Secularism in the United States

*****Disclaimer: This is not legal advice and is for educational purposes only. This does not create an attorney-client privilege.

The necessity of a secular government is something that often comes up in the news and current events, but what exactly does that mean? Secularism is a term that essentially means putting certain limitations on the way religion and government mix, though it does not necessarily mean keeping them separate. In fact, in the United States we practice something called “political secularism” as opposed to “philosophical secularism”. Political secularism recognizes the legitimacy and even moral necessity of religion, without allowing any single religion to predominate. Philosophical secularism would entail the attempt to establish a common unbelief as the basis for government, as was done in the USSR, for example.

There are a few hallmarks of American secularism. One is that there is a separation of religious institutions from state institutions. In the public and political sphere, religion may participate, but not dominate. This is why many might think America is a Christian nation, but it is not technically. Because senators and other public officials are allowed to, and often do, talk about their religion and its influence on them, but the United States government does not officially claim or endorse any one religion.

The next hallmark would be one of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment; freedom of religion! In the United States, you are allowed to worship and practice your religious rites without interference, so long as you are not harming anyone else. This freedom also extends to allowing people to freely change their religious preferences or practices, or to abstain from religion entirely.

The last major hallmark of secularism would be ensuring equality between the practitioners of different religions. Those of a certain religion should not be granted certain advantages or privileges that those of another religion are denied. Essentially, your choice of religion should not provide you either advantage or disadvantage in the eyes of the law or policy.

So did the Constitution actually guarantee “separation of church and state”? Well, not in those exact words. However, it does clearly lend itself to secular government. When you contrast the language of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, we see a marked difference. In the Declaration, we see references to religion in phrases like “Divine Providence” and “Nature’s God”. Yet in the Constitution itself, the only references to religion are in a clause prohibiting religious tests for office and in the Establishment clause of the First Amendment. This clause essentially is the fundamental basis establishing this separation of church and state.

It was one of the first cases we see of a government being set up with this kind of separation. The only right American government has in regards to religion is actions to protect the right to conscience, worship, autonomous control over doctrine, governance and resources of religious groups, and both public and private expression of religious convictions and practices.