Is The United States A Secular Democracy?
U.S. Secular Democracy & It's Origins
The persecution of Calvinists, a seminal Theology in the later development of Puritanism and Presbyterianism in England and The Anglo-Dutch Wars in the mid-1600's partially led to a mass Dutch immigrations to the Hudson River Valley in the throughout the mid-1600's
The 1630's saw the immigration of over 20,000 Puritans fleeing religious persecution in England. Their belief in the need for a purified Anglican Church led to a common legal sentiment of state sponsored atrocities and life sentences that led them to find a home in which they could practice their Theology as they wished.
The Huguenots, members of the Protestant reformed Church of France, escaped religious persecution in the latter years of the 17th century and the early years of the 18th century as more than 500,000 thousand of them immigrated to a number of places, North America among them.
The common denominator in these immigrations was the desire to escape the popular legal sentiments and mandates of European Theocratic Monarchies in which unification under a state sponsored religion (with very little doctrinal latitude) was imposed upon people as a theological imperative necessary for the salvation of souls.
Secularism itself has epistemological roots in Greco-Roman antiquity. The Enlightenment thinkers, may of which were fortuitously the founding fathers of the U.S., such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington, drawling on the writings of Thomas Paine, and John Locke, amongst others recognized the importance of Secularism in a pluralist Democracy.
Particularly Thomas Jefferson's Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom was seminal in the 1st Amendment which prohibited the making of any laws respecting the establishment of a state religion or any laws prohibiting the free practice of religion. The is the basis upon which the theory of U.S. Secularism lies. it was recognized that the only way in which matters of state and matters of faith could be separated was through restriction of religious matters within the legislative sphere. The purport of this component of the first amendment is to both establish the freedom to practice a sundry variety of religions unmolested by the state and to foster legislation based on Enlightenment values and debate unfettered by dogma.
Secular in Practice?
Steven J. Gould spoke of the realms of science and religion as non-overlapping magisteria. Essentially a contention that science and religion covered different bodies of knowledge or types of, "knowing," but I would contend that the theological arguments used to stop the progress of scientific research and stymie the advancement of social issues in the U.S. demonstrates that empiricism and religion are actually in many case diametrically opposed. Further, the way in which politicians employ religious convictions in this country make secular debate an impossibility.
The frequency with which political discourse is halted by religious objection in Washington is concerning. George W. Bush vetoed not one but two bills to fund stem-cell research, the most promising line of medical therapy for an almost unlimited number of afflictions, simply by invoking his religious belief that life begins at conception and specifically that using 3-4 day old Blastocysts for research was the equivalent of taking a human life. The fact that abortion is still an area of tense division in this country is based on the same religious assertions. The distressing thing about invoking Theological doctrine in the Political sphere is that it is always an impediment to further discussion and tacitly claims a scientific knowledge that is not based on scientific knowledge but rather on church doctrine.
Similar Theological contentions, some times disguised but often not, are the basis for opposition to same sex marriage and for the agenda to inject Creationism into the public high school science curriculum. Once again, as soon as Theology is introduced into discourse on these issues the argument stalemates. This is the devastating power that we allow religious pluralism to exercise over our political discussions. The overly liberal sentiment that, "you have the right to believe whatever you like without question," sabotages and precludes the important secular debates that need to be had over issues concerning Civil Rights, Bioethics, and Education. These conversations of social imperative are usurped by declarations directly derived from the Hebrew Bible's Pentateuch.
With staggering statistics regarding the amount of U.S. citizens that purport belief that the Rapture will occur in their lifetime (a Newsweek poll put the number at 45%) a reasonable inference can be made that this belief has caused us to relinquish responsible stewardship over the environment. The scientific consensus concerning Global Warming and the efforts of the EPA are both met with disdain by these same Americans (many of which are in congress).
The U.K. by percentage of population is almost as pious as the U.S. And despite the fact that they have a national church and a Bishop's bench in the house of Lords, the invocation of Religious belief in the House of Commons as an argument regarding public policy is simply not a convention. It would seem that the country that committed so much of the persecution that led to immigration movements that later colonized what would be the United States, has a better grasp of the concept of modern Secularism than do the descendants of the country this intolerance birthed.
What's more Religious affiliation in U.K. elections is a non-issue. Tony Blair stated in an interview after his time as Prime Minister that while he personally believed his faith was, "hugely important," to his premiership he reflected that if "you talk about it (religious belief) in our system and, frankly, people do think you're a nutter." This statement reveals the difference between the U.S. and the U.K. Political zeitgeist. It is a well agreed upon speculation, amongst political analysts on the right and left, that in the U.S. one cannot hope to be elected to any major political office without a public declaration of faith in a specific Theology. What's particularly notable about this is that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses Grant, James Madison, James Monroe, and Abraham Lincoln would not be electable today if this is in fact true.
Reflecting on this state of affairs one must conclude that the U.S. is a Secular Democracy only in name and theory while the rise of the religious right wing and Neo-conservatism has plunged us into a political system whose practical workings are laughable to most of the developed world. But derisive foreign guffaws aside, our system has been crippled in it's logistic potential for forward progress and our society's advancement has been gravely impeded since the rise of the neo-conservative religious agenda following the Nixon Administration.