“This is a Government Institution, Not a Secular Institution”

South Dakota has produced a perfect storm of redefined terms to maintain Christian privilege in government.  As Hemant Mehta reports, the city council of Rapid City has been dismissive of requests that they cease the practice of praying before meetings. When Council Member Bill Clayton laughed off an appeal by a college student, he employed a line that seems to be getting more popular lately: “Christianity is not a religion.”

Clayton was repeating a maneuver right out of the Bill O’Reilly playbook for justifying the infusion of Christian into government. Christianity, the logic goes, is a reflection of ultimate truth, not up for debate. Methodism, Catholicism, Judaism–those are religions, and the First Amendment prohibits their establishment.  But Christianity is, as O’Reilly put it, a philosophy, and the basis for all morality and law, so of course the Rapid City council members ought to pray before their meetings.

So far, pretty typical. But then nearby Meade County decided to get in on the act and pass a motion to pray at their council meetings.  When one citizen objected, correctly identifying the council as a secular institution, commissioner Galen Niederwerder responded, “This is a government institution, not a secular institution.” Where does Niederwerder get the idea that the two are mutually exclusive, or even that a government institution in this country can legally be anything but a secular institution?

Well, it’s largely due to massive confusion over the word “secular,” by both the religious and the irreligious. Many on both sides of that divide use “secular” to mean something that is opposed to religion.  Especially since the rise of the Moral Majority in 1979, “secular humanism” has been a bogeymen to the Christian right, which worked hard to frame it as an anti-Christian religion. Thus, when Niederwerder hears “secular institution,” he associates it with organizations like the American Humanist Association or Center for Inquiry.

More attention needs to be paid to how we use “secular.” I much prefer the way that scholars such as John Fea and Jacques Berlinerblau think of the term. In the recent “Secularism on the Edge” conference at Georgetown, Fea expressed how his university, Messiah college, is it once Christian in the Anabaptist tradition and secular in that it does not promote the intrusion of religion into the state. This is the classical Baptist position on church-state relations until relatively recently in history.  Berlinerblau, in his latest book, makes a similar point, defining secularism as being concerned with the relation between church and state. It is in this sense that the United States was founded as a secular nation, while also being a nation predominately of Protestants.

When that definition is obscured by both the religious anti-secularists and the anti-religious secularists, we get misguided notions like that of Niederwerder’s. Believing that his county council is not a “secular institution” allows him to maintain Christian privilege and hegemony.


*** Watch video of Jacques Berlinerblau’s interview of John Fea:

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