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The Dogmatic Rivalry at the Heart of America

Recently, political philosophers D. C. Schindler, Mark T. Mitchell, and Patrick Deneen have decided to assess the state of American liberalism and decide whether it is worth defending. In their view, it is not. In Freedom from Reality, Schindler argues that that liberalism has its foundation in the political philosophy of John Locke, and Locke’s philosophy is “diabolical” in its original Greek meaning of “divisive”—that Lockean liberty divides the individual from firm notions of the good, from other individuals, and from attachment to the created world. In The Limits of Liberalism, Mitchell laments how liberalism facilitates the abandonment of place and tradition, in which the autonomous individual senses no obligation to her homeland or even her family, but rather is a citizen of the world committed to personal consumption and identity politics. Finally, Deneen, in his sweeping Why Liberalism Failed, outlines how liberalism relies on pre-liberal institutions to further its ideological goals of technological, economic, and political liberation. Technological liberation frees the individual from physical limits of the body. Economic liberation frees the individual from constraints on satisfying any number of personal preferences or desires. Political liberation frees the individual from external authorities that condemn the improper use of technology or money.

Read together, the summary position would be this: the divisions inherent in Lockean liberty divided individuals from their world, giving them a false sense of freedom from their neighbors and compatriots, and directed them to dissolve communities for the sake of cosmopolitan ends of global capital and imperial redistribution.

While Schindler, Mitchell, and Deneen have offered forceful critiques of liberalism, their arguments have shortcomings, and one of them will be the subject of this essay. The shortcoming is methodological. One problem with political philosophy is the tendency to overstate the importance of ideas and understate the importance of other factors, especially contingency and the role of political actors. As a result, liberalism becomes, as Samuel Goldman has argued, a Geist and critiques of liberalism become Geistgeschicten. In other words, liberalism becomes a kind of trans-historical political actor driving the behaviors and events in the world, which then requires describing all those behaviors and events in terms of the advancement of liberalism. While liberal ideas have had a powerful influence on contemporary politics, they are simply insufficient and too diverse to explain either individuals or their responses to contingencies. To provide some needful correction, therefore, I will put the three authors in conversation with the work of Philip Hamburger, who has chronicled the relationship between liberalism as its developed among leading individuals and institutions in the American context.

The Peculiar Vintage of American Liberalism

Liberalism has never had a prefabricated essence ascertained all at once or implemented with a coherent plan. Rather, liberalism has its own history of development based on how individuals have invoked it to confront real, often quite thorny political problems. Hence, liberalism has differed in time and place, as recently explored by Helena Rosenblatt. In the American context, “liberalism” was not the term used to define the political foundations of the Declaration of Independence or the American Constitution. These documents were understood to be the extension of an older British tradition, even if the British themselves had failed to keep it. American colonists had, by 1776, over one hundred and fifty years of experience of self-government in covenanted and compacted governments, and the language of individual consent to government and rights reserved by individuals against the government were there at the very moment the colonies were chartered.

Hence, as Donald S. Lutz finds that it is not right to call the Founding “Lockean” because the colonial origins of the Founding preceded Locke by decades. Rather, the Founders found in Locke something that articulated what their forebears already knew and understood when hewing logs to build a cabin in 1611. Moreover, during the Founding, Locke received attention only in the lead up to American Independence but faded into the background as matters of constitutional design arose upon the revolution’s success. During that period, jurist William Blackstone and republican theorist Montesquieu dominated the discourse, with David Hume, Samuel von Pufendorf, and Edward Coke each receiving more attention than Locke from 1780 onward. All were dwarfed by references to the Bible, especially, as Lutz discovered, to the book of Deuteronomy. One would only be surprised by this if one believed that the Founders were liberals. Some were, of a kind, but they were primarily republicans. Their appeal to “liberal” principles was, as James W. Ceaser, has argued, primarily to insist that the “rights of Englishmen” to which Americans, being no longer Englishmen, could no longer appeal. Rather, what made the rights of Englishmen truly rights was how they were grounded in nature, accessible by reason, and endowed by God. In addition, Paul DeHart has shown how this effort involved a combination of classical, Christian, and modern sources with the diverse and extensive experience in statecraft.

For these reasons, it is simply ahistorical to apply a prefabricated concept of liberalism onto the American Founding or attribute it to a rather complicated mix of ideas and influences expressed among the leaders at the time. The kind of liberalism Schindler, Mitchell, and Deneen condemn has a significant place in American history, and it is specifically in American Protestant (and later secular) efforts to limit the influence of the Catholic faith here.

In the years following the Founding, the term “liberal” referred primarily to a person’s character. As Hamburger explains, in early 19th Century America a person was “liberal” if they were willing to consider different points of view. Such a trait was necessary in a young republic with citizens who must govern themselves in assemblies or candidates for elected office. According to Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, the years of the Founding were a nadir in American religiosity (although a forthcoming book by Mark David Hall disputes this finding). What is undisputed, however, is how the Second Great Awakening that followed the Founding and continued through the 1840s stirred up a tremendous Protestant fervor. Almost immediately after this period, there followed the arrival of Irish Catholics. They arrived, at first, to escape British tyranny of their homeland but soon after by even larger numbers escaping the Great Famine. Those Irish (as well as German) Catholics quickly worked their way into the political world of the cities in which they settled, often quite excited by the prospect of full citizenship rights.

This posed a problem: When a town had a collection of Protestant denominations, it was relatively simple to lay aside doctrinal differences in political discussions as a liberal citizen. Catholics, however, answered to a “foreign” authority in Rome, and the Irish were sufficiently “foreign” to the mostly English, Welsh, and Scottish to warrant suspicion. This suspicion frequently led to violence. In 1834, Protestants burned down an Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts. In 1844 Protestants in Philadelphia, stirred up by the distribution of the English-translation Catholic Bible, rioted in the streets.

These Protestant outbursts coalesced into a prominent mid-nineteenth century faction called “Nativists,” who found a home in the Whig Party. Nativists tended to come from the artisan classes who were negatively affected by the arrival of Irish working in factories whose cheaper products displaced artisanal work and, hence, added to the animus for the Irish as minions of “popish plots.” In his recent book Liberal Suppression, Hamburger charts how Nativists began to use the term “liberal” during this period to refer not merely to a kind of political gregariousness but to an independent from “foreign influence.” To be “liberal,” then was the opposite of being Catholic. Because Americans loved liberty, they had to be Protestant, since Protestants rejected the impositions of foreign princes in favor of native liberty of conscience. Hence, Nativists identified themselves as the “American Party” and their political program as “Americanism.”

The early Nativists were animated by their Protestant enthusiasm, but over time, they moved from religious convictions to political ones. In Separation of Church and State, Hamburger details how, after the American Civil War, a group of “liberal” skeptics started the “National Liberal League” in opposition not merely to Catholics (though they were chief among those they opposed) but all religious claims to authority in public life. Their organization was short-lived but, as Hamburger argues, found successors in organizations like the American Protective Association and the Ku Klux Klan. The APA and KKK affirmed that America was a Protestant nation, but they were careful not to say which denomination. To appear consistent with their anti-Catholicism, they ruled out any public assistance to religious group, arguing for a position of “theological liberalism,” or one that reduced matters of faith to the individual. This combination came together in the politics of James G. Blaine. During the 1870s, Blaine, a senator from Maine advocated for federal and state amendments prohibiting the public funding of “sectarian schooling,” nearly all of which were Catholic schools. A federal effort to pass such an amendment failed in 1875, but several states passed them. The eventual decline of the APA and infamy of the KKK eventually sapped them of influence, but in 1948 theological liberalism found new life in Congregationalist minister Paul Blanshard (who later pronounced his atheism) and Methodist bishop G. Bromley Oxnam in their Protestants and Other Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, today known as Americans United. Indeed, one of the most shocking conclusions of Hamburger’s work is the direct link between the ideology of the KKK and today’s “humanist” associations.

The theological liberalism these groups expressed has some resemblance to ideas expressed by the Founders. Thomas Jefferson, who frequently spoke ill of Christian “priestcraft,” is perhaps the most obvious, since his rationale for religious freedom before the Virginia legislature affirms that individuals are alone responsible for ascertaining what obligations, if any, they have to the divine. However, James Madison supported Jefferson’s policy position though for different reasons, as found in his 1785 Memorial and Remonstrance petition before the Virginia legislature. He argued that disestablishment of any church was better for Christianity than establishing it. Detaching the church from the state demanded the church tend to the spiritual needs of its congregation rather than seek guarantees from state support. The latter made the church a lackey of the state and the state suddenly responsible for matters on which it had no competence, thereby compromising both. Later, Madison defended Catholics as just as good republicans as Protestants. The Catholic Charles Carroll of Carrollton bore witness to this. Carroll signed the Declaration of Independence and fought for ratification of the Constitution in Maryland. As one can see, the diversity of motives and beliefs among the Founders reveals how difficult it is to attribute a unifying power of explanation to a prefabricated concept of liberalism.

That said, liberalism as Schindler, Mitchell, and Deneen describe it is real and has negatively affected the role of traditional communities, especially the Catholic Church in America. That liberalism encountered constant resistance among American Catholics especially, who, as I have argued elsewhere, always condemned liberalism. Not only Archbishop “Dagger” John Hughes, (who called it “Nothingarianism”) but also Archbishop John Ireland (who called it “political Protestantism”), Venerable (soon to be Blessed) Fulton J. Sheen (who called it a “parasite on Christian civilization”), and even Father John Courtney Murray (who called it a cross between “free-church Protestantism” and “naturalistic humanism”). They did so always for the same reason—“liberalism” in matters of religion was always a stalking horse for limiting the influence of the Catholic Church.

Protestant Disestablishment and Secular Establishment

Early Nativists insisted that the United States was a Protestant nation that upheld conscience rights by refusing to impose one church onto the people, but, as they grew more secular, they moved to full disestablishment of all churches. Now, little remains of liberal Protestantism or even the nativism among liberals but only the hatred of orthodox Christianity (especially Catholicism), hence development from  disestablishment to throwing out religious free exercise and coercing churches to comply with federal mandates that conflict with church teaching. In just a few generations, as Joseph Bottum tells it, Protestant theological liberals have become secular liberals.

The closer relationship between church and at least some aspects of the state helped legitimate secular liberal claims to neutrality over the partisanship of American churches. Secular liberals portrayed churches as arbitrary authorities seeking to subject individuals to their control, and the best instrument for liberation would be the state, whose disestablishment disentangled them from church matters and the best source of liberation for those seeking it from oppressive moralistic pastors. In short, the past few decades have been a reversal of the relationship that Alexis de Tocqueville thought vital to the alliance of the party of religion and the party of liberty. Now, secular liberals appear to be the party of liberty, and the churches are the party of religion.

As I explain in my book, Religion and the Public Square: Sheen, King, Falwell, dogma does not need to be linked to a traditional religion. Secular liberalism is still a dogma, a dogma of what Tocqueville called “popular sovereignty” and repudiation of especially the Christian religion. This dogma operates differently from traditional religious dogma, which is fixed. The dogma of popular sovereignty constantly changes to satisfy the individuals who adhere to it. The only unchanging dogma is popular sovereignty, which demands individuals to determine their own private opinions within the limits set by the state.

For secular liberals, religious dogma is a rival and a threat. Religious dogmas claim to speak the truth and bind others to that truth, thus establishing a hierarchy of truth over mere opinion. Secular liberals identify truth not with the validity of the religious claims but with the power of the state. Therefore, secular liberals do not merely support the separation of church and state. They also favor the establishment of secular liberalism as the official religion of the state to be enforced rigorously on all institutions—from the liturgical calendar of the Google homepage to the inquisitorial role of Oberlin College administrators.

Conclusion: Whither “Liberalism”?

It is no coincidence that the three critics of liberalism considered here are Catholic. Both because of crises in the Catholic Church and because of the rapid social change of the past two decades, Catholic intellectuals have had to improvise an explanation and have found it to be liberalism. It is not so much wrong as incomplete, but it does explain how American Catholics and Protestants have diverged in their evaluation of liberalism.[1] In the recent dustup between Sohrab Ahmari and David French, one saw this tension reach the surface. The Catholic Ahmari, in keeping with the American Catholic tradition, held liberalism in contempt for its failure to defend the common good, but for the Protestant French, liberalism was instrumental to forming a coalition for religious freedom against the external authority of the secular state. French seems not to understand that for much of American history, Protestants used the same argument against Catholics.

After all, American liberalism began as a modus vivendi among American colonists seeking a common good in independence shared by Protestant and Catholic patriots alike. However, liberalism became an American Protestant project to suppress Catholicism, and then an alliance between Protestant and secular Americans for that same purpose. Ironically, now Protestants and Catholics ally against the secular liberals, and it should not escape notice that the case finally overturning a Blaine amendment, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc v. Comer, had—perhaps even required—a Protestant church for a petitioner. Despite this ugly history, however, people of faith must defend their conscience rights by disestablishing secular liberalism.

[1] Rita Koganzon reaches a similar conclusion when reviewing Rosenblatt’s book, although the European experience differs substantially from the American one.

Reader Discussion

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on July 12, 2019 at 07:59:30 am

Put simply, you can believe in individual rights while still valuing honoring one's family, participating in one's community collectively like jury duty, and defending one's country--so long as you value these duties and responsibilities as voluntary duties and responsibilities. Just as you can believe something is immoral, but not believing the state should punish it; so you can believe something is moral or virtuous, without believing the state should mandate it.

In fact, that's the very definition of liberalism--not requiring the moral and virtuous, and not punishing the harmless debauchery and degeneracy. Liberalism is allowing people to be different--to think differently, worship differently or not at all, and act differently--to have different recreations, hobbies, goals, sexualities, and occupations.

If you create families that people love, they will spontaneously want to honor them, and you don't have to encourage or force them to do it. The same goes with churches and countries. A free prosperous country will have people lining up to immigrate to it and defend it, there's no need to require people to say the pledge of allegiance or draft them for military duty. Just as there's no need to require people to pray to a god in school that is worth believing in.

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King's Horses
on July 12, 2019 at 10:47:05 am

A splendid and historically insightful essay. Thank you.

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Anthony
on July 12, 2019 at 13:40:10 pm

Thanks for referencing my forthcoming book! For those of you who can't wait, Patricia U. Bonomi and Peter R. Eisenstadt conclude that in late eighteenth-century America “from 56 to 80 percent of the [white] population were churched, with the southern colonies occupying the lower end of the scale and the northern colonies the upper end. “Church Adherence in the Eighteenth Century British Colonies,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 39 (April 1982): 275.

James Hutson of the Library of Congress provides a devastating critique of Finke and Stark's guesswork in “The Christian Nation Question,” in his Forgotten Features of the Founding: The Recovery of Religious Themes in the Early American Republic (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2003), 111–132

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Mark David Hall
on July 12, 2019 at 16:00:57 pm

The question isn't whether or not a super-majority of Americans have always been Christians, or course they have.

The question is whether or not the majority of Americans have been anti-drug, anti-homosexuality, anti-gun, anti-football, pro-school-uniform Christians. The answer is clearly 'no'.

If by 'religious' you mean 'authoritarian', then Americans are not religious in the sense of believing we should legally punish those who engage in harmless immorality--shooting guns, having anal sex, wearing what they want to private schools, getting high, etc.

But religion isn't about forcing other people to obey your morals, manners, and customs; it's about worshipping God(s) by obeying your morality yourself and allowing others to do the same.

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Thucydides
on July 12, 2019 at 17:11:49 pm

Thought-provoking essay. I've often struggled how to suggest that the concept of "liberal" has not remained static, but has arising at various times to reflect the specific concerns of its proponents.

Also, I hadn't previously reflected on the idea that concepts in self-governance arose in the New World well before Locke.

That said, I found the effort to place "secular liberal dogma" on par with religious dogma not very convincing.

Secular liberalism is still a dogma, a dogma of what Tocqueville called “popular sovereignty” and repudiation of especially the Christian religion. This dogma operates differently from traditional religious dogma, which is fixed. The dogma of popular sovereignty constantly changes to satisfy the individuals who adhere to it. The only unchanging dogma is popular sovereignty, which demands individuals to determine their own private opinions within the limits set by the state.

First, Patterson acknowledges that the “dogma” of secular liberalism “operates differently” from traditional religious dogma. Pedagogically, does it really help understanding to use the word “dogma” to describe these disparate phenomena?

Second, and more substantively, what sense does it make to call a viewpoint that shifts for each individual who holds it a “dogma”? I think of a dogma as a set of beliefs that proponents not only hold, but expect NON-proponents to hold as well. If secular liberalism’s dogma is that people decide for themselves what they believe, haven’t we pretty much diluted away any concept of dogma?

(In fairness, I guess I’ve felt this kind of dogmatism when out dining with my in-laws. They’re quite indecisive—yet if their kids pick something for them, the bitch incessantly. I just want to pull out a gun and say, “DAMMIT, CHOOSE SOMETHING TO EAT! ANYTHING! JUST PICK SOMETHING!” Maybe that feeling is a manifestation of secular liberalism—although it does involve a gun….)

Moreover, I’m perplexed how ANYONE could hold some other view (hey--maybe THAT’s a manifestation of dogma!), especially Catholics. Google “Why I chose Catholicism” or “Why I choose to remain a Catholic.” Have all these people been duped by secular liberalism into exercising CHOICE over moral questions?

Indeed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Pt 3, Sec. 1, Ch. 1, Art 3) goes on and on about Man’s rationality, his control over his own actions, his being “left in the hand of his own counsel,” his freedom and free will, his deliberation and personal responsibility, his choosing between good and evil, yadda yadda yadda. Here’s the catechism at 1738:

Freedom is exercised in relationships between human beings. Every human person, created in the image of God, has the natural right to be recognized as a free and responsible being. All owe to each other this duty of respect. The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person.

And here's Dignitatis Humanae (1965):

1. [T]he demand is increasingly made that men should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom…. This Vatican Council takes careful note of these desires [and] proposes to declare them to be greatly in accord with truth and justice….

2. [N]o one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others ….

[P]ersons [are] endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility…. [M]en cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. [Moreover], the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it….

3. ….Man has been made by God to participate in this law, with the result that,under the gentle disposition of divine Providence, he can come to perceive ever more fully the truth…. Wherefore every man has the duty, and therefore the right, to seek the truth in matters religious in order that he may with prudence form for himself right and true judgments of conscience….

….The inquiry is to be free [such that] men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth.

Moreover, as the truth is discovered, it is by a personal assent that men are to adhere to it.

In sum, I quite agree that dogma teaches that people make their own choices about moral topics. Specifically, Catholic dogma teaches this.

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nobody.really
on July 12, 2019 at 17:21:02 pm

To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous instead of a compulsory routine is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds....

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.

West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943).

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nobody.really
on July 12, 2019 at 17:35:59 pm

By the way,

[S]ecular liberals do not merely support the separation of church and state. They also favor the establishment of secular liberalism as the official religion of the state to be enforced rigorously on all institutions—from the liturgical calendar of the Google homepage to the inquisitorial role of Oberlin College administrators.

What is this referring to?

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nobody.really
on July 12, 2019 at 18:21:14 pm

nobody:

C'mon man, you know better.

Second, and more substantively, what sense does it make to call a viewpoint that shifts for each individual who holds it a “dogma”? I think of a dogma as a set of beliefs that proponents not only hold, but expect NON-proponents to hold as well. If secular liberalism’s dogma is that people decide for themselves what they believe, haven’t we pretty much diluted away any concept of dogma? "

Of course, it IS dogmatic in the general BUT not always the particular.
The General: Unbridled freedom of action / belief (see qualifier below) for the INDIVIDUAL.
The Particular: One day, gay lliberation, next day tranny liberation.
One day abortion on demand, next day killing the born but unwanted result of a D&E.
One day free speech / conscience, next day politically correct speech / speech codes / abuse of language and SAFE SPACES such that nothing contrary to OUR DOGMA will be heard / permitted.
Etc, etc, etc.

AND YES, liberals (or what is conflated with liberals today, i.e., the Juvenile, insipid muddleheads known as Progressives) DO IN FACT demand that not only must everyone else limit their speech to conform to their deranged world view BUT they also expect, and attempt to compel by economic / personal harassment, that ultimately EVERYONE MUST believe as they do. If not we will shame you into professing the TRUTH of our own superior
understanding of Liberality.

But you know this, my clever wordsmith friend!

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gabe
on July 13, 2019 at 01:22:10 am

To get school prayer and the pledge of allegiance out of the classroom is not to force secularism on anyone. If you want to prayer, you can do it by yourself or after school with your fellow believers. If you think your pledge of allegiance from yesterday expired, you can say it again after school.

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Vriginia Barndoor
on July 15, 2019 at 03:17:41 am

[…] Read Full Article » Source […]

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The Dogmatic Rivalry at the Heart of America | Maketinews
on July 15, 2019 at 15:16:14 pm

Just as you can believe something is immoral, but not believing the state should punish it; """

You definitely didn't get this from the bible.

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Oft
on July 15, 2019 at 15:20:46 pm

The question is whether or not the majority of Americans have been anti-drug, anti-homosexuality, anti-gun, anti-football, pro-school-uniform Christians. The answer is clearly ‘no’.""""

The question is what timeframe are you referring to.

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Oft
on July 15, 2019 at 15:27:51 pm

Locke was a democrat and not a Christian. His influence helped destroy the nation at the start. Once Christ was omitted from both constitutions and the DOI, destruction and lawlessness began.

But the ff's are the more guilty since they formed the nation and employed antichrist concepts from the enlightenment as our corporate foundation as a country.

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Oft
on July 15, 2019 at 15:31:14 pm

To get school prayer and the pledge of allegiance out of the classroom is not to force secularism on anyone. If you want to prayer, you can do it by yourself or after school with your fellow believers. If you think your pledge of allegiance from yesterday expired, you can say it again after school.""""

Since prayer does not establish a national denomination, prayer does not violate the establishment clause, which means you are wrong.

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Oft
on July 15, 2019 at 16:03:35 pm

To get school prayer and the pledge of allegiance out of the classroom is not to force secularism on anyone.

Since prayer does not establish a national denomination, prayer does not violate the establishment clause, which means you are wrong.

I don't follow that argument. Even if we concede that school prayer does not violate the establishment clause, how does the ABSENCE of school prayer/pledge of allegiance force secularism?

Presumably everyone, from school kids to office workers, spends most of their day NOT reciting prayers or pledges aloud. Is every moment that a person is NOT reciting these texts a moment of enforced secularism?

But if we draw the opposite conclusion, that suggests that a person does not lose his or her religious convictions simply by refraining from reciting a prayer or pledge. The example of the pledge is especially clear: I expect Jesus NEVER recited the pledge; should we conclude that Jesus therefore lost his religious convictions?

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nobody. really
on July 15, 2019 at 23:39:41 pm

how does the ABSENCE of school prayer/pledge of allegiance force secularism?"""

Because it was initially there, then was taken out, promoting secularism.

Is every moment that a person is NOT reciting these texts a moment of enforced secularism?"""

No.

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Oft
on July 18, 2019 at 23:29:24 pm

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