That was the title of one of Andrew Sullivan's recent posts warning against the extremes of secularism. Yet, many of us are also wary of the extremes of sectarian religious politics (of the "Christian" or "Judeo-Christian" sort).
I endorse a softer secularism. And if it's proper to term what the Founding Fathers had in mind as "secular" it's certainly a "softer" form of secularism, not of the Hitchens or Dawkins type, not the kind that wants to see a "naked public square." Yet, the Founding Fathers wanted a pluralistic, not a "Christian" or even a "Judeo-Christian" public square.
I think truly "neutral" secularism is a laudable ideal. And though the Founding Fathers weren't entirely neutral -- for instance, they weren't neutral on whether God existed -- they did their best to be neutral under a generic Providence that was open to the idea that most or all world religions, including Islam, Hinduism, Native American spirituality, Greco-Romanism, Confucianism, and other creeds were valid ways to God.
The following is a clip from the Acton Institutes's special "The Birth of Freedom" featuring Princeton's Robert P. George arguing "secularism" isn't "neutral."
The problem is George doesn't define "secularism." I would agree that certain forms of hard secularism are not "neutral." And if that's what George is arguing against, I support him in his assertion. However, what I do support is a system of "neutrality" AND I would argue the classical liberal system of the American Founding is this form of neutrality among various competing worldviews. I think this IS what America's Founding Fathers stood for. And it's debatable whether this system is aptly termed "secularism." If it is, again, it's a softer form of secularism than what we see coming from the atheists like Dawkins or those who want to remove every single nominal reference to anything religious from the public square regardless of the context.
However, it seems to me, that a system of true neutrality is laudable. If modern secularism is not "neutral" as Prof. George claims, well then let us make it neutral or at least let us conceive of a system of such neutrality and argue whether such a system is laudable or accords with American Founding ideals.
I'm not sure whether the Everson (1947) SCOTUS case was properly decided. However it made some claims about neutrality which I think are entirely defensible and laudable according to the tenets of liberal democracy that America's Founders established: Government should be neutral among the various religions (regardless of whether those religions are "Christian" or "Judeo-Christian") and government should be neutral between "religion" and "irreligion."
In 2005, here is how I described the "classical secularism" of the Founding era:
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.
And Madison: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.