You’ve probably heard by now that the Supreme Court last Friday struck down state bans on same-sex marriage, granting same-sex couples the right to marry in all 50 states. This is completely true. And you may also have heard that this represents a victory of something called “secularism” over something called “religious freedom.” This is completely false.
It is not wrong to say that secularism won. It most certainly did. But secularism did not, and cannot win victories “over” religious freedom for the simple fact that secularism is the same thing as religious freedom. For the freedom to worship according the the dictates of one’s own conscience can only exist in any meaningful way in a secular society.
Let me dwell on this for a minute, since it sounds counterintuitive. For many religious people, “secularism” is a hiss and a by-word that means something like “a society that hates and persecutes religious people by feeding them to the lions or making them bake cakes.” Secularism, then, becomes something like “official state atheism.”
But this is not what secularism means. A secular government, by definition, treats all forms of belief, including unbelief, exactly the same. This is what James Madison argued for so forcefully in his majestic 1785 treatise, “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessment.” Madison believed that the government should always adopt a posture of strict non-cognizance towards all religious beliefs. Another name for this is “the separation of church and state.”
Latter-day Saints frequently opine that the Church could not have been organized in 1830 in any other nation in the world. This is probably true. Most of the nations of Europe had official state Churches and did not permit organized dissent. But precisely because Jefferson and Madison won the church-state battles of the previous generation, America was a secular state. The result was the most religiously diverse society in the world–one in which a religion as transgressive as early Mormonism could survive, and, in a very short time, thrive.
The debate over same-sex marriage has always been framed–by both sides–as a debate between secularism and religion. The debate has been excruciatingly complicated by the fact that “marriage” has always had both religious and secular aspects. Weddings are often performed in churches. Ministers have the authority to conduct legally binding marriage ceremonies.
This makes marriage one of the few areas in which the lines between civil and ecclesiastical authority remain blurred. Marriage is both a civil contract and a religious commitment, and both are often created at the same time and in the same ceremony. This, I suspect, is why so many religious people feel the recent Supreme Court decision as a slap in the face. But this need not be the case. While the civil and religious aspects of marriage are deeply connected in our lived experience, only the former have any business on a Supreme Court docket.
Those who criticize the government for “turning its back on God’s laws” misunderstand the function of law in a secular state. And those who complain that Friday’s decision “destroys the sanctity of marriage” concede far more power to the state than should ever be conceded. Such statements only make sense if we agree that sanctification–making things sacred–is a legitimate function of government. And once we concede this, we are no longer living in a state that is either secular or free.
Religious people of all stripes–but especially members of a minority religion that a lot of people still consider weird–should not be afraid to live in a secular society. We should, though, be deeply concerned about living in the other kind.