Reflecting on the US Founding and the later Roman Empire may serve the cause of social and political harmony and human respect.
by Marco Respinti
The Unites States of America are based on a strong and high wall that separates religions and the state. Yet, President John Adams (1735–1826), one of the Founding Fathers of the country, in a message on October 11, 1798, to the officers of the Militia of Massachusetts, 3rd Division, 1st Brigade, wrote: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” (original spelling), anticipating conclusions that Alexis Charles Henri Clérel, comte de Tocqueville (1805–1859) consigned to his “Democracy in America” (1835–1840). The US is in fact a “lay” nation that allows and even favors the role of religion, not a French-like secularist state that obstructs it.
As much as the secularists advocating the exclusion of religion from everything American claim, showing a large measure of historical ignorance, the phrase “a wall of separation between church and state” is not mentioned in any US founding document. It is in the correspondence of President Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), another Founding Father and the chief writer of the 1776 US “Declaration of Independence.”
On October 7, 1801, the Danbury, Connecticut, Baptist Association (organized in 1790 and consisting of 26 churches in western Connecticut and eastern New York state) wrote to him: “Our Sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty,” so that “no man aught to suffer in Name, person or effects on account of his religious Opinions.” For them, that meant “[t] hat Religion is at all times and places a Matter between God and Individuals,” and so the state must stay out of it; “the legetimate Power of civil Goverment extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbour” (original spelling).
Though, they worried. “But Sir,” they lamented, “our constitution of goverment is not specific,” “therefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights: and these favors we receive at the expence of such degrading acknowledgements as are inconsistant with the rights of freemen” (original spelling). They feared that the state could intermingle and interfere with religion and liberty.
Jefferson replied in a letter dated January 1, 1802: “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. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties” (original spelling).
So, the President assured a group of believers that a measure of containment had been created to defend religious devotees and their organized institutions and their ways of life, preventing the state from curtailing their religious liberty and establishing a “lay” republic which would not promote “laicism,” and would even oppose it. He did it by quoting and explaining the meaning of the first clause of Article 1 of the “Bill of Rights,” adopted on December 15, 1791: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It is noteworthy that the “Bill of Rights” is the collective name of the ten amendments to the 1789 US Constitution. They were adopted to balance any possible centralizing deviation of the government. This goal was achieved by enshrining religious liberty in the fundamental law of the land as the first political right of every American citizen, in a way that made religious liberty a civilizational principle that created limited government.
It is for this reason that political and social life in the US are distinguished from religion but not impermeable nor—at least theoretically—opposed to it. Former President of the Italian Senate and scholar Marcello Pera, who studied the American model, noted that, while separated, religion and the US polity are not enemies. The US avoids confusion but leaves religion overflow on society and even politics—“tracimare” being the Italian verb Pera used.
A famous case illustrates how a lay state can be a friend to religion, while laicism amounts to a “secular faith” enemy to freedom. On March 4, 1987, Judge William Brevard Hand (1924–2008) of the US District Court for the Southern District of Alabama, in Mobile city, Mobile county, ruled that 44 textbooks in Home economics, History and Social studies, authorized by the state of Alabama to be used from elementary to high school, violated religious liberty and ought to be removed from the school curriculum. It was the “Smith v Board of School Commissioners of Mobile County” case.
Judge Hand reasoned that, since those Alabama state-approved textbooks aimed at imposing on pupils the philosophy of what in the US is called “secular humanism,” another name for laicism, they violated the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which prohibits to establish a faith as a state religion. His judgment was in fact based on the premise that radical secularism is a religion too, even if irreligious or atheistic.
On August 26, 1987, the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit overturned Judge Hand’s decision, but the point raised remains crucial to this day. During the hearings in the Mobile court of law, Russell Kirk (1918‒1994) took the floor as an expert. One of the leading American historians of ideas, Kirk explained that laicism is a secular religion. It in fact has the characteristics, rituals, attitudes and even the jargon of a religion. Kirk had contributed to the topic by editing a booklet just the year before Judge Hand’s decision, “The Assault on Religion: Commentaries on the Decline of Religious Liberty,” but his interest in the subject goes, directly or not, through his entire intellectual production. It is in fact to be remarked that Kirk was an authority on the opposition between the heritage of secularist French Revolution (1789‒1799) and the religious-friendly American Founding, a dichotomy which deeply shapes the modern Western world.
Papers and materials of the “Alabama Textbook Case” were later collected in a small volume as “American Education on Trial: Is Secular Humanism a Religion? The Opinion of Judge W. Brevard Hand in the Alabama Textbook Case” (1987), to which Father Richard John Neuhaus (1936‒2009) provided an introduction. The author of the seminal “The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America” (1984) and “The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World” (1987), a Canadian-American former Lutheran pastor turned a Roman Catholic priest, Neuhaus was highly instrumental to the perception of the religious-friendly American Founding as opposed to the heritage of the secularist French Revolution in the modern word that Pope Benedict XVI (1927–2022) repeatedly mentioned. Pope Benedict’s understanding of the non-univocal and possible different “regional” meanings of the Enlightenment philosophy had elements in common with the perspective nurtured by the “Neuhuasian milieu” at large: suffice to mention American historian Gertrude Himmelfarb (1922–2019)’s “The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenment” (2004).
In turn, the concept of “secular religions” as faiths turned upside down has much do with the concept of “political religions” that immanentize transcendence. This notion was examined in depth by an author that Kirk was familiar with: German-American philosopher Eric Voegelin (1901‒1985). Voegelin addressed it in his 1938 study “Die politischen Religionen,” to whom Austrian positivist jurist and legal philosopher Hans Kelsen (1881–1973)—one of the two advisers on Voegelin’s dissertation in Political science at the University of Vienna, Austria, in 1928—responded by blaming it as mere conservative bias in his “Secular Religion: A Polemic against the Misinterpretation of Modern Social Philosophy, Science, and Politics as ‘New Religions’” (written in English and completed in 1964, this book was published only in 2012 and in a revised edition in 2017).
These US stories and histories serve here as examples. Not for making the whole world a clone of America (this would have mightily irritated an American like Kirk), but to serve as a precedent in paving the way to an alternative to secularism in the modern world. Too often people are put with their backs against the wall and compelled to choose between secularism and religious extremism/nationalism, favoring the first in the democratic West and one of the variants of the latter in the rest of the world that despises Western democracy. But it doesn’t have to be always this way.
What the world really needs are countries where the religious sentiment of believers is not frustrated by aggressive secularism, yet all forms of discriminations are excluded. To obtain this goal, religious liberty should be granted at its maximum possible and state laws written accordingly. Irish philosopher and stateman Edmund Burke (1729–1797) believed that, to avoid social disruptions, all contradictions should be addressed before they turn into open revolutions, always searching for the best and realistically doing what was possible. In this way, reform and tradition, customs and innovations, can find their way into constructive contributions to peace, justice, and social harmony for all.
Even confessionalism and state religion may positively enter this Burkean scenario. Often, they are the historical consequence of religious liberty. The Edict of Serdica, also known as Edict of Toleration, was issued in 311 at Serdica, or today’s Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, by Emperor Galerius (c. 258–311) ending the persecution of Christians within the boundaries of the Roman Empire. Emperors Constantine I (c. 272–337) and Licinius (c. 265–325) built on that, granting Christianity legal status and establishing freedom of religion in the Roman Empire through the Edict of Milan, Italy, in 313. It was only in 380, through the Edict of Thessalonica (today Thessaloniki, Greece) issued by Emperor Theodosius I (347–395), that Christianity based on the “Creed of Nicaea” became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Basically, the Edict of Thessalonica did nothing else than recognizing that Nicene Christianity had become the faith of the majority of the citizens of the Empire or of its “sanior pars—or the most attractive faith, winning the social competition ignited by the right to religious liberty granted to all 67 years before. Numbers and growth rates of Christianity in the first centuries that were studied by American sociologist Rodney Stark (1934–2022) in his 1996 “The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History” illustrate this point.
Confessionalism and established state religions may recognize historic identitarian facts and should always be handled with care. Disestablishment may not be the solution, especially when it is a mask for secularism. On the other hand, avoiding that religious establishments degrade into ethnicism, nationalism, and discrimination of religious minorities is the task of balanced “lay” laws that favor social competition, political harmony, and human respect—all things that are destroyed by what is often presented to the only alternative to intolerance, i.e., laicism. No, secularism is never fit for religion—nor for liberty.