Secularism is a scary word for some, especially those on the religious Right. Moreover, as we are now officially into the 2012 presidential election campaign, you can expect to hear a lot more about the alleged evils of secularism. Before his recent political implosion, self-appointed intellectual Newt Gingrich was busy inveighing against secularism in articles, speeches, and books. (His most recent book was titled To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine.) Gingrich’s rants may now receive less attention, but his views on secularism are echoed by many others, including Republican presidential hopefuls Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney.
This dread of secularism among some of the religious is misplaced. Properly understood, secularism is not a threat to religious beliefs. Granted, secularism is a threat to the privileged position that religion still maintains in certain areas, and that may explain some of the adverse reaction to secularism. But religion’s privileged position is neither justified nor consistent with freedom of conscience or the respect we owe to others. To the contrary, adherence to secular principles is required if we are to respect the dignity of others, including the dignity of religious believers—or so I will argue here.