Why Secular Society Desperately Needs the Recognition of Religious Holidays

Bruce Ledewitz

Image by Fabio Valeggia from Pixabay.

It is the common and traditional view that disputes over the recognition of religious holidays — disputes over creches and menorahs on public property, for example — are a clash between religious and secular citizens over the meaning of the Establishment Clause in the Constitution.

But this is an outdated viewpoint, for two reasons. First, from a legal perspective, a Supreme Court like the one we currently have (which in cases like Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, interprets the Free Exercise Clause as not only permitting, but requiring government to fund church activities) is hardly going to interpret the Establishment Clause to forbid Christmas displays. This is a broadly pro-religion Court. Constitutionally, this debate is over. Most skilled legal observers presumably realize this.

The second reason is something that is not appreciated. The debate over the nature of American society (the question of whether or not America is a Christian nation, for example) that holiday disputes were seen as raising, is over as well. Disputes over religious displays no longer function in the way Ronald Dworkin described in his 2006 book, Is Democracy Possible Here?: Principles for a New Political Debate, as an argument over whether this is a religious nation that tolerates nonbelief or a secular nation that tolerates religion.

This debate ended in the opposite place from the legal debate — the Supreme Court may be pro-religion, but this is now a thoroughly secular society.

This debate ended in the opposite place from the legal debate — the Supreme Court may be pro-religion, but this is now a thoroughly secular society. This is so not only on the coasts, but in the heartland, not only in the cities, but in every town. As I put it in a recent book, The Universe Is on Our Side: Restoring Faith in American Public Life, the Death of God has come home to roost.

This is not the context in which to present all the evidence supporting this claim. If the reader would like to see how a secular society acts, even one with a large predominance of citizens who report that they believe in God, one needs to look no further than the public response to COVID-19 and the pandemic. Unlike Europe’s reaction to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which occasioned serious reflection on God’s role in history, there was no serious public debate in America, or really in the West generally, on the theological meaning of the virus. There was no organized prayer by national figures — not even on the “National Day of Prayer” on Sunday, March 15, 2020 — asking God to spare America the effects of the virus. America no longer asks, as Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane, to be spared this cup. We all know, including many people who regularly attend religious services, that viruses are natural events, though they can be created in a lab, and that God has nothing to do with their spread. To defend yourself, you need a vaccine, not a prayer.

Even the current irrational anti-vaccine holdouts are not, by and large, presenting themselves as following God’s will. Their position is mostly political, with a dash of unreasoning skepticism and paranoid conspiracy theories added in.

The meaning of the Establishment Clause looks very different from the perspective of a secular society. Government is today no more likely to endorse religion, especially not a particular religion, than Allegheny County was to endorse Judaism in Allegheny County v. ACLU in 1989. That obvious fact had a lot to do with why the majority in that case permitted a menorah display while striking down the display of a creche. Minority religious displays — non-Christian holiday displays — never raised the same kind of Establishment Clause concerns that the threat of endorsement of Christianity did. Endorsement of Christianity by the government was a real political possibility during most of American history. That was never the case with regard to the myriad other religions present in America during the same period.

The situation today is similar with regard to all religions, even Christianity. Secularism has penetrated deep into every community. So, for the same reason that minority religious displays were allowed more leeway than Christian ones in the past, secular people today should feel free to tolerate public recognition of religious holidays generally without fearing that this reflects a religious takeover of the government.

This situation is unprecedented. It raises a different kind of question, one that never before would have been important. In light of the secularization of American society, the questions that should be asked today are: what is the meaning of religious displays in a secular society? What is the meaning of the expression of religious belief when, for most people, genuine religious piety is quite foreign?

On the one hand, such displays can be viewed as simple recognitions of the religious commitments of neighbors and friends. These occasions celebrate American diversity. Secular citizens should be aware that even for many religious citizens, such displays are largely social and historical expressions of identity and community rather than rituals of religious belief. They are often akin to the expression of Irish identity on St. Patrick’s Day.

Constitutional law has long used the concept of “ceremonial deism” to describe constitutionally acceptable rote public invocations of God. In Engel v. Vitale, the Court called such exercises “patriotic or ceremonial occasions.” Justice O’Connor, concurring in the judgment in Elk Grove Unified School Dist. v. Newdow, the case that upheld the constitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance, stated that a reasonable observer who knew the history and context of “ceremonial deism” would not perceive such references to a deity as “government endorsement of any specific religion, or even of religion over non-religion.”

Religious holiday displays can be ceremonial in the same way.

On the other hand, there is also a deeper potential meaning to public religious displays, albeit not one that threatens Establishment Clause values. Secular citizens should welcome religious displays as a valuable resource in secular society’s ongoing and painful search for meaning and purpose. It is in this sense that secular society desperately needs the public recognition of religious holidays.

American secular society is not healthy. It is in the midst of an epistemic and ontological crisis. America no longer has a shared story of the meaning of human existence. Instead, we drift from the dregs of Christian commitment that is no longer plausible for most of us — perfectly symbolized by the desultory COVID-19 National Day of Prayer — to a fitful embrace of mechanistic materialism that many of us find inevitable, but unbearable in its nihilistic implications.

This is even the underlying reason why our political parties cannot cooperate and why we have descended into warring camps. The crisis in American public life represents the birth pangs of a new secular civilization.

We lack the will to decide on the future of secularism. This is the reason that America is divided, angry, depressed and irrational. This is the reason for deaths of despair. This is even the underlying reason why our political parties cannot cooperate and why we have descended into warring camps. The crisis in American public life represents the birth pangs of a new secular civilization.

In this bleak context, public recognition of different religious traditions can remind secular society of the historical expressions of belief in a coherent and meaningful universe. Religions differ in their content, but they all share a commitment to some form of value and moral realism. All religions tell a story of a universe that makes sense. Secular society today needs that kind of reassurance.

When I first made this argument in my 2011 book Church, State, and the Crisis in American Secularism the crisis in secular society was not as obvious as it is today. It was hard for people to imagine that all the major institutions in society were failing. It was hard then to imagine a society that lacked fundamental trust in anything.

Ten years later, after Brexit, after the election of Donald Trump, after an attack on the U.S. Capitol, and in light of current American divisions and anti-vaccine fantasies, it is clear how lost America, and the West generally, have become.

Secularists were so busy asserting that we could be good without God, that we forgot to ask whether we could be good without any concept of the good.

Public recognition of many and varied religious traditions is a needed first step on the road to a secular renaissance that takes seriously the need to engage the deepest issues of human life. In this endeavor, religions should not be viewed as competitors to secularity, but as differing recipes for human existence. Granted, secularism cooks a different kind of meal, but past culinary experiments are still valuable.

This view should not be considered a threat to constitutional values. A combination of the doctrines of designated limited public forum and government speech should be sufficiently capacious to permit the use of religious symbols and images to express the hope for meaning and purpose in human life without violation of the Establishment Clause. Government might create spaces for the religions to mount their own displays or might utilize the images and events of established religions to express its own commitment to meaning in the universe. In O’Connor’s language, this is not an endorsement of religion over non-religion.

Religion is not the only way to conceive of a coherent and meaningful universe. In their own way, science, art, philosophy and the humanities generally all similarly provide meaning and importance to the world. Government should utilize images and symbols from these other traditions as well.

But religion is an old and still familiar source of value realism and there is no reason to exclude it from the coming reconstruction of secular life.

Religious faiths are of course truth for their devotees. For the rest of us, religions are an enormous library of ancient wisdom. And wisdom today is in short supply. ♦

Bruce Ledewitz is Professor of Law and Adrian Van Kaam C.S.Sp. Endowed Chair in Scholarly Excellence at Duquesne Law School, where he specializes in Law and Religion, Jurisprudence and Pennsylvania and federal Constitutional Law. Ledewitz is the author of numerous articles and shorter pieces, as well as four books: American Religious Democracy, Hallowed Secularism, Church, State, and the Crisis in American Secularism and The Universe Is on Our Side.

Recommended Citation

Ledewitz, Bruce. “Why Secular Society Desperately Needs the Recognition of Religious Holidays.” Canopy Forum, December 22, 2021. https://canopyforum.org/2021/12/22/why-secular-society-desperately-needs-the-recognition-of-religious-holidays/.