“It does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are 20 gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
–Thomas Jefferson (1)
“Granting a citizen the right to think anything she wants is the preamble to other privacies.”
–Jacques Berlinerblau (2)
What is a Secular Republic?
Many Americans are unfamiliar with the extent to which the founders went to create a secular republic as well as a federal one. Indeed, one could argue that the United States was the world’s first secular republic. A secular republic is one that is characterized by a separation between government and religion. Above all, it means to avoid the trappings of theocracy in all its variations. (3) In a secular republic, people are free to practice religion or non-religion in peace; church and state are separated; people of different faiths are treated equally before the law; and religious tests and oaths are not required to vote or hold office.
American Secularism’s European Roots
The Constitution was firmly rooted in the Enlightenment’s secular philosophy. In his Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), English philosopher John Locke argued in favor of religious toleration and tried to “distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion, and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other.” The American Revolution and the writing of the Constitution happened during a fight in England against the Test and Corporation Acts, which prohibited Catholics from holding office there. The American founders were sympathetic with the arguments of Joseph Priestly, co-discoverer of oxygen and a founder of Unitarianism, and James Burgh, a Scottish minister and political writer, who both wanted the Test and Corporation Acts to be repealed. Burgh wrote, “Away with all foolish distinctions about religious opinions. Those with different religious views are both equally fit for being employed in the service of our country.” (4)
The Constitution reflected the Enlightenment views of many of the founding generation. Thomas Jefferson was most proud of three of his accomplishments: The Declaration of Independence, founding the University of Virginia, and writing and passing the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty in 1786. Under his design, the University of Virginia did not have a church on school grounds, and he forbade teaching theology. When the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty passed, Jefferson declared that there would be “freedom for the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mohammeden, the Hindu and infidel of every denomination.” (6)
Secularism in the U.S. Constitution
Secular features are manifest throughout the U.S. Constitution. Religious tests are explicitly banned in Article VI: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Apparently, this provision passed through the Constitutional Convention with very little debate, which was remarkable given that eleven of the thirteen states had religious tests for public office. In Delaware, for example, office holders were required to affirm their “faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ His only son, and in the Holy Ghost, one God blessed forevermore.” (11)
Aside from banning religious tests, the Constitution also distinctively failed to invoke God. Before entering office, the president is required to make an oath or affirmation pledging to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution, but the oath does not have to be on a Bible, nor is “so help me God” a part of the affirmation. Adding “In God We Trust” to U.S. money didn’t happen until the Civil War, and the “under God” language of the Pledge of Allegiance wasn’t added until 1954 and was a product of the McCarthy-era’s fear of communism. These additions came through legislation and are not a part of the Constitution.
The Constitutional Convention’s work elicited widespread criticism from those who felt it was a godless Constitution. At the Massachusetts ratifying convention, one critic said that without a religious test for the president, “a Turk, a Jew, a Roman Catholic, and what is worse than all, a Universalist, may be President of the United States.” On March 7, 1788, a writer for the Massachusetts Gazette criticized the Constitution for failing to invoke God, by writing that “it is more difficult to build an elegant house without tools to work with, than it is to establish a durable government without the publick protection of religion.” (12) During the ratification debates, critics made numerous attempts to amend the Constitution to add religious tests and/or to add references to God. All these attempts were defeated. (13)
The Advantages of Secularism
Why a secular republic? Generally, secularism promotes order and peace between different religions.
- Jacques Berlinerblau's idea of secular compact, which is the understanding that the state guarantees people the freedom to believe or not believe whatever they want in an orderly society. In exchange, all citizens agree to limit their religious practices to those that do not violate the law or disrupt society. In essence, one can believe whatever one wants but can only act on those beliefs that don’t hurt others or destabilize society.
- Religion, atheism, and agnosticism all tend to thrive in secular republics, perhaps because secularism separates state authority from the dominant religion and all sects equally.
- It defends freedom of conscience, which is a bedrock of democracy. A society in which individuals cannot articulate spiritual truths for themselves is not likely to allow people much freedom to publicize and advocate for any of their worldly beliefs either—especially if they differ from those who hold the reins of power.
References and Notes
- Quoted in Robert W. Tracinski, “America: The Secular Republic,” Capitalism Magazine. July 1, 2002. Available here.
- Jacques Berlinerblau, How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2012. Page 18.
- A theocracy is rule by religious authorities and divine guidance.
- Quoted in Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, The Godless Constitution. A Moral Defense of the Secular State. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. Page 83.
- Susan Jacoby,Freethinkers. A History of American Secularism. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2004. Notice that this is different than saying they were anti-religious. Many were quite religious, others were Diests, and a few like Paine were distinctly anti-clerical.
- Quoted by Brooke Allen, “Our Godless Constitution,” The Nation, February 25, 2005. Online edition.
- See Robin Morgan, “Fighting Words for a Secular America,” in Dennis Loy Johnson and Valerie Merians, What We Do Now. Hoboken, NJ: Melville House Publishing, 2004. Page 127.
- Kramnick and Moore, The Godless Constitution. Page 102.
- David L. Holmes, Faiths of the Founding Fathers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Pages 59-71.
- Matthew Stuart, Nature’s God. The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. New York: W. W. Norton, 2014. Page 56.
- Kramnick and Moore, The Godless Constitution. Page 29-30.
- Jacoby, Freethinkers. Pages 29-30.
- See Kramnick and Moore, The Godless Constitution. Pages 34-37.
- Jacques Berlinerblau, How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2012. Page 17.
- Church and State © Chuck Coker is licensed under a CC BY-ND (Attribution NoDerivatives) license