Jefferson was inaugurated the third President of the United States on March 4, 1801, following one of the most bitterly contested elections in history. His religion, or the alleged lack thereof, was a critical issue in the campaign. His Federalist Party foes vilified him as an infidel and atheist.

One pocket of support for the Jeffersonian Republicans in Federalist New England existed among the Baptists.

The Baptists had written the President a “fan” letter … chastizing those who had criticized him “as an enemy of religion[,] Law & good order because he will not, dares not assume the prerogative of Jehovah and make Laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ.”

In a carefully crafted reply, Jefferson endorsed the persecuted Baptists’ aspirations for religious liberty:

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.””

Although today Jefferson’s Danbury letter is thought of as a principled statement on the prudential and constitutional relationship between church and state, it was in fact a political statement written to reassure pious Baptist constituents that Jefferson was indeed a friend of religion…

Jefferson, as president, clearly did not intend to mean what is often said of him.

Jefferson endorsed the use of federal funds to build churches and to support Christian missionaries working among the Indians.

The rest of the article is fascinating and highly recommended. But this is enough to make the point. The “wall of separation”, often used as though it has both constitutional power and refers to the modern notion of secular government, is a myth. We must also keep in mind that many of the states which ratified the constitution had their own state denominations. Clearly, the founders didn’t build a wall.

So what does the first amendment really mean?

A Christian Nation

Joseph Story was a supreme court justice in the 19th century. He was nominated for the role by James Madison, a man hailed as the “Father of the Constitution”. Joseph Story was both a scholar and someone with personal access to the authors of the constitution. Who better to author comprehensive commentaries on the document and its amendments?

His commentaries, not known by many today, paint an entirely different picture of the first amendment than we commonly see it today:

The real object of the [first] amendment was, not to countenance, much less to advance Mahometanism, or Judaism, or infidelity [atheism], by prostrating Christianity; but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects, and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment, which should give to an hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government. It thus cut off the means of religious persecution, (the vice and pest of former ages,) and of the subversion of the rights of conscience in matters of religion, which had been trampled upon almost from the days of the Apostles to the present age.

In other words, when reading the first amendment we should see the word denomination in the place of religion. It would give us a more accurate understanding.

This makes a lot of sense. The constitution is a document heavily influenced by the Christian religion, a fact we simply can’t get away from. The presumptions it makes about the value of human life, the fact we have something called rights (a topic I plan to study soon and write some articles about), and the sorts of rights we have all stem from Christianity. The concept of religious liberty is also a Christian idea.

Given all of this, the first amendment’s context becomes clear. It isn’t designed to provide for a pluralistic, relativistic society. Instead, it protects Christians from being pressured to join other denominations so that the Christianity in the hallway (to borrow CS Lewis’ metaphor) can be a unifying foundation for the entire nation.

Our House Divided

Can there be a truly secular government? Not in the modern sense, and the founders knew it.

Every law, every guiding principle of jurisprudence, every court ruling, every decision by a representative, judge, or executive is done on the basis of a worldview. Everyone has one. The alternative to politicians acting in accordance with their consciences is to have them act against what they believe is right, something I think we should all be concerned with should we ever see it.

This is not a simplistic view. A judge may act against his own intuitions when rendering a verdict because he wants to remain faithful to the law. But this isn’t an act of the judge violating his own worldview, because his worldview is the thing which holds the law higher than his own opinion.

What’s needed is a unifying force. Something which will keep everyone on the same page. It can’t be a constitution, because constitutions can be ignored. They’re just pieces of paper. It can’t be a sentiment, because sentiments change. It can’t be an army, because armies can’t change minds; they often can’t even change outward actions. It can’t be law, because while laws may cause behavior, they themselves are caused by something else.

A truly secular government, in the modern sense, is one which is free of overt religious influence. But everyone has a religion; everyone has a worldview. Everyone has beliefs about the world, about human nature, about the nature of the whole universe. These beliefs constitute his religion, and these beliefs are not private. There isn’t anyone alive who could participate in a truly secular government; he’d bring too much “baggage”. And if he decided to leave the baggage behind, he’d have nothing to base his decisions on.

The unifying force in America is Christianity. It always has been. When you understand the historical context into which America was born, you can see it clear as day. The founding documents are full of Christian assumptions. The guiding principles are Christian in character.

Religious liberty, protecting the weak and innocent, valuing life, learning of objective beauty, truth, and virtue; all of these things were based on the same Christian worldview that our constitution was. Is it any wonder, as we have drifted into aimless pluralism that all of these things have been lost along with the force of the constitution?

Without this force, we lose our national soul. I suspect it is already lost. We have nothing on which we can all agree as Americans, because our very fundamental assumptions about the world are completely divided.