The Clare Spark Blog

April 1, 2012

Secularism and the Affordable Care Act

I asked my FB friends what they thought the word “secular” meant, and got a number of responses suggesting that it meant one thing: atheism.

It appears that the culture wars have done their job: to most of the responders, “secular” signifies atheism, which may indicate narcissism, nihilism, and amorality to them. But in its older meaning, pre-culture wars, “secular” simply referred to matters of this world, as opposed to other-worldliness in religions that emphasized heaven and hell. But more significantly, secularism is a political science term that refers to the separation of church and state, meaning that no religion has priority over others, and that no religion is the established state religion. In the U.S. we enjoy religious pluralism. But triumphalist religions have managed to minimize the Founding Fathers’ commitment to the separation of church and state. And culture warriors such as Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Newt Gingrich have turned “the secularist” into the bogey man, insisting that the Constitution, like the Declaration of Independence before it, was divinely inspired, rather than the institutionalization of natural rights. But read the Federalist papers and see that Hamilton puts ultimate authority in the people, which is another word for popular sovereignty. Just as (later) in the French Revolution, power, knowledge and virtue had passed from Kings and Church to the People, who would then comprise the red specter to this very day, at least in the U.S. The U.S. Constitution was written to create a strong and effective national government, and owed its inception to epistemological materialism and to the Enlightenment. (See

Alexander Hamilton was a church-goer, but to his most venomous critics he was not just a bastard-upstart, a foreigner, and a monarchist; he was a crypto-Jew, i.e., a variant of the anti-Christ. Recall that the Reformation convulsed Europe, with protestants (of many stripes) being defined as heretics by the outraged Catholic Church, who went on to purify their practice in the Counter-Reformation, a development that went on to censor such as Spinoza and other freethinkers at a time of burgeoning literacy among the lower orders.  (See Radical Enlightenment, Jonathan Israel’s 2001 book on Spinoza and censorship throughout Europe following the underground publication of his works; there is now a shorter work published in 2009 treating the Radical Enlightenment and the roots of democracy. But I view J. Israel as a social democrat and doubt that we have the same genealogy for democracy and free thought, since my vanguard includes such as Hayek, von Mises, and the Friedmans, but not Maynard Keynes.)

For decades, I have followed the academic assault on empiricism, medicine, and psychiatry (including the “historicizing” and discrediting of all of the mental health practitioners, Freudian and non-Freudian alike). Doctors do not share any one religious or non-religious orientation, but they do focus their training on healing the sick, which means studying the human body in various states of health, trauma,  and disease. Theirs is a secular profession, but one that finds itself in conflict with those religions that see sickness and health as dispensations from God, as part of God’s plan for the individual and for the world. Thus we find unresolved and perhaps unresolvable conflicts over such practices as abortion, contraception, abortifacients, embryonic stem-cell research, and assisted suicide in the terminally ill.

I find it odd that in all the publicity over the Affordable Care Act that these culture war issues have not been emphasized, yet the cost of medical care and what is covered or excluded is related to larger conflicts over appropriate professional intervention in the processes of life and death. Not surprisingly, much of the opposition to the ACA comes from the religious Right that correctly fears government-run “death panels” or other instances of rationing (see They are not paranoid in this respect. In an ironic coalition, God-Squads and Doc-Squads may find themselves on the same side.

Illustrated: Top: Jonathan Israel, Middle: Spinoza toy; Bottom: Joel Strom DDS, organizer for


  1. […] Political affiliations are not carved in stone. We can collapse in exhaustion and depression, or we can take heart that our institutions have been exposed, which gives an opening for new political choices. Our future will depend on our ability to be flexible and alert for fresh coalitions, perhaps even to relegate the distractions of the culture wars to the bottom of our list of “must think about now.” (For my defense of secularism see […]

    Pingback by Morale in the time of crisis overload | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — June 7, 2013 @ 2:41 am | Reply

  2. Thank God that someone actually knows what the word “secular” means! I thought I was the last person on earth that remembered secular means pertaining to this world. PS Some nice comments on Front Page Mag!

    Comment by Jason — April 25, 2012 @ 2:28 am | Reply

  3. Secularism, IMHO, is the rejection of all claims to divine revelation and all institutions that promote such claims, especially the Catholic Church. It is exampled by the New York Times seldom referring to the authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church, i.e. the institutional aspect, while seeking individuals, including practicing and lapsed Catholics, for their opinions, on whatever the subject. It is also exampled by Obama’s distinction between private worship and institutional practice, especially in the form of hospitals and educational institutions.

    The alleged policy of the NYT is a gross failure to provide adequate context for items involving Catholic (mal)practices.

    Comment by roger schmeeckle — April 2, 2012 @ 4:55 pm | Reply

  4. Having been an atheist (and on the verge of going back to that belief), I am very sensitive to the political idea that secularlists are bad, evil people. We all live in the real world. Unless we wish to act irrationally, we cannot rely solely upon our interpretations of God’s will to guide our actions. This is particularly a problem for Objectivists who are vocally atheist, but otherwise highly moral, ethical, and “conservative,” especially in areas of free trade and small government. In conservative circles, they are finding that religious conservatives hold them with almost as much contempt as the socialist atheists.

    The confusion comes from the fact that America was settled by an outcast and conservatively religious people who had to adopt the enterprising, individualist ideals of the Enlightenment era in order to survive and thrive in a new world with no traditions or institutions of its own. In forming our nation, our Founding Fathers wisely rested on the (classical) liberal, but theist, ideas of Aquinas, Burke, and Locke. They failed to realize that their philosophies and political theories contained irreconcilable contradictions that would not become apparent until much later. Their “truths” would not be self-evident to later generations. The new intellectual, individualist, and rationalist ideals they espoused would quickly clash with America’s older, organic religious traditions. Even the most beautiful revolutionary phrases of the Declaration of Independence contain obvious contradictions. All men are created (by God) as equals — except some men who bear the “mark of Cain.” The Creator endows natural rights upon men, but God’s Nature follows universal and immutable laws. So, are we a “God-fearing” or a “secular” people? Is America exceptional because of its Christian pluralist beliefs or its humanist ones?

    Had the Founding Fathers been more clear on the matter, the ideas and principles of an Enlightenment government would have been more fully realized. Instead, we are left with a country torn by slavery and its aftermath, conflicting core values and systems of morality based differing views of the duty to the community, the state, and God, and a leviathan-sized state that is increasingly emulating its European counterparts, particularly in their contempt for individual liberty.

    Comment by stereorealist — April 2, 2012 @ 3:32 am | Reply

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