When it comes to not making optimistic, pie-in-the-sky pronouncements about American secularism I have almost unparalleled street cred. For years I have rued and bemoaned and lamented the fate of this poor mangled –ism.
But in the past few months there have been some positive and unexpected developments both here and abroad as well.
The first is far less obvious than it might seem. By far, the best thing that has happened to American secularism in about half a century was that the reactionary 2012 iteration of the Republican party, while not McGovernized, was pretty thoroughly thrashed. To the long list of those in this country who were perplexed and repulsed by this aberrant version of the GOP (e.g., Latinos, African-Americans, gays, women) let us add secular Americans.
If we define the latter, loosely, as those--believers and nonbelievers alike-- who are deeply concerned about excessive entanglement between religion and government then it is not hard to understand why the Republicans horrified them. After all this is a party that spent years fighting on behalf of the Defense of Marriage Act, musing about religious tests in relation to Muslims, intimating that school prayer ought be decided by states, endeavoring to make legal abortions increasingly difficult to procure (see almost the entire Republican party) and equating secularism with socialism, godlessness and evil incarnate (see Newt Gingrich), Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney and almost the entire Republican Party).
I want to stress that Republicans, historically, have not been anti-secular nor should the same be said about many of their core convictions. The shift occurred with the synergies that developed between Ronald Reagan and Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the late 1970s. In fits and starts the relation between the Christian Right and the Republicans has grown for three decades. Did it crest in 2012? Will a humbled GOP shuck the divisive God-botherers in its midst? That is the question that secularists are eagerly—nay, gleefully—posing.
Of course, there is a second reason for secular hope in that President Obama has been doing a little less of the maddening anti-secular things that he so often does. This past summer more than a few pundits wondered why the incumbent had ceased spouting the campaign God talk that had characterized his oratory in 2008. (His opponent, incidentally, also eased off the holy stuff).
In retrospect, it may be that Obama’s summer of scriptural silence has something to do with another factor contributing to secularism’s grand high spirits. This would be the rise of the “nones” as a potential political force in American politics. Again, there is more to this story than meets the eye.
First off, it may be that the president’s strategists arrived at two crucial realizations. The first being that his experiment in reaching out to the Christian Right was a catastrophic failure (see the HHS contraception mandate/”religious liberty” scrums of 2012). The second was that the “religiously unaffiliated, at nearly 20 percent of the population, hated God talk and voted overwhelmingly Democratic. Why enrage his own base by continuing, for example, to cozy up to serial secular-baiters such as Pastor Rick Warren?
I am a pessimist by nature so let me raise a few caveats about the political potency of the nones. The first is that their Election Day turnout was somewhat underwhelming (they were 12 percent of the electorate though they are nearly 20 percent of the population). They actually gave less of their ballot to Obama in 2012 than they did in 2008 (70 percent down from 75 percent).
Most crucially, they are not an organized, disciplined, well-funded political juggernaut like the Christian Right, but a category on a demographer’s clipboard. The Democrats will need to organize and mobilize them (and perhaps this is why Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast gave them a shout out when he referred to “those of no faith that they can name”).
This is why I want to note, buzzkillingly, that 2012 was more a victory for secularism than a victory by secularism. But a victory nonetheless! Moreover, secularists can’t help but wonder if the pope’s recent resignation signals, at the very least, a set back for the global anti-secular platform.
Let me be clear: there are many secular Catholics in this country—given their defiance of the bishops in the past election we might say that the majority of American Catholics are secular-friendly. Further, the Catholic Church has historically not always been so vehemently opposed to strong church-state boundaries. With the resignation of the pontiff, one very powerful anti-secular voice will no longer be heard.
There are other reasons for cautious optimism, like the specter of rising secular opposition to the stranglehold of ultra-Orthodox parties in the wake of the Israeli elections. I might also note the pending legalization of gay marriage in France demonstrates what the world’s most laïcque nation can accomplish.
Again, it is way too early to tell if secularism is on the comeback trail, but even a curmugeon such as myself can recognize signs of hope.
“Secularism on the Edge,” an international conference exploring secularism in the United States, France, and Israel, opens at Georgetown University Wednesday, February 20, through Friday, February 22. All events are free and open to the public. Visit the Web site for more details and follow the conference on Twitter @SecularismEdge for updates and live tweets of the events.