Go Ahead and Wish Me Anything You Want: The Importance of Secularism in a Free Society

“It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. . . . We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance.”—James Madison, “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessment

It’s time for our annual national mud-fest about how to wish people well during the last few weeks of December. It seems to have gotten especially nasty this year—just ask this Phoenix Salvation Army worker who got punched in the face yesterday for wishing a good Christian woman “Happy Holidays.” It’s good to know that Baby Jesus has a posse.

It’s also time for us to dust off the standard questions behind everybody’s outrage and parse the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment all the way to the North Pole. Do crèche displays at city hall “establish” religion? Do citizens have the right to the “free exercise” of their right to read the Bible’s Christmas story in public schools? Is Santa Claus a socialist hippy-freak who breaks into homes with a sack and redistributes wealth? So much depends on these red wheelbarrows. . . . .;

OK, I made the last one up, but the other issues are real, and passions are starting to run high. Christians see attempts to recast Christmas as a secular holiday as assaults on their faith. Less religious people see attempts to enforce the religious origins of our most important national holiday as an a constitutionally impermissible establishment of religion. And, for three days last week, nobody on Facebook could talk about anything else but how Fox News thinks that Santa Claus is white.

In all of the sturm und drang over these marginal issues, I think, we are in danger of losing the rationale for secularism that we inherited from our Founders. When Jefferson, Madison, and others insisted that the government be strictly secular, they were not trying to marginalize religion. Nor were they trying to “protect religions from government interference,” as some modern partisans have argued. They were trying to keep the market for religious ideas completely free—so that every religious position could circulate on equal terms without the government picking winners and losers. It’s just like capitalism, only with ideas.

Perhaps the most important text for understanding the 18th century American consensus on the role of religion in the public square is James Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessment,” which he wrote in opposition to Patrick Henry’s attempt to create a cross-denominational religious tax in Virginia in 1786. Madison’s pamphlet included 15 position statements that add up to a powerful argument for keeping religion completely separate from civil practice. The bottom line is this: both religion and government become less effective, and less free, when the coercive authority of the state is mixed up with anybody’s voluntary practice of religion.

Let me be very clear here: I do not think that a Nativity display on public property is just like a Gulag, nor do I believe that a “Happy Holidays” card is equivalent to the re-crucifixion of Christ. Our typical Christmas debates about Church and State tend to focus around the margins of secularism. But they did in Madison’s day too, when he took to controversial position of disallowing military chaplains because “the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever.”

None of this means that Madison didn’t like God. America was designed as a secular nation, not because the Founders were hostile to religion, but because they believed that religious ideas are strong enough to survive in the free market without the intellectual subsidy of the state. And because they believed that adherents of both minority and majority religions—and those with no religion at all—are exactly the same kinds of Americans.

Happy Holidays!