The central problem with a rigid secularism is simple: it would remove one of the main sources of social reform – the passion for justice – in American history.
For civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., human equality was a requirement of divine law. “A just law,” he wrote in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, “is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. And unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” And King firmly rejected the privatization of religious belief. “It’s all right to talk about heaven,” he said. “I talk about it because I believe firmly in immortality. But you’ve got to talk about earth…. It’s even all right to talk about the New Jerusalem. But one day we must begin to talk about the new Chicago, the new Atlanta, the new New York, the new America.”
It is easy to talk about the threat of religion to democracy in the abstract. But strict secularism would mean not only no more Pat Robertsons but also no more Martin Luther Kings. Are we really so enlightened and advanced that religious conscious is no longer needed to call attention to the weak and oppressed? Are we really so close to the ideal of justice that a higher conception of divine justice can be banished from public debate? Every society needs a standard of values that stands above the political order, or the political order becomes absolute, and progress toward justice becomes impossible.
Michael Gerson is the author of the new book, “Heroic Conservatism.” Gerson is a former Bush White House speech writer, current Newsweek contributor and Washington Post columnist.