Finbarr Curtis is associate professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Georgia Southern University. His book, The Production of American Religious Freedom (2016), engages subjects ranging from nineteenth-century revivalism to contemporary legal debates to examine how the rhetoric of religious freedom has participated in the production and distribution of social power in the United States. He is currently working on a study of insults, offense, and free speech in illiberal politics.
Many liberals breathed a sigh of relief after the 2020 election. According to secular liberal definitions of good religion, President-elect Joe Biden is religious in the proper way. His Catholicism informs an ethic of compassion and concern for the vulnerable, but he does not impose his private beliefs on others. Biden's good behavior is a departure from an illiberal administration that courted Christian conservatives and violated liberal norms of civil decorum.
Trumpism's combination of incivility and fervent Christianity has puzzled many. How could conservative Christians support such a profane man? Part of the answer might lie in the same secular divisions between private religiosity and public political life endorsed by secular liberals. I suggest that while Trumpism is illiberal, it is not anti-secular. Indeed, Trumpism is more secular than secular liberalism. This sounds weird. I know. What makes this possible is that secularism has no fixed content. Liberal is one way of being secular, but it is not the only way. There are, for example, authoritarian varieties of secularism. Rather than see conservative Christians who support Trump as peculiarly and holistically religious, it might make more sense to see them as political actors making strategic choices to use secular political institutions to their advantage.
I suggest that while Trumpism is illiberal, it is not anti-secular. Indeed, Trumpism is more secular than secular liberalism.
Trumpism is more secular than secular liberalism because its profane style is a more complete distillation of the secular distinction between religion and politics. It is a profane politics with no affirmative theological or moral content. It is illiberalism as an end in itself. Repudiating dispassionate technocratic liberalism, Trump’s unbridled sincerity and offensiveness promised to defeat the specter of “political correctness.” For Trump supporters, political correctness was an insincere restriction of the ability of white Americans to “be honest.” The antidote to this coercive regime was “common sense,” a realistic appraisal of the threats posed by racial, ethnic, sexual, and religious others. This rhetoric promised a form of illiberal secular freedom.
Calling this freedom secular seems counterintuitive as so many Trump supporters are Christian activists. Illiberal secularism is not mostly made of people who would describe themselves as secular. Illiberal secularists would prefer to live in a society governed by shared theological and moral convictions, but they believe that liberals have destroyed this. In response to the feeling that they are losing their country, illiberals made a secular bargain that devalued public discourse in favor of protecting private institutional spaces. Valorizing the private sphere fits with conservative rhetoric that ties the American nation to faith and family. Whatever theological or moral complexity exists in the lives of Trump supporters, therefore, is flattened by illiberal secular politics. This flat secular space has enabled a motley crew of illiberal co-belligerents including evangelical pastors and QAnon conspiracy theorists to band together to defeat liberal enemies.
Illiberals made a secular bargain that devalued public discourse in favor of protecting private institutional spaces.
What I am suggesting is a redescription of what José Casanova has called the “deprivatization of religion.” This redescription follows Casanova’s understanding of secularization as a process of institutional differentiation between religion, state, economy, and science, but I invert his view that Christian political activism is a form of deprivatization and see it instead as a form of super-privatization. It is the privatization of everything consistent with what Patricia J. Williams called the tyranny of the private. Illiberal secularism protects markets from government regulation, reduces scientific authority to mere belief, and maximizes the sphere of religious freedom.
Illiberal secularism appeals to people who see politics as a dirty and profane business anyway, and who seek to fortify private institutions like families, churches, and corporations against a nefarious government. Trumpism takes a perverse pleasure in the failure of democratic institutions. Disavowals of public goods lend themselves to an extravagantly vulgar style that delights in offending liberals. By owning the libs, profane speech tells the truth. Secular liberalism is vulnerable to this profane exposure because it rests on deeply held beliefs. Secular liberals care about public goods. They believe in human rights, scientific expertise, and shared commitment to civic norms that govern public life in democratic states. By profaning these liberal pieties, illiberal secularism demonstrates how fragile and tenuous these norms can be.
By profaning these liberal pieties, illiberal secularism demonstrates how fragile and tenuous these norms can be.
One possible objection to the idea that Trumpism is secular would be the Trump's administration efforts to fill the courts with Christian judges. Recent legal strategies advanced by Christian lawyers, however, have conformed to a secular logic of religious freedom. In cases like Hobby Lobby or Masterpiece Cakeshop, which sought to protect Christians from complicity with immoral practices, business owners argued for exemptions from laws that democratic processes determined to advance public goods like promoting women's health or preventing discrimination. Religious exemptions opted out of public engagement in order to protect private institutions from profaning contact with the outside world. Instead of defined by their commerce with the public, businesses were accountable to the private consciences of their owners.
Rather than resist the secular premise that religious convictions are sincere but inscrutable matters that must be kept in a private sphere removed from public life, conservative Christian lawyers accepted this characterization of religious freedom in order to beat secular liberals at their own game. But legal victories came with a price. As M. Cathleen Kaveny notes, “Most religious conservatives believe that their moral judgments are supported by reason; they strive to refurbish the broader Christian view of flourishing that would make those judgments intelligible. But their litigation strategy undercuts their ultimate aims.” By gaining secular rights, Christian conservatives sacrifice theological and moral persuasion.
Trumpism is full of God talk and Bible holding, but this is not necessarily absent from secular liberalism. Some people have religious reasons for opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. Others have religious reasons for opposition to global warming and poverty. Issues are not innately religious or secular. It might be helpful, then, to view current debates over religious freedom as a battle within secular institutions rather than a contest between secular liberals and religious conservatives. This battle is likely to continue as liberalism is still under duress. While Biden might have won the 2020 election, illiberal secularism will concede nothing.