The word “secularism,” when used to characterize a government or society, does not mean what most people think it means. A secular government is not one that feeds Christians to lions or makes them take nativity scenes off of their lawns, and a secular society is not one that officially or informally hates God. This is the boogie-man version of secularism that usually gets invoked this time of year by people who think that there is a “War on Christmas.”
But none of this is what secularism means. Secularism is not official state atheism (for which the correct term is “official state atheism”). A secular government is one that treats all forms of belief, including unbelief, exactly the same. It is what James Madison argued for so forcefully in “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessment.” The state, Madison insisted, must adopt a posture of strict non-cognizance towards all religious beliefs—to which he specifically added unbelief. This is what it means to be a “secular state.” And a secular society follows the same logic by treating all forms of belief, as valid personal choices. Another name for all of this is “the separation of church and state.”
Madison, of course, was working within a much larger Enlightenment framework that understood that the mechanisms of state power are inherently coercive. They exist to make people do stuff. This can mean using carrots, such as tax incentives or preferential treatment. But it usually means using sticks: taxes, laws, official policies, police forces, jails, and armies. Like most Enlightenment philosophers, Madison believed that these coercive mechanisms should only be used to protect legitimate state interests. They should never be used to enforce religious beliefs, which exist prior to and wholly apart from the social contract.
Madison had history on his side. Neither states nor religions have generally done well when mixed with each other. Those who assert that Christianity is inherently more peaceful than Islam must strategically distance themselves from a thousand years of human history—the Crusades, the Inquisition, and Europe’s great wars of religion. This was a long time ago, they say. Things have changed. Precisely—and what has changed the most is that Christianity no longer controls armies.
In states that officially operate under Islamic law, all kinds of bad things can and do happen: apostasy is punished by death, homosexuals are stoned, and women can be severely punished for appearing uncovered in a public place. Westerners are rightly horrified by such practices, but we often misattribute them to religious differences. The main difference between Saudi Arabia and the United States is not that one country is Muslim and the other is Christian. The difference is that one country allows a religion to control the coercive apparatuses of the state and one does not. The difference is secularism.
So here is the tragic irony: as the 21st century takes shape, the greatest test that Western states face in their commitment to secularism has become their willingness (or unwillingness) to extend religious freedom to Muslims. A recent poll shows that a majority of voters in one of our great political parties would support a religion-based ban on immigration. Presidential candidates have advocated registering American citizens and closing down houses of worship based on nothing more than the religious affiliation of a particular group of people. Such proposals (as many on both sides of the aisle have pointed out) would bring an end to America’s 226-year experiment with the Enlightenment.
And this is why the silly and annoying debate between “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays” actually matters. Those who become angry when some official organization fails to call “Christmas” by its right name are saying, in effect, that their form of religious observance should have official recognition. Those who get offended when friends, neighbors, soft-drink companies, and coffee shops for making their seasonal greetings more inclusive are saying that society should be organized around their beliefs. They are saying that society should be less secular. It is at least worth noting that this is what ISIS and Al-Qaeda are saying too.
Those who hold “holiday trees” and plain red coffee cups responsible for the increasing secularization of society are absolutely correct. These inclusive gestures do make us more secular, which is a good thing for believers and unbelievers alike. The secular state is one of the signature achievements of the Enlightenment. It is the characteristic of the early republic that allowed Latter-day Saints and hundreds of other religious groups to flourish on American soil. And those of us who have benefited so much from a secular society have a moral responsibility to ensure that it survives.
So, Happy Hollidays–all of them–and may your season be everything that you want it to be.