Journal of Democracy
saga of U.S. history, what do we see? We see that every major social movement in American history (until recent decades, perhaps) has been interlaced with religious language, inspiration, and enthusiasm: the Ameri- can Revolution itself (“No King but King Jesus” was one of its rallying cries4); abolitionism; women’s suffrage; many of the social reforms of the Progressive Era; labor organizing; the Social Gospel movement; and the civil rights movement, which was, after all, headed by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In the United States, religion has never been an exclusively “private” matter.
In part, no doubt, because of Alexis de Tocqueville’s great work Democracy in America, the United States has long been regarded as a template for democracy that provides the standard against which all other democratic possibilities are assessed. Nonetheless, today many rather disgruntled analysts who acknowledge the historic relationship between religion and democracy in the United States find this to be a troubling element in U.S. democratic life, one that inevitably will be superseded by the triumph of secularism. Thus they proclaim that West European democracies, now regarded as post-Christian, offer a sleek, up-to-date version of a system in which religion is more or less invisible—much as its presence has not been “seen” by U.S. political scientists for decades.
The Secularist Challenge
What at times appears to be a rather arcane academic debate about secu- larism versus faith has serious consequences for the future of democracy worldwide and, if we are to believe many astute observers, for the future of Western democracy itself. Let us briefly take the measure of the aca- demic debate. During the past few years, we have been treated to a spate of work blaming religion for every evil under the sun while conveniently ignoring that the greatest horrors of the twentieth century—the bloodiest of all centuries—were fueled by two antireligious totalitarian regimes, Nazi Germany and the officially atheistic Soviet empire. Nonetheless, many continue to insist that every religious believer—whether a liberal, mainline Protestant in the United States or a radical Taliban hiding out in the caves of Pakistan—is a lurking theocrat lying in wait and scheming to impose an official theocratic order. Such an assertion strains credulity, and it becomes even more implausible as one examines the matter closely.
Princeton scholar Jeffrey Stout, in an essay on “The Folly of Secular- ism,” notes that secularists insist that “striving to minimize the influence of religion on politics is essential to the defense of democracy.”5 What is a secularist? A secularist in the U.S. context is someone who wants to go beyond the separation of church and state and to effect a thoroughgoing separation of religion and politics at the level of civil society. Although this has never been the way of democracy in the United States, the secu- larists claim that the country needs such a system lest it fall prey to the