John Kasich is Not a Laicist: A Brief Case Study in Secular Rhetoric



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Charles McCrary

On Tuesday, John Kasich, the Governor of Ohio and candidate for U.S. President, proposed a new government agency designed to promote “Judeo-Christian values” around the world. Unsurprisingly, he has received considerable opposition to this proposal. One camp of critics complains that Kasich, in expanding the size of government, is not really conservative. Others, most of whom see the creation of government agencies as not such an affront to our republic, are troubled by Kasich’s apparent breach of secularism. But is governmental promotion of “Judeo-Christian values” anything new? Or is Kasich just saying the name of something that is supposed to go unnamed? Put more strongly, is Kasich violating American secularism or pulling back its curtain?

In The Politics of Secularism in International Relations (2008), Elizabeth Shakman Hurd makes a helpful distinction between two models of secularism: “laicism” and “Judeo-Christian secularism.” Laicism, or laïcité, upholds a “strict” form of separation not just between church and state, but between religion and the government. This model results in a variety of intended and unintended consequences, one being the secular state’s necessary definition of “religion” itself—and thus its interaction or intermingling with its negatively defined and co-constituted realm. As C.S. Adcock has written, “the secular state operates to define, constitute, and regulate religion; far from a contradiction in terms, the secular state invariably interferes in religion” (24). Laicist nations, such as France and Turkey, rather than taking an equal-opportunity approach to public religious display, attempt to keep things religious as far from things public as possible.

Americans, for the most part, have held to the other model: Judeo-Christian secularism. Until the middle of the twentieth century (and perhaps well after) we might call it Protestant secularism. Under this model, the state is secular—meaning that church and state are officially separated and no one denomination is officially preferred over another—but the state’s values, even when referred to as “universal,” are derived from (Judeo-)Christianity. We can find an example of this American secularism in Thomas Jefferson, who introduced his famous bill for “establishing religious Freedom” by stipulating that “Almighty God hath created the mind free” and that “Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself.” Hurd notes a more recent example. George W. Bush, while promoting secular democracy in Iraq, said, “liberty is both the plan of Heaven for humanity and the best hope for progress here on earth” (37). Down to the problematic assumption that “liberty” follows “democracy,” Bush sounded downright Jeffersonian, truly an American Judeo-Christian secularist. Hurd deadpans, “President Bush was not a laicist.” Neither is John Kasich.

“We need to beam messages around the around about what it means to have a Western ethic,” Kasich said, explaining the purpose of his proposed agency. But what is a “Western ethic” anyway? Kasich clarified, “It means freedom; it means opportunity; it means respect for women; it means freedom to gather; it means so many things.” It sounds like a Western ethic is simply a version of liberalism. What if he had said “universal values” instead? This language, addressing “the human” and “the universal,” (which, of course, obscures its particularity) is more common among politicians and world leaders. Now, whether, how, and to what extent modern human rights is really based in Christianity are good questions worthy of good discussion. But there are at least some reasons to argue genealogically that Kasich’s conflation of Western with Judeo-Christian, especially in terms of individual rights, is not off-base.

President Obama, remarking on the attacks in Paris last weekend, said, “This is an attack not just on Paris, it's an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.” This attack can be blamed only on “terrorism and extremism,” which are opposed to “the timeless values of human progress” represented by Paris itself. Vice President Biden put an even finer point on this boundary-drawing, arguing that France and the United States “are bound by timeless democratic values that the cowardice and perverse ideologues of extremist networks can never match, wherever they are. Such savagery can never threaten who we are.” On one side, there are humanity, progress, timelessness, universal values, and “we all.” On the other side, extremism, terrorism, savagery.

By appealing to humanity, Obama’s secular rhetoric (in addition to constructing monstrous anti-humans) appears to distance itself from particularities like Western or Christian, even as his universal values are identifiably liberal. Kasich wants none of this secularization. “It’s essential, by the way,” he noted, “that those in the West begin to embrace again our Jewish and Christian tradition, rather than running from it, hiding from it…” NBC’s Peter Alexander interrupted to ask, “What does that say to atheists and Buddhists and Muslims and all the others who live in our melting pot?” Alexander wants to know if embracing the Judeo-Christian tradition is exclusionary, insufficiently pluralistic, and thus not secular. In other words, is Kasich really a secularist? Kasich’s telling response began, “I also think we have many moderate Muslims who share our views…and they should be included in this, and they’d be a very effective part of this.” So, “moderate Muslims”—as opposed to “extremists”—might be “Western” and liberal, perhaps even “Judeo-Christian,” too. In fact, this is what marks them as “moderate.”

The State Department already has something not so different from what Kasich proposed. The Office of Religion and Global Affairs seems to beam messages about what Kasich calls a “Western ethic.” The office is led by a “Special Representative,” a religion expert who also happens to be a liberal Protestant theologian. The Office of Religion and Global Affairs, however, does not export Judeo-Christian values. Instead, it works with religious groups to promote “core U.S. values like respect for the human rights of members of minority and marginalized groups, pluralism, tolerance, and sensitivity to and respect for the beliefs and traditions of others.”

Perhaps Kasich’s plan is not an abnegation of American secularism but actually a more honest acknowledgment of how it works. At the very least, it’s worth asking, Are Kasich’s “Judeo-Christian values” substantively different from Obama’s “universal values” and “timeless values of human progress”?

1 comments:

Tom Van Dyke at: November 20, 2015 at 12:57 PM said...

"Americans, for the most part, have held to the other model: Judeo-Christian secularism. Until the middle of the twentieth century (and perhaps well after) we might call it Protestant secularism. Under this model, the state is secular—meaning that church and state are officially separated and no one denomination is officially preferred over another—but the state’s values, even when referred to as “universal,” are derived from (Judeo-)Christianity.

Excellent and rare stuff. Thank you. Jurgen Habermas:

"Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct heir of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk (p. 150f)."

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