Charles Taylor argues in his journal, “Polysemy of the Secular” that secularism means different things within different cultures, and that governments have inadvertently become secular because of separation of Church and State. Therefore Taylor thinks secular governments share three broad goals. Taylor argues that the secular can occur anywhere at any time everywhere. There is a need for a separation between the two things, religion and irreligion. For instance Taylor comments that the Islamic state doesn’t make a separation and therefore Islamic society cannot adopt a “secular regime” (1144). In this essay I will argue that secular governments do not meet Taylor’s goals of religious liberty, equality, and fraternity because historically these ideas have materialized in American and French government.

In “Polysemy of the Secular,” there is a shown case and point in history where secularism models itself into the form of government. Charles Taylor discusses the basis for a secular government and relates the ideas to the French Revolution’s trinity of liberty, equality, and fraternity (1151). In the case of liberty, no one must be forced into the domain of religion or basic belief. The “free exercise” of religion, this is clearly stated in the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution as a form of liberty. In the U.S. Constitution, we have the establishment of religion clause that prohibits government from making any law establishing religion, as well as the free exercise of religion, allowing people freedom as well. While these are not perfect in supporting an exact shared goal of Taylor, these may be able to meet the equality goal in a perfect world.

The idea that secular governments must remain equal between people of different faiths or basic belief with no religious or areligious outlook is questionable at best. This idea is essentially the goal of equality, and while it may have been attempted in history through the Constitution or other documents in our government. According to Mead, the Reformation broke up the idea of “one” Church in Christendom (292). The idea of establishing a religion in the Constitution may not have actually been to necessarily separate Church from State, but because the government wanted freedom to choose denominationalism, and the fact that there would still be religion in government was still inferred. Mead goes on to argue that the Frontier was what changed the U.S. and allowed religious freedom (294-295).

Tracy Fessenden argues that it is not possible to not have a religious perspective, in the U.S. this manifests in a protestant outlook on government and information.

Alternatively, Fessenden’s Culture and Redemption is situated on her thinking that government and its people cannot be entirely secular, that Protestantism is a highly prescriptive religion in America, and an unmarked category which is overly accommodating in the US government, especially when compared with other religions (3). An example of this would be how there is a protestant perspective on information, and the accessibility for understanding documents in this vernacular.

Taylor’s goal of equality could be found in either French Laicite or the U.S. Constitution in the Bill of Rights and freedom of speech and civil rights. I think that in the attempt for the French to create an equality of public space, their attempt to nix nay religious symbols was a way of creating a non-discriminatory “religious haven” of sorts for students, minors and teachers that are civil servants. In France, the headscarf was thought to be an oppressive symbol for women forced to be worn by men– at least that is what I was told the French believe and support. This was their reason for outlawing the scarf. This is a hard-fought controversial topic and doesn’t seem to support equality.

Finally, Taylor argues that secular governments must maintain fraternity, that all spiritual families must be heard, and included in the ongoing process of determining what the society is about and how it is going to realize these goals. This goal is a bit ambiguous because it makes it seem as though being heard means being able to change something or actually be able to determine government. I can see why Fessenden might roll her eyes over this.  Wars have been fought for over religious differences. In another instance of disagreement, the Muslim women in France protested the law of not being able to wear the headscarf in public places, and stated, “Le foulard n’est pas un signe.” Yet the Stasi commission saw the headscarf as a statement of hostility against the republic and its essential institution. Taylor comments on the scarf and states that the French government ignored the reasons for why women wore it and that there were sociological studies done that the scarf was not worn as an “oppressive symbol” or forced by men like assumed by the French masses.

There are many attempts at secularization in public places, governments, and the spectrum that it can occur on, Charles Taylor’s goals have a potential of being met. Was America able to produce a country that is built upon life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? I think so, or it has attempted to do so. Can and should all religions get along in harmony and not have a favored religion, like Taylor suggests? I think this is probably impossible, but there are too many wars that have been fought in the Middle East for example, over this very subject of supreme religion and brotherhood. These nuances and attempts have not shown to be entirely successful, however.

In terms of getting rid of all religion I believe this is an example of Frances attempt at not having any religious symbols in public spaces or worn by civil servants. Yet it is now considered to have been done as hostility toward religion, it may have in all actuality been an attempt to stop the oppression of women, yet can also be viewed as discrimination. Due to the recent arguments that there still exists a prescriptive Protestantism in American government, it is hard to always realize the subtle undertones of religion in public places. The Secularism goals and ideas of Taylor are probably impossible to meet.

Works Cited

Fessenden, Tracy. Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2007.

Mead, Sidney E. “Denominationalism: The Shape of Protestantism in America.” Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture, vol. 23, no. 4, 1954, pp. 291-320

Taylor, Charles. “The Polysemy of the Secular.” Social Research, vol. 76, no. 4, 2009, pp. 1143-1166.


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