Review: David Sehat on the Struggle to Make a Secular AmericaHistorians in the News
tags: religion, secularism, civil liberties, religious history
Johann N. Neem is author of What’s the Point of College? Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform (2019) and Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America (2017), which was reviewed in the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is a professor of history at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington.
THE UNITED STATES is — or, at least, until very recently was — a Christian nation, something I understood as an Indian immigrant growing up in the 1980s, even in as diverse a place as California. I knew the United States was committed to religious liberty, but, still, Christianity was everywhere. You could not understand literature and history without knowing about Christianity. Ritualistic appeals to God were integral to American civil religion. Christianity offered Americans a shared vocabulary, and even our shared holidays — Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter — reflect the United States’s Christian roots.
That world is changing fast. In the past decade, the number of Americans who identify as Christian has plummeted, as the children of churchgoers abandon their parents’ faith. According to a 2021 Pew survey, only 63 percent of adults consider themselves Christians, down from 78 percent in 2007, while the number of adults identifying with no religion rose over the same period from 16 to 29 percent. The decline is almost entirely among Protestants. Only six percent of Americans belong to other faiths.
In this context, as David Sehat writes in This Earthly Frame: The Making of American Secularism, the left’s success at secularizing the United States’s public places and institutions has allowed the Christian Right to make claims for tolerance and expression in those same public places. Two cases recently decided by the Supreme Court involving the state’s obligation to avoid discriminating between secular and religious practices and institutions — over a public high school coach’s postgame prayer and using publicly-funded school vouchers at religious schools — demonstrate that we may be entering a new regime in which Christians seek protection from the majority rather than the other way around.
There are some who argue that the United States was never a Christian nation. Sehat makes clear that they are incorrect. Christianity was both supported in law and part of the United States’s background public culture. The story he tells is how, over the course of the 20th century, lawyers and jurists consistently challenged the explicit, and then implicit, presence of “Christian power and privilege.” Today, many progressive Americans presume that any recognition of Christianity by a public institution violates others’ rights. Sehat explores how we came to think this way.
In the 20th century, the Supreme Court embraced what Sehat calls “negative secularism.” Unlike positive secularism, which Sehat describes as “established unbelief,” American courts never sought to silence religion. Instead, “negative secularism requires a separation between an individual’s conception of metaphysical reality and the collective notions within the social and political order.” In other words, American secularism was the effort to find a way to define our national project while continuing to value faith. Sehat argues that negative secularism was promoted both by religious minorities and mainline Protestant organizations.