The Regrettable Return of ‘Nonsectarianism’

Stuart Whatley


Endorsement [of religion] sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying messa ge to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.

—Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Lynch v. Donnelly (1984)

At the close of his second term, during a special United Nations interfaith conference, former President George W. Bush gave a speech in which he pontificated about the “transformative and uplifting power of faith” that “leads us to common values.” With unintended eloquence, our diminished born-again leader of years past demonstrated perfectly the polarizing nature of faith-based solidarity. This event should hardly be viewed as exclusive to the rather theocratic Bush years. Surely when the next interfaith conference invitations go out, President Barack Obama will feel no less obliged to attend and display the piety that is unfortunately expected of American presidents, because such is the nature of intercultural discourse when it is led by leaders who are either personally or politically compelled to prostrate themselves before the misplaced, vestigial supremacy of faith.

The interfaith conference Bush attended—organized by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, much to human rights groups’ chagrin—had the saccharine purpose of touting religious faith as the bridge between diverse societies, based on the retrograde assumption that morality can derive only from such belief. Of course, the end effect of such “interfaith” gatherings is to ostracize nonbelievers. To lionize faith as the only common bond between nations rather than something less exclusionary—say, their common humanity—excludes secularists and other nonbelievers by default.

To nonbelievers the world over, the message of most interfaith initiatives is clear: we in power believe that the future of world peace depends solely on the shared values of the faithful. Apparently, those who do not (indeed, cannot) subscribe to such a belief and who derive their moralities from human decency rather than from confected theistic dogmas will be considered at odds with the only officially accepted means for attaining harmony among nations. Today’s international interfaith initiatives show strong parallels to what historians call the American era of “Christian nonsectarianism” during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During that period, majority consensus held that despite minor theological differences, there were core moral principles that all Protestant denominations—and only they—shared. This was an era of rampant social and political strife between Protestants and Catholics, most conspicuously in the debate over public education that directly followed its founding in the 1820s.

Under nonsectarianism, it was widely accepted that the primary function of public education was to instill in students the moral values of the predominantly Protestant culture in case they were bereft of such inculcation at home. Public education was introduced and implemented by wealthy white Protestants who feared that republican democracy would not function properly unless not only the wealthy but workers, too, were educated in civics—and more important, Protestant biblical mores. Noah Feldman tellingly characterized the goal of this movement when he wrote of “domestication” for productive civil life. In the end, nonsectarianism effectively masked what would today be considered a blatantly unconstitutional establishment of one particular religious “brand.”

At the time, the obvious problem with nonsectarianism was precisely this favoritism, paradoxically proclaiming its inclusiveness but failing to recognize any belief structure that wasn’t Protestant. With the sharp increase in Catholic immigrants that began in the 1840s, there came a push for public schools that taught values through some lens other than Protestantism, which is to say tax-funded Catholic schools alongside what were effectively tax-funded Protestant ones. Given the public school infrastructure of the time, this was not an unreasonable request (though it was hardly a push in the direction of secularization). In the end, through political legerdemain and what boiled down to a Protestant tyranny of the majority in government, Catholic schools were not granted public funding.

Catholics (and presumably the few other non-Protestant citizens of the time) ended up just suffering through the inequality; they never gained equal recognition under law in the sphere of public education. Out of economic necessity, many were forced to send their children to the Protestant public schools with hopes that they would at least be able to correct their anti-Catholic religious teachings at home.

However, from our modern point of view, it is obvious that the Catholics’ proposed solution—tax-funded parochial schools of their own—was just as inane as the very problem they sought to remedy: an arbitrary, faith-based favoritism from which they were excluded. Because they demanded equal funding for Catholic schools rather than schools freed from religion altogether, the Catholics of this period were no less guilty of myopic and anti-inclusive reasoning than their Protestant oppressors.

Retrospectively, the only reasonable solution was the outright secularization of public education that finally occurred following World War II. Yet an exclusionality equivalent to that under nonsectarianism still persists, targeting not Catholics but those who live without religion. Though professed unbelief is becoming more common, consensus attitudes toward unbelievers today differ little from those toward the pariah Catholic community during nonsectarianism, except that they are expressed in the sphere of global public discourse rather than American public education.

The U.N. interfaith conference was not an isolated affair but rather part of a growing trend in the nature of international cultural dialogue. It is inconceivable that President Obama will turn down invitations to future interfaith affairs even if they exclude nonbelievers, as is usually the case. With more theocratic approaches to government in many parts of the world, especially the Middle East and Southeast Asia, the inclination to orient international goals and relations around shared faith will presumably grow stronger. Inclusion of secular views in these conversations will decrease. Then again, it is secularism that has risen in other parts of the world, especially in Europe. Which camp will America’s future leaders choose? Is there middle ground? Is this polarization best dealt with by aligning one’s rhetoric and goals around shared arbitrary beliefs, to the exclusion of vast numbers of nonreligious participants?

To nonbelievers, the fundamental difference between Protestantism and Catholicism during the nonsectarian era seems largely pedantic. But believers today still myopically cling to fundamental differences that set them apart from other members of civilization—no longer the differences between Protestants and Catholics but rather between believers and nonbelievers. The faithful, such as former President Bush and King Abdullah last year, seem willing now to welcome anyone who has some form of religious faith—as Bush put it, those who may have “different creeds and worship in different places”—but they simultaneously demonstrate a distinctly “nonsectarian” failure even to acknowledge those who do not. Ultimately, believers’ well-intentioned pursuit of harmonious unity among humankind will fail until they accept and include the ever-growing ranks of secularists as they accept their own.

It is especially the duty of our democratically elected officials, representing the United States in the world at large, to include all
of their constituents in global public discourse. President Obama, despite his past support for faith-based initiatives, has usually maintained an inclusive position that embraces believers and nonbelievers alike. However, in dealing with foreign leaders of King Abdullah’s ilk, there is an added responsibility to demand such inclusiveness as a condition that would otherwise be absent in future discussions between particularly religious cultures. This is a charge for Obama. The pursuit of world peace should certainly begin with reconciling the various faiths to the extent that is possible—but it should do so in the context of a shared appreciation for the human condition that includes all worldviews, not selectively shared religious principles that will always leave nonbelievers sitting at the kids’ table.


Stuart Whatley is a writer/journalist in Washington, D.C.

Stuart Whatley

Stuart Whatley is a writer and journalist in Washington, D.C.

  Endorsement [of religion] sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying messa ge to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community. —Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Lynch v. Donnelly (1984) At the close of his second term, during a special …

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