Ted Cruz and the Importance of Secularism

The incident from a few days ago when U.S. Senator Cruz of Texas was booed off stage demonstrated an important issue regarding Secularism and the place of religion in public life.

It is rare that I find myself in agreement with anyone who writes for a media outlet with the word “Conservative” in its name, however the American Conservative had a good article about the incident and another in The Federalist also made some good points. Although I haven’t yet written a blog post about it, I’ve grumbled off-line to family and friends about the increasing tendency to use “secular” as a sort of euphemism for “non-religious” or “atheist.” Clouding the issue between the two serves to undermine the goals or secularism. As it happens, I am both an atheist and a secularist, but it is entirely possible to be both a devout Christian and a secularist. In fact, I would say that it is in the self-interest of religious people to be secularists.

The summit at which Cruz spoke, organized by the group In Defense of Christians, was “dedicated to Christian unity in the face of persecution and genocide.” According to Jonathan Coppage writing in the American Conservative,

While the Cruz incident was a low-light for the summit, the Christian leaders gathered at the dinner continued to make vigorous defenses of the separation of church and state and the importance of inculcating pluralism in the Middle East.

It is important to remember the origins of Western notions of secularism in the European Wars of Religion following the Reformation. Historically, many pious people have advocated for the separation of Church and State. In U.S. history, Roger Williams springs readily to mind. Secularism is a political opinion, and a very basic one, like self-government versus monarchy. It is an answer to the question “What limits should be put on the state’s ability to infringe upon the individual’s freedom of conscience.”

This brings us to a comment Rick Santorum made recently. According to Raw Story,

“I think we should start calling secularism a religion,” Santorum told a grinning Fischer. “Because if we did, then we could ban that, too, because that’s what they’ve done: they’ve hidden behind the fact that the absence of religion is not a religion of itself.”

Secularism is the belief, not that the individual should be neutral in matters of religion, but that the state should be. In most Western nations, many of these conflicts seem to be arguments over symbolism, like displays of crosses on public property. It is important to remember that elsewhere, it can be a life or death situation. Those of us who favor liberty of speech and thought must support that liberty for people we disagree with as fervently as for those with whom we do agree.

Sometimes the question is thrown out why many atheists in the U.S. are critical of Christians while we supposedly let Muslims off easily. The question is one of power. Muslims in the U.S. are less than one percent of the population and lack any real political power. While I wouldn’t use the word “persecuted”, they are certainly beset in many quarters by prejudice and bigotry. They are unlike to impose their beliefs on other people in the U.S. anytime soon. For this reason, I don’t spend much time criticizing Muslims in the U.S. In the Middle East, the situation is quite different. There, it is Muslims who are dominant and Christians who are beset with troubles, and due to the lack of separation between Church and State those troubles rise to the level of persecution. The situation of Christians in the Middle East should be a lesson to all of us of the importance of a secular society where each individual is guaranteed freedom of conscience.

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