The Paradox of American Religious Freedom 26 August 2014

A book discussing the apparent paradox of American religiosity and secularism.

The Rise and Decline of American Religious FreedomIn February 2014, President Obama delivered a speech on his dedication to religious freedom, and to campaigning for it globally. “When I meet with Chinese leaders… I stress that realising China’s potential rests on upholding universal rights, including for Christians, and Tibetan Buddhists, and Uighur Muslims.”

Obama, like many US presidents, considers religious freedom an American export – it was  enshrined in the constitution well ahead of other European nations, or so many US politicians would have us believe. The First Amendment states ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’. However, from this side of the Atlantic, American claims of secularism are sometimes bewildering.

Britain may have an established church, but British politics is nowhere near as overt in its Christianity as the US. A poll by Gallup showed that 43% of Americans would not vote for a US president who was an atheist (marginally more unpopular than a Muslim president, for whom 40% would not vote). By contrast, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was “outed” as an atheist in 2007, something which made no impact on his political career. Likewise,  For the British public, it was largely a non-issue.

It is somewhat contradictory then, that the US, where religion is central to politics and Christianity is incredibly relevant, should also be one of the earliest nations to profess separation of state and Church. It is this paradox that is in many ways the subject of Steven Smith’s work, ‘The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom‘ – a paradox he explains by significantly subverting the traditional story of American religious freedom.

The traditional story goes something like this. Religious freedom is an American innovation, enshrined in the constitution by the Founding Fathers who were ardent secularists, themselves having witnessed the abuse of religion in Europe. This radical idea was then followed by a period in America which failed to live up to the secular ideals it had set itself in the nation’s inception. The narrative concludes by saying that only in the modern world has the vision of a secular United States come to fruition, however it is now threatened by a vocal and increasingly powerful religious right. This account of American religious freedom is familiar to me at least; when politicians and commentators speak about secularism in the US, it is to this history that they refer, even if indirectly. It this narrative also which leads to the paradox of the American system – of a nation marked by religion in the public sphere yet supposedly secular in origins.

Smith argues that this story is fundamentally wrong. Instead, he claims American religious freedom is not an innovation but a ‘retrieval’ of a medieval Christian ideal. The Founding Fathers were not ardent secularists but rather the First Amendment was a distinction between the responsibilities of the federal government and that of state governments – in other words, the First Amendment was to protect religion from the state, not to protect the state from religion. What came afterwards was a period of negotiation between various visions of what religious freedom should look like, and many of these visions were not secular in the least. Instead, each state created its own vision of the relationship between state and power, of civic religion.

The story concludes not with the achievement of a secular ideal as the original narrative would have us believe, but rather the development of the Supreme Court privileging a single interpretation of religious freedom – a secular interpretation. “As a result, the status of religious freedom is currently in jeopardy”, argues Smith, “the threat comes not so much from religious conservatives” but from “secular egalitarians who purport to be carrying out the commands of the Constitution’s (self-subverting) commitment to religious freedom”. Religious freedom, in Smith’s eyes, is plural and must remain plural.

Discussion of religious freedom is relevant globally, here in the United Kingdom as well as in the United States. The debate tends to produce false dichotomies – religious against secularist, atheist against believer, dogma against reason. Smith’s work is one that provides much needed nuance, cutting through simplistic and misleading polemic.

Publisher: Harvard University Press
Author: Steven D Smith
ISBN: 9780674724754

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About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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