I believe the founders knew something important when they came up with the first amendment. They understood that all totalitarian movements resemble a kind of religion, and that when an established religion is supported by the coercive power of the state, it invariably becomes intolerably oppressive. Without the power to compel, religion becomes an individual life-style choice, one that offers great support and comfort to some. In the absence of state-power religious leaders must compete for adherents who, being unable to compel the observance of the population, must make the tenets of the religion palatable and attractive if they are to survive. The power to choose, the power to exit, is what makes religion civil; and the absence of this is what makes religion toxic.
This is what I understand to be the enormous benefit of what we call “secularization.” It is the distinguishing element between toxic and civil religion. In other words, it is not so much the elements of the religious teachings themselves, as the context in which they occur, that is pivotal. Consider the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam (in order of their founding). Of the three, Christianity is on paper the least intrusive (which may explain its rapid explosion after its inception). In terms of actions, observances, diet, etc. it requires much less than the other two religions. Faith rather than action is emphasized. Yet, when it became the religion of state we got the puritans, the inquisition, colonial plunder, the crusades, etc. The claim to be the “one true religion” provided license for all manner of coercion and brutality once empowered by the formidable state apparatus. It then became an all-pervasive (hence totalitarian) force reaching into the most intimate cervices of private life. Absent this power, Christianity, though its adherents can sometimes be obnoxious and annoying in their dogmatism, is associated most prominently with universal love rather than universal oppression.
Islam and Judaism are both incredibly intrusive in their teachings. They both preach all manner of severe rituals and observances. They dictate behavior in the workplace, the kitchen, the dining room, the bedroom and even the bathroom. They offer complete instructions for every aspect of life, no matter how seemingly small and detailed. As such, some people (like me) find them unacceptably intrusive taken as a whole. Yet, in civil societies, secularized societies, one is free to take them or leave them; or to take part of them and leave the rest. Pluralism is protected. I often wonder how Judaism might have turned out in practice had it ever gained a foothold as a state religion (we see some of this in the excessive, though muted, power of the religious parties in Israel, the restrictions they have obtained and the others they desire). Many biblical prescriptions are incredibly harsh (even violent). Yet these play absolutely no role whatsoever in modern Jewish religious teachings in civil societies. The rabbis have no coercive power. Over the generations, lacking state power, the rabbis tweaked biblical injunctions and prescriptions to make them more palatable to people who have a choice. Persuasion rather than coercion drove the evolution of the religion. It may also help to explain why Judaism became an inward-looking religion and foreswore evangelism.
So, I can’t help wondering whether this is an element in explaining the absence of a Reformation in Islam. Sharia law is problematic primarily because it claims the power to compel. It is this rather than the fact that it is so comprehensively intrusive, which is at worst obnoxious to those who do not choose it, that makes it so threatening and dangerous. (It is this desire for the power to compel that makes the Muslim Brotherhood unacceptable as a ruling party). If this is true, then the war for hearts and minds to achieve civil society should focus on selling the importance of something like the first amendment.