The dark side of secularism
LAST WEEK the US Supreme Court took up two cases having to do with "government displays of the Ten Commandments" the old question of church and state. Those who emphasize the "bright line" of separation are conscious of the breakthrough it was when, after savage religious wars led by God-intoxicated rulers, a new politics required the state to be religiously neutral.
Thomas Jefferson stood on the shoulders of figures like Benedict Spinoza, Roger Williams, and Mary Dyer, who paid dearly for this principle.
Far from an insult to faith, the "wall of separation" was a guarantee that each citizen, free of public coercion, could worship at the altar of conscience or not. This foundational idea of American democracy protects political freedom of a diverse citizenry but also creates space within which authentic religion can thrive. The courts are right to keep the line sharp, and new democracies around the world are right to draw it.
But there is a dark side to the separation of church and state, and its shadow grows longer. This core notion has been distorted into a terrible dichotomy that undercuts both politics and belief.
Early on, "church and state" became a euphemism for the separation of the private realm from the public the separation of morality from law. "You can't legislate morality," Americans told each other. Because the language of morality was associated with religion, the discourse of "secular" politics became ethically hollow. Thus, for example (in an observation made by the writer Wendell Barry), Thomas Jefferson could in his public role argue against slavery, while clinging to slaves as "private" property, about which the state had nothing to say. On this issue, Americans would fight a war to enshrine morality in law.
Speaking of war, the traditional distinction between the hard-nosed "realism" of policymakers and the "idealism" of conscientious objectors is another instance of the dichotomy between state and church. By removing considerations of "morality" from, for example, the Cold War construction of nuclear deterrence theory and its arsenal prepare to destroy the world to save it Washington teamed with Moscow to create a stillrampant monster. When George Kennan objected to the Hbomb, Dean Acheson said to him: "George, if you persist in your view in this matter, you should resign from the Foreign Service and assume a monk's habit." Or, as Curtis LeMay put it, "To worry about the 'morality' of what we were doing nuts!" By assigning "morality" to the private sphere, Americans also eviscerated the true meaning of education. The phrase "family values" is code for this evisceration, as if the family alone is the realm in which young people are explicitly enabled to reflect on the moral meaning of choices. Keeping prayers out of schools a proper refusal to coerce the conscience of any citizen thus becomes reduced to the absurd idea that public education must be "values neutral." Is it any wonder that some teenagers, compulsively "hooking up," have learned so little about humane sexual expression?
Or take the college admissions process, which has become the distilled essence of the American educational agenda: When the triumph of one student assumes the defeat of another, the deadly separation has become the ultimate one of "me against you." Every student, parent, and admissions officer knows of this literal demoralization, but schools lack the, yes, sacred language with which to address it.
But drawing a bright line between morality and the rest of life has become the American way. Thus hospitals and corporations have "ethicists" specialists who, alone of officials, are held to a high standard of moral reasoning. Ethicists, of course, are not decision makers. WorldCom and Enron are the result.
And as lucrative new technologies redefine the beginning of life, the end of life, every genome in between who expects that the interests of the sponsoring venture capitalists will come second to those of the human species? The separation of church and state in business means the separation of choice from consequence.
But religion itself has been trivialized by this tradition, too.
Walling off the "sacred" from the "secular" has removed the faith from its rigorous partnership with reason, which is why, for example, so many mistakenly assume a contradiction between Genesis and Darwin. Otherwise well-educated religious people remain theologically illiterate, which is the ground of intolerance.
Knowing only that something is terribly wrong with all of this, they mistakenly assume it can be corrected by a new imposition of "values," symbolized, say, by the display of the Ten Commandments in a courtroom.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.