walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: December 11, 2013
Setbacks For Kemalism
Two Modest Victories for Common Sense

Courts in the EU and the the US recently overturned spurious cases brought by secularists regarding displays of religious symbols on public property— two small victories for common sense against Kemalism run amok.

Curious things often don’t go away. So I am motivated to return to a topic I have discussed before in this blog—the campaign by fundamentalist secularists (I like to call them Kemalists) to expunge religion from the public common.

On December 5, 2013, Law and Religion Headlines (the online newsletter published at Emory University) reported on two court decisions on opposite sides of the Atlantic. The United States Supreme Court rejected a suit protesting the erection of a large commemorative cross overlooking a public highway. The European Court of Human Rights rejected a rather similar suit, this one protesting the long-standing practice of crucifixes on the walls of Italian government buildings. In both cases the judges (a category of people for whom my respect is generally minimal) decided that neither event is a violation of religious freedom, by the state giving preference to one religion as against others. I think that this constitutes two modest victories for common sense against Kemalism run amok. Neither American nor European democracy is the worse for it.

The Kemalists typically make two arguments in cases like these. One is that allowing the display in a public place of symbols belonging to one religion implies that the state gives that religion a privileged position. The other argument is that such a display offends members of other religions, making them feel excluded. I think that both arguments are spurious. Since the history of Western civilization has been significantly shaped by Christianity, most of the contested symbols are Christian. Displaying them publicly in no way implies endorsement by the state, but rejecting their display implies a denial of history, and a judgment that this history was fundamentally wrong and therefore should be erased from memory as much as possible. In any case, a cross on an American highway or a crucifix in an Italian government office is not an exercise of Christian missionary outreach. What is more, there is no constitutional right never to be offended. In a pluralistic society, some people will always be offended by the symbols of communities other than their own.  An Italian Catholic may be offended by a gay pride parade, an Italian atheist by a Corpus Christi procession. Whether these events take place on government or private property, the offended parties should be able to shrug off their annoyance as the price of living in a democracy. And just how many people, in America or in Europe (unless they are members of a militant secularist pressure group), are really deeply hurt by coming across a Christian symbol on a walk through town?

There has been a flurry of such cases on both sides of the Atlantic. The two contexts have both similar and dissimilar features: Both are democracies with strong protections for religious freedom and both are pluralistic (America, still, more so than Europe, though the latter is catching up). But while Europe is, still a highly secularized continent, America harbors a vibrant and tumultuous religious scene. The flurry of secularist campaigns in America is more visible: Precisely because religion is more prominent in the US, it attracts opposition. Also, the Constitution as a whole and its First Amendment have a quality of Holy Scripture, with no parallel in Europe. And also, Americans are a people prone to litigation—starting a lawsuit is as American as apple pie. Everyone seems to want to get into this particular game: Thus even the Anti-Defamation League, whose main (praiseworthy) agenda has been alertness to every sign of anti-Semitism, has recently been moved to issue a guide for “constitutional holidays” (that is, purely secular ones). [The ADL seems to think that Kemalism is good for the Jews. That is a very doubtful idea, especially in America. Come to think of it, it is doubtful even in Turkey: Jews did quite well under Ottoman rule; serious anti-Semitic measures were enacted under the Turkish Republic.]

Why the recent flurry of church/state issues? In America it is part of the politics surrounding the so-called “culture wars”:  The rising influence of conservative Protestants in the Republican party has mobilized liberals against any political role of organized religion—especially since conservative Catholics have been allied with conservative Protestants on most of the issues “south of the navel” (issues, that is, that liberals are personally anxious about). The politics in Europe is different: Conservative Christianity (Protestant or Catholic) is not very significant politically, but the perceived threat of militant Islam has made secularism (such as French laicite) appear as a defense of European values against theocracy.

I think there is also the factor of lawyers looking for business, and then the professional deformation of this group comes into play. Lawyers live, literally and emotionally, on the making of fine distinctions. Thus the distinctions made in American courts, on where a particular instance violates or does not violate the First Amendment, are veritably scholastic (or, if you will, Talmudic). These considerations tend to be sovereignly free of common sense. Imagine a (humane) prison regulation that accords every inmate the right to a monthly haircut. Imagine further that a prisoner, whom the naked eye would judge to be bald, insists on the monthly haircut because he has ten hairs (his lawyer photographed them). Never mind why this bald (or insufficiently bald) individual wants to visit a barber in the first place; such trivial questions are legally irrelevant: a right is a right.  The court will have to decide how many hairs are required to determine that an individual is not bald. In a French court, how small (in centimeters) must a cross worn around the neck be so as to be considered sufficiently “inconspicuous” and thus legally permissible? In an American court, in a soup kitchen run by an order of nuns, how much overtly religious activity (perhaps measured in man-hours, or rather nun-hours) is permissible before the legitimate secular purpose (feeding the homeless) is undermined and the activity loses its First Amendment protection? Am I exaggerating? Of course I am. But I do so for a reason: I am applying the old casuistic method of reductio ad absurdum. 

Let me “reduce” some more: The Kemalist assault on religion in public space is related to an old progressive notion, the abolition of history. It goes back to the Enlightenment and particularly to its political expression in the French Revolution. It was not for nothing that the latter abolished the old calendar and substituted a new one (with months like brumaire and thermidor). That particular exercise did not last long, but the underlying progressive idea persisted: By the very notion of progress, the present is further on the march toward the glorious future than anything in the past. It affected America too: see the motto about the “new order of the ages” emblazoned on the Grand Seal of the United States (and on the dollar bills in your wallet). But in this country these utopian fantasies have often been modified by common sense and by Protestant suspicions about human nature. Be this as it may, the abolition of history continues to be a dream that haunts the progressive imagination. Imagine a secularist project in Europe: Every medieval cathedral and much of the art in all the great museums reminds of  Christianity, so let’s raze the cathedrals and remove all religiously inspired art from the museums (at least cathedrals and museums supported by the taxpayers). And in America: Every military cemetery, here or abroad, has a huge number of religious symbols on every tombstone—many crosses, here and there a Star of David—and there can be absolutely no doubt that these are on government ground. In the secularist book, these are clearly violations of the First Amendment. Remove them all, beginning with Arlington National Cemetery. And then there all these favorable references to religion in history textbooks used in public schools—surely an advocacy of religion. Edit them: The Pilgrims should be described as political refugees, Martin Luther King as a community organizer, and so on.

As I write this, we are on the eve of the Christmas season (the ADL guide would surely prefer just plain “holiday season”). There is the usual orgy of shopping, the favored season for shopkeepers to be merry. Christmas carols blare through the PA systems, jolly Santa Clauses (fully evolved from their saintly ancestor, St. Nicholas) listen to the wishes of small children perched on their knees, everyone smiles with good will. This synthesis of religion and secularity is regularly criticized from opposite sides. The secularists don’t like the religious part. They can’t do much about the shopping malls, but they can surely agitate and litigate against any trace of Christianity in the holiday season insofar as it is acknowledged on government property—maybe crèches can be allowed, but without baby Jesus or any other New Testament characters. If any values are to be celebrated, they are family ties, the happiness of children and general good will. And on the other side are those who want to “bring Christ back into Christmas”, doing away with all the supposedly fake jolliness and commercial exploitation, instead restore the original religious character of this holy-day. I think that both criticisms are misguided. There is nothing fake about the secular cheer of the season, nor about the expressions of general amiability – and there is nothing wrong about the fact that some people are making money out of it. Those who want to focus on the birth of Christ the savior, are free to do so. Let me admit it: I do celebrate the birth of Christ at Christmas. I also like the secular cheer that is also celebrated. I even like the commercialism—it is a source of happiness for many people, especially children.

show comments
  • qet

    This is excellent. So excellent, in fact, that I sent it to my daughters (who won’t read it except under threats). It speaks volumes about the entrenchment of the left-liberal mentality in this country over the past 40 years that such an article needs writing at all. Anyone who has ever been around a self-avowed atheist or secularist knows with certainty that the person is not in fact deeply and personally wounded by the presence of religious symbols in his field of vision; not even a little. Instead, such a person is an example of the type of man described by Seneca as one “who nourishes his grief and has the as the measure of his affliction not what he feels but what he has decided to feel.” The point about the progressives’ desire to abolish history is just so correct, and it really ought to alarm people more than it seems to.

    • Gary Novak

      Yes, Berger’s post is excellent. And this reader doesn’t mind that Berger sometimes returns to curiosities that don’t go away. “Put differently” is one of his favorite ways of starting a sentence. But that doesn’t make me think “Here we go again,” but “Maybe I’ll get it this time.”

      But I think you overlooked one point: When Berger doubts that many people are really offended by religious symbols in public, he exempts “members of militant secularist pressure groups.” Put differently, they ARE really offended. But you seem to think that you are agreeing with Berger when you claim to know with certainty that “self-avowed secularists” are not offended by such symbols, “not even a little.” The fact that they have decided to feel offended is not . . . decisive. Religious people are also making a decision when they take a sacramental view of the world, but the feelings they experience as a result of that choice (including the “secular cheer” noted by johngbarker above) are quite genuine. Berger’s point is that the self-appointed guardians of the delicate sensibilities of the masses have a tiny following among ordinary sane people. And, quite apart from that empirical question, there is no constitutional right never to be offended. I hope your daughters listen to you!

      • qet

        Thanks Gary, but I stand by what I said. Unlike Berger, who may indeed be sincere or who may be making the allowance as a sop to possible objectors, I do not concede that any self-avowed secularist or atheist, militant or not, is or can genuinely be offended, can genuinely feel hurt, merely by the presence of religious symbols in public space in his line of sight/hearing. He may well be offended by the religiosity behind the displaying of the symbol. I ascribe little or no legitimacy even to that sort of umbrage (and I myself am not even a religious person), but that is another topic. He may well be offended, and with more reason, at aggressive evangelizing directed at him specifically, but that, too, is not what we are talking about here. No–as to the people who pour their energies into bringing, and maintaining all through the interminable court process, litigation demanding that a person not visibly wear a small cross necklace at a public school, or that some one utter the words “Happy Holidays” in lieu of the words “Merry Christmas,” or that a creche scene (that would only appear for around 30 days anyway) be removed from his sight: such people, I say, are motivated by causes other than a genuine feeling of hurt at the mere presence of the symbol to their perception, and whose desire is other than a genuine desire to redress an injustice.

  • Anthony

    Wherever reasonable (or unreasonable ) men can reasonably disagree, as they can about questions of religious celebration/practice in a pluralist democracy, their decision in favor of one way or alternative (to some minds) is a preference that closely resembles preferences in what are more obviously matters of “taste”. To my mind, in the sphere of all matters subject to individual thought and decision, pluralism is desirable; but on the eve of the Christmas season (without casuistry) Christian symbols, i.e. Christmas, represent cultural norms associated with Western civilization. And if you are citizen thereof, its celebration ought not be deeply hurting nor intrusively offensive (unless of course intrusion extends into prescriptive religious judgment on how to conduct your life in a free society). Still Peter Berger, we must remember that the Kemalists think elevating parochial values to the realm of the sacred is license to dismiss other people’s interest. So as we enter Christmas season, a word to the wise…

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Bradley Millier, a law professor from
    Western University in Canada, has an interesting article on a related issue in
    the December issue of Foreign Affairs on “Quebec’s Secular Charter.” Miller describes how secular fundamentalists
    in Quebec have appropriated the symbols, architecture, language, and rituals of
    Catholicism to advance their formal Secular Charter. In contrast to fundamentalist secularists in
    the U.S. who want religious symbols banned in the public sphere, in Quebec these
    religious cultural elements now are in the service of the state, not the

    Quebec’s Secular Charter affirms the
    values of State secularism, religious neutrality, equality of men and women,
    and provides a framework for “accommodation requests”. Employees of all public institutions must
    “exercise reserve with regard to expressing their religious beliefs.”

    Quebec’s Ethics and Religious Culture Course,
    mandatory in even religious and home schools, restricts teaching religion that
    provides meaning to the lives of students.
    It must be taught along with other religions and cannot favor one religion
    over another. This religious education
    policy is to be reviewed by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2014 under the case
    Loyola vs. Quebec.

    The appropriation of the outer symbols
    of Catholicism in the service of a monistic secular public culture is also the
    tactic taken by many Episcopalian churches in the U.S. that have been
    infiltrated by the secular, political Left.
    The clash between secular fundamentalist Episcopalians appropriating
    religious culture for their cause and sometimes equally religiously
    fundamentalist Anglicans is what has led to the legal fight in the U.S. courts
    over who owns the church buildings. Not
    surprisingly, even Anglican churches that owned title to their properties on a
    deed lost their church buildings to Episcopalians by convincing secular courts
    that those property rights were superseded by church government arrangements.

    Imagine the American Baseball League
    exerting it owns Yankee Stadium over the rights of George Steinbrenner’s
    investment group! What would be
    considered an illegal, hostile takeover in business is de rigueur when property
    rights over religious buildings get into U.S. courts. I can only imagine that the same type of
    judges hears these property rights cases that Peter Berger considers in a
    category for which his respect is generally minimal.

    Something like this conflict is also
    playing out in California where the City of Richmond exerts that they can
    condemn a bank’s loan on an over-mortgaged home and leave the bank’s depositors
    and investors with the loss all in the name of secular justice. One can only imagine that such cities got such
    a confiscatory idea from the religious property rights cases that preceded it.

    Apparently, just as the legal system
    gives church governmental bodies the unlimited right to confiscate property, there
    aren’t laws against confiscating the cultural elements of a religion in the
    state’s cause. As Miller describes it,
    in Quebec the churches stand empty and the marriage and birth rates are the
    lowest of any Canadian province, thus necessitating the immigration of
    religious people the secular government wants to culturally neuter.

    There is some vestige of common sense
    left in the U.S. However, apparently
    there is no common sense left in Quebec.

    • Gary Novak

      Your post raises an interesting question about the malleability of religious symbols. Berger has warned about the theological dangers of supping with the devil. Are the secular fundamentalists of Quebec overlooking the dangers to secularism of supping with the angels? If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, perhaps the secularists who co-opt religious culture are angels unaware. Let’s be glad there are no laws against the confiscation of the cultural elements of religion.

      • Wayne Lusvardi

        One could argue that Christmas is an appropriation of Christian symbols by the commercial culture. Of course, if one wants to go back far enough Constantine also appropriated Christian symbols to socially construct a Roman Empire in the face of a collapsing Western Roman Empire

        I would recommend that you, and other readers, you buy yourself a Christmas gift of a copy of Selina O’Grady’s remarkable “And God Created Man” (2013) which explains how religion has been used by empires to bind their populations and for social control. O’Grady is what might be called a lay sociologist who writes from a Weberian interpretive sociological viewpoint (“beliefs matter’) and who uses as her thesis Berger’s observations about religion and legitimation (“…religion has been the historically most widespread and effective instrumentality of legitimation”….Berger – The Social Canopy, 1967).

        O’Grady’s book is not an “apology” for Christianity or an apology for atheism. Like Berger, O’Grady is musically religious.

        • Gary Novak


          Recall that Berger explains the absence of humanist funerals by their incapacity to provide consolation. A funeral may be a religious rite, but it cannot be
          successfully appropriated by atheists, whose ceremony could consist of little more than dressing the corpse in an “I’m a finisher” marathon T-shirt and reminiscing
          about the dearly departed’s devotion to social justice. Even the deliberately false religions of the Enlightenment imagination must make a pretense of providing a sacred canopy (not social canopy—your slip is significant), or they will fail to attract support. Beliefs do, indeed, matter, and an explicitly and militantly secular anti-religion will have no chance in the religious marketplace—no matter how many cathedrals it turns into government offices.

          Rudolf Otto writes in “The Idea of the Holy”: “In the arts everywhere the most effective means of representing the numinous is ‘the sublime.’ This is especially true of architecture, in which it would appear to have first been
          realized.” To the extent that religious expressions are not arbitrarily invented (Kwanzaa anyone?), their evocation of the numinous is “built in.” If, as the secular bureaucrats believe, everything is “socially constructed,” there
          is no reason that the “mana” of the cathedral cannot be transferred to the government. Why not convert signals of transcendence into signals of immanence? Why not sup with the angels and co-opt them? Because religious symbols are not that malleable. The Hagia Sophia can be converted from Christian to Muslim; it cannot inspire belief in the Department of Motor Vehicles.

          When I said in response to johngbarker’s post that I expect to find salvation in a performance of “The Nutcracker,” I was, of course, half-joking. The sublime is
          not the numinous, and art is not religion. But art is replete with signals of transcendence. The hardened secularist virtually defines religion as the legitimation of oppressive regimes, blames “God” for the Grand Inquisitor, and
          declares God dead. But then he attends a safely non-religious “Nutcracker” and begins to feel the inadequacy of the purely immanent frame. Or he renews his
          driver’s license in an ex-cathedral which defies the Thomas Theorem by retaining its power to signal transcendence. Religious musicality is more than
          a metaphor. “In the arts everywhere” the numinous appears repeatedly. Genuinely religious symbols, whether “religious” or not, have little to fear from the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in City Hall.

          I should add that I have only been addressing the issue of the secular appropriation of religious symbols. When you discuss the suppression of religion in Quebec, I share your sentiments. By characterizing O’Grady’s book
          as an elaboration of Berger’s (which I’ve already got and “get”), you reduced my incentive to buy it. But I promise I will get myself something to have a Merry (Commercial) Christmas.

          • Wayne Lusvardi

            For something beyond the “Empire” paradigm of O’Grady’s book “And Man Created God”, one might read poet Christian Wiman’s “My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer” (2013). Wiman is a non-orthodox, self-confessed Christian who, in the face of cancer, returned to his childhood faith ingrained in west Texas. Wiman writes: “If God is a salve applied to unbearable psychic wounds, or a dream figure conjured out memory and mortal terror, or an escape from a life that has become either too appalling or too banal to bear, then I have to admit: it is not working for me.” Wiman goes beyond reducing religion to some therapeutic, political, or ecclesiastical reality. He writes: “There is not clean intellectual coherence, not abstract meaning to be found, and if this is not recognized, then the compulsion to find such certainty becomes its own punishment. This realization is not the end of theology, but the beginning of it: trust no theory, no religious history or creed, in which the author’s personal faith is not actively at risk.” This might have been a sentence excerpted from Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld’s “In Praise of Doubt.”

          • Gary Novak

            I’ll make Wiman’s meditation my Christmas present to myself.

  • johngbarker

    I have often wondered if the “secular cheer” of Christmas suggests that there is an aspect of Christian faith that promotes human flourishing and a deep sense that the life can be made joyful– I sense this more in Christian music than text.

    • Gary Novak

      Despite Berger’s use of the felicitous concept of “signals of transcendence” to link the secular world of mundane experience to the transcendent world of religion, he is careful not to conflate the two worlds. (So, he celebrates the birth of Christ and ALSO celebrates secular cheer.) Likewise, Rudolf Otto says (in “The Idea of the Holy”) that the aesthetic experience of the sublime can arouse the religious experience of the numinous– but that art is not religion. Your suggestion that “secular cheer” may be a form of human flourishing promoted by Christianity raises some interesting questions regarding the permeability of the boundaries. Can secularists be as cheerful as Christians? Is it only Christian music that can foster “secular cheer”? What about sublime secular music? And if human flourishing is the bottom line (as secularists typically think), why not promote it directly instead of getting it as a spin-off of Christianity with its potentially obstructionist texts? “Smile, God loves you”? Well, why not just “Blue skies, smiling at me . . .”? Or Bach’s music without the gospel of Matthew? (Or is the music itself already religious?). For my part, I fully expect to find salvation tomorrow night at Tulsa Ballet’s “Nutcracker”– “a source of happiness for many people, especially children.”

  • RaptorEsq

    This was a great post, if you enjoy rambling, disjointed attacks on strawmen.
    Yeah, yeah, poor suffering Christians. We get it.

  • Monkish

    Mustapha Kemal, the “fudamentalist secularist” who established the Diyanet, a state controlled office of Islamic affairs which caters to the needs of Turkey’s Sunni majority with a yearly budget in excess of a billion dollars of taxpayer money. A curious kind of secularism indeed. Ataturk’s relationship to religion was far more nuanced than the good professor would have us believe. So why does he persist in describing secular bigots as “Kemalists” in the face of these facts? Could it be that this consistent and principled champion of religious freedom has fallen for Erdogan’s myth of moderate Islamism? Does Berger really believe that a Turkey liberated from the clutches of this caricature of villainous state secularism will be a freer place for the religious and secular alike? He’d do well to read this article by Istanbul resident and Turkey expert Christopher de Bellaigue:

  • Monkish

    As for “Turkey: Jews did quite well under Ottoman rule; serious anti-Semitic measures were enacted under the Turkish Republic.” This statement is simply preposterous, as any historian of the Ottoman Empire would tell you. Legal inferiority (dhimmi status), the head tax (jizya), mandatory dress codes, bans on self-defense (Jews and Christians couldn’t carry weapons), laws against riding on horseback, to say nothing of the smaller symbols of humiliation and abjection foisted upon them by the Sultan… Did the Damacus affair and the Armenian genocide happen under Kemal’s watch?

  • qet

    As if on cue, we have a Christmas miracle! What Berger foretold has come to pass. This one has it all. A military memorial. A cross (natch). 24 years of litigation. 24 years!!!!!! The idea that the person/people who gave (lost?) 24 years of their lives so that this one symbol could be hauled down (maybe the Court will allow a motion granting the prayer (how ironic!) of the victorious plaintiffs to pull it down dramatically after the fashion of the recent Ukrainian protesters?) were only pursuing Justice, seeking relief for their suffering caused by seeing a cross in a public place is absurd and anyone who subscribes to that belief identifies himself at once as Barnum’s sucker. Is there one single serious rational adult out there who genuinely believes that the presence of this cross amounted to a State “endorsement” (whatever that means) of a religion? Unbelievable. And would anyone care to guess how many taxpayer dollars–scarce things in the Era of the Sequester when small Appalachian children are being booted out of Head Start programs for want of government money–were wasted in this effort?

  • otherfaith

    I was quite surprised by the argument. Is the public domain to be closed to believers who abhor Christianity and view the cross as an idol to be shunned and denigrated. Is not the very idea of separation of religion and state to allow freedom of belief even to those who are not beholden to our own beliefs?

  • wigwag

    One would think that a man who hasn’t published a post on his blog in almost a year (after promising his loyal readers that he was going to post more regularly) would make his triumphant return with something a little more substantial than a glorified advertisement for his new book. This essay provides almost nothing other than an invitation to explore Fukuyama’s erudition in greater detail this September when his book is finally published. There’s nothing wrong with using a site with which you are intimately affiliated for a little self-promotion, but it doesn’t show a lot of respect for your readers when self-promotion is all that’s on order.

    With that said, Fukuyama’s book is sure to be provocative. September looks like it will be an interesting month for people interested in international affairs. In addition to Fukuyama’s book, Henry Kissinger has a book coming out on September 9th entitled “World Order.” The Wall Street Journal published a fascinating excerpt from the new book yesterday,

    Reading Kissinger’s essay makes it clear that he is still one of America’s most gifted commentators on world affairs well into his 91st year and despite his recent surgery to replace a defective heart valve.

    Perhaps American Interest readers will get lucky and the editors of the site will select some interesting reviewers for the books by Fukuyama and Kissinger. At the appropriate time, it would be particularly valuable to get Walter Russell Mead’s take on what these two esteemed authors have to say.

  • Anthony

    “…how simplistic understandings of how development works can lead to disastrous policy” – perhaps a fundamental tenet for political order and political decay (without being tautological).

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