Illustration by OttoLest he be misunderstood, recently withdrawn Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum wanted to make it perfectly clear that he did, in fact, want to vomit upon reading a famous 1960 address by John F Kennedy. “Because the first line, the first substantive line in the speech,” a revving Santorum explained to journalist George Stephanopoulos in February, “says I believe in America where separation of church and state is absolute.” Santorum then disgorged: “To say people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes me want to throw up!”

Needless to say, not one syllable of JFK’s famed oration suggested that believing Americans have no role in the public square. The first substantive line in the speech (pace Santorum) was that “war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers.” The young senator, soon to be president, proceeded to envisage a country “where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all ... where religious intolerance will someday end; where all men and all churches are treated as equal; where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice.”

Sentiments such as these outrage the current, outrage-prone iteration of the GOP and its base. This is a base, incidentally, that has made quite a name for itself throughout the election season’s many raucous debates: it lustily booed the Golden Rule, wildly cheered the death penalty, and did not bat an eye when governor Rick Perry of Texas proposed that the United States re-invade Iraq.

The present Republican frontrunner, Mitt Romney, already canvassed the Church/State beat during his first presidential run four years ago. He too invoked Kennedy, albeit respectfully and without reference to bodily fluids, as he lamented the establishment of a “religion of secularism”. That alleged faith sought “to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God”. Candidate Newt Gingrich, mired in the second division but seemingly enjoying himself nonetheless, routinely decries “Obama’s secular-socialist machine” on the campaign trail.

Which seems to be a baseless accusation since the president, like so many other Democrats, has given secularism the old heave-ho. How else to explain his supersizing of George W Bush’s much-maligned Office of Faith-based Initiatives? How else to make sense of the quasi-Christological disquisitions he delivers on occasions like the National Prayer Breakfast and Easter Prayer Breakfast? It was, after all, junior senator Obama who once cautioned his party against equating “tolerance with secularism” in The Audacity of Hope – a warning heeded by disconsolate Democrats who watched Bush flutter to a narrow victory in 2004 on the wings of Conservative Christian “values voters”.

When, how, and why did secularism become such a problematic and controversial idea in America? Why have both of the nation’s major political parties and three branches of federal government turned their backs on it? Why has jacking-up (as the American footballers like to say) an already woozy secularism become such a lucrative sport for political and religious demagogues alike?

The sheer volume of persuasive answers to these questions testifies to the current malaise of the secular idea in the United States. One failsafe explanation, however, is the 40-year ascent of religious conservatives in the United States. An almost direct correlation exists between their rise and the fall of those seemingly unobjectionable principles espoused by a figure like Kennedy. What happened to secularism? The Christian Right happened to secularism.

From humble beginnings in the post-Roe v. Wade maelstrom of the ’70s, this movement has grown into an immense, diverse, well-funded, political and cultural juggernaut. Its activists are everywhere, from local PTA Boards to statehouse to Washington DC. Its worldview is articulated and defended by a formidable cohort of pundits and intellectuals. Its ideological concerns (e.g., abortion, opposition to gay marriage or gay anything) dictate many of the policies of the Republican Party. And its convictions about America being a “nation under God” and/or a “Christian nation” do not lack for sympathisers on the United States Supreme Court.

That a traditionalist Catholic and anti-secularist such as Santorum could garner so much primary support in the South among White Evangelical Protestants – interestingly, his co-religionists can’t seem to stomach him – is significant. His success in Dixie casts light on the unprecedented and reactionary voter formations that began to coalesce in the middle decades of the 20th century.

Those would be the decades, not coincidentally, where a doctrine that scholars refer to as “legal secularism” achieved a position of prominence. If American secularism ever had a Golden Age it may have been triggered by Justice Hugo Black’s famous phrase in the 1947 Everson case: “That wall [of separation] must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.” For the ensuing three decades – a period that overlapped with the anything-goes 1960s – religious traditionalists in the South and elsewhere observed the fruits of secularism with horror. Their return to the public square was meant to thwart the progress of what they saw as godlessness run amok.

Aside from conservative religious reaction, there is a second explanation for secularism’s crack-up: a colossal failure of leadership and strategic vision. Those who advocated on its behalf in the 1970s and ’80s had little understanding of who their irate, coalescing adversaries actually were. In the secular mindset these “Fundies” were just a bunch of yokels, sitting on their front porches, cleaning their guns to the musical accompaniment of Pa strumming the gutbucket. In reality, however, the movement had scads of charismatic and savvy, if not incendiary, leaders.

Secular leadership, by contrast, was static and moribund. As I demonstrate in my forthcoming book it is exceedingly difficult to figure out exactly who was steering the good ship secularism while the Jerry Falwells, Pat Robertsons and Ralph Reeds of the nation suited up and took to the pitch. My own research indicates that in the waning decades of the past century, there was little in the way of effective direction and guidance provided to the secular base.

Then again, who was the base? And with that we arrive at one of the most debilitating ironies afflicting American secularism, if not secularism itself. If one looks at the history of this movement it is exceedingly difficult to gain clarity as to what precisely it stands for and what types of people it represents.

As best we can tell, the term “secularism” was coined somewhere around 1851 by George Jacob Holyoake. The intrepid English freethinker had taken a well-known and theologically freighted word, “secular,” and slapped an “ism” on its back. It is not widely realised how much definitional chaos and confusion accompanied its christening. My reading of Holyoake’s most comprehensive statement on the subject, his 1871 The Principles of Secularism, yields no fewer than a dozen descriptions of the term. These include: 1) utilitarianism, 2) freethought, 3) service for others, 4) positivism, 5) naturalism, 6) an emphasis on science, 7) this-worldliness, 8) sincerity, 9) materialism, 10) a form of religiousness, 11) the free search for truth, and 12) free speech, among others.

Of course there is a 13th definition, if you will – one that Holyoake championed for more than half a century. This would be his insistence that secularism was something other than theism or atheism. Such an approach baffled many Victorian infidels. None was more flummoxed than MP Charles Bradlaugh, who debated Holyoake for two nights in 1870 on this very question. There the relentless anti-theism of Bradlaugh – a sort of proto New Atheist – collided with Holyoake’s non-atheistic (and non-theistic) system of ethics. Their argument about the essence of this new “ism” was unresolved and remains so until this day.

A little ambiguity is always a good thing and social movements most likely benefit from a touch of ideological sprawl. All the better to pitch a big tent! But my contention is that secularism’s endemic inability to define itself, to reconcile whopping incongruities in its ideological platform, has contributed to the difficulties it experiences abroad and in the United States. Is it atheism? Is it a type of worldly ethics espoused by Holyoake? Is it separationism? Is it humanism, rationalism, secular humanism, anti-theism, naturalism, freethought, liberalism? What is it?

The potential secular base in America is currently rent by these divisions. Consider that secularists in the Golden Age were mostly religious people who advocated on behalf of separationism (as opposed to, let’s say, naturalism or humanism). Foremost among these were religious minorities. These included liberal Catholics like Kennedy and nearly every Jewish person in the country. There were also larger groups, such as certain Baptists, with deep theological roots in a tradition of religious liberty. Compare these secularists of faith to the current spate of American atheist groups, many of them virulently anti-religious, who increasingly speak in secularism’s name.

Culture Warriors love a void. With secularists perennially incapable of articulating and agreeing upon what they stand for, their opponents are more than happy to do it for them. Caspar Melville memorably quipped in The Guardian: “Secularism is the handy one-word distillation for all that is wrong in the modern world. Consumerism, divorce, drugs, Harry Potter, prostitution, Twitter, relativism, Big Brother, lack of moral compass, lack of community cohesion, lack of moral values, vajazzling.” A quarter-century ago things were scarcely different. In 1985 a New York Times writer joked that Secular Humanism stood for “everything they [the Religious Right] are opposed to, from atheism to the United Nations, from sex education to the theory of evolution to the writings of Hemingway and Hawthorne.”

The time has arrived for some sort of open, frank, melanomas-and-all discussion of what secularism does (and does not) entail. This conversation would benefit from a dash of critical distance and objectivity. In the academy, the subject of secularism lies pincered between two of the most ideologically rigid detractors imaginable. On the one side, a postmodernist and postcolonial Left has argued – in academic jargon of impressive incomprehensibility – that secularism is something called a “discursive formation” and a sinister policy henchman of “Enlightenment Reason” (a very odious thing in such quarters). On the other, the religious Right imagines it as an enemy of religious freedom and close personal friend of Nazism, Communism, Jihadism, what have you.

Until secularism starts to know and define itself, Kennedy’s principled opposition “to the state being used by any religious group, Catholic or Protestant, to compel, prohibit, or persecute the free exercise of any other religion” runs the risk of being expunged, Santorum style, from the nation’s political body.

Jacques Berlinerblau’s How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom is published in September by Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt