America: Land of the Free…And the Enlightened?

The United States of America has long been a champion of religious freedom, guaranteed in the first sentence of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” However, in an increasingly secular, modern world, the distinctly religious political consciousness in the United States is appearing more and more out of place. In his 2004 article for the New York Times titled “The Day the Enlightenment Went Out” Garry Wills expresses his disturbance at the fact that Christian conservatives, those majority of Americans who believe in the Virgin Birth over Darwin’s theory of evolution, are now deciding elections.  The United States, “the first real democracy in history,” he believes, “was a product of Enlightenment values,” but its history of theological politics (see fig. 1) leads him to the same question as will be addressed in this paper: can a country in which religious beliefs are freely expressed and influential in the public sphere rightly be considered an enlightened nation?  This question will be addressed by analyzing the consistencies and conflicts between Kant’s definition of enlightenment in his 1784 essay, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” and the activity of religion in the public sphere, both as it stands now in the United States, and as it could stand theoretically.


Fig. 1 Frank Newport. “Political Party Affiliation, by Religiousness, Monthly Trend, February 2008-June 2014.” Religion Remains a Strong Marker of Political Identity in the U.S. Gallup, 2014.  Web. 4 Dec 2015.

To begin, we must first establish what Kant deems necessary aspects of an enlightened nation.  He defines enlightenment as “mankind’s exit from its self-incurred immaturity” (58), which is often perpetuated out of convenience thanks to our many “guardians” (including the pastor “who has a conscience for me” (58)), who remove the necessity of enlightenment.  Nevertheless, Kant deems it inevitable that one reaches enlightenment if only they are granted the freedom to use their own reason in the public sphere (58).  Furthermore, freedom in the private sphere may be restricted without the significant hindrance of one’s enlightenment, for example the pastor is obliged to teach according to the demands of his church, as long as no conclusions drawn in the public sphere, according to free reason, are contradictory to one’s private obligations (60).  If contradictions are found, Kant strongly insists, one must, in order to avoid hypocrisy, resign from their private role.  These two requirements – free exercise of reason in the public sphere, and consistency between private and public beliefs – will be the focus of the following analysis of the role of religion in the politics of an enlightened nation.

In “What is Enlightenment?” Kant focuses on religious immaturity, as to him this form is “the most harmful as well as the most dishonorable” (63). This focus implies that, although he admits religious enlightenment is far from being achieved (62), he must believe it is possible. As for the political role of religion, he insists upon religious freedom, describing an enlightened leader as one who “regards it as his duty to prescribe nothing to men regarding religious matters but rather to allow him full freedom in this area” (62), but he never suggests that religious beliefs should play a part in political discourse, and in fact implies some incompatibility of civic and spiritual freedom: “A high degree of civic freedom appears advantageous to spiritual freedom of a people and yet it places before it insuperable restrictions; a lesser degree of civil freedom, in contrast, creates the room for spiritual freedom to spread its full capacity” (63). While it is important to consider these relevant aspects of Kant’s argument, “What is Enlightenment?” alone is clearly not sufficient to answer our question of the compatibility of religious influence in the public sphere and enlightenment.

The first, and most important requirement of enlightenment, as mentioned earlier, is that all citizens must be free to use their own reason in the public sphere.  If political discourse is strongly religiously fuelled, can this requirement be fulfilled?  Kant’s “motto” of enlightenment is “Sapere aude! Have the courage to use your own understanding!” (59) But this seems almost antithetical to the demands of faith: “Don’t argue, but rather believe!” (59) Kant quotes the clergyman.  Furthermore, it is not only the demands of their leaders that prevent religious citizens from exercising their own reason freely in the public sphere, but in fact the demands of piousness – unfaltering faith, and unquestioning adherence to doctrine – that makes it almost impossible for a religious person to act freely in the public sphere without jeopardizing their faith.

Both Jürgen Habermas and Hannah Arendt notice this conflict. In “Religion in the Public Sphere,” Habermas explores a number of ways in which religion can be integrated effectively into the public sphere.  One of the possibilities he explores is the “principle of secular justifications,” supported by John Rawls and Robert Audi, according to which religious citizens must justify any religious beliefs that they bring to the public sphere in a secular language that all citizens can understand.  Audi calls this the “theo-ethical equilibrium,” where “citizens who adhere to a faith are obliged to establish a kind of ‘balance’ between their religious and their secular convictions” (8). Perhaps if all religious citizens engaged in the public sphere in accordance with this principle, the concept of religious freedom in an enlightened nation would not be so problematic, however for good reason, this simply does not, and probably cannot occur.  Part of being a pious person is an obligation to base all political opinions and actions on one’s religious convictions; to make such an “artificial division” as Audi suggests is simply not an option (Habermas 8).  Furthermore, the “secular convictions” Audi refers to often do not exist.  Religious devotion means that one is “incapable of discerning any ‘pull’ from any secular reasons” (Habermas 8).

Arendt draws similar conclusions in her 1961 essay, “What is Freedom”.  For her, “the raison d’être of politics is freedom, and its field of experience is action” (145). Religious freedom therefore necessitates action in the public sphere, which must, Arendt believes, spring from principles.  Furthermore, she explores the religious understanding of freedom, and identifies corresponding human capacity to freedom as “not will but faith” (166). The inextricable links between freedom and politics, and between religious freedom and faith, mean that any nation that grants is citizens religious freedom, as any enlightened nation must, therefore accepts that the faith of their citizens must necessarily influence their politics.  We must keep in mind, however that the manifestation of faith in principles is by no means uniform, even within a religion.  While fundamentalist enactments of religious principles are often rigid and divisive, there have been a number of examples of religious political figures, for example Martin Luther King Jr. (see fig. 2) and Ronald Reagan, who have united religiously diverse and secular audiences by acting upon less dogmatic religious principles such as love, equality or justice (Wills).  Therefore, while it seems necessary to conclude that a religious citizen’s use of reason can never be free from their religious convictions, there certainly seem to be varying degrees to which this may hinder the use of one’s own “free reason” in the public sphere.


Fig. 2 AFP/Getty Images.  Martin Luther King Jr. at the “March on Washington. 1963. Photograph. Atlantic. Web. 4 Dec 2015.

The religious hindrance of individual citizens’ free reason, however, does not immediately imply that the enlightenment of a nation as a whole is also hindered. Habermas seems to most fervently support a system in which citizens work together to translate each other’s beliefs into a secular language, which can then be accepted into policy at the neutral, institutional level.  He sees this as the only way to overcome the inevitable existential conflicts on religious values in a pluralistic society (12). It may seem possible that in this way a nation may still achieve enlightenment even with free and influential religious pervasion of politics, however there are two major issues with this argument.  Firstly, this simply isn’t happening, particularly considering the current lack of a completely “neutral” institutional level.  One only needs to look as far as the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence, where it is detailed that the fundamental rights to “separate and equal station” afforded American citizens are sanctioned by “Nature’s God…their Creator,” to find evidence of the lack of neutrality at the foundation of American political institutions. Secondly, and more generally, this solution assumes that citizens of all religious and non-religious convictions can both accept the limits of their own reason, and retain an ultimate respect for some kind of “universal truth”.  Neither of these assumptions is likely to be true, and the latter is perhaps not even possible.  No matter the institutional structure, if religious citizens are acting in the public sphere with reasoning that is constrained by their faith, it appears that the enlightenment of their nation is certainly hindered, and perhaps even prevented.

The possibility that religion does not inhibit free reason is a reality that will be explored more thoroughly later, but if we, for a moment, take this to be true, the second requirement of Kant’s definition of enlightenment has even more serious implications for citizens of faith than does the first.  If we suppose that citizens of faith can exercise their reason freely in the public sphere, we must then turn to the implications for such a citizen of Kant’s distinction between responsibilities in the public and the private sphere.  A particularly pertinent example is provided: Kant argues that the clergyman’s public activities should be “nothing that could burden his conscience,” as “there is nothing in them that is in contradiction with what is intrinsic to his religion.” (60) The key here is that the clergyman is not required to limit his free reason in the public sphere so as not to reach any contradictory conclusions, but in fact the very opposite, he is required to use his reason completely freely in the public sphere, and if any contradictions should arise, it is his private duty as a clergyman from which he must resign (61).

This requirement can be extended to all citizens of faith, implying that they must be prepared to adapt or abandon their faith if they reach any conclusions that contradict the teachings of their religion.  I find it hard to imagine that in this “age of enlightenment” (Kant 62) any person of faith exercising completely free – free meaning secular in this context – reason would not find at least one significant conflict between the conclusions drawn from public discourse and the teachings of their religion’s doctrine.  Take, for example, Wills’s evidence that more American’s believe in the Virgin birth than in Darwin’s theory of evolution; I dare to say, and I am sure quite controversially, that this would not be the case if these citizens were following Kant’s instructions.

While Kant does not explicitly elaborate in this way, I believe this link is far from tenuous.  I would even go as far as to argue that the decrease in the proportion of religious citizens all across Europe since the end of the Second World War (Habermas 2) is evidence of this aspect of enlightenment in action.  Habermas does not seem to disagree, arguing that this decrease is attributable to growing doubts of the compatibility between modernity – enlightenment – and religion, doubts that clearly have not manifested in the United States (2).

There are two particularly obvious concerns about this argument: firstly, there are a number of important political and social roles played by religion; and secondly, the loss of religion would represent a significant loss of culture.  The first issue, essentially the question of the purpose of religion and whether religion is replaceable, has been thoroughly explored by philosophers for centuries.  Hannah Arendt was an extremely strong proponent of the possibility of secular replacements for the political role of religion.  Moyn describes her belief that “it is not religion, but the more basic requirement that religion meets that necessarily will continue into modernity” (76). The only political purpose of religion that is perhaps impossible to replace, as Habermas eloquently describes, is its “special power to articulate moral intuitions,” (10) which links to the second concern over loss of history and culture.  At the end of the day, religion isn’t going to go extinct.  Even Arendt admits the extreme difficulty of secularization, even if she does not admit its impossibility (Moyn 91). Even if the institution of religion is removed, religious premises and values will always persist in the human psyche, as they have been an integral part for so many millennia.  Perhaps what is most important in Habermas’s assertion is the word “intuitions”; it is possible that religion is only a formalization of human intuitions, intuitions that would remain even if religious institutions were to vanish?  And if so, is it not more “enlightened” to find these intuitions through our own free reason than through lifelong indoctrination by a religious “guardian”?

This question is not answered in “What is Enlightenment?” but it is worthwhile to consider some of Kant’s other work more specifically focused on the philosophy of religion.  Although Kant is often seen as a secular philosopher, or even “hostile to faith,” (Pasternack and Rossi) this was not the case.  Kant in fact considered faith one of the fundamental modes of “holding-to-be-true” along with knowledge and opinion, and identified the “pure rational system of religion” (Pasternack and Rossi). This seems to be in contradiction to my earlier assumption that reason guided by religious beliefs is not “free”, however Kant’s “pure rational system of religion” refers to the core principles derived from reason alone that lie at the heart of all religions.  Kant viewed religious doctrine and rituals as mere vehicles or representations of these principles, and believed that a Church that enforced such practices as necessary for salvation – or as a necessary basis upon which to reason in the public sphere, for that matter – was risking corruption.

Although Kant does not explore these views in “What is Enlightenment?” they are consistent with an underappreciated side of enlightenment philosophy that historian David Sorkin explores in The Religious Enlightenment.  He explains that the supporters of religious enlightenment “sought a ‘reasonable’ faith,” based on “basic truths about God and morality,” which would be appropriate for open-minded engagement with contemporary science and philosophy, and so necessarily “not grounded merely on dogmatic authority, pure emotion or fascination with the miraculous” (Stienfels).  Descartes could be seen as the father of this movement, his Discourse on Method providing a “proof” of the existence of God based purely on what he, at least, classifies as purely rational axioms (19).  This form of faith clearly fulfills Kant’s requirement of the use of one’s own free reason in the public sphere, as reason is not restricted by adherence to specific religious doctrine.  Reliance on this “natural religion” (Stienfels) also overcomes the issues that Habermas raises of irreconcilable existential differences between citizens of different religions in a pluralistic nation, as it includes only the foundational values shared by all major world religions.  If this “reasonable faith” is an appropriate basis for free reason in the public sphere, furthermore, the likelihood of contradictions with one’s private duties is greatly reduced.

Therefore there is an importance specification to be added to the preceding argument: it is not faith in God that stands in the way of free reason, and thereby enlightenment, but the institutionalization of faith and enforcement of specific religious doctrines as the only legitimate basis upon which to reason in the public sphere.  Unfortunately, any kind of “reasonable faith” is difficult to find in today’s public sphere, where, among religious adults, adherence to the literal word of scripture is high (see fig. 3).  However, we must be careful not to allow this to lead to the conclusion that “reasonable faith” does not or cannot exist.

Belief_in_God_by_interpretation_of_scripture_(2014)Fig. 3 “Belief in God by interpretation of scripture.Interpreting Scripture. Pew Research Centre, 2014. Web. 4 Dec 2015.

Close analysis of Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” leads us to an unsurprising, but disturbing conclusion: although it would be wrong to deny any possibility of free and influential religious action in the public sphere persisting in an “enlightened nation”, there are a number of reasons it is unlikely, particularly in modern America. Religion, in the way it is most often experienced today, severely inhibits its followers from exercising their own free reason, as they are obliged to always reason according to their respective religious doctrines.  Furthermore, even if one is to insist that religion does not inhibit free reason, the obligation of an enlightened citizen to avoid contradictions between their public and private convictions further discourages the use of entirely free reason by those of faith. This conclusion, however, is drawn largely from looking at how religion functions in the public sphere today.  Kant’s religious philosophy, as well as that of “religious enlightenment,” present a particularly useful solution, supporting both of these arguments, but blaming not faith itself, but the institutionalization of faith and subsequent enforcement of exact doctrinal adherence.  Belief in the Virgin Birth over evolution, to return again to Wills’s example, is not a result of faith in God, but rather of complete, unquestioning, and unreasoned belief in the Bible.  It is this latter behavior of religious teachers, rather than religion itself, that is problematic in the public sphere, where free reason is absolutely essential for the enlightenment of a nation.  Perhaps the best answer to the question, “can a nation in which religious beliefs are freely expressed and strongly influential in the public sphere rightly be considered an enlightened nation?” is theoretically yes, but only if the current attitudes and beliefs regarding the obligations of a citizen of faith to their religion’s doctrine are significantly altered to allow for more open-minded and adaptable reasoning.

Kant did not believe that he lived in an “enlightened age” (62), but are we still living in his “age of enlightenment” if we are seriously inhibiting its progress?  Religious enlightenment is a real and desirable possibility, which could significantly assist in settling the difficult moral and existential debates that now often seem irreconcilable in our increasingly pluralist societies, but modern religious institutions seem to be making no movement towards its achievement.  To convey the concern that this should inspire, I will conclude with an anecdote that Wills shares in his article of an interview between himself and the Dalai Lama at the Chicago Field Museum: “I later asked him if a pluralist society were possible without the Enlightenment. ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘That’s the problem.’” Every day societies across the globe are becoming more and more diverse; is our current political model, fuelled by religious dogma, really equipped to handle it?


Arendt, Hannah. “What Is Freedom?” Between Past and Future. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. Print.

Descartes, René. Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy. 4th Ed. Trans. Donald Cress. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1998. Print.

Habermas, Jürgen. “Religion in the Public Sphere.” European Journal of Philosophy 14.1 (2006): 1-25. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.

Kant, Immanuel. “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” Trans. James Schmidt. What is Enlightenment? Ed. James Schmidt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. 58-64. Print.

Moyn, Samuel. “Hannah Arendt on the Secular.” New German Critique 105 35.3 (2008): 71-96. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.

Pasternack, Lawrence and Rossi, Philip, “Kant’s Philosophy of Religion.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Web. 30 Nov 2015.

Stienfels, Peter. “Exploring Religion, Shaped by the Enlightenment.” New York Times 10 Oct 2008. Web. 1 Dec 2015.

Wills, Garry. “The Day the Enlightenment Went Out.” New York Times 4 Nov 2004. Web. 16 Nov 2015.