For more on the political workings of the fundamentalist Christian right, see “Lost in the Flood: Young Earth Creationism from George McCready Price to Ken Ham”, which analyzes a similar tendency to view truth as divinely revealed rather than objectively knowable.
by Charles Richter
During his confirmation hearing before the Senate in January, Jeff Sessions reiterated one of his foundational ideas about the nature of law. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse had inquired whether Sessions, as Attorney General, would “have a problem with career attorneys if their private, religious beliefs are secular ones.” Whitehouse was referring to Sessions’s comments at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority event, where he had lamented the “postmodern, relativistic, secular mindset” of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, which he thought was “directly contrary to the founding of our republic.”
Responding to Whitehouse’s question, Sessions did not address the issue of secular beliefs, so Whitehouse pressed him, asking, “Does a secular attorney have anything to fear from an attorney general Sessions at the Department of Justice?” Sessions gave a more complete answer this time:
“Well, no. …we as a nation I believe are reaching a level in which truth is not sufficiently respected, that the very ideals, the idea of truth is not believed to be real, and that all of life is just a matter of your perspective and my perspective, which I think is contrary to the American heritage. …but we are not a theocracy. Nobody should be required to believe anything.”
Whitehouse may have recognized something in the first part of Sessions’s answer, because his next question was “And a secular person has just as good a claim to understanding the truth as a person who is religious, correct?” to which Sessions answered “Well, I’m not sure.”
Much ink has been spilled on the implications of Sessions’s seeming reluctance to acknowledge the fitness of non-religious attorneys in his Department of Justice. However, his ideas about the “secular mindset” have deep roots in American thought, and they can show why his ambivalence was unsurprising to many. Independence Day, which Harriet Beecher Stowe once called “the only really secular fête known to the Yankee mind,” is a good opportunity to consider the nature of secularism in America.
Before diving into the history of this idea, there is the problem of terminology surrounding “secular.” It is a word that generally gets used to mean simply “non-religious” (although it has a much more nuanced and complicated meaning than that), but also gets confused with “secularist”—especially by people who want to use either one as a insult.
“Secularism” is a political stance that demands separation between government and religion; its advocates can consider themselves religious or not, but regardless, they recognize the importance of government that is not beholden to any one religious tradition. For example, historian John Fea has described Messiah College, the Anabaptist Christian college where he teaches, as essentially secularist. Such identification is very confusing to most people, who today tend to see “secular” associated mostly with organizations promoting nonreligion. When it comes to government, though, secularism is the opposite of sectarianism.
“The ‘secular mindset’ that worries Sessions is really a secularist position that recognizes the challenges in creating a government for a people that is religiously diverse.”
So while Whitehouse and Sessions seemed to be sparring over what would happen to nonreligious lawyers, they were really discussing the role of secularism in the American legal system. The “secular mindset” that worries Sessions is really a secularist position that recognizes the challenges in creating a government for a people that is religiously diverse.
The idea of the “secular mindset” in American government shows up over and over again in the twentieth century as a response to the apparent secularization of both American and global culture. In the early years of the century, American Christians would often characterize Jewish immigrants and their children as particularly susceptible to secularizing influences. A young Jewish man in New York would find it difficult to assimilate to “a business world adjusted to a Christian calendar” without abandoning his religious observances, but would be unlikely to replace them with Christian belief and practice. Instead, he would probably join the growing numbers of secular American Jews. American fears of secularism grew along with fears of immigrants and an increasingly religiously diverse population.
The religious studies scholar Huston Smith told the 1966 Conference on Religious Pluralism and World Community that “the differences that divide the world’s religions are as nothing compared with the gulf that separates them all from the secular mind-set.” Smith argued that the common cause of all religion was “to defend the transcendent…against naturalism’s claims to exclusive adequacy.” This new drive toward worldwide ecumenism was in keeping with the Nostra Aetete, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, that had come out of Vatican II the year before. In the face of the threat of Soviet and Chinese Communisms, religious cooperation founded on a shared recognition of “that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history” seemed like the natural bulwark against a rising tide of godlessness.
Prior to Roe V. Wade, the secular state was not much of a boogeyman. In 1972, James E. Wood, Jr., the incoming director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, asserted that religious liberty demands “a secular state, a limited state in which the people have excluded the authority and jurisdiction of the state from religious affairs.” By the 1980s, however, movements like Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority had been remarkably successful in mainstreaming the belief that the federal government was solidly of this insidious form of secular mindset. The preceding decades were full of court decisions that pushed religious practice out of public institutions: Torcaso v. Watkins, Engel v. Vitale, and Abington v. Schempp, to name a few. It was also the time of social movements that promoted alternatives to white, straight, Christian, male hegemony. This combination, filtered through the lens of the religious right, led to the common popular belief that American culture was increasingly controlled by “a tide of secularism, humanism, and liberalism…intent on destroying the church of Christ.”
“If Christianity offered a both transcendence and an effective moral system, then secularism, when defined as religion’s opposite, could offer neither.”
Rev. Carl F. H. Henry, one of the architects of the modern evangelical movement, told the 1983 convention of the National Religious Broadcasters that “the perverse notion that democracy is incompatible with moral absolutes spells inevitable collapse and chaos for democracy.” Whereas Christianity answered moral questions with clear answers from a transcendent source, the “new secular mindset” sought only “social escape from all the ethical demands of civilized existence.” Here Henry was articulating a key element in how religious conservatives would define secularism, based on a false dichotomy: if Christianity offered a both transcendence and an effective moral system, then secularism, when defined as religion’s opposite, could offer neither.
One letter to the editor of a local paper complained that the “de-Christianization” of the public schools had not only led to social decay, but had been welcomed by the masses who wanted “the freedom to pursue their own private value systems, to have themselves at the center of the universe, to be their own ‘god.’” The letter writer saw the rejection of absolutes in value systems to be integral to the “secular mindset.” Such concerns had measurable effects on education: through the 80s and 90s, more and more religious conservatives pulled their children out of the public school system to save them from this creeping relativism.
“There is a cultural war on, and there is no neutrality.” – Rev. Norman Jones
For those who were concerned about a secular mindset in the federal government, George W. Bush’s campaign for the presidency in 2000 looked like a bellwether for change. Commenting on the shift toward more vocally religious candidates, Rev. Norman Jones exemplified this position: “The secular mindset doesn’t allow for the fact that all values are not equal. There is a cultural war on, and there is no neutrality.” The groundwork laid by Carl Henry had become accepted as gospel truth, leading people like Jones to believe that secularism demands a perfect and uniform moral relativism, where no moral truth is greater or of more value than another.
After September 11, 2001, the idea of secularism as inherently morally bankrupt took on greater geopolitical implications. As pundits raced to understand the motivations of the al Qaeda terrorists, they disagreed sharply on whether Islam or fundamentalism was to blame. Rev. Dale Crank took issue with a Washington Post column by Ellen Goodman, who had argued that the real clash was between fundamentalism and moderate religion. Not so, said Crank, because the “secular mindset that makes all truth relative” was unable to understand the “objective difference” between Christianity and all other religions, which is: “Christianity is true.” From this fundamental proposition, Crank deduced that “secularists” believe there is nothing that is objectively true; that they equate religious terrorism with earnest religious zeal; that a “false system of beliefs,” not religious zeal, was to blame for 9/11; and that true Christians were in danger of becoming “scapegoats for a secular society just as the early church was for Nero.” By the end of the op-ed, Crank had managed to paint American secularists as the real threat in the post-9/11 world.
So when Jeff Sessions expressed doubt that “a secular person has just as good a claim to understanding the truth as a person who is religious,” he was operating in a conceptual framework with a long pedigree. To admit that a non-religious person had as much claim to the truth as someone with a transcendent source of morality would be to challenge the ultimate preeminence of Christian morality and absolute truth. We know that Sessions thinks that religious belief is essential to understanding truth; on an earlier occasion—again attacking Justice Sotomayor—he said: “If you have secularization in the world and don’t believe in a higher being, maybe you don’t believe there is any truth.”
“Thus far our Constitution has been remarkably successful in providing a framework for religious individuals of various sects to work together on behalf of a pluralistic nation.”
Even if Whitehouse’s “secular person” is taken to mean a secularist person—someone who espouses separation of church and state regardless of their own personal religion— Sessions could not easily acknowledge that this person could be trusted with understanding truth, because to him, their judgement would be corrupted by the secularist task of trying to see all truths as equal.
The irony, however, is that Sessions has in fact operated as a de facto secularist—like virtually everyone else at the top levels of government. He has constantly balanced his Christian beliefs with the responsibilities of upholding a secular Constitution. Frequently the balance has tipped too far from the equal protection that secularism demands, but thus far our Constitution has been remarkably successful in providing a framework for religious individuals of various sects to work together on behalf of a pluralistic nation.
Sessions’s rhetoric is dangerous because it suggests that the Constitution has erred in its valuing of secularism, and his belief that secular people cannot understand truth will likely have serious implications for any recommendations he makes for federal judicial appointments. Americans of all religious identities have to understand that secularism is both an essential part of American government as well as a political stance open to all. One of the revolutionary aspects of the Declaration of Independence is that government derives its power from the consent of the governed, not hereditary right or divine fiat. On Independence Day, we commemorate the conception of a secular state, the only form of state that can accommodate a diversity of thought.
Charles Louis Richter is a PhD candidate in American religious history at the George Washington University. His research interests include non-religion and its critics, apocalyptic politics, and conceptions of the American nation. He frequently tweets at @richterscale.
 Harriet Beecher Stowe, Poganuc People: Their Loves and Lives (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, 1879),
 “American-Born Jews Becoming Unorthodox,” New York Tribune, October 15, 1905, C2.
 Huston Smith, “Identification of Problem: The Irenic Potential of Religion,” in Edward Jabra Juryi, Huston Smith, et al, Religious Pluralism and World Community (Leiden: Brill, 1969), 27.
 Pope Paul VI, Nostra Aetate [Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions], October 28, 1965.
 “Wood Declares Church Must Engage in Public Affairs,” Baptist Press, October 5, 1972, 1.
 Ed Dobson, “Fundamentalism — Its Roots,” Fundamentalist Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1 (September 1982), 26.
 “Peril seen in freedom from absolutes,” The Anniston Star, Feb 19, 1983, 3A.
 “De-Christianization seems to be the goal,” South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Dec 2, 1986, 16A.
 Andrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2015), 214.
 “Secular mindset alters view of enemy,” The Pantagraph, October 13, 2001, D2.