Sam Haselby: Why did the secular ambitions of the early United States fail? – Aeon Essays

In hindsight, American secularism has experienced both clear victories and stark defeats. The Anglo-Protestant heresy of making all members of the political community into Luther’s sovereign individuals has become something of an American orthodoxy. Who is more consistently certain that the sanctity of their conscience has vouchsafed God-given rights, whatever they decide those rights might be, than Americans? However, American secularists have generally failed at building institutions that rival the special breadth and depth of religion’s involvement in people’s lives.

For their part, acutely religious Americans have understood that public education is the enemy: that it is – and must be – secularising. For the sciences and humanities offer worlds, and explanations, that the scriptures do not, and an education in the latter in particular seems to be a fairly reliable inoculation against authoritarian tendencies of religion. Indeed, historically, the purpose of public education in modern nation-states is to make people citizens, not to make them better Christians or Jews or Muslims.

Finally, it is important to emphasise that the varieties of the secular are not all equal. Yes, secularism emerged out of Protestant theology, and philosophy transformed it from a heresy into a tenet of modern politics. But to its 18th-century proponents, it was at root a political project.

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