By Joe Blankholm
A response to a public conversation with Denis Lacorne on October 6, 2011.
Denis Lacorne’s engaging lecture at the Maison Française last Thursday echoed the thesis of his most recent book, Religion in America: A Political History, the third volume in the IRCPL publication series. The book traces two competing narratives in American history structured around the role of religion. The first follows from the Enlightenment and argues for the separation of church and state as a way to preserve politics from the influence of religion and protect the freedom of individual belief. The second narrative begins with the Puritans as the quintessential Americans and persists in contemporary arguments that America is a Christian nation. The books also aims to show how French thinkers have influenced, understood, and failed to understand religion and politics in America.
The failure of French understanding is due to the failure of the narratives themselves. As many scholars have shown, American politics and religion follow neither the story of tidy separation between church and state, nor the Romantic tale of a Christian people who founded a “city upon a hill.” Thus while Lacorne’s book is very much about the formation and development of these two narratives, it is also about their limits and their sites of surplus. The life of a nation is always more complex than the stories its biographers tell, and the story of religion and politics in America is no different.
This messy space between narratives came up quickly in the question and answer period following Lacorne’s lecture. If the secular narrative is separationist, and the religious narrative is anti-separationist, there seems to have emerged a third way: the accommodationists.
According to this narrative, religious displays in public life are acceptable so long as they don’t endorse one religion at the expense of others. In the final chapter of Religion in America, Lacorne associates this third way with Barack Obama’s “faith-friendly secularism,” which embraces American religious pluralism and sees a place for non-exclusive religious expression in political life. Lacorne endorses this public embrace of religious pluralism, but feels an unease that is perhaps characteristically French with Obama’s White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Using public religious language to talk over the wall of separation is good, but using public funds to breach the wall is dangerous.
In my own research on nonbelievers in the United States, I encounter these three narratives quite often. For many vocal atheists, the separationist and anti-separationist narratives are equally true, and they tell the story of a divided America. America’s Founding Fathers—those especially wise and great men—wrote the first amendment in order to raise a wall to separate church state (though this metaphor originated with Roger Williams and never made it into America’s founding documents). Throughout America’s history, according to the anti-theist narrative, some religious Americans have attempted to breach the wall or tear it down altogether. Anti-theistic voices have grown strongest in reaction to these attempts, as seen in the public anti-theism following the 1925 Scopes Trial, the 1954 decisions to include “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and mandate that “in God we trust” appear on all currency, George W. Bush’s evangelical-aided 2000 election, and the September 11 attacks perpetrated by Muslim militants. In this atheist story, the religious Americans described by the Romantic or Neopuritan narrative are the barbarians at the gate, threatening to tear it down and institute a theocratic government. Defending the wall of separation becomes paramount.
I also hear many accommodationist voices among nonbelievers. Greg Epstein and his colleague Chris Stedman at the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy are moderate voices promoting an interfaith dialogue that includes nonbelievers as one faith among others. The working title of Stedman’s forthcoming book is (F)a(i)theist: How One Atheist Learned to Overcome the Religious-Secular Divide, and Why Atheists and the Religious Must Work Together. The U.S. Supreme Court has laid the legal groundwork for such an “interfaith” moment by listing “Secular Humanism” among other “non-deistic” religions (Torcaso v. Watkins 1961) and by allowing anyone with “a sincere and meaningful belief…occupying in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by God” to be a conscientious objector (United States v. Seeger 1965). Even among those more concerned with atheist advocacy than interfaith, there is a push for gentle accommodation. A schism at the prominent Center for Inquiry led its founder, Paul Kurtz, to resign last May. He worries about the anti-theist direction the movement has taken in the wake of “the New Atheism” that has arisen since roughly 2004.
Lacorne’s closing chapter on Obama’s faith-friendly secularism and recent accommodationist discourse by some American nonbelievers make me wonder how this third way would fare in France. Is it already underway? Are its voices being heard or hushed? Is French law moving inexorably toward less tolerance of religion and religious displays, or are there counter-movements pushing back from within the courts or from politics? If this faith-friendly secularism proves effective, perhaps America could once again become a “city upon a hill,” though this time as a beacon of unity rather than a model of separation.
Joe Blankholm is a doctoral candidate in religion at Columbia University and a designer for IRCPL and its media project, Religions of Harlem.