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Just How Secular Is The US: A Pakistani Perspective

On a Monday night, having tea at a local hut, a few of our friends were discussing the complex-confusing religious identity of Pakistan. One of them asked a question, “Why is there criticism on the religious identity of Pakistan, when the superpower America promotes its religion, Christianity, too?” There is no doubt about the influence of religion on individuals’ behaviour as well as on society. But its impact on the discursive and social identity of a state can be questioned. Some states make religion their core identity while some negate the role of religion in politics and make their identity secular. During the culture war and in the Trump doctrine, the debate “Is America really a secular nation?” got momentum. Even in Pakistan we are often encountered with such questions on the role of religion in American politics!

To understand whether America is a secular state or a Christian nation, we must understand the concept of secularism. Although everyone has a different definition for it, in Pakistan most of us define secularism as the negation of religion and secular people are those who negate religion – in other words, godless people. In a broader perspective secularism is a worldview which is defined by a reasoned, coherent and well organized code of values which would be common to Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus and atheists. Secularization is not the opposition to any religion rather it emphasizes that there must not be any monopoly over wisdom, values and morality by any particular religion. Secular space ensures that no one religion has dominance over another. Moreover, there is separation between institutions and religion. Secularists argue that the social identity and discursive othering of a state must not be formed by the language of religion. By taking these in consideration, America is a secular nation as it fulfills all the characteristics which are prerequisite for being a secular state. Nevertheless, one can argue about the level of secularization achieved or how much that country satisfies the ideals of secularism: truth, equality, compassion, freedom and courage.

The secular nature of the US would require us to examine the nation’s founding documents, constitution, treaties and other practical aspects of American society.

The constitution of a state reflects the state identity and the role of religion in state affairs. According to the US constitution, the country is a secular state. The US constitution is a wholly secular document. It contains no mention of Christianity or Jesus Christ. In fact, the Constitution refers to religion only twice in the First Amendment, which bars laws “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” By contrast, the Pakistan constitution is Islamic is nature and had been derived from the Objectives Resolution of 1949. The constitution of America has not mentioned any particular religion as supreme or as a guiding principle of the state. Secondly, Article VI prohibits “religious tests” for public office. Anyone from any religion can hold public office. The case is otherwise in Pakistan.

Thirdly, the founders of America were clear about the nature of the state. They wanted America to be a secular state. This clear view of the country’s founding fathers can be clearly seen in the constitution of America. For example, President George Washington, in a famous 1790 letter to a Jewish congregation in Newport, R.I., celebrated the fact that Jews had full freedom of worship in America. Similarly, Washington once said, “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship in the country.”

Fourthly, the treaty with Tripoli and the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty clearly reflect America as a secular state. Article 11 of the Tripoli treaty states: “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion, – as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen, – and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.” Similarly, the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty also talks about religious freedom.

Fifth, there is respect for religious pluralism in America. Anyone from any religion can hold public office and can practice their religion. When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, for example, he spoke of “unalienable rights endowed by our Creator.” He used generic religious language that all religious groups of the day would respond to, not narrowly Christian language traditionally employed by nations with state churches. This indicates the secular nature of American society.

In addition, the number of “nones” is increasing in the American society. They are secular and think that they are not affiliated with religion and seek no role of religion in state affairs. A 2014 Pew Research Center survey also shows this trend. This indicates that secularism is still on the rise in America.

Furthermore, the nation-state system is itself a secular concept. How can America become a Christian state when the external world is secularized? If America were a Christian state, it would never be able to achieve that position in the international arena as she pursued being a secular state.

Moreover, the reflection of religion in state ideology is necessary if it is not a secular state. But in the case of America we have not seen such reflection. Although there might had been or will be in future presidents who would have given paramount importance to religion and displays of religiosity, that does not mean that the state is theocratic. Personal orientation of leaders is totally different from the official recognition of religion by a state. We have not seen such official recognition of religion by the United States of America.

In addition to that, the results of the recent presidential elections in the US show the secular orientation of American people. Although there is increased polarization and right wing populism in America, that does not mean that the state has opted for a religious ideology. One can argue about the transition phase of American society but cannot claim that it is no longer a secular state.

Lastly, the secular societies and institutions might fall far short of the secular ideals but on the basis of gaps one cannot deny the secular nature of a state.


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Naya Daur