Steven Waldman

Since Pope Benedict XI has long decried the grave threat of secularism, I always wondered whether he understood the subtle way that the Founders hoped secularism and religion would interplay. In his speech to the Bishops Wednesday, he showed that he understands the interplay better than many American religious conservatives.

“It strikes me as significant that here in America, unlike many places in Europe, the secular mentality has not been intrinsically opposed to religion. Within the context of the separation of Church and State, American society has always been marked by a fundamental respect for religion and its public role, and, if polls are to be believed, the American people are deeply religious. But it is not enough to count on this traditional religiosity and go about business as usual, even as its foundations are being slowly undermined. A serious commitment to evangelization cannot prescind from a profound diagnosis of the real challenges the Gospel encounters in contemporary American culture.”

In other words, the Founding Fathers wanted separation of church and state as a precondition for religious freedom, but had no intention of dampening the human quest for faith, or even the need to evangelize that faith. As John Adams wrote, “men ought (after they have examined with unbiased judgments every system of religion, and chosen one system, on their own authority, for themselves), to avow their opinions and defend them with boldness.”

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