Beto O’Rourke: Churches and Religious Institutions Should Lose Tax-Exempt Status If They “Oppose Same Sex Marriage”

Here is Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke on CNN last night:

Every Democratic candidate for President of the United States should be asked this question.

I have always appreciated Beto’s sense of conviction, but I hope he rethinks this one.  His answer to Don Lemon shows a fundamental misunderstanding of religious liberty.  In fact, this answer throws the First Amendment under the bus.

Beto has no chance of winning the Democratic nomination. His campaign has been on life support for a long time and last night he probably killed it.  You better believe that his comment will rally the Trump base and legitimate the fears of millions of evangelical Christians.

Beto says he does not want to run for Senate in 2020.  But if he does decide to run for a Senate seat in Texas he may have just blew his chances.  I am guessing that very few people in Texas embrace Beto’s secularism.

Here are a few responses to Beto’s remarks that I have seen online today:

Here is historian John Haas on  Facebook: “Not that Beto has any chance of becoming the nominee, much less president, but it would be interesting to watch the president ordering the IRS to pull Dr. King’s church’s tax exempt status.  Democrats do know that African-American churches are a big part of their informal infrastructure, right?


When I saw Beto’s remarks, I tweeted at Washington University law professor John Inazu:

Inazu is the author of Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference.  Some of you know that I have extolled Inazu’s idea of “confident pluralism” many times at this blog.  Here is a summary of the book:

In the three years since Donald Trump first announced his plans to run for president, the United States seems to become more dramatically polarized and divided with each passing month. There are seemingly irresolvable differences in the beliefs, values, and identities of citizens across the country that too often play out in our legal system in clashes on a range of topics such as the tensions between law enforcement and minority communities. How can we possibly argue for civic aspirations like tolerance, humility, and patience in our current moment?

In Confident Pluralism, John D. Inazu analyzes the current state of the country, orients the contemporary United States within its broader history, and explores the ways that Americans can—and must—strive to live together peaceably despite our deeply engrained differences. Pluralism is one of the founding creeds of the United States—yet America’s society and legal system continues to face deep, unsolved structural problems in dealing with differing cultural anxieties and differing viewpoints. Inazu not only argues that it is possible to cohabitate peacefully in this country, but also lays out realistic guidelines for our society and legal system to achieve the new American dream through civic practices that value toleration over protest, humility over defensiveness, and persuasion over coercion.

The paperback edition includes a new preface that addresses the election of Donald Trump, the decline in civic discourse after the election, the Nazi march in Charlottesville, and more, this new edition of Confident Pluralism is an essential clarion call during one of the most troubled times in US history. Inazu argues for institutions that can work to bring people together as well as political institutions that will defend the unprotected.  Confident Pluralism offers a refreshing argument for how the legal system can protect peoples’ personal beliefs and differences and provides a path forward to a healthier future of tolerance, humility, and patience.

Inazu responded to me with this tweet:

Here is a taste of Inazu’s linked piece “Want a vibrant public square? Support religious tax exemptions“:

When it comes to federal taxes, there is a fundamental reason we should protect religious organizations — even those we disagree with. Functionally, the federal tax exemption is akin to a public forum: a government-provided resource that welcomes and encourages a diversity of viewpoints. Tax exemptions for religious organizations and other nonprofits exist in part to allow different groups to make their voices heard. Past the preexisting baseline, groups and ideas wither or thrive not by government decree but by the choices of individual donors. In this setting, government has no business policing which groups are “in” and which ones are “out” based on their ideological beliefs. And there is no plausible risk that granting tax-exempt status to groups such as the Nation of Islam, the Catholic Church or even the American Cheese Education Foundation means that the government embraces or endorses those organizations’ views.

Tax-exempt status is available to a vast range of ideologically diverse groups. The meanings of “charitable” and “educational” under the Internal Revenue Code are deliberately broad, and “religious” organizations are not even defined. Among the organizations that qualify as tax-exempt, each of us could find not only groups we support, but also those we find harmful to society. And our lists of reprehensible groups would differ. The pro-choice group and the pro-life group, religious groups of all stripes (or no stripe), hunting organizations and animal rights groups — the tax exemption benefits them all.

Read the rest here.

Kelsey Dallas has a nice piece on the way other Democratic candidates responded to similar questions in last night’s CNN forum.

Here, for example, is Elizabeth Warren:

Warren seems to suggest that a man who believes in traditional marriage will not be able to find a woman to marry because women who uphold traditional views on marriage are few and far between.  Really? This answer reveals her total ignorance of evangelical culture in the United States. (It may also reveal her ignorance of middle-American generally).  If she gets the Democratic nomination she will be painted as a Harvard elitist who is completely out of touch with the American people.

The Author’s Corner With Christopher Cameron

Black FreethinkersChristopher Cameron is Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina–Charlotte. This interview is based on his new book, Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism (Northwestern University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Black Freethinkers?

CC: Like countless scholars of African American religion, I began this project after reading Al Raboteau’s classic book Slave Religion. Toward the end of the work, he mentions that not all slaves “too solace in religion” and some could not believe in a just and all-powerful God who would allow his people to suffer under slavery. Raboteau’s discussion of atheism and agnosticism occupies just two pages yet was incredibly intriguing to me, as I’d encountered no other historians who explored religious skepticism in nineteenth century slave communities. This discovery led me to begin searching for examples of black freethinkers, both in the era of slavery and in the twentieth century, and what I found convinced me that black freethought was much more prevalent and important than scholars have realized.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Black Freethinkers?

CC: African American freethought began as a response to the brutality of the institution of slavery and developed in tandem with movements such as the New Negro Renaissance and Black Power. While freethinkers have constituted a small segment of the black population, they have nevertheless played critical roles in African American intellectual and political life since the mid-19th century.

JF: Why do we need to read Black Freethinkers?

CC: Probably the most common response I get when discussing this book with people is “I didn’t know that person was a freethinker.” This is the case when discussing lesser-known figures such as Louise Thompson Patterson or more well-known freethinkers such as Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston. Black Freethinkers demonstrates that religious skepticism was prevalent among some of the most prominent voices in African American history, including Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, A. Phillip Randolph, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, and Huey Newton. And these were not simply intellectuals and political activists who happened to be freethinkers but rather people whose political ideology/activism and literary production were profoundly shaped by their religious skepticism. Black Freethinkers thus helps us to more fully understand the intersections between religion and African American literary, intellectual, and political history, especially in the twentieth century.

JF: Tell me a little about your research and sources for the book.

CC: Following up on the discussion of atheism among slaves in Raboteau’s book, I began the research for Black Freethinkers by reading dozens of slave narratives. While historians have used these sources to document various aspects of slave religiosity, they are also useful sources to document the presence of religious skepticism in southern slave communities. For later chapters of the book, novels, poetry, memoirs, newspapers and other periodicals were key sources. I likewise found archival sources such as letters, unpublished memoirs, sermons, and records of liberal congregations such as the Harlem Unitarian Church to be incredibly valuable in writing the book.

JF: What is your next project?

CC: I have two projects in the works right now. One is an edited collection (with Phillip Luke Sinitiere) entitled Race, Religion, and Black Lives Matter: Essays on a Moment and a Movement. The second is a monograph entitled Liberal Religion and Race in America that explores African Americans engagement with liberal sects such as the Unitarians and Universalists from the revolutionary era to the creation of Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism in 2015.

JF: Thanks, Christopher!

Can Evangelicals and Secular Liberals Find Common Ground?

HandsAccording to J.J. Gould, the editor of The New Republic, the future of our democracy depends on it.  Here is a taste of his editorial, “Belief in Democracy“:

…Which means that as committed secular liberals and serious evangelicals, of the kind Bryan Mealer writes about for us this month, come to identify with each other politically, that’s a political identification between kinds of people who live in ways that are in some respects powerfully alien to one another. Mutual super-revulsion with Trump and elements of his base can only obscure this reality so much.

Which in turn represents a great hope for the still-tenuous future of liberal democracy in the United States: If you can sustain a common political identity despite such profoundly different beliefs about the nature of the universe and humanity’s place in it, you can sustain the promise of American life.

Read the entire piece here.

Agnostic Monuments and Other Forms of Secular Commemoration


As Washington University-St. Louis religion professor Leigh Eric Schmidt points out, religion, patriotism, and lost causes are not the only things people in America commemorate.

Here is a taste of his Aeon piece, “Monuments to Unbelief

Materialising secularism, giving it ritual shape and monumental expression, has picked up again as the ‘new atheists’ – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and company – have become bestsellers, and as the number of Americans claiming no religious affiliation has grown dramatically in the past decade and a half. Defenders of scientific rationality and free enquiry have mounted new festivals such as International Darwin Day on February 12 and International Blasphemy Rights Day on September 30 to keep up the battle against superstition. This past summer, the Freedom from Religion Foundation orchestrated the dedication of a seven-foot-tall bronze statue of Clarence Darrow in Dayton, Tennessee, the site of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925. (His anti-evolution opponent, William Jennings Bryan, had already been memorialised some years earlier with a statue outside the courthouse, but now Bryan’s likeness – thanks once more to Frudakis the sculptor – must share public space again with his infidel adversary.)

Atheists and nonbelievers have also launched new congregational ventures – most prominently, the Sunday Assembly and Oasis – in several cities across the country, and humanist chaplaincies have flowered on a number of college campuses to afford a community for openly secular students. The UK-based philosopher Alain de Botton has crystallised much of this recent ritual creativity in Religion for Atheists (2012), in which he expressly reimagines Comte’s religion of humanity for contemporary nonbelievers. Restaurants and art museums, de Botton suggests, are potential sites for humanistic liturgies of communal solidarity and unbuttoned conviviality. Whether in Sunday gatherings or funeral rites, the new secularists court temple, sacrament and monument much as the old secularists long did.

Perhaps the most successful instance of that courtship has been the Satanic Temple – a group of freethinking activists, led by the pseudonymous Lucien Greaves, which has puckishly deployed an occult statue of Baphomet to challenge a monument devoted to the Ten Commandments at the State Capitol in Oklahoma. Winning its case before the Oklahoma Supreme Court in 2015, the troupe forced state officials into the bind of removing the Decalogue or having it share space with a winged, goat-headed, pagan idol – a topsy-turvy symbol to these ‘Satanists’ of equal liberty, rational enquiry and free expression. Reluctantly, the state’s Republican leadership decided that it was better to take down the Ten Commandments than to make room for such sacrilege. Deprived of a space in Oklahoma’s public square, the statue of Baphomet went instead to Michigan where it has been installed as the showpiece of Detroit’s chapter of the Satanic Temple, the latest US monument to blasphemy, infidelity and strict church-state separation.

Read the entire piece here

Will a Post-Religious World Be an Improvement?


Writing at The Week, Damon Linker is not so sure.

Here is a taste of his reflection on some recent polling data suggesting Christianity is in decline in America:

Liberals tend to assume that those who have left religious traditions and institutions behind will end up being … secular liberals, which is to say paragons (in their own eyes) of liberal tolerance and moral virtue. But not only is this belied by the occasionally harsh anti-religious fervor of many secular liberal pundits and public officials. It’s also contradicted by the rise of the post-religious right.

There is no guarantee at all that those who leave religious institutions and traditions behind will end up on the liberal left. As Trump’s strong support in the GOP primaries among non-religious Republicans attests, a significant number of the post-religious (especially those who are less well educated) could well end up on the nationalist alt-right.

Ross DouthatPeter Beinart, and The Week’s own Pascal-Emmanuel Gobryhave all noted the ominous emergence of a post-religious right, and have made the point that the left’s most vociferous critics of the old religious right (of which I was once one) may well end up ruing the decline and fall of their former opponents.

A post-religious America will be very different from the country we’ve known up until quite recently. Not all (or even many) of the changes will be improvements.

Read the entire piece here.

Beinart: Secularism is Bad for American Politics


I am not used to seeing Peter Beinart write about religion, but his recent piece in The Atlantic makes sense to me.  Here is the argument:

As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.

And a taste:

When pundits describe the Americans who sleep in on Sundays, they often conjure left-leaning hipsters. But religious attendance is down among Republicans, too. According to data assembled for me by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), the percentage of white Republicans with no religious affiliation has nearly tripled since 1990. This shift helped Trump win the GOP nomination. During the campaign, commentators had a hard time reconciling Trump’s apparent ignorance of Christianity and his history of pro-choice and pro-gay-rights statements with his support from evangelicals. But as Notre Dame’s Geoffrey Layman noted, “Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.” A Pew Research Center poll last March found that Trump trailed Ted Cruz by 15 points among Republicans who attended religious services every week. But he led Cruz by a whopping 27 points among those who did not.

Why did these religiously unaffiliated Republicans embrace Trump’s bleak view of America more readily than their churchgoing peers? Has the absence of church made their lives worse? Or are people with troubled lives more likely to stop attending services in the first place? Establishing causation is difficult, but we know that culturally conservative white Americans who are disengaged from church experience less economic success and more family breakdown than those who remain connected, and they grow more pessimistic and resentful. Since the early 1970s, according to W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, rates of religious attendance have fallen more than twice as much among whites without a college degree as among those who graduated college. And even within the white working class, those who don’t regularly attend church are more likely to suffer from divorce, addiction, and financial distress. As Wilcox explains, “Many conservative, Protestant white men who are only nominally attached to a church struggle in today’s world. They have traditional aspirations but often have difficulty holding down a job, getting and staying married, and otherwise forging real and abiding ties in their community. The culture and economy have shifted in ways that have marooned them with traditional aspirations unrealized in their real-world lives.”

Read the entire piece here.

A Secular Thanksgiving?

villageatheistsLeigh Eric Schmidt, the author of the recent Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation, turns to the pages of The Atlantic to remind us that the religious nature of Thanksgiving has long been a contested one.

Here is a taste of his piece “Thanksgiving, a Celebration of Inequality“:

To secularists, that holiday, sanctified by the story of the Pilgrims and by solemn invocations of divine blessing, was definitely worth fighting over. As one freethought editorial proclaimed in 1889, “We hope to live long enough to see a purely human thanksgiving day, with no hint of God in it, with no religious meaning ascribed to it.”

The debate over what tone presidents should set with their Thanksgiving proclamations was as old as the nation itself. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had famously split over the issuing of such civic religious pronouncements during their presidencies (Adams assented; Jefferson refused). But the conflict escalated during and after the Civil War, as the holiday was promoted as a national rite of reconciliation and patriotic concord. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln had proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving in language replete with religious allusion, imagining the Union under the “the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God” and imploring “the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation.”

Freethinkers and secularists—a small but vocal and vigilant minority—watched with disappointment as American presidents thereafter made an annual routine of such exhortations, effectively fusing Thanksgiving with the politics of religious nationalism. “The American people,” President Grover Cleveland typically intoned in 1885, “have always abundant cause to be thankful to Almighty God, whose watchful care and guiding hand have been manifested in every stage of their national life.” He encouraged all citizens to assemble in their respective houses of worship for prayers and hymns in order to give thanks to the Lord for the nation’s innumerable bounties.

Liberal secularists could not stand to let this recurring presidential call for devotion go unchallenged. It fundamentally violated their sense of strict church-state separation—they believed that elected representatives, from presidents to governors to mayors, should not be in the business of enjoining religious observance upon Americans. They maintained that the government should not elevate believers over nonbelievers, whether by employing state-funded chaplains, granting tax exemptions to churches, inscribing “In God We Trust” on coinage, instating bans on buying liquor on Sundays, establishing religious tests for public office-holding, or by sanctifying fast and thanksgiving days. To these secularists, all the ways, big and small, in which the government signaled preference for a Protestant Christian nation over a secular republic had to be combatted.

Freethinkers, as the irreligious editors of the Boston Investigator explained, wanted instead “eternal separation” between church and state, a breaking of all the “politico-theological combinations” that they saw sullying American public life. They wanted, in short, the full secularization of the state. Hence Thanksgiving was, to them, nonnegotiable: “If ministers desire a religious festival, let them appoint it in their churches,” the Investigator further editorialized. The president had “no constitutional right” to set apart a sacred celebration and entwine good citizenship with ecclesial supplication.

Read the entire piece here.


Kristof: Secularists Don’t Give Evangelicals Enough Credit

22cb0-kristof-new-184New York Times op-ed writer Nicholas Kristof thinks evangelicals do not get enough credit for opposing Donald Trump and serving humanity.  He hopes that the Trump candidacy will help evangelicals and non-religious Americans find common ground.

Here is a taste of his October 22, 2016 column:

…More than 20,000 evangelicals have signed a petition on calling this election “a significant teachable moment for our churches,” adding, “Trump’s racial and religious bigotry and treatment of women is morally unacceptable to us as evangelical Christians.”

It’s easy for secular Americans to dismiss all of this as too little too late — but that would be exactly the wrong approach.

Yes, it has been infuriating to see blowhards who proclaimed themselves “pro-life” when their compassion for human beings seemed to end at birth. The grossest immorality of the 1980s did not unfold in gay bathhouses but among those who portrayed AIDS as God’s punishment for gays — “human garbage,” in the words of Anita Bryant — in ways that slowed the health response and led vast numbers to die unnecessarily.

Yet too many secular liberals have moved from denouncing religious intolerance to embracing an irreligious intolerance of their own. Too often, liberals mock conservative Christians in ways that would outrage them if Jews, Muslims or others were the target. It is too often acceptable on liberal campuses to create a climate hostile and contemptuous of evangelicals — and that, too, is bigotry.

It also misunderstands faith. In my reporting around the world, I’ve been awed by evangelical and Catholic missionary doctors risking their lives to ease suffering. And remember that it was evangelical pressure that led President George W. Bush to adopt a massive program to fight AIDS around the world, saving millions of lives and turning the tide of the disease.

Many young evangelicals seem tired of the culture wars, wearied by politics, and less interested in hounding gay couples than in helping the homeless, the addicted, the incarcerated. Evangelicals have done sterling work fighting prison rape and combating sex trafficking, and if secular bleeding hearts and religious bleeding hearts can just work together, so much more will be accomplished to improve the human condition.

I hope that the crisis among evangelicals this election year creates an opportunity to build bridges across America’s “God Gulf.” As many prominent evangelicals renounce Trump, the secular response should be to applaud that courage in hopes that this is a turning point, and that people of good will, regardless of where they stand on the faith spectrum, can begin to move from fighting one another to tackling the common enemies of humanity that plague us all.

Read the entire post piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Leigh Eric Schmidt

villageatheists.gifLeigh Eric Schmidt is Edward C. Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities at Washington University. This interview is based on his new book, Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation (Princeton University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Village Atheists?

LS: The question of how religious belief has been used to define the rights, limits, and norms of American citizenship pulled me in initially.  In what ways were the irreligious marked out as deficient?  Were they to be barred from holding offices of public trust or from serving as witnesses in court?  Was liberty of conscience a preserve for the devout that excluded the ungodly?  Did religious freedom include irreligious freedom?  Did it include a right to blaspheme and ridicule Christianity?   I wanted to see how those questions looked on the ground in the everyday lives of American atheists and unbelievers, to see them as more than abstract legal and political debates but as rough conflicts in which social antagonism and moral outrage ran high.  I also wanted to see how those issues shifted over the long haul, how a principle of neutrality—that the state was to treat the religious and irreligious in equal terms—ultimately came into the ascendancy, however disputed that principle remained and however despised atheism continued to be in America’s God-trusting culture.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Village Atheists?

LS: Histories of modern atheism have often kept Christianity at the center of the story, emphasizing the ways in which well-intended theologians abetted unbelief through a series of philosophical, ethical, and naturalistic compromises—in effect, a history of atheism without atheists.  By contrast, I put the emphasis squarely on the infidels and freethinkers who created a lively and assertive secularist minority—one that was in no danger of defining the age in exclusively secular or humanistic terms, but one that nonetheless effectively pressed the case for equal rights and liberties for unbelievers.

JF: Why do we need to read Village Atheists?

LS: Those who are interested in American religious history would do well, I think, to attend more to the nation’s irreligious history.  Certainly, the back-and-forth between evangelical Protestants and freethinking secularists has been an especially defining struggle.  Diehard combatants, to be sure, the two camps are also inseparable partners in a whole series of long-running debates—about God’s existence, about evil, about Darwinian naturalism, about the relationship between religion and the state, about free speech and blasphemy, about the Bible.  On one issue after another, it is very hard to study America’s God without studying those who were fervently devoted to undoing that God’s sway over the republic.

At the same time, the book pictures the relationship between religion and irreligion as more than one of only an out-an-out war. Samuel Porter Putnam, one of the figures I concentrate on, tried in the 1890s to write his own comprehensive history of American unbelief.  He had about a thousand pages to work with and included dozens upon dozens of biographical profiles of American atheists and freethinkers.  And predictably when the reviews came in, most wondered why he had left out one person or another, why he had made the selections he had made.  Having himself painfully left the Congregational and Unitarian ministries, he had simply refused to include certain figures when they did not fit his model of the hard-and-fast, wholly converted atheist. He wanted materialist purity for the movement, but I found myself far more interested in the impurity—the times when an infidel lecturer made peace with a Baptist congregation to conduct a funeral or when a golden-boy atheist decided to become a spiritualist and start an occult journal.  I wanted to understand the conflicted experiences of an infidel lecturer or a disaffected teacher as they engaged—civilly and uncivilly—their more devout compatriots.   I wanted to see the moments of mutual recognition and civic acceptance, alongside the occasions of rioting and book-burning.  The former were finally a lot more common than the latter. 

It is also important to me that scholarship be readable and publicly engaging.  I want to tell good, character-driven stories, so I would hope that the book would be worth reading because it is actually enjoyable to read.  I worked to identify colorful characters with complex lives who embodied crucial aspects of American secularist experience.  Samuel Putnam stands for the gradual attenuation of the Puritan and evangelical Calvinist inheritance, the creation of an expressly secular identity in opposition to the Protestant model of the pilgrim soul.  Watson Heston evokes the power of cartooning and satire within atheist ranks, the urge to ridicule Christianity and the Bible and to offend the devout. Heston’s pugnacious art (he created well over 1000 irreligious cartoons between 1885 and 1900) is a window into an issue that very much remains a life-and-death question.  One need only call to mind the global controversy over the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad or the tragedy of Charlie Hebdo.

In turn, another figure I explore, Elmina Slenker, raises the larger question of how atheist dissent related to sexual politics—to ideas about marriage reform, women’s rights, and reproductive control.  Atheism and freethought could produce progressive views on gender and sexuality, but they could also reinforce a masculinist culture of bravado and aggression in which women were dismissed for their sentimental piety.  Slenker embodied all of those dilemmas and challenges as a self-avowed “woman atheist.”  The same quandaries had already been faced by Ernestine Rose, a secular Jewish atheist and a role model for Slenker.  Likewise, the racial politics surrounding David Cincore, promoted for a time as “the colored Bob Ingersoll,” reveals how deeply engrained the white male prototype was for enlightened secularism.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

LS: It was in college, especially through the examples of Edwin Gaustad and Robert Hine, both of whom made it abundantly clear to me the demands involved in producing artful historical prose.  Both had a keen eye for American dissenters and utopians, and Ed especially trafficked at the same intersections that most captured my curiosity, those of religion and history.

JF: What is your next project?

It’s a little early to say, but I remain drawn to questions that swirl around the relationship between Christianity and secularism, including the efforts of nonbelievers to create humanistic community and ritual out of the ruins of religion.  These could merely be loose ends from Village Atheists that I will eventually let go, but I have a series of stories about agnostic brotherhoods, humanist churches, atheist towns, and freethinking liturgists that I continue to ponder.

JF: Thanks, Leigh!

The Author’s Corner With David Mislin

MislinDavid Mislin is Assistant Professor in the Intellectual Heritage Program at Temple University. This interview is based on his new book, Saving Faith: Making Religious Pluralism an American Value at the Dawn of a Secular Age (Cornell University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Saving Faith?

DM: I’ve always been interested in exploring how people in the United States think about religious diversity in a democratic society. During grad school, I realized that many American Protestants in the late 1800s were far more welcoming of other faiths than historians have previously recognized. My desire to acknowledge these Protestants’ outlook – and to identify what prompted them to adopt it – led to Saving Faith.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Saving Faith?

DM: In the late 19th century, mainline Protestant clergy became more worried than ever before about unbelief and secularism. These anxieties led them to reevaluate their views of other faiths, ultimately inspiring them to adopt a favorable and inclusive view of religious diversity.

JF: Why do we need to read Saving Faith?

DM: How we deal with religious diversity continues to be central to American public life – just look at the rhetoric in the current presidential campaign. Saving Faith offers historical perspective on the origins of our current attitudes. More importantly, the book explores just how difficult religious pluralism can be. The figures in my book struggled to reconcile two commitments. On the one hand, they truly valued inclusivity; on the other, they believed in the validity of their particular form of Protestantism. This tension is still a reality for people of faith living in a pluralistic society. Although Saving Faith examines the past, readers will see clear parallels to contemporary discussions.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

DM: During high school, I developed a strong interest in U.S. history. In college I became fascinated by the place of religion in American public life, especially the way that we discussed diversity in the aftermath of 9/11. It wasn’t until after college that I put these two interests together and decided to continue my studies with a focus on American religious history.

JF: What is your next project?

DMI’m working on a new book project that traces how Americans have understood the concept of evil. I’m looking at the period from just before the Civil War through the present day. “Evil” is a word that’s employed constantly in political discourse and popular culture. In this book, I will offer a concrete analysis of what the term has meant in particular historical moments and consider how conceptions of evil have shaped American culture and politics.

JF: Thanks, David!

My Aeon Piece on Evangelicals and Secularism

flagSome of you may have seen the piece I wrote recently for Aeon, a relative new online magazine.  I wrote the article in an attempt to get intellectuals and other thoughtful observers to understand the mindset of some American evangelicals.

I understand, and in some cases sympathize, with the largely negative comments that are appearing in the comments section of the piece.  On the other hand, I am afraid that many of the comments confirm a lot of what I was trying to say in the article.

I hope readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home will interpret the piece in the larger context of my work here at the blog and elsewhere.

Here is a taste:

Whether it be academia, popular entertainment, or some other sector of culture, secular progressivism is a real threat to evangelical Christian values. Christian culture warriors are often sloppy and usually inconsistent in the way that they apply Christian faith to public life, but not all of them are crazy. They are astute observers of modern culture who represent the values and fears of a significant portion of Americans. And, as long as secular progressives continue to remain intolerant about the deeply held religious convictions of these Christians, and refuse to understand them as part of a larger conversation about national identity and the common good, it will be difficult for US democracy to move forward.

Read the entire piece here.

Hart: Larycia Hawkins Should Wear a Hijab on the Fourth of July

Wheaton College

Darryl Hart thinks that the theology I have used to defend Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins’s decision to wear a hijab during Advent is too inclusive.  

Here is what I wrote:

I think Hawkins is trying to say that we all belong to the same family–the human family. And there are times, even in the life of an exclusively Christian college, when those human connections should be acknowledged. And they should be acknowledged, and even celebrated, for Christian reasons–namely the Imago Dei. So I am not sure that someone saying that Muslims and Christians worship the same God is a statement that is necessarily out of bounds at a Christian college, but it must be carefully nuanced and explained.

Here is what Hart wrote at his blog Old Life:

Once again, as is so often the case when Christians opine about matters of common interest, the real problem is a confusion of categories. So two-kingdoms theology again to the rescue. What’s wrong with showing solidarity with Muslims a little more narrowly than John Fea proposed? Why can’t we identify with Muslims living in the United States as Americans (or people who want to be citizens)? As such, Christians and Muslims would be people who support freedom of religion, speech, association, as well as laws against murder. The way to do this might be to wear the hijab or (for men) shemagh on Presidents’ Day, July Fourth, the three weeks of March Madness. What does Advent have to do with it? And such an identification allows us to affirm something that we really do have in common — the greatest nation on God’s green earth as opposed to the places of worship that actually keep Muslims and Christians separate.

I am not sure about March Madness, but I actually like this idea.

But if we really believe in the theological commitment to Imago Dei we need to think about the various ways we exercise this belief in public life.  Again, it must be done carefully and with an appropriate amount of explanation.  In a Christian college this kind of connection with our common humanity should never trump the real and fundamental differences between Christians and Muslims. These differences should be paramount.  They mean that a Christian college must draw theological boundaries.

I appreciate Hart’s secularism.  I really do.  But a Christian college, as I understand it, occupies a middle ground between the church and public life.  It seems like there are times when theology–in this case a belief in Imago Dei— might come to bear on the way the students and staff of a Christian college make sense of public life.

Humanist Intellectuals and Anti-Intellectuals

National Press Club, Washington D.C.

When I was out promoting Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction I gave an invited talk to a group of secularists, skeptics, and Humanists from the Pittsburgh community of the Center for Inquiry.  The lecture took place at the Carnegie Science Center (a fitting location) on Pittsburgh’s North Shore, right next door to Heinz Field.

If I remember correctly the auditorium was crowded that night as hundreds of skeptics packed in to hear a history professor from Messiah College talk about whether or not the United States was founded as a Christian nation.  I didn’t know what to expect.  I am guessing they didn’t either.

About ten minutes into the lecture a gigantic screen began to lower behind me on the stage.  I had not planned to use any visuals during the talk and the event organizers knew this.  As the screen came down I paused, turned around and looked at it, and said something like “I have no idea why or how this screen is moving.  It must be a message from God.”  There was an awkward silence in the room for a split second, but it seemed like an eternity.  Then the room broke into uproarious laughter.  I breathed a sigh of relief that my attempt at humor actually worked.  The ice was broken and I continued with the lecture.

I look back fondly on that lecture. The leadership of the Center for Inquiry was very hospitable and gracious.  They took me out to dinner before the lecture and actually apologized before the food arrived because, as atheists, it was not their custom to pray before meals.  I tried to disabuse them of the idea that all Christians bow their heads and utter audible prayers before every meal they eat in a restaurant.

Several friends and acquaintances asked me why, as a Christian, I accepted the invitation to speak to this group.  My response was “why not?”  I am a historian. I wasn’t there to convince them that the claims of Christianity were true.  I was asked to speak about the relationship between religion and the founding.  Many of the folks I talked with that night wanted to be more informed about how they could or could not use the history of the founding to promote their views.  Some of them bristled when I talked about how many of the founders believed in God or were Christians.  Others nodded in agreement when I mentioned that many of the founders were skeptics and championed the idea of the separation of church and state.

The question and answer session following the lecture was phenomenal.  I left believing that I helped this group understand when they could appropriate the founders and when they could not.  I hope I got them to think historically.  Perhaps there will be another time to discuss the issues that divide us. If that day ever comes, our conversation will at least be built on a firmer historical foundation.

I thought about that speaking engagement yesterday when I read a post at by Matthew Bulger, the “legislative associate” for the American Humanist Association.

As I reported on this blog a few days ago, several Baylor University professors recently visited the National Press Club to talk about America’s “secularization myth.”  It was a pretty star-studded cast that included historian Thomas Kidd, sociologist Rodney Stark, and historian Philip Jenkins.  You can read about it here.

As might be expected, Bulger, after attending the event, was not convinced that the “secularization” thesis was a “myth.”  He was critical of all the presentations, but I was most struck by his critique of Kidd’s lecture titled “A Godless American Founding?”  Here is what Bulger wrote:

But perhaps the strangest and most desperate parts of the event focused on religion’s supposed benefits on personal health and the role religion should have in public life according to the founding fathers…
Just as strange as this tasteless health-based appeal for religious belief was Professor Thomas Kidd’s perspective on the founding fathers and secularism. While admitting that a large number of the founders were deists, religious skeptics, and secularists, Kidd also asserted that they supported a relatively robust role for religion in public life. But rather than reference documents supporting this position, Kidd instead focused on personal stories. Noting Jefferson’s strong belief in a “wall of separation,” Kidd also noted that Jefferson on occasion would attend religious services in the US Congress. Never mind the fact that all sessions of Congress are opened with prayer—or the fact that Jefferson as a delegate from Virginia to the US Congress would have already been present in the congressional chambers as part of his duties; to Kidd, this was definitive proof of Jefferson’s support for religious activities in government buildings.
The feeling I got from the event was that of open panic: panic about the declining role of religion in America and around the world, panic about the rising tide of governmental secularism, and panic that the media was no longer a defender of religious ideas or institutions. The result of this panic, at least for many of the presenters, was the adoption of the “ostrich defense,” that of sticking one’s head in the sand and ignoring reality. If polls show religion is on the decline, the polls must be faulty or the media must be misinterpreting them. If the number of religiously unaffiliated is on the rise, this must be because religious people are simply leaving religious institutions while keeping their beliefs, not because more people are becoming atheistic or agnostic.
While it was a bit disappointing to see academics behave in such an unscholarly manner, the message that secularists and nontheists could take away from the event was comforting: religion may never go away completely, but at least for now it appears to be fading into the background of society and the human mind.
Strange? Desperate? Unscholary? Ostrich defense?
Bulger may not the like the intellectual critique of secularization propounded by these Baylor professors, but his response reveals a deeply anti-intellectual strain in the humanist/atheist camp.  (So I guess evangelicals are not the only ones who are experiencing a “scandal” in this area). 
Let’s take his response to Thomas Kidd.  It sounds as if Kidd, according to Bulger’s post, did mention that many of the founders were skeptics.  He also noted, quite accurately, that the founders supported a role for religion in public life.  I was not at the talk, but I imagine that most of the “stories” Kidd told could easily be backed up with “reference documents.”  Does Bulger know that Kidd has written extensively on these topics in books with footnotes and documentation?  Did he do his homework before he reported on this event?
In its approach and argumentation (but certainly not in its content) Bulger’s post is no different from the stuff I read from David Barton.  Both prefer politics and ideology over history.
The spirit behind Bulger’s post was a far cry from the hospitality and conversation I experienced in Pittsburgh.

Some Quick Thoughts on the Kim Davis Case

In case you haven’t heard, Rowan County Kentucky Clerk Kim Davis refuses to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples because it violates her Christian beliefs.

I appreciate Davis’s religious-inspired convictions about marriage.  As long as religious liberty is part of the American ideal, she should be able to promote and practice these views without government persecution.  I understand her moral dilemma and realize that the Obergfell decision on same-sex marriage has caused much anxiety and confusion for the defenders of traditional marriage.  Davis is a woman of faith who is trying to find the best way to honor her deeply-held religious convictions.

But I don’t think Davis has much legal ground to stand on here.  I have no doubt that the Supreme Court will eventually need to hear a case that pits same-sex marriage against religious liberty, but I don’t think this will be that case.  Davis works for the state and thus must enforce the laws of the state.  She does not work for a church or a religious organization. 

As a historian, the Davis case leads me back to a question I have been thinking about for a long time: Is America a Christian Nation?  Even if one argues that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, it is very hard to make the case that it still is a Christian nation today.  The United States does not privilege Christianity and thus (in the wake of Obergfell) does not privilege traditional Christian views on marriage.  In this sense, the United States is a secular nation.  Many of my fellow evangelicals will cringe when I use that term.  By secular I do not mean that religion cannot contribute to the public good or should in some way be eradicated from American life.  I am simply saying that religion is not the basis for the laws of the United States.  

Mark Silk has some interesting thoughts on the Davis case at his blog, “Spiritual Politics.”  Here is a taste:

No doubt, Christians have long been faced with a dilemma regarding obedience to civil law. On the one hand, there is Jesus’ oblique response to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” and Paul’s more specific:
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”
On the other hand, the Early Church valorized its martyrs for defying Roman authority and Protestant theologians found ways to work around the Pauline prescription. Kim Davis is at once a governing authority and a person rebelling against governing authority.
For government employees in America — be they county clerks, public school teachers, or members of the military — religious liberty is conditioned by functioning in a governmental capacity. The longstanding American answer to any conscientious objection they may have was stated straightforwardly by Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, in his famous speech to the Houston Ministerial Association 55 years ago this month:
“But if the time should ever come — and I do not concede any conflict to be remotely possible — when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do likewise.”
More recently, Justice Antonin Scalia took a similar position regarding a judge unable to uphold a law he or she conscientiously opposes.
“[I]n my view the choice for the judge who believes the death penalty to be immoral is resignation, rather than simply ignoring duly enacted, constitutional laws and sabotaging death penalty cases. He has, after all, taken an oath to apply the laws and has been given no power to supplant them with rules of his own.”

ADDENDUM:  Since I wrote this post earlier this morning, Davis has been found in contempt of the Supreme Court and arrested.  It seems as if she had one of two option.  She could either resign as county clerk or go to jail in an act of civil disobedience.  She has chosen the latter.

ANOTHER ADDENDUM:  Charles Haynes of the Religious Freedom Institute of Newseum Institute offers a  possible compromise.

Secularism on the Edge

In February 2013 I sat in a comfy reclining chair on a stage at Georgetown University before a group of some of the world’s leading scholars of secularism.  Jacques Berlinerblau, the prolific scholar of secularism and religion and public life at Georgetown interviewed me about the relationship between Christianity and the American founding.  It was the opening plenary session of an international conference called “Secularism on the Edge.” I blogged about it here.  You can also watch the video of the interview below.  At about the 57:00 minute mark I get myself in trouble by telling Berlinerblau that I want to convert him to evangelical Christianity.

I am pleased to announce that my interview with Berlinerblau is the lead essay in a new volume titled Secularism on the Edge: Rethinking Church-State Relations in the United States, France, Israel.  You can get it for the low, low price of $80.29 on Amazon.Com

July 4 vs. July 14

Ceremony of the new Republican Religion of Reason in Notre Dame cathedral, Paris, 1793

Over at The Anxious Bench, Tal Howard has written a very informative piece on the role of religion in the American Revolution and the French Revolution.  Drawing upon Turkish scholar Ahmet T. Kuru, Howard uses the term “passive secularism” to describe the U.S. approach to religious freedom, and “assertive secularism” to describe the anti-Christian dimensions (1790s) of the French Revolution.

Here is a taste:

In contrast to the passive secularism of the United States, the French Revolution left a legacy of assertive secularism, to quote Kuru again.  While not without European critics (see Edmund Burke), this legacy has informed many republican and socialist ideologies (see Karl Marx) and movements on the Continent during the nineteenth century, and received transmogrified political expression after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.   In a more benign form, it lives on in France today in the form of strong anti-Catholicism among secular elites and in laws banning headscarves and other religious images from public places.

In our discourse about religion and public life, one often hears general references to “Western secularism,” frequently in reference to its possible applicability to Muslim countries as they struggle today to find a path toward democracy and freedom.  This assumes, of course, that “Western secularism” is a unitary phenomenon.   It is not.  It comes in multiple versions, often tied to the particular historical experience of continents, countries, and regions.  At the very least, we need to distinguish between American and French revolutionary trajectories of secularism and their respective implications for present-day geopolitical realities.  Doing so would enrich analyses of contemporary affairs, for you can’t think well about the present until you see clear-eyed into the past.

Secularism and Antebellum America

Michael Warner, the Seymour H. Knox Professor of English at Yale, reviews John Lardas Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America.  The review is long and complex, but here is a taste:

Modern’s most compelling chapter, titled “Evangelical Secularism,” lays out the paradox; even its title to most readers will seem oxymoronic. Modern beautifully analyzes one side of the semiotic ideology of antebellum evangelicals : its imagination of media and the social field. (I say “one side” because he does not take up the language of sincerity, conversion, and experience, as Webb Keane does so well in Christian Moderns.) Modern examines the tract and Bible societies, with their massive projects of publication and colportage, as well as the tracts themselves and such statements of evangelical theory as Robert Baird’s Religion in America (1842). Following such scholars as David Nord and Candy Brown, but giving their work a new critical analysis, he examines the imagination of the social behind the evangelical obsession with networks, technology, and communication. Evangelicals of the period equated true religion with a conversionist public discourse, which of its own logic required mass dissemination at the same time that it pointed to its own omnipresence as a sign of its spontaneous authenticity. Evangelical religiosity was fused with a modern semiotic ideology of connectivity and circulation as progressive forces capable of establishing a broad social and religious order by the unfolding of their own immanent dynamic principles. (Here Modern intersects with, but does not discuss, important recent analyses of evangelicalism as modern social movement; see Craig Calhoun’s The Roots of Radicalism or Michael Young’s Bearing Witness Against Sin.) If America was in many important ways secular by the antebellum period, he concludes, it was so largely because of evangelicals themselves. 

In making this argument, Modern amplifies a theme of Charles Taylor, who has argued in A Secular Age that the long history of secularity consists more of unintended consequences to reform movements within Christianity than to a hostile campaign of suppression or emancipation from without. In the American case my own current research has led me to go further and say that the evangelical normalization of conversionist discourse as a criterion of religiosity directly construed society as secular even before there were any secularists in the modern sense of that term. Evangelical conceptions of conscience and conversion, together with evangelical practices of the public sphere and the voluntary system, are not only the markers of evangelical modernity but the very conditions from which the default secularity of the social is projected.

The Conference on Faith and History and the Christian Right: Darryl Hart Enters the Fray

Mark Edwards’s post at Religion in American History, in which he suggests that the Conference on Faith and History is the intellectual arm of the Religious Right, is getting some attention in the blogosphere.  I did a post about it here.  Thomas Kidd calls attention to the conversation here.  And now Darryl Hart of Hillsdale College has jumped into the conversation.

Hart expresses his dissatisfaction with the Reformed/Kuyperian view of history that has long dominated the Conference on Faith and History.  Here is a taste:

Mark Edwards, Spring Arbor University, has touched a nerve among historians who profess some version of Protestantism by commenting on the new book, Confessing History, edited by John Fea, Jay Green, and Eric Miller and suggesting that the Conference on Faith and History is the intellectual arm of the Religious Right. The historians involved in this discussion don’t mind Edwards reservations about Christian history but are not wild about associations between talk of doing Christian history and the project of evangelical politics (can you blame them?). Edwards explains (courtesy of John Fea):

To me, it concerned the larger issue of “integration of faith and learning” which seemed to underlay CFH at least at that time. For many historians, integrationist language is ALWAYS theocratic code and thus, to them, relative to the Religious Right.

This strikes me as eminently sensible since if you are going to invoke the Lordship of Christ (a Kuyperian trope that informed the Conference on Faith and History from its earliest days) when it comes to academic life, why not also appeal to Christ’s Lordship over the state (as the Religious Right has done in a variety of idioms)? In fact, I began to suspect the weakness of neo-Calvinism when I wrote a piece about the history of the Conference on Faith and History for History and the Christian Historian. I detected that objections to secular scholarship were not far removed from arguments against secular politics.

Hart develops these ideas further in his book A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State.  After recently spending some time with secularists at Georgetown University, I am eager to return to Hart’s argument in this book.  Stay tuned.