In this 2018 article, Shadi Hamid discusses the importance of a “modest” American pluralism that can accommodate the fact that “there isn’t a common good to be found; that, because we believe strongly in different things from different premises, politics will be inherently conflictual; that there isn’t necessarily a resolution to political divides.” Hamid’s article focuses on Eboo Patel’s book Out of Many Faiths, the “central task” of which, according to Hamid, is to “ask how we might move from mere diversity to a deeper pluralism and to understand the role that religion can play in the process.”
Hamid and Patel are particularly interested in how American Muslims fit into the ideal of a pluralistic culture and society in the United States. “The controversies swirling around Muslims are clearly the most salient,” Patel writes, “and they raise the sharpest questions about America’s traditions, values, and identity.” Hamid agrees, arguing that Muslims “are a, and perhaps the, critical case for the limits of toleration in today’s America.” However, Hamid immediately follows this sentence with an indirect reference to another test of those limits:
Focusing on one faith community allows us to consider the positive role that religion has played and can continue to play in American democratic life—a simple, basic notion that was long taken for granted but is now questioned by many, if not most, on the left. It is difficult to imagine the United States developing as it did into a participatory, civic society in the absence of strong religious sentiment.
It’s unclear why Hamid thinks that the idea of religion as a positive force in American civil society is “now questioned by many, if not most, on the left.” According to Gallup, the least popular religious affiliation among Democrats is atheism. While 97 percent of Democrats say that they would vote for a Catholic, 95 percent would vote for a Jew, and 88 percent would vote for a Muslim, just 69 percent would vote for an atheist. Considerably more Democrats (77 percent) would even vote for an evangelical Christian candidate.
Atheists have more liberal views than the rest of the country on government aid to the poor, environmental protection and a range of other issues, and Pew observes that they “tend to be aligned with the Democratic Party.” But, even though atheists are closer to mainstream Democrats than Muslims on many issues—especially homosexuality, abortion and women in the workplace—Democrats are still far more inclined to be open-minded about Muslim candidates. While the acceptance of Muslims among Democrats is certainly something to celebrate (only 42 percent of Republicans say they’d vote for a Muslim, while 41 percent would vote for an atheist), we shouldn’t just consider the implications of antipathy toward marginalized religious groups for the future of pluralism in America—we should also consider antipathy towards atheists and other irreligious Americans.
Americans have long embraced their “Judeo-Christian” heritage—a hyphenation Patel sees as reason for optimism. “Patel takes heart in the fact that the Christian tradition was nimble enough to incorporate Jews, becoming ‘Judeo-Christian’ in the process,” Hamid writes. “Why shouldn’t the Judeo-Christian tradition be able to continue a natural, and distinctly American, evolution and broaden itself to include Muslims too?” Citing Robert Jones, Hamid points out that one of the reasons this process may be bumpier for American Muslims is that the white Christian culture into which other religious groups have assimilated isn’t as dominant as it once was.
Hamid quotes Jones: “With fewer and fewer goods exclusively reserved to be granted from white Christians in power, religious minority groups are finding that the sacrifices assimilation often involves are no longer worth it.” The more pluralistic a society becomes, the more difficult it is to develop a common culture around shared values and experiences—which is ironic, as the level of pluralism in a society is generally a measure of its commitment to universal rights and responsibilities. Despite the long history of exclusion on the basis of race, gender, socioeconomic status, etc. in the United States, universality has always been central to the American idea, perhaps best expressed in the motto adopted by the Second Confederation Congress for the Great Seal of the United States in 1782: E pluribus unum (“Out of Many, One”).
But this motto isn’t as widely accepted as you might think, and some of its harshest critics have attacked it on religious grounds. In a 2010 speech in Jakarta, President Obama said, “In the United States, our motto is E pluribus unum—out of many, one … our nations show that hundreds of millions who hold different beliefs can be united in freedom under one flag.” This sentiment prompted forty-two members of the House Congressional Prayer Caucus (including Mike Pence) to write a letter demanding that Obama issue a correction. The letter points out that President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill that made In God We Trust the national motto in 1956 and accuses Obama of “casting aside an integral part of American society” by invoking E pluribus unum. Members of the Prayer Caucus also attack Obama for how he discussed the Declaration of Independence:
During three separate events this fall, when quoting from the Declaration of Independence, you mentioned that we have inalienable rights, but consistently failed to mention the source of the rights. The Declaration of Independence definitely recognizes God, our Creator, as the source of our rights. Omitting the word “Creator” once was a mistake; but twice establishes a pattern.
“In your speech in Indonesia,” the letter continues, “you mentioned being unified under one flag. The Pledge of Allegiance to our flag says that we are ‘one nation under God.’” The letter writers neglect to mention that the words “under God” were not added to the pledge until 1954, two years before In God We Trust was declared the national motto. A few weeks ago, President Trump accused Democrats of removing “under God” from the pledge during the Democratic National Convention. Shortly thereafter, his critics accused him of doing the same thing—a reminder that accusations of impiety are politically convenient across the political spectrum.
The vague ecumenicalism promoted by the Prayer Caucus letter—which uses words like God, Creator and religion frequently, without specifically mentioning Christianity—can incorporate other monotheistic faiths like Judaism and Islam more easily than atheism. While Muslims face many obstacles (such as racism), belief in God is a source of common feeling and shared values among Americans of different faiths. For example, although the number of Americans who say a belief in God is necessary to have good values has been declining, 55 percent of religious Americans still hold this view.
Although many American politicians ignore it, the United States has a long history of secularism. The Constitution contains no references to God; freedom of religion is enshrined in the First Amendment; and Founders like Thomas Jefferson were adamant about steering the country away from religious sectarianism and coercion. Jefferson wanted only three of his achievements to be inscribed on his memorial: the Declaration of Independence, the University of Virginia and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. The last of these declares:
Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry … therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right.
This passage is particularly relevant considering the uneasiness many Americans feel about the prospect of atheists holding public office, and it challenges the demand that public officials profess “this or that religious opinion” (such as the idea that God is the source of our rights) in the course of their duties. In the 234 years since the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was adopted, members of Congress and US presidents have been Christian almost without exception, and, although the constitution never mentions God, every state constitution does. Only 27 percent of Americans (and 23 percent of Christians) know that the constitution says “no religious test” can be administered to holders of public office—a fact atheists are twice as likely to know.
As the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans (including atheists) continues to rise, they’re often accused of replacing traditional faiths with religions of their own making—and told that these new faiths are superficial and destructive. This is another way in which atheists and secularists are marginalized in the United States—instead of engaging with the beliefs they profess to hold, their critics often define their views for them. Hamid is one of many commentators who are increasingly concerned that traditional religious life in the United States is waning—to the detriment of American civil society and culture. As he put it in a recent interview: “As we’ve seen the decline of attendance rates and of identification with traditional Christianity, we have a real vacuum in our country.” Hamid believes this vacuum is being filled by a “sort of secular religion … the woke church,” in which there’s “real conceptions of sin, of guilt, of shame, of atonement.”
Hamid points to the recent footage of crowds kneeling and reciting pledges to acknowledge and renounce their white supremacy, privilege, etc. The attendees of these “white guilt rallies,” as Hamid calls them, are “basically prostrating on the ground as if they are praying and they’re essentially absolving themselves, trying to absolve themselves of sin and almost totemizing black people.” Meanwhile, a series of orthodoxies (especially around gender and race) have taken root in the wider culture, and deviating from them can lead to deplatforming, mobbing, losing your job, social ostracism and many other ugly consequences.
The religious character of these dogmas and punishments is hard to deny. And Hamid isn’t the only one who has noticed this—as Andrew Sullivan puts it, “The need for meaning hasn’t gone away, but without Christianity, this yearning looks to politics for satisfaction. And religious impulses, once anchored in and tamed by Christianity, find expression in various political cults.” Sullivan explains how the “Great Awokening” mirrors religion, albeit in “new and crude” ways: it offers a narrative of good versus evil (oppressive social power structures versus those who resist them); a “set of practices to resist and reverse” these structures; and a form of atonement that “requires the admission of white privilege in ways that are strikingly like the admission of original sin.”
According to Sullivan, “We’re mistaken if we believe that the collapse of Christianity in America has led to a decline in religion.” This is because he believes “Everyone has a religion. It is, in fact, impossible not to have a religion if you are a human being. It’s in our genes and has expressed itself in every culture, in every age, including our own secularized husk of a society.” Hamid agrees: “The idea that we’re going to evolve into some kind of enlightened secularism misunderstands human nature. We are faith-based individuals.”
That’s news to many Americans who explicitly repudiate the idea that they’re “faith-based.” Between 2009 and 2019, the proportion of Americans who identify as Christians fell from 77 to 65 percent. Meanwhile, the proportion who say they’re unaffiliated with any religion surged from 17 to 26 percent—an increase of 30 million people. These trends have coincided with a significant drop in church attendance, and younger generations are particularly unlikely to attend religious services—only 35 percent of millennials say that they attend at least monthly, while 64 percent attend a few times a year or less (including 22 percent who say they never attend). Even if it’s true that social justice warriorism satisfies a religious impulse in some Americans, nonreligious Americans make up more than a quarter of the country, and only a tiny fraction of these Americans subscribe to the political cults Hamid and Sullivan decry.
While religiously unaffiliated Americans often continue to express a belief in a higher power or some form of spirituality, the proportion of atheists grew from 2 percent in 2009 to 4 percent in 2019—81 percent of whom say they do not believe in God, a higher power or a spiritual force of any kind. There are twice as many atheists as Jews in the United States and four times as many atheists as Muslims.
Hamid is right that American Muslims present an important test case for the United States’ traditions, values and identity, as well as its commitment to tolerance and pluralism. However, the growing number of atheists in the United States raises its own set of questions about the tension between secular and Judeo-Christian values, the prejudice many Americans still feel toward atheists (particularly when they run for public office), the expectations of elected officials and the religious character of our institutions.
It’s frustrating for many American atheists and secularists that discussions about religion and tolerance in the United States are so often confined to the parameters of interfaith dialogue. And when atheists are included in these conversations, they’re constantly told that their beliefs are gutting communities and turning the United States into a “secularized husk of a society.” They’re told that their beliefs aren’t genuinely held or honestly reported—they may think they’re atheists, but in reality they’re the adherents of some new and crude religion, which is corrosive to the foundations of our civic life and culture.
But the number of Americans who no longer subscribe to traditional religion continues to rise. Hamid is right that politics is inherently conflictual and that there may not be a resolution to certain divides, but we can have these debates without telling atheists and secularists that their beliefs are undermining the very foundations of our society—especially considering the fact that secularism has always been an integral part of that society.