As I surf through the Internet in search of blog-worthy religion news, I stumble over all sorts of curious sources. Caffeinated Thoughts is an online magazine that describes itself as offering “a Christian and conservative view.” The editors explain that “caffeinated thoughts” means the kind of thoughts one might have while leisurely sipping a cup of coffee. That would not appeal to “Christian conservatives” who regard coffee-drinking as sinful (there are not a few of those). It certainly appeals to me, as it evokes the atmosphere of that great and barely surviving institution—the Central European coffee house. (I doubt if today’s “Christian conservatives” in America understand that the patrons of the traditional coffee house would look on a coffee house in which one cannot smoke as resembling a swimming pool in which one cannot swim).
Be this as it may, on June 9 Caffeinated Thoughts published a story about a question on the civics exam required of permanent residents wanting to become U.S. citizens. (I did not have to go through this ritual, because I had a recently acquired college degree from an American institution. It was assumed—mistakenly, I suspect—that anyone thus credentialed would know all the answers.) One question asked the candidate to check off two rights of anyone living in the U.S. from a list of six. Instead of “freedom of religion”, the list named “freedom of worship.” This terminological changed was noticed and irritated Senator James Lankford (Republican, of Oklahoma), who protested to the Secretary of Homeland Security. He pointed out, correctly, that the two phrases are by no means synonymous: “Freedom of worship” refers to an activity commonly undertaken in a specific location – a home, a church, a mosque. “Freedom of religion” is a much more expansive concept, including a person’s right to freely exercise his religion anywhere at all, including the public square. This might seem to be a trivial distinction, were it not for the fact that the narrower understanding of this freedom animates various non-trivial actions of the Obama Administration and other positions taken by American progressives.
In a broader context what this means is the privatization (or, if you will, the domestication) of religion. There is an underlying, unspoken (perhaps unconscious) assumption: Religion is okay if engaged in by consenting adults in private, not so if it spills over into public space. The similarity with pornography is telling: It comes through the mail in plain brown envelopes; you are free to view the contents in the privacy of your home; just don’t view them in a public place. Senator Lankford and many other Americans don’t accept this limitation. In fighting for the right to exercise their faith in public, they can deploy the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which defends this right. Ironically, this law was pushed through Congress by liberal icons like Senator Ted Kennedy. The move was triggered by the claim to First Amendment rights by Native Americans using peyote to induce religious trances, and prohibiting the profane uses of mountains deemed sacred in traditional religion. Little did Kennedy et al. expect that their law would be cited to defend the right of Baptist fundamentalists to denounce evolution and to curb access to abortion.
Since the passage of the Affordable Health Act (aka Obamacare) in 2010, there has been a wave of litigation over various aspects of the law (not surprising since it is estimated to have extended control by the federal government of some 17 percent of the American economy). Many of the challenges have come from the provision requiring employers to include contraceptives in the coverage provided by their health plans. There was indeed a so-called “religious exemption” if this provision was refused on grounds of conscience. But a complicated bureaucratic process had to be undertaken in order to get an exemption, and there was also a limited list of eligible institutions (the Archdiocese of Boston—yes, St. Elizabeth Hospital—no). It says something about the religious tone-deafness of the Obama Administration that its officials were surprised by the ensuing storm of protests (not only by Roman Catholics). The Administration retreated step by step, offering various compromises, which satisfied some but not all opponents of Obamacare. Things quieted down a bit. But another storm erupted after the Supreme Court issued its decision in 2014 on the Hobby Lobby case.
The Hobby Lobby case has been a big step toward an expansive definition of religious freedom. Hobby Lobby is a commercial company. Although commercial law treats a corporation as if it were a human person (that of course is the whole point of limited liability), it would be absurd to say that Hobby Lobby as an entity has First Amendment rights. But the company is “closely held” by one family. The human persons in that family do have the right to the free exercise of their religion (presumably Evangelical). They should not be forced to violate their religiously formed conscience by following the dictates of Obamacare – not only while engaged in prayer or worship, but in any activity they understand to be religiously significant.
A rather different issue has been cluttering the courts lately—cases of people refusing, on religious grounds, to perform specific services, and as a result threatened with lawsuits, high legal costs and even possible loss of livelihood. Usually this is due to actions by what could be called the LGBT moral police. There was the case of a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple (with two little figures holding hands on top of the cake?), a photographer refusing to take pictures of a same-sex wedding, and the owner of a pizzeria simply opining (no actual incident ever occurred) that she would not want to cater a same-sex wedding. This last truly surreal incident, in a small town in Indiana, created a campaign of boycotts and divestments against the entire state (I wrote about this a few weeks ago). Or, most ominous of all, a threat of persecution for “hate crimes” against a number of Evangelical pastors who preached against homosexuality. Given currently rampant progressive views about improper intrusions of religion into public life, I wonder how Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement would stand up against an updated charge of illicit religious intrusions into public spaces.
The United States has a particularly strong tradition of religious freedom, and the Supreme Court (whatever else one may think about some of its recent decisions) has mostly been resolute in its defense of the First Amendment. The kind of secularism that seeks to privatize religion (like other dangerous or distasteful behavior) is quite new in America (I have previously called it Kemalism—the ideology of Kemal Ataturk, who established the Turkish republic in 1923 on the basis of an aggressive secularism, principally in opposition to Islam). There are other examples. Let me look at two other cases, in ascending order of intensity—France and China. The French Revolution started out with an aggressive secularism established by the Jacobins, reaching a symbolic climax when a prostitute was crowned as the goddess of reason in the Church of the Madeleine in Paris. The struggle between the republic and the Catholic Church persisted throughout the 19th century, effectively ending with the republican victory in the Dreyfus affair, and the separation of church and state in 1905. But the French definition of the republic as laïque had a secularist flavor quite different from the American case. French laïcisme has recently been revived in the confrontation with radical Islamism. The law barring “ostentatious” religious symbols exhibited in public had an obvious (though officially denied) anti-Muslim animus. Its original aim was to prohibit the public wearing of Muslim headgear such as the veil or the burqa (as a government minister put it quite poetically, “the republic wears an open face”). In fidelity to equality before the law the prohibition had to be put in universal terms, not just targeting Muslims: Thus it is illegal now to “ostentatiously” wear large Christian crosses or Jewish skull caps. At this time it is too early to tell whether French democracy will go in the direction of legally supported religious pluralism on the American model (some voices in France have urged this), or whether it will revert to the earlier secularism.
Of course the most coercive efforts to privatize religion (if you will, tolerating it if at all in a plain brown envelope) were made in Communist Russia and China. (For a masterly comparison of the two cases see Christopher Marsh, Religion and State in Russia and China, 2011.) The two outcomes have been very different, until now pretty much opposite. During the Cultural Revolution under Mao all religions were bloodily suppressed. Since then, it seems to me that the religion policy of the regime has veered away from Marxist atheism to what I perceive as a sort of Confucian damage control—religion is basically an illusion, but potentially dangerous. (In Chinese historical memory there looms large the 19th-century Taiping Rebellion, led by a charismatic leader claiming to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ. This episode claimed some twenty million lives.) Therefore religion must be tightly controlled in entities under the aegis of the state. (In the case of Protestantism, which has been growing explosively for the last four decades, the Three Self Patriotic Movement [great name!] is tightly controlled by the State Administration of Religious Affairs in Beijing.) Christians have been rather well treated—until recently. For a while now there has been a campaign led by the provincial party secretary to knock down crosses (“ostentatious” religious symbols indeed) from the roofs of churches in Wenzhou, the Chinese city with the highest percentage of Christians, known as “China’s Jerusalem.” So far about 400 churches have been thus defaced. (In its June 2015 issue Christianity Today has a picture gallery of an array of such “decrossed” church buildings. They appear sadly deprived.) One never knows in China. Is the Wenzhou campaign a provincial trial balloon? Or is it the first phase of a nationwide anti-Christian or even generally anti-religious policy? President Xi has moved in a more centralized, authoritarian direction. Whatever the future course of religion policy may be, it will likely involve further secularist privatization of religion.
Privatization of religion has been interpreted by secularization theorists as a dimension of modernity. This has been much more difficult following Jose Casanova’s seminal work Public Religions in the Modern World (1994). As my teacher Carl Mayer used to say: “Here one must make sharp distinctions.” Secularity, a discourse without any religious presuppositions, is indeed a prerequisite of any modern society: If the famous white “popemobile” breaks down, an urgent call will be made to the nearest car mechanic, not the nearest exorcist. This will not prevent the Pope from proceeding to the next beatification ceremony or some other strongly supernaturalist project. Secularization theory was not wrong in interpreting secularity as a powerful modern discourse; it was wrong in supposing that the discourse is hegemonic. Empirically correct or not, secularity refers to a putative fact. By contrast, secularism is a value, a desideratum. In the three countries briefly dealt with above, secularism is propagated by different actors. In the U.S. secularism is advocated by a quite small minority of ideologues (reincarnations of 19th-century village atheists), who would have a hard time winning an election, and therefore turn to the federal judiciary, the least democratic of the three branches of government. In France, a much less religious country than the U.S., secularism in the form of laïcisme has a broad popular following. Its future will strongly depend on the integration or lack thereof of France’s Muslim population, the highest in Europe. China is an immensely complex society with a secularist elite (in my hunch, more Confucian than Marxist in its attitude toward religion). The future will likely depend on the outcome of power struggles within the elite, and which religion policy will be in the interest of which faction. Looked at in global perspective, and in view of the growing percentage of the religious in the world population, secularist projects do not have a promising prognosis. (Whoever you are, don’t necessarily be happy about this: Don’t forget the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Give me the village atheist any day!)