Smearing Secularism: The Ongoing Right-Wing Attack On Religious Neutrality

The secular state protects your right to worship (or not) as you see fit – and it realizes that the best way to do that is by not elevating one faith over another.

Republican presidential contender Ohio Gov. John Kasich is a favorite among some in the media. Although his poll numbers aren’t impressive, Kasich, many in the press corps would have the country believe, is a thoughtful, moderate alternative to the likes of Donald Trump and Ben Carson.

Kasich can’t exceed Trump and Carson in over-the-top rhetoric. Who could? But some recent comments by the Ohio governor show that he has some things to learn about our Constitution and the separation of church and state.

Like a lot of conservatives these days, Kasich seems to believe that “secular” is a dirty word. He was asked about marriage equality during a recent speech and used the opportunity to go off on a tangent about secularism.

Kasich unleashed this rather convoluted observation: “If we become secularists when we face a radical Islam, that is the farthest thing from secularist, when we can’t unite with our friends in the Jewish, Muslim and Christian community to espouse a set of values that is the true way for human beings to conduct their lives and live their lives, we will be in a very severe crisis point.”

The syntax here is a bit twisted, but Kasich seems to be saying that a secular society could not stare down radical Islam. That’s ironic because a secular state is perhaps the best vehicle to take on fundamentalist zealots of any stripe. Obviously, people who are secularists or who are believers but value secular government would not want to live under radical Islam, fundamentalist Christianity, nationalistic Hinduism, etc. They’d be the first to fight to preserve the freedom a secular state gives us.

Kasich went on to say, “The sense of right and wrong that comes from the great religions is something the West should begin to pay attention to and not continue to drive towards a totally secular society.”

There are a couple of problems with this: One, secular people are quite capable of having a finely tuned sense of right and wrong. They merely derive it from a source other than religion. Two, the secular state is the protector, not the enemy, of religious freedom.

Many people on the far-right confuse a government that is secular with one that is hostile to religion. The two are quite different. A secular state is one that has no official position on theology. It has no favorite religion and it doesn’t take sides on matters of faith. A secular state is neutral on religious questions. Such a government allows its citizens to hash out theological questions in private arenas, but it doesn’t back one faction over another.

In a secular state, you can be a Roman Catholic, a Jew, a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Sikh, an atheist, a Wiccan, etc. and that does not affect your standing in the eyes of the government. The state protects your right to worship (or not) as you see fit – and it realizes that the best way to do that is by not elevating one faith over another.

Over the years, some conservative thinkers have asserted that neutrality is in itself a form of hostility. Wrong. Hostility includes actions like bulldozing churches, arresting clergy, shooting people who attend services, etc. (See the Soviet Union, communist China, modern-day North Korea, etc.) The essence of state secularism and neutrality is freedom of choice. You will be left alone to make your own decisions about faith, and the government won’t attempt to push you in one direction or another.

Those who attack neutrality are usually angry because the government has dared to put “false” religions on the same plane as their “true” one. In other words, they are the same old theocrats attempting to dress up a tired argument in slightly more intellectual garb.

We have approached full government secularism in the United States, but we have not completely embraced it. Our currency contains religious slogans, and our Pledge of Allegiance requires non-believers to make a religious affirmation as a condition of expressing patriotism. We could remove these things tomorrow, and it wouldn’t make the country less religious, just freer.

When Kasich and those who think like him attack secularism, they are really criticizing a cornerstone of our government. Our Constitution is secular, after all.

What they fail to grasp is that the very principles they claim to champion – religious liberty and the right of conscience – rest on the platform erected by an officially secular state. They can erode that platform if they want, but they must understand that the consequences will be quite serious when it collapses.