+1 for Secularism

Must thank Rick Santorum: he gives me so many opportunities to write relevantly about my pet topics.  In the news today: secularism gives our wannabe national savior tummy troubles and an acidic burn in the esophagus.  Tasked by our wannabe investigative media to explain comments he made about his gag reflex to JFK’s speech on religion in the public sphere, Santorum pointed with one hand at secularism and with the other drew the skull and crossbones:

I don’t believe in an America where the separation between church and state is absolute. The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and visions of our country.

This profession of belief makes sense given that Santorum sees the political sphere through a theological lens, but it’s a belief detached from reality nonetheless.  E.D. Kain explains why:

Obviously the church is just one of many special interest groups that really does have some say over matters of state. That’s simply a reality of representative government, whether we like it or not. But more importantly I really don’t think that Rick Santorum understands what he’s saying here, and the implications for freedom of religion.

Right.  An absolute separation of church and state is impossible.  Churches inform beliefs, and beliefs influence behavior.  You can separate church and state to Buzz Lightyear’s catchphrase and still have people voting on this or that solely on the basis of religious reasons. That being said, the impossibility of an absolute separation is no reason not to respect the dividing line.

I’m a churchgoing Catholic who believes that God has disclosed the highest truths about what it means to be human, but I’m also a secularist without apology.  I favor a secular state, a state that does not impose moral or behavioral norms that have religious tenets as their sole basis.  Secularism, when practiced, won’t prevent the imposition of norms upon the whole of society that some group or other finds objectionable.  Nor will it ensure that the people of the nation debate from the same accepted premises.

Secularism is no check upon all coercions of action by the state, but it is an important and necessary limitation upon state power.  Without it, political conflicts become turf wars over holy ground that scorch the fields of religious freedom.  Political debates become proclamations about God’s will and how the state should see it done.  These conflicts don’t typically end well.

An absolute separation of church and state may be impossible, but the absolutism of theological politics makes me long for it.  Richard Kearney says, and I agree, that “the absolute requires pluralism to avoid absolutism.”  Long live the pluralist, secular state, I say.

Or you can vote for Rick Santorum, the antiemetic of presidential candidates.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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10 Responses

  1. Burt Likko says:

    Santorum has an emetic effect on me, that’s for sure.

    He dramatically misunderstood Kennedy’s speech — and Santorum is smart enough that I can only infer he did so deliberately.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Maybe. I’m not so sure. Santorum passionately expresses not a few perspectives that seem delusional in their simplicity. His understanding of terrorism, for example. Smarts are no sure cure for delusional thinking; they’re often the opposite.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      An aside: I’m reminded of Max Von Sydow’s well-delivered line in Hannah and Her Sisters, “If Jesus came back today and saw everything going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.”

  2. Nob Akimoto says:

    I think the smarter you are, there’s a tendency to believe in reductively simple solutions. I know that my experience with many genuinely smart (or at least I hope they are) law students, business school students, and policy students who for some reason still hold a very simple worldview. Most people grow out of it, perhaps what’s remarkable about Santorum is that he’s still got this childish worldview in his middle-age.

    One also sees this tendency in engineers (which are big on simple, often wrong solutions to the world) and college students who have read a little Ayn Rand.

    • Renee says:

      You mostly cite students as your evidence. Is it any surprise that our University (and school, in general) system, which is based on mostly reductive models and teaching techniques, tend to reward students who believe in reductively simple solutions? And we would, therefore, deem them ‘smart’? I think the tendency you mention is based on a biased sample. By far the smartest people I know are the ones who recognize complexity, struggle with it, are fascinated by it, and deal with it.

  3. Nob Akimoto says:

    On the original post.

    While I understand there’s always a tendency to view secularism as a check on the church’s influence on the state, I think it’s also an important check on the church. The worst abuses of the church (looking at you, Inquisition) tended to happen when there was a technical separation of the two, but not one in practice. The church could cite its divine authority, and use it to have state power clamp down on dissent.

    It really is fascinating how they basically passed off most of the heinous actions to the state while keeping the holy ground to themselves. Granted, in some respects this hasn’t changed. The difference is now the state is more often than not willing to say no. And that’s a good thing.

  4. North says:

    Good stuff Kyle. It makes your icon fit you better too.