The limits of secularism

The head of ACLU in my state wrote a column in the local paper outlining four issues where the encroachment of theology into the public square risked tearing down the wall of church and state. While his use of words like “shameful” and “zealots” betrays, well, that this is written from a non-detached perspective, it’s generally a well-written column. 

I particularly liked his last sentence: “If we are forced to live and die by someone else’s theology, that seems more like religious tyranny than religious freedom.”

I like it, of course, because it unwittingly undermines the rest of his column. Secularism is a theology, a set of statements about who God is, who we are, and how we should live as a consequence that shapes our public and private lives. Because it by definition holds that religious belief is at most a private matter that should be checked at the gate to the public square, adherents lose the fact that they are making theological claims as well. By claiming that secularism provides a least common denominator set of values, adherents are perhaps blind to the fact that they are simply replacing one oppressive dominant belief system with another.

People I work with sometimes ask me how I can be so open about my faith while working for an organization that is non-sectarian, open to those of all faiths including no faith at all. And the truth is, it was perhaps an unlikely source that got me here: multicultural inclusion training. 

I have learned through years of training that a least common denominator culture is really a myth – an excuse to hire and engage people who are demographically different but culturally the same. I can work with all sorts of people who demographically represent diversity, but if they (and I) are required to check their behavioral differences at the door and assume the persona of a dominant culture, I will miss out on the advantages that different perspectives bring to a discussion, and I will never connect with the communities they come from. 

The same is true of religious difference. If the only Muslims, Jews, Christians and atheists allowed into a discussion are those who are willing to pretend to leave their religious beliefs out of the discussion, we will be left with a bland and inauthentic nothingness that doesn’t accomplish anything. If we want to get somewhere together, we have to be willing to embrace our differences rather than pave them over. 

In fact, one thing that struck me over and over again was that, when I’ve worked at truly encountering members of diverse communities, faith talk comes often to the surface. And as a result I realized that to be authentic in my work, I needed to bring my whole self to their whole self, including my faith to theirs. 

So where does that leave us on the contentious issues the author outlined? I believe our way forward is, to use Pope Francis’ terms, in building a culture of encounter and accompaniment. If, say, on abortion (the hottest of the four hot buttons the author suggests), we want to get out of this WWI stalemate we’ve spent the last four decades in, those who believe in a woman’s right to choose and those who believe in the sanctity of life need to make the effort to understand the other, not by assumption and projection but by true dialogue that surfaces the values and beliefs that lie behind each position. And then together they need to look for where there may be common ground,whether it be common values or common policy, or common conversion to a new way of thinking. It is very long – Christian denominations and other faiths have been at it for decades over issues that seem inconsequential to outsiders – and very slow. The temptation to give up is strong. It’s easy to pretend – to not really be willing to fully encounter the other. But staying in trenches and lobbing grenades across a battlefield isn’t getting us anywhere either. 

This sort of accompaniment is at the heart of true religious liberty. It requires us both to acknowledge the primacy of theological belief in many people’s outlook on the common good and to recognize that appealing to religious tenets alone is unpersuasive in the public square. It replaces the comfortable myth of a least common denominator value system with the uncomfortable challenge of seeking commonality that traverses real individual differences. In the pursuit, we may find our ability to understand and care for our fellow person increasing, which is a worthy benefit unto itself. 

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