Which First comes first?

In light of the continuing political uprising throughout the Middle East, American leaders are reported to be recalculating their approach … Continued

In light of the continuing political uprising throughout the Middle East, American leaders are reported to be recalculating their approach to the Muslim world.

Politico’s Ben Smith wrote this week that the Obama administration “clearly sees an opportunity,” signaling “that they’re hoping the changes in Tunisia and Egypt spread, and that they’re going to align themselves far more clearly with the young, relatively secular masses” in countries like Iran, Algeria and Lebanon.

Is this a new moment for American relations with Muslim countries? Is freedom a religious or secular idea?

In many ways the question boils down to whether one prioritizes the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”) or the First Commandment (“You shall have no other gods before me.”) Many cultures have a difficult time reconciling the two. But a truly secular posture allows the two to coexist not just harmoniously but in a mutually respectful way.

By “secular” I don’t mean “non-religious,” let alone “anti-religious.” I mean “worldly,” or perhaps “cosmopolitan.” A truly secular posture recognizes that there are multiple religious and ideological perspectives, and chooses not to choose among them–more specifically, chooses not to have governing authorities choose among them.

Such a posture is intolerable for those whose convictions render them incapable of permitting what they consider anathema, be it “idolatry” or (as in the case of many totalitarian regimes of the 20th century) religious faith. For such people to permit any religious expression outside the bounds of their own constitutes participation in such blasphemy, with all the attendant social harms that would cause.

Others of us recognize that legal compulsion does not effect genuine faith, and indeed violates human dignity to a horrifying degree. Not only would we fight to uphold the right of somebody to say something with which we disagree, we would lay down our own lives to protect the rights of somebody to worship a god we consider false. A beautiful expression of this posture was found in the Muslims who formed a human shield around Christian worshippers in Tahrir Square during the protests there, just as those Christians had done for their Muslim neighbors two days prior.

Ultimately such a secular posture derives from one of two assumptions about religious faith and human involvement in it. The first is that it doesn’t matter, so people should be free to do as they please. The second is that it matters more than anything else, so people must be free to choose the good, which requires that they also be able to choose (and practice) the bad. Those of us who believe the stakes are as high as they possibly could be when it comes to faith commitments have the option of choosing to persuade toward authentic faith rather than to compel toward cowed submission.

Many of the Founders were in the former camp, to be sure, but there was no shortage of those in the second. Both saw the wisdom in pursuing a secular course. Whether other nations may long endure will be for their leaders–and their people–to decide.

Jason Poling
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  • brombonz

    “we would lay down our own lives to protect the rights of somebody to worship a god we consider false. A beautiful expression of this posture was found in the Muslims who formed a human shield around Christian worshippers in Tahrir Square during the protests there, just as those Christians had done for their Muslim neighbors two days prior.”But Muslims and Christians worship the SAME god. I know a “trinity” fogs things up, but it’s the same Big Guy in the Sky.And, dear me, would those protesters have so diligently protested any unlikely group to appear in an Islamic public place wearing blasphemous t-shirts.Here, in the veritable “Land of the Free,” atheists in Florida recently were thrown out of a city council(Cape Coral) meeting for wearing T-shirts simply saying on the front “One Nation Indivisible” and on the back “Atheists of Florida.”(They were allowed back, probably on advice of counsel).

  • cecilg

    JASON POLING SAID:” A truly secular posture recognizes that there are multiple religious and ideological perspectives, and chooses not to choose among them–more specifically, chooses not to have governing authorities choose among them.”This is a pretty good definition though somewhat different than that found in most dictionaries. It also may need an addenda, i.e., …and chooses among the various religious perspectives …OR CHOOSES NONE OF THEM. Many “truly secular people are non-religious and some are anti religious. That certainly does not mean that such people have chosen “the bad”.

  • vballboy60

    Well written. I questioned descriptions of “choosing the good” and “bad” but the terms fit well within broad theological assessment. Some sects of religions believe it is an affront to their deity/them to practice anything but their interpretations. They feel bad practices offend their deity/leader who in turn may not bestow admiration or benevolence for true followers. True can be exclusively defined by the sect. Without a reasoned acceptance for others, defined secularly as freedom of religion in America, then any one sect may seek exclusive enforcement of their dogma in all social settings, public and private. Contrarians are publically damned. People witnessing societal conformity from a minority status feel the demanded conformity. It is oppression. To outside observers, it seems odd how oppressive theological enforcers don’t recognize this reverse, minority concern. A secular society permits all perspectives regardless of majority or minority status.

  • vballboy60

    …by way of secular reply… well written! I questioned descriptions of “choosing the good” and “bad” but the terms fit well within broad theological assessment. Some sects of religions believe it is an affront to their deity/them to practice anything but their interpretations. They feel bad practices offend their deity/leader who in turn may not bestow admiration or benevolence for true followers. True can be exclusively defined by the sect. Without a reasoned acceptance for others, defined secularly as freedom of religion in America, then any one sect may seek exclusive enforcement of their dogma in all social settings, public and private. Contrarians are publically damned. People witnessing societal conformity from a minority status feel the demanded conformity. It is oppression. To outside observers, it seems odd how oppressive theological enforcers don’t recognize this reverse, minority concern. A secular society permits all perspectives regardless of majority or minority status.