Why is the United States officially secular

USA political system

Josef Braml

Dr. Josef Braml has been a research assistant in the USA / Transatlantic Relations program of the German Society for Foreign Policy (DGAP) in Berlin since October 2006. He is also the editor of the "International Politics Yearbook". Previously, he was a research fellow at the Science and Politics Foundation (2002-2006), project manager at the Aspen Institute Berlin (2001), visiting scholar at the German-American Center (2000), consultant at the World Bank (1999), guest scholar at the Brookings Institution (1998 -1999), Congressional Fellow of the American Political Science Association (APSA) and Legislative Advisor to the US House of Representatives (1997-1998). Training stations: Vocational training as a bank clerk; Military service engineer battalion 240; Abitur via the second educational path; Semester abroad at the Université de Nice - Sophia Antipolis; Languages, economic and cultural studies (diploma) at the University of Passau (1997); Doctorate in political science as the main subject and sociology and French cultural studies as minor subjects at the University of Passau (2001).
His areas of expertise:
American Concepts of the World Order and Transatlantic Relations; US security, energy and trade policy; Economic and domestic political framework conditions of American foreign policy; Comparative governance analysis, including German and US government system; Religion and Politics in the USA
Contact: [email protected], https://dgap.org/de/think-tank/experten/203

The constitution of 1787 is the basis of political action in the USA to this day. Not only does it enjoy recognition from its own population, its principles and liberal social model are also exemplary internationally. Since 2001 it has become more difficult to meet this high standard.

On September 17, 1787, the envoys of the individual states in Philadelphia, chaired by future President George Washington, sign the constitution for their new state. (Image detail) (& copy a k g / De Agostini Pict. Lib.)


The architects of the US constitution, the so-called founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, still enjoy their work in the US to this day. The fact that the oldest republican state constitution that is still in force today remains more or less unchanged in the 21st century is due to its elastic construction. The interconnected principles of popular sovereignty, individual human rights and representation still guarantee the statics of the constitutional framework of 1787.

The ancient notion of the people as a source of government power was interwoven with the modern concept of individual human rights: In a liberal democracy the majority will of the people reaches its limits where it curtails the rights of minorities - a "tyranny of the majority" should be prevented. The mistrust of the broad masses becomes clear in a further construction element, representative democracy: especially at the federal state level, it is not the people themselves who should decide in the sense of a direct democracy, but their representatives. Behind this is the expectation that representatives elected by the people are less guided in their actions by passions and affects, but rather make rational and far-sighted decisions than a direct people's government.

The "invention" of the American nation, according to the American political scientist Benedict Anderson in his book of the same name published in German in 1988, is essentially based on the emancipation from the "Old Continent" of Europe with its state churches and rulers by the grace of God. At the same time, the settlers in the "New World" were filled with the awareness from the beginning that they were a nation chosen by God: "God’s own country". This turning away from the state church, combined with the awareness of being chosen, is also expressed in the first amendment to the constitution: the establishment of an official church that supports the state is prohibited and freedom of religion and expression is guaranteed. This constitutionally granted freedom still creates space for pluralism and a constant struggle for the legitimate position of religion in the area of ​​tension between the private and public-political spheres. School prayer, for example, has been at the center of political disputes to this day, especially since the Supreme Court, in 1985 in the Wallace v. (v. = versus, Latin for against) Jaffree decided that even a minute of silence in state schools for voluntary prayer or meditation violated the "establishment clause", which is supposed to protect against the establishment of a state religion.

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Pledge of Allegiance:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.



Shaped by the experiences of absolutist rule, especially by the practices of the colonial power Great Britain at the time, and inspired by the enlightenment ideas of the philosophers John Locke and Montesquieu, the exiles wanted to create a "New World" far away from their homeland. In it, rule should not be legitimized from above, by God's grace, as in the "Old Continent", but any power from below, by the people, should be conferred for a time. The individual - although at that time only the wealthy white-skinned man was thought of - was considered the source of popular sovereignty. In addition, in the spirit of a liberal constitution, the principles of power control should prevent abuse in order to protect individual fundamental rights from arbitrary state decisions.

The most important civil liberties, hereinafter referred to as individual or personal rights, are guaranteed by the first ten amendments. These principles, also summarized under the term Bill of Rights, were incorporated as a whole into the US Constitution on December 15, 1791. After the civil war (1861-1865) further constitutional amendments were added, with the 14th being particularly important for the protection of the individual liberties of every person - regardless of citizenship. However, the constitutional interpretation of the Supreme Court has shown that some of the individual civil liberties are reserved exclusively for Americans.

The constitutional fathers paid particular attention to the control of powers, because the basic principle of competing, mutually controlling state powers (checks and balances) is of fundamental importance for securing individual rights of freedom. In addition to the horizontal separation of powers into the legislative (legislative), executive (executive) and judicial powers (judiciary), the American constitution also created vertical control of powers: the powers were divided between the individual states and the federal state. The horizontal and vertical separation of powers should prevent the rights and freedoms of the individual and those of the individual states from being unduly restricted.

Nevertheless, the rights of the individual states, the states ‘rights, were also abused with the approval of the Supreme Court to maintain racial discrimination in the southern states of the USA into the 20th century. Only in the 1950s and 1960s did the civil rights movement more or less overcome racial segregation and discrimination. In 1954 the Supreme Court declared in the Brown v. Board of Education ruled racial segregation in government-funded schools. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally gave the Afro-American population improved rights to participate in politics. However, racial discrimination has remained a politically sensitive issue to this day.

Notwithstanding such shortcomings, the "American experiment" was supposed to improve the world, according to the early settlers of the New World. In the course of its history, the model of US foreign policy has moved continuously between isolation from the world and the missionary urge to improve the world. The USA's self-understood exceptional character, so-called exceptionalism, manifested itself accordingly in different ways: on the one hand, by the "almost chosen" nation ("almost chosen", according to Abraham Lincoln), the "city upon a hill" (according to the Puritan pioneer John Winthrop 1630, alluding to the biblical Jerusalem, which had a close covenant with God) self-sufficiently served the world as a shining example, or on the other hand, by actively wanting to change the world, be it through diplomatic or military means, be it through action alone or with the support of other countries.

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"All men are created equal" - a constitutional requirement and its interpretation

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in the Brown v. Board of Education that schools separated by skin color are "inherently unequal" and contradict the principle of equality of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. With this groundbreaking ruling, the chief judges also revised the prevailing legal interpretation according to the "separate but equal" doctrine. It was in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson had been established to justify racial segregation as long as there were "separate but equal" facilities for African American and white students. Nationwide, especially in the southern states, until the middle of the 20th century the schools, which were separated according to skin color, were anything but equal. The original plaintiff, Esther Brown, criticized the dire conditions that African-American children faced on a daily basis in her hometown of South Park, Kansas. Her action, which was extended to the cities of Wichita and Topeka, was supported by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which was founded in 1909. With the successful class action lawsuit, which was followed by other families (including Oliver Brown, after whom the case was named), racial segregation in US schools was finally lifted.

On July 2, 1964, in the presence of civil rights activist Martin Luther King, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which aimed to abolish discrimination against the African American population in elections and in public facilities such as restaurants, hotels and buses. His predecessor, John F. Kennedy, had already reacted to the increasingly violent public protests by African Americans. In his address of June 11, 1963, he had urged his compatriots and lawmakers to put an end to discrimination. But it was then the government team of his successor Johnson who managed to maneuver the heavily controversial law through Congress. In his first address to the assembled MPs and Senators on November 27, 1963, President Johnson stated that no obituary, no matter how eloquent, could honor the president who had been assassinated a few days earlier on November 22, 1963 as quickly as the fastest possible passage of the civil rights law for that Kennedy fought for so long. With the Civil Rights Act, the two-class society in public spaces could be more or less eliminated, but not the discrimination against African Americans in the elections.

The Voting Rights Act, signed by President Johnson on August 6, 1965, was once again intended to ensure that the Afro-American minority were given a level playing field to vote in the elections. To this end, discriminatory practices such as illiteracy tests were banned as a prerequisite for voter registration and the responsible individual states were placed under the supervision of the Federal Ministry of Justice.
On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled the Shelby County v. Holder with an extremely narrow majority of five to four votes that in the "light of current conditions", particularly due to the improved political participation of minorities, an elementary provision (Section 4) of the Voting Rights Act is outdated and therefore unconstitutional. So far, the southern states, historically burdened with discriminatory practices in elections, have been subject to federal supervision. Legislators are now being asked to find new, contemporary criteria that would continue to justify federal oversight of state-run elections.



After the Islamist terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon near Washington, which were traumatic for the USA, the efforts of US President George W. Bush (2001-2009) to increase security at the expense of freedom and democratize the world by military means, but led to a noticeable loss of quality in our own American democracy. Barack Obama's election as 44th President of the United States gave cause for hope that a change of course would be possible. "Change we can believe in" was his campaign motto, and in his inaugural speech he condemned the policies of his predecessor: "We refuse to accept the misleading choice between our security and our ideals." On the other hand, he expressed his intention, under his leadership, to restore the founding fathers' charter to guarantee the rule of law and human rights. "These ideals still enlighten the world, and we do not reveal them just because it seems appropriate," Obama said in his address. (www.whitehouse.gov/blog/inaugural-address/)

It remains to be seen whether President Obama will succeed in repairing the internal collateral damage caused by the "Global War on Terror" and the loss of international reputation of the former liberal model democracy. This would not be irrelevant, because the quality of the freely structured, open US society influences the worldwide perception of the democratic rule of law and international legal and regulatory ideas due to its exemplary character.

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It doesn't work without religion

Professor Bungert, President Obama will be sworn in twice this year [2013]. What's it all about?
It would be inconceivable in the USA that the official inauguration ceremony would take place on a Sunday. So that the country is not without a sworn president if the constitutionally set date of the change of office on January 20th falls on a Sunday, there has been a swearing-in in the White House in a small circle on this day since the 20th century, on Monday the president repeats his oath in public. In the 19th century, the oath of office was brought forward to Saturday - with the strange consequence that there were two sworn presidents for one day.

So much circumstance with regard to the Christian day of rest?
Officially, religion and state are strictly separated in the USA. But the Puritan tradition is still alive today. Sunday belongs to the service. Festivities are frowned upon, as is alcohol consumption. [...] These are of course anachronisms, the logic of which has not been maintained. For example, the Superbowl, one of the biggest sporting events in the USA, may very well take place on Sundays.

So is the USA a kind of God state after all?
I would be careful with the term, but of course there is a mixture of religion and politics, which is often called "civil religion" in science. Nowhere is it more evident than in the inauguration ceremony with prayers at the beginning and a final blessing - rituals that do not seem to fit in with a secular state ceremony. Officially, it is often said that the God of a certain religion is not being addressed. [...]

What is the point of the religious charge of the whole celebration?
It expresses the self-image of the Americans as "God's chosen people". That too is Puritan heritage and part of civil religion. This idea of ​​election is often alien to Europeans. For Americans, on the other hand, this is linked to the self-commitment to prove themselves worthy of divine election and the inheritance of their forefathers. Every generation of Americans is re-examined for this. [...]

Can't do without a Bible?
Almost all presidents have sworn on the Bible. George Washington's swearing-in almost took place without a Bible. But at the last moment a copy was brought in, from a Masonic temple of all places. Since then, only John Quincy Adams, president from 1825 to 1829, has sworn by a code of law instead. After Kennedy's assassination in 1963, his deputy Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in aboard Air Force One. There was no Bible there, but a Catholic missal was found. That had to serve as a substitute. So: the Bible has to be. Recently even two [On Monday, January 21, 2013, the day of President Obama's public swearing in, officially the day of remembrance for the black civil rights activist Martin Luther King was also celebrated. Therefore, on that day, the President took his oath of office not only on the Bible of former President Abraham Lincoln, but also on a Bible of Martin Luther King. - Note d. Red.].During his "little swearing in" on Sunday, Obama will use a third one, a family-owned Bible.

How does the oath on two Bibles work at the same time?
By laying them on top of each other. Each copy is opened at a specific point in the text. [...]

Heike Bungert, born in 1967, is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at the Westphalian Wilhelms University in Münster.

"Religiously Soaked". Joachim Frank in conversation with the historian Heike Bungert about the ceremony for the swearing-in of Barack Obama, in: Frankfurter Rundschau from January 16, 2013