American democracy needs vibrant religious institutions

January 6 & Secularism

Mark Tooley on January 13, 2022

Christian pacifist activist Shane Claiborne, with whom I enjoy a cordial acquaintance, recently wrote me to complain that IRD had posted nothing on the anniversary of the January 6 attack. I responded that having already published over 20 columns I was not sure there was more to say. But a Salon piece by Jacques Berlinerblau at Georgetown University provoked more thoughts.

According to Berlinerblau:

The exercise of religion — or, more precisely, the free exercise of conservative Christian religions — is increasingly assuming the cultural, and even legal, stature of an inalienable American right. In the name of “religious freedom,” county clerks, doctors and bakers openly discriminate against LGBTQ citizens. Our rightward-charging judiciary lets worshippers congregate during a pandemic; religious devotion, apparently, trumps public safety.  


To understand where this free-exercise fundamentalism may lead us, we need look no further than the insurrectionists of last January and their boundless sense of religious entitlement. Michael Sparks, who was among the first to breach the Capitol, enthused on Facebook: “We’re getting ready to live through something of biblical purportions [sic] be prayed up and be ready to defend your country and your family.” Jacob Chansley, the so-called QAnon Shaman, intoned a prayer about the rebirth of America — on the floor of the Senate, whose evacuation he and his co-rioters had just triggered.


On Jan. 6, 2021, a mob filled with religious extremists, among others, nearly upended one of the world’s oldest and stablest liberal democracies. Could any comparable display of free exercise have occurred in France or Canada or Uruguay or India, or any country with clear constitutional guidelines about the relation between government and religion?

(His citation of India, currently governed by a Hindu nationalist party, is odd.)

Berlinerblau faults the First Amendment’s promise for the free exercise of religion for January 6 and for his wider critique of contemporary political influence by what he calls Christian revivalists. He prefers a more assertive secularism in which there are at least social if not legal limits on religious involvement in politics, perhaps similar to France or Mexico.

Ten years ago Berlinerblau wrote a book How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom, insisting that religious perspectives have no role in politics and politicians should not cite their faith in God. As one reviewer characterizes his argument: “Keeping religion out of government, schools, and other public spaces is better for all of you. We know this from experience – y”all should read about it yourself sometime. Now please return to your houses of worship quietly.” The reviewer describes Berlinerblau as patronizingly dismissive of democracy and free speech. Berlinblauer does want to mobilize opponents of Christian revivalists, which of course he has every right to advocate, as the Constitution gloriously permits.

Although his Salon column doesn’t connect all the dots, Berlinerblauer seemingly thinks freedom of religion fuels violence such as on January 6. By implication, he would also think freedom of speech fuels political violence and so should be restricted. These assumptions are authoritarian and subversive to American democracy. The answer to extremist perspectives is not repression but counter arguments that clear the air for healthy public debate. The January 6 crowd had every right to rally, however spurious their claims, and their violent trespasses and assaults are rightly prosecuted, just as all violent offenses should be.

Berlinblauer predictably prefers to see the January 6 mob as emblematic of the Christian revivalists he disdains and exploits them to disparage wider traditional Christian influence in public life:

Secularists should steward a more sophisticated discussion of “religious freedom.” Politicians and assorted intellectuals lazily depict public expressions of faith as providing exponential benefits for the commonweal. Prayer circles at football games, candidates who do “God talk” on the campaign trail, Latin crosses on federal property — all of it is assumed to make our nation stronger. 


Perhaps, but the January insurrection reminds us of a craggy secular intuition: Religious passion has a dark side, a volatility that only the state can contain. Much is made of the condition of our democracy’s “guardrails”; the time has come to recognize a functioning, re-energized secularism as a crucial defense against what happened last Jan. 6.  

This call for the state to contain “religious passion” is ominous. Should the U.S. treat some ardent political religionists like Egypt or Algeria treat their Islamists? Religious passion does indeed potentially have a dark side but so too does every aspect of human nature especially its political side. A healthy nation contains overt violence with state force but contains or corrals dangerous viewpoints with saner arguments mediated by civil society.

The conspiracy fueled violent and apocalyptic extremism of January 6 cannot and should not be countered by the state. In the religious sphere it can only be effectively countered by religious institutions and leaders. Misdirected religious passions can only be replaced by and redirected by constructive piety informed by reason and reflection, mediated by the wider community of faith.

January 6’s extremism and violence did not evince the dangerous strength of revivalistic Christianity in America, as Berlinerblau suggests. It instead revealed the decline and retreat of the institutional church with all its intellectual and spiritual resources, displaced increasingly by paranoid online blather uninformed by orthodox theology.

Berlinerblau presumably likes Thomas Jefferson’s famous 1802 letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut citing a “wall of separation” between church and state, which Jefferson deemed an assurance of religious freedom. I prefer Jefferson’s less remembered 1809 letter to the Methodists of New London:

No provision in our constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority. It has not left the religion of its citizens under the power of its public functionaries, were it possible that any of these should consider a conquest over the consciences of men either attainable, or applicable to any desirable purpose.

Jefferson, who was privately Unitarian, commended the Methodist revivalists and others during the Second Great Awakening for their rapid growth:

To me, no information could be more welcome than that the minutes of the several religious societies should prove, of late, larger additions, than have been usual, to their several associations: and I trust that the whole course of my life has proved me a sincere friend to religious, as well as civil liberty.

Jefferson knew what Berlinerblau fails to appreciate: American democracy needs vibrant religious institutions, even revivalists, to counter extremism and steward passions constructively towards social harmony and moral uplift.

  1. Comment by Brian Evers on January 13, 2022 at 11:30 am

    Jan 6th gets too much weight by the press but that is predictable. There were as many people arrested for violence outside of the Capital for rioting and looting during the 2016 inauguration as was in 2020. There was no coordination in 2020 and the mess was cleaned up in hours. This was unlike the religious level passions that lit the neighborhoods on fire “BLM” nationally. BLM had religious fervor without the religion to restrain it. It also was more deadly and more of a violation of society.

  2. Comment by David on January 13, 2022 at 1:39 pm

    I would be very careful about conflating the BLM demonstrations and cases of looting. The videos I saw of these events showed that they were carried out by largely different ethnic groups. It would seem the looters were merely taking advantage of the situation.

    Attempting to stop the function of government and threatening the life of the Vice President are rather different matters than misbehavior outside the Capitol.

  3. Comment by David S. on January 13, 2022 at 5:15 pm

    But, David, you ignore the fact that the end game of the 2016 behavior exhibited by Democrats and their supporters resulted in not much different behavior. In some ways, it was even worse, when a Democrat supporter decided to try and assassinate Republican members of Congress, in response to the abrasive antics of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; Ilhan Omar; Maxine Waters, who is just as boorish as Trump in ways, but always gets a pass by the mainstream media because of her race, sex, and, most importantly, political affiliation; and gang.

  4. Comment by Theodore Miner on January 15, 2022 at 2:05 pm

    “…the insurrectionists of last January and their boundless sense of religious entitlement”

    The lunacy continues. Secular atheists are fully control all areas of influence within society: government, academia, media, entertainment. The tyrannical actions and impulses of the secular left is on full display. It is preposterous to think that the marginalized Christian community poses any threat to anyone. Because some guy with horns on this head trespassed within the capital and referenced the Christian religion, that means that Christianity is a threat?? This is a complete detachment from reality.

  5. Comment by Search4Truth on January 15, 2022 at 2:29 pm

    It’s sad we pay so little attention to history. In the 1820s Alexis de Tocqueville wrote a two-volume study of Democracy in America. Amazingly everything he predicted could go wrong has been slowly evolving over the almost two centuries since he published his work. One of the things that amazed him the most was the role the Christian religion, in the background, played the successful functioning of the American democracy. As our Christian ideals become more ridiculed and pushed into the background, the more the real rights of the citizens are also trampled on and lost. If this trend continues for a little longer our children will be living without a democracy.

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