What Secularists Can Learn From the Religious Right About Accessing Power

Secularists need to be more comfortable with pushing a moral agenda.

The inside of a church with a cross on the front wall over the altar.
The religious right is really good at taking seriously the problem of maintaining belief. deviousrlm/iStock/Getty Images Plus

It’s easy to be cynical about the religious right, and, by extension, the direction of our country. Despite representing fewer and fewer American each year, they continue to exploit advantages baked into the Constitution via the Senate, the Electoral College, and the Supreme Court. They are now about to flip to the court a 6–3 conservative majority that does not reflect the preferences of the majority of Americans. But while “they really want power and they’re pretty good at getting it” is true enough, it is probably not the most important lesson secularists like me can learn from the religious right.

The religious right increasingly thinks of itself as an embattled minority, as a group that must work hard to maintain its beliefs. And the best ways to maintain those beliefs is through community and through power. There’s been growing interest in the People of Praise community that Amy Coney Barrett, the Supreme Court nominee, joined years ago. No matter what you think about the community’s politics, my perception is that it is a generally supportive and positive environment. But regardless of what happens at this specific community, what’s sociologically important is the community experience itself: More than just accountability, leadership, and moral imposition, communities like People of Praise provide opportunities for shared joy and shared sorrow, being there for picnics as much as for politics.

It’s in those moments of just being with people who believe like you that your moral universe starts to feel true. That’s what secularists need too. As a secular sociologist, I would disagree with the religious right that the source of their moral energy is God. I think the source of their moral energy is these ongoing interactions that affirm their commitments, thanks to other smart, kind people who also believe this stuff. If you see your sensible friend still has hope, then you might as well get up and try again too.

That’s an important lesson for secular liberals and leftists. We want a moral revolution too! But the religious right is generally better at providing models of how to center these efforts at social change as moral transformations within selves and small communities that extend out into the world. It’s an ongoing debate whether secular liberalism itself contains a model of the good life or if it’s simply a series of neutralright” procedures, but there’s no denying a tendency in liberalism—best articulated by John Stuart Mill—to emphasize fair procedure and the absence of harm over the kind of robust vision of the good that motivates so many conservative Christians.

So what are we secularists to do? There are already dozens of books and websites about ways to get involved, to organize, to talk to potential Trump voters, and much more. The religious right does all of this stuff too, even if they’re about as good at “getting involved” as any other political faction—which is to say, a small amount of people tends to do the majority of the work. What the religious right is really good at, though, is taking seriously the problem of maintaining belief. It’s a central challenge for any religious group, of course, but not just for them: Belief isn’t unique to religion. How many of us still believe the American presidency or Congress can survive another four years of Donald Trump? How many of us have lost faith in democracy itself? The religious right is really good at recognizing the contingency of their beliefs and doing what they can to protect them. And secularists would do well to do the same.

When I say secularist, I don’t just mean atheists, agnostics, or the other religious “nones” who are a growing part of the Democratic Party. I include people who might well be serious about their own religious identity but understand it as something that is translatable into a common, secular language, rather than something that must be followed as a religious commitment requires it (not that this is necessarily easy to do). So the communities I’m asking secularists to join might be secular communities that are somewhat parallel to religious communities, or actual religious communities with progressive values that blend with secular commitments. Or they might be different things altogether: groups of friends with similar politics, or an activist group, or hiking buddies who help one another do something about climate change.

The point is that we need a reason we do this work. And that reason, for some of us, might be God’s command or God’s loving example. And for others, it might be something else. But while there’s a lot of debate about the role of argument and the “rightness” of something in why we do what we do, many sociologists and philosophers are increasingly convinced that we do what’s moral not because it is the right thing to do but because it is the good thing to do, which means it feels correct, necessary, even obvious. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the most pleasurable of our choices: A lot of political work is boring at best, and sometimes the moral action is incredibly difficult. Think of people who decided they should care for older parents rather than pursue a meaningful career, for example. Yet the point for any of this is that the life we live, even if not the most pleasurable life, is the best life. And the best way to keep believing this is the best life is to surround yourself with  others who also believe this is the way we should live.

And once we really believe this is a good life, then we can be, well, liberal about it, at least about a lot of it, agreeing to disagree about what’s required and what is not. But there are other things that we might come to recognize really should be required, which liberals have always actually done, though they’ve sometimes had trouble admitting to. All of us have moral commitments we think of as self-evidently true, as things we consider non-negotiable for our children to believe; we probably even have things we think are non-negotiable for all children to believe. These commitments are surely different—the religious right does not let their children “choose” their religion, while a secular leftist like me would not let my daughter “choose” to make racist or sexist comments (when it comes to these moral commitments, it’s not “important for her to decide these things on her own”). Which is why secularists like me should be much more unapologetic about admitting the religious right is correct: Secularists are imposing a moral commitment upon them and their children through the courts and through the schools and through the legislature. Just as they are trying to do to us.

Conservative Christians are in a strange position of simultaneously believing the social world they want is obvious and natural and also believing that same social world is in continual danger of being washed away. That’s why the socialization piece is so central, and why secularists’ efforts to control that socialization matter so much to conservatives, both within government (legislation, courts, schools) and, even more so, within media and universities, especially television, Hollywood, and academia. How effective any of these institutions actually are at socializing away from family commitments is a separate question, of course, and it’s not really that obvious. But these are the stakes, with the end goal of socializing a moral order that comes to feel obvious and true.

The religious right understands this. They’re really good at it. They talk about concepts like worldview and natural law, all as a means of maintaining and rooting a moral order quite distinct from a secular world around them. Secularists can sometimes attempt a similar transcendental rooting of morality in science, a commitment to which I’m quite skeptical. But as a sociological process, I think it’s telling: There’s a sense that our moral commitments have to be real, bigger than just our personal beliefs. And this secularist emphasis on science reveals something else that’s sociologically interesting: There’s a sense, from both the secular and the religious, that moral force has to come from some powerful institution, like science or Scripture, rather than just ourselves.

This sense that morals have to be more than just us folks is part of why the religious right has so much influence over what the concept of morality means. But as pragmatist philosophers and sociologists have been saying for a long time, moral life is real not because it’s connected to a transcendental order but because it creates a sense within individuals and communities of moral duties and demands. That’s it. That’s all. Society doesn’t need religion to be moral, and neither does it need religion to set the ground rules for what can properly be defined or understood as moral. But morality does need a sense of rooting that religious communities have often provided—it’s just that it’s the community and not the religious part of that explanation that matters.

There are a few important points here for secularists. The first is that we need meaningful communities to make our commitments feel real. That’s not to say we need an echo chamber that will prevent us from ever encountering a different point of view, or that we should ignore centrist warnings about moral arrogance and the perils of utopianism. But a commitment to justice is not a hypothesis that can be falsified through rigorous argument; it’s a moral faith that needs support through like-minded believers. For example, recent movements for Black lives in cities across the country and around the world provide examples both for this support and its result. Black Lives Matter and similar movements are not spontaneous responses. They come out of a long history of Black political theorizing, Black activism, and Black solidarity. They come out of an awareness of the kinds of communities John Lewis long cultivated that made his “good trouble” possible.

Communities like this have a shared sense of the good life—“good” in the philosophical sense of what others might say about a life after someone had died. Did that person practice virtues and do what had to be done, even if that meant going against what polite society asked? This is not “the good life” in the sense of Coronas on a beach but in the sense of knowing you’re doing what you can to live well and to create a world in which others can live well too. And you can never do that alone. The political actions that come out of such lives are only the tip of the iceberg: what really matters is the community, both for maintaining relationships and for maintaining the plausibility that all this work is really worth it.

So what should secularists’ political actions be now? The first thing would be to find a community. And the second thing would be to work out with that community what to do next. But if I had to suggest something, I think a good place to start is by saying we have to get rid of cruelty and suffering whenever we can. There are, obviously, many ways to approach that—part of the point of a like-minded community is not that we all agree but that we all have a common basis and stake in our disagreements, including disagreements about what we all should do.

And the second thing to do is a bit more controversial. We secularists need to own up to the fact that we’re using our power to change people, sometimes through arguments, but often through changing the social world enough that what previously seemed sinful or strange now seems normal and good. I recognize that some on the religious right might accuse me of going against what I just said about getting rid of cruelty; that, for example, it is cruel to force children to attend schools marked by what their parents might call sinful lifestyles. This is another complicated question, but I think the answer, at least for secularists, is to simply own up to the fact that we disagree with the religious right about moral goods and we are using our power against them.

We think it less cruel and will cause less suffering to teach kids to respect gay rights, for example, to read them stories about same-sex parents, even, perhaps, read by a drag queen. We think that reading these stories is neither cruel nor causing suffering, but rather using our power—the power of the institution, the power of the state, the power of the teacher—to impart a moral good, a good that might not at first seem obvious, but which will come later to feel true and empowering, for the queer kids especially, but for all the kids, and for us too. Power enables certain moral commitments, and certain moral commitments empower. It’s a lesson the religious right has long understood, and it’s time secular liberals do too.