A BRIEF HISTORY OF SECULARISM -- What if I were to tell you that the separation of church and state was, in its origins, not an Atheist's proposal, but a value deeply rooted in Christianity? What if I told you that theocracy ironically helped to create modern state secularism? Or that secularism was formally established in the West by the same country which today undermines it the most? Well, as you might of guessed, I'm about to do just that, as I give you a brief history of Secularism
The term “Secularism” finds its origins in the writing of George Jacob Holyoake, who also gave us the term “jingoism”. He was a non-religious writer, who at different times labelled himself an Atheist and Agnostic. His conception of secularism is the broad definition, namely, anything of this world, not involving religion. As he puts it, secularism is:
“a form of opinion which concerns itself only with questions, the issues of which can be tested by the experiences of this life.”
A more familiar understanding of secularism might be state secularism, which is the idea that government should be secular. Or, as it is most commonly expressed, the separation of church and state.
That particular form of secularism does not find its roots in a modern Atheistic writings. In fact, perhaps the first person to ever advocate a separation of church and state was this guy. (Jesus)
“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's...” (Matthew 22:21)
A narrow reading of this narrative is that Jesus is telling his fellow Jews to pay their taxes to Rome, because Tiberius's face is on the money. But, more broadly, he's making a distinction between the secular world and the world of the Deity. He's pointing out that worldly matters can and perhaps ought to be separated from religious matters.
This idea has not been lost on the great Christian theologists. Thomas Aquinas, for example, distinguished between a good man and a good citizen. And numerous Christian writers, such as Martin Luther, reference two kingdoms: the Deity's Kingdom, and the Kingdom of the World.
That isn't to say there's always been a clear separation between the secular and the religious in the Christian world. Indeed, Romans 13 makes it quite clear that the secular authorities should be obeyed because they are put their by the Deity.
The authorities that exist have been established by the Deity. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what the Deity has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.
Throughout the Middle Ages, Kings and Queens claimed their birth right of state power based on the Deity's appointment, and sought the approval of religious figures, like the Pope to legitimate their authority. And after freeing himself from Papal authority, King Henry VIII appointed himself to be the Supreme Head of the Church of England, essentially making England a theocracy, the extreme opposite of a secular society.
As a result of English theocracy, waves of religious minorities from England would eventually pour into the new World. Puritans, Quakers Congregationalists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Catholics, and Jews would all find homes in the 13 colonies of New England. This religious diversity made secular government a practical necessity.
After the revolution, the founders enshrined many of America's core values in the fist amendment of the constitution. The first two clauses protected state secularism:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Many of the founders were, of course, practically non-religious Deists, or totally non-religious Atheists. They very often derived their approval of the separation of church and state from Enlightenment thinkers, like John Locke. But the impulse to keep religion away from government was not the exclusive concern of non-believers.
In fact, it was the Danbury Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut who prompted Thomas Jefferson to coin the phrase “wall of separation”. They had sent a newly elected President Thomas Jefferson a letter to voicing fears that the Congregationalists of Danbury might trample their on their minority religious rights. Jefferson assured them that the constitution's two clauses on the matter protected their natural right to worship freely.
A less popular confirmation of America's stance on the separation of Church and State can be found in the Treaty of Tripoly from 1797, which states that,
“the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion” ...