More great stuff on secularism from Andrew Sullivan:
One reason secularism is now threatened is because the left has abused it. I have no problem, for example, with public displays of Christian symbols in a secular society. I find the desire to root out such things as excessively persnickety. I've long been a defender of free speech and association for people with whom I disagree. (My conservative critics on the subject of homosexuality, for example, rarely point out that I oppose all hate crime laws, have opposed laws forbidding workplace discrimination, and supported the right of both the Boy Scouts and the St Patrick's Day parade for discriminating against gays as private associations.) Moreover, when Christians form a majority, it's understandable that much public symbolism will be redolent of Christian imagery and language. Secularists who want to stamp this stuff out seem to me to be lacking in the virtue of moderation - and they have helped spawn the intolerance that now flows back from the other side. At the same time, it's silly for fundamentalists to say that they are being persecuted merely because others are treated equally in the public square. It is ludicrous for Rick Santorum to say, as he did recently, that my being allowed to marry my partner is somehow an attack on his marriage. A secular and tolerant society does not regard the rights of minorities as somehow only achievable at someone else's expense. We are bigger than that. What is particularly remarkable is that when we are constructing a democracy abroad, say in Iraq, no one disputes the notion that it would be better for Iraq to have a secular constitution rather than a religious one. Yet these same people, when it comes to domestic politics and constitutionalism, want to insist that the American constitution is somehow a religious document.
You know, words like "liberal," "conservative," "Christian," "secularist" all have potentially many different meanings. I believe that secularism and the separation of church and state (as a metaphor) are central tenets of Western liberal societies. But this doesn't mean that I support removing every vestige of Christian symbolism from the public square or changing the names of cities like "Los Angeles" or "Corpus Christi" or even removing words like "under God" from the pledge.
And just as there is a modern (leftist) version of liberalism that contrasts with the classical (more libertarian) form, there is also a classical version of secularism that differs from the more modern version that would remove things like "under God" from our currency.
The classical version of secularism is found in the writings of Madison & Jefferson -- like Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance, his Detached Memoranda, and Jefferson's Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom.
What's ironic about these pieces of "secularist scripture" (as Susan Jacoby puts it) is that they, like the Declaration of Independence, actually invoke "God." Jefferson's Virginia Statute begins, "Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free..." and the Memorial and Remonstrance states "Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe..." which leads some critics to say: "Aha, this isn't secularism, this is 'Christian Nation' talk!" Not exactly.
First of all, this is classical secularism, not the modern version that would never invoke the supernatural. Second, the heart of classical secularism is not stripping all references to the supernatural from the public square but rather government neutrality. Neutrality between, not just the Christian sects, but all religions and between belief and non-belief. Men have unalienable free and equal rights of conscience. And these rights are universally applicable. Jefferson held that the natural right norms in his statute applied equally to "the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination."
Third -- when the Founders did invoke God in their documents and their speeches -- they exercised great prudence in how they identified "God" and "religion." Both were almost always referred to in vague and undefined ways. While they often invoked a "Divine Providence," they also systematically refused to identify God in Trinitarian terms and rarely if ever invoked "Jesus Christ" or quoted verses and chapters of scripture.
And Jefferson and Madison both gave reasons why it was important to be so vague. If God were referred to in explicitly Trinitarian Christian terms, then the populace might get the impression that only such Christians have religious rights. Here is Jefferson.
Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word "Jesus Christ," so that it should read, "a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;" the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.
In the course of the opposition to [Jefferson's VA] bill in the House of Delegates, which was warm & strenuous from some of the minority, an experiment was made on the reverence entertained for the name & sactity of the Saviour, by proposing to insert the words "Jesus Christ" after the words "our lord" in the preamble, the object of which, would have been, to imply a restriction of the liberty defined in the Bill, to those professing his religion only. The amendment was discussed, and rejected by a vote of agst (See letter of J. M. to Mr Jefferson dated ) The opponents of the amendment having turned the feeling as well as judgment of the House agst it, by successfully contending that the better proof of reverence for that holy name wd be not to profane it by making it a topic of legisl. discussion, & particularly by making his religion the means of abridging the natural and equal rights of all men, in defiance of his own declaration that his Kingdom was not of this world.
These Founders also had a self-interest in seeing that non-orthodox Christians had full and equal rights of citizenship: Jefferson and Madison -- as well as Washington, Adams, Franklin, Paine and others -- were not orthodox Trinitarian Christians, and as such in many states they would be subject to legal penalties, including being barred from holding public office -- because of their religious beliefs.
Whenever our Founders connected "rights" to their metaphysical religious beliefs, they always invoked their "natural religion" as opposed to "revealed religion." ("Natural" meaning what is discoverable by Reason, as opposed to Revealed in the Bible). Through unaided Reason, "natural" religion tells us that God created man with unalienable rights. It does not tell us that God is Christ or even that God revealed the Ten Commandments to Moses. It's possible that "Nature's God" and the Trinitarian God of the Bible are one and the same. Or "Nature's God" may be some non-orthodox, non-miracle performing God. By purposefully being vague our Founders left that answer to the private conscience of the citizens. To a Trinitarian, his God grants unalienable rights. To a Deist, it was his God who granted rights, and on and on.
Finally, it is wrong to say that our Founders just opened their Bibles and "discovered" that God grants men unalienable rights because nowhere in the Bible does it say that He grants men "unalienable rights," especially not the "liberty to worship as one pleases" (and the Bible frequently implies otherwise). So whereas the God of the Bible is a Jealous God who, in His First Command, forbids the worship of any other Gods but He, and elsewhere commands the community to immediately execute those who would tempt them to worship false Gods, Nature's God grants men an unalienable right to worship no God or Twenty Gods.
Rather, the challenge was to get orthodox Christians to interpret their Bible to be compatible with this Enlightenment discovery. And even before the Enlightenment, dissident Protestants like Roger Williams had begun to make similar arguments. You can see how Madison, in his above quote, encouraged such Biblical interpretations that were compatible with the notion of a "rights-granting" God.
The opponents of the amendment having turned the feeling as well as judgment of the House agst it, by successfully contending that the better proof of reverence for that holy name wd be not to profane it by making it a topic of legisl. discussion, & particularly by making his religion the means of abridging the natural and equal rights of all men, in defiance of his own declaration that his Kingdom was not of this world.