What does secular spirituality look like?
Secularism insists that God must be left out of the picture. After all, God just causes divisions, right? Consequently, the unifying moral code would be strictly pragmatic. It would be based on promoting those behaviors that serve human thriving.
But could such a spirituality win the hearts of humanity? Can humanity be convinced, by virtue of a secular morality, to love and not to enslave? After all, our world has shrunk. We are so interconnected. Will not the subjugation of one people negatively impact others so that all would just want to do good?
Are there any lessons that we can learn from the past? For example, what principles had made this nation great?
Alexis de Tocqueville, French statesman, historian and social philosopher, wrote Democracy in America (1835). It has been described as “the most comprehensive and penetrating analysis of the relationship between character and society in America that has ever been written.”
Tocqueville had been well acquainted with the demands for freedom and equality that had arisen from his own French revolution, albeit grounded in the hatred and murder of the clergy. This revolution had confidently sought to push aside anything that stood in its way. However, with the advantage of decades of hindsight, this had become something that the French wanted to avoid at all costs. Tocqueville wrote, “The safeguard of morality is religion, and morality is the best security of law and the surest pledge of freedom.”
He appreciated the moral constraints he found so ubiquitously associated with democracy in America:
“I do not question that the great austerity of manners that is observable in the United States arises, in the first instance, from religious faith… its influence over the mind of woman is supreme, and women are the protectors of morals. There is certainly no country in the world where the tie of marriage is more respected than in America or where conjugal happiness is more highly or worthily appreciated.”
He also found the fruitful expression of democracy was inseparable from its underlying Christian roots:
“In the United States the influence of religion is not confined to the manners, but it extends to the intelligence of the people…. Christianity, therefore, reigns without obstacle, by universal consent; the consequence is, as I have before observed, that every principle of the moral world is fixed and determinate.
“I sought for the key to the greatness and genius of America in her harbors…in her fertile fields and boundless forests; in her rich mines and vast world commerce; in her public school system and institutions of learning. I sought for it in her democratic Congress and in her matchless Constitution. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
The Founding Fathers could have told Tocqueville the same thing. George Washington, our first President, often spoke on the central role of the Christian faith:
“You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are.” (The Writings of Washington, John C. Fitzpatrick, editor (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1932), Vol. XV, p. 55, from his speech to the Delaware Indian Chiefs on May 12, 1779)
Even our first Unitarian President, John Adams, affirmed that Christianity was necessary for national welfare:
“The general principles, on which the Fathers achieved independence, were the only Principles in which that beautiful Assembly of young Gentlemen could Unite, and these Principles only could be intended by them in their address, or by me in my answer.”
“And what were these general Principles? I answer, the general Principles of Christianity, in which all these Sects were United: And the general Principles of English and American Liberty, in which all those young Men United, and which had United all Parties in America, in Majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her Independence.”
“Now I will avow, that I then believe, and now believe, that those general Principles of Christianity, are as eternal and immutable, as the Existence and Attributes of God; and that those Principles of Liberty, are as unalterable as human Nature and our terrestrial, mundane System.” (June 28, 1813 excerpt from a letter to Thomas Jefferson)
“The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever.” (Adams wrote this in a letter to his wife, Abigail, on July 3, 1776.)
Thomas Jefferson, 3rd U.S. President, arguably our least religious president, wrote:
“God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the Gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?” (Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII, p. 237)
James Madison, framer of the Bill of Rights and America’s fourth president said:
“I have sometimes thought there could not be a stronger testimony in favor of religion or against temporal enjoyments, even the most rational and manly, than for men who occupy the most honorable and gainful departments and [who] are rising in reputation and wealth, publicly to declare their unsatisfactoriness by becoming fervent advocates in the cause of Christ; and I wish you may give in your evidence in this way.” (The Papers of James Madison, William T. Hutchinson, editor (Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1962), Vol. I, p. 96, to William Bradford on September 25, 1773)
Why are we so quick to forget their lessons and observations? Why, instead, are we placing our hope in a new and untried spirituality?