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The Secular Revival

Jacques Berlinerblau’s book How To be Secular makes a historical case for a strong church-state division

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Left to right: James Madison, Martin Luther, Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, and Roger Williams. (Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Shutterstock and Wikimedia Commons)

Later this month, as Republicans flock to Tampa, Fla., to crown Mitt Romney their candidate for president, they’ll be greeted by a billboard mocking Mormons for believing that God is a space alien. Democrats, congregating shortly thereafter in Charlotte, N.C., will scarcely enjoy a more hospitable welcome: A sign awaiting them will feature Jesus’ face seared onto a piece of toast, along with the assertion that Christians—a group that includes President Obama, despite vicious and insistent rumors to the contrary—worship a “sadistic God” and a “useless savior.” Both billboards are paid for by American Atheists, an organization that describes itself as “the Marines of free thought.”

Of course, it’s only too easy to find similar vitriol on the other bank of the religious divide: To hear too many Americans tell it, this nation’s pious soul is under constant and vicious attack from those who want to turn it into a smoldering Sodom of late-term abortions, gay marriages, and decadent popular culture.

Both forms of extremism are bad, and both—one by espousing the absolute removal of religion from all recesses of public life, the other by demanding the very opposite—are ruinous to the intricate attempt at liberty that has set America apart from other nations.

In a splendid new book, Jacques Berlinerblau, director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University, warns that the indispensable hedge that keeps church and state apart is being trimmed to within an inch of its existence and that if America is ever to be America again, we must rush to the hedge’s defense.

The hedge Berlinerblau calls by a funny name: secularism. Berlinerblau, who writes frequently and astutely about religion, acknowledges that the concept is difficult to define. As he explains in his book How To Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom, secularism isn’t the same as atheism. In fact, many of its advocates, Jews first and foremost, have defined themselves along secular principles while simultaneously remaining faithful to religious beliefs and traditions. At its core, secularism isn’t a rejection of religion, but rather a political philosophy that “is preoccupied with, and often deeply suspicious of, any and all relations between government and religion.”

But before we join the ranks of those who, like the pontiff, believe that secularism’s end goal is the censoring of religious freedoms, we would do well to consider American secularism’s history. Its founding fathers, Berlinerblau argues, include Martin Luther, John Locke, and Roger Williams—religious men who, even if they never used the term “secularism,” saw the hedge as a necessary precondition for the ultimate religious liberty: the right to worship freely and without intervention. “The care of souls does not belong to the magistrate,” wrote Locke. “The care therefore of every man’s soul belongs unto himself, and is to be left unto himself.” For that to happen, the state’s power must end at the church’s door.

With such theologically intricate roots, secularism was bound to grow more and more tangled. Thomas Jefferson, another of its founding fathers, may have been the tangler-in-chief: The most ardent advocate of separation, his views were, most likely, so out of touch with the majority of his contemporaries that George Washington was urged to acknowledge the discrepancy in his farewell address. “And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion,” said the departing colossus. “Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

It was, perhaps, precisely the peculiar structure of his mind that enabled Jefferson—and, later, James Madison—to kindle the fire of secularism. Centuries later, in a brief golden period ranging from the 1940s to the 1970s, a host of Supreme Court decisions fanned Jefferson’s flames and established secularism as a dominant force in American public life. In a helpful aside, Berlinerblau compares our version of secularism with that practiced in France; while to some the laïcité may look more appealing in its nearly absolutist insistence on separation of church and state, it is achieved at the cost of the state closely supervising religion, which puts the two in a tight embrace. France has a ministry of religions that deems some legitimate and others, like Scientology, not. It also pays for things like Muslim soldiers’ pilgrimage to Mecca. In America, Berlinerblau argues, things are simpler, as our brand of secularism allows the state to keep the church at an arm’s length, granting it the freedom to do as it pleases (tax-free) so long as it does not violate any laws.

It doesn’t take a scholar, however, to know that this blissful vision is everywhere under attack. For at least three decades, a well-organized coalition of religious activists—Berlinerblau calls them Revivalists—has worked to subject the state to church dogma, whether by meddling with textbooks that teach evolution or by vowing to repeal Roe v. Wade. Often, these Revivalists enjoy the majority’s support; what’s secularism to do when its opponents charge it with being undemocratic for opposing the will of the people? Here, Berlinerblau is adamant. Secularism, he argues, is not synonymous with democracy; rather, it is the soil in which democracy is planted. And when that soil is upended by zealots, the state can and must resist. Locke, again, is instrumental here. “It appears not that God has ever given any such Authority to one Man over another, as to compel anyone to his Religion,” the philosopher wrote in A Letter Concerning Toleration. “Nor can any such Power be vested in the Magistrate by the consent of the people.” Berlinerblau calls this the Lockean Escape Clause: Not even a democratic vote should be allowed to compromise the state’s sovereignty over the church in matters of policy and governance.

Even geared with this intellectual resolve, proponents of secularism in America are still forced to fight an uphill battle. They are not only undermanned, Berlinerblau explains, but also philosophically underprivileged: While their opponents believe in communities, secularists tend to sanctify the virtue of the individual and are therefore loath to join mass movements or march on D.C. or form single-issue voter blocs. Instead, they have fought their battles in court, an intellectual jujitsu move that launched them to great heights in the short term but left them susceptible to attack in the long run.

How, then, to preserve secularism and its many gifts? Berlinerblau has a blueprint, and it rests on a few surprising assertions. The first is that secularism and religion aren’t mutually exclusive. Indeed, he admits, if secularism is to persevere, it will do so primarily thanks to religious moderates who see no contradiction between their faith and their desire for a government unencumbered by dogma. These folk may be called secularish, and Berlinerblau, in a brief but instructive passage, posits the American Jewish community as an example for doing just that. Far more than any other religious group, he writes, American Jews were capable of producing a culture that “was intolerant of excessive religiosity. It abhorred displays of hyper-‘fruminess,’ or by-the-book adherence to Jewish law. Nor did it show an exaggerated respect for the institution of the rabbinate. In its more communistic variants it was aggressively anti-theistic. Yet for the most part these secular Jews were fiercely proud to be Jewish Americans.”

Then there are the doubters. Rather than adopt the hard and scornful line that defines so many of the contemporary luminaries of American atheism, Berlinerblau argues that even those secularists who find any tinge of religion disturbing would be well-advised to build coalitions with religious moderates and accept meaningful compromises. Complete separation of church and state, as history shows, is an impossibility anyway, and accommodationism—which argues for some allowances of religion into civic life, such as the current federal support for faith-based initiatives—is not without its merits. To regain prominence, secularists need to be known, once again, for a nuanced understanding of the past and inspiring ideas for the future. Berlinerblau’s book, erudite and warm and not without humor, is a great step in this direction.


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Dan Orr says:

I agree with the statement of the problem, but I feel pretty hopeless about the proposed solution. There’s just no way secularists and moderates can summon the kind of activist zeal revivalists display.

A better bet may be to help foster softening from within the revivalists. Revivalists often not only want religious involvement within government, but involve suffocating religious authority within their own families. Kids are bound to react to that.

Berlinerblau makes many good points. One point that tends to be missed is that it was evangelicals who joined Jefferson and Madison in insisting upon a strict separation of church and state (secularism to use his term). They saw the mixing of the two as potentially leading to the corruption of both. To say that Jefferson was out-of-step w/ the majority at the time, is to miss this very large and important constituency which played a critical role in the development of American religious freedom. See Wellspring of Liberty.

Constitutionally we have freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.
The Founders wanted to protect religion from government, not protect government from religion other than no state sponsored religion, such as the Church of England. It was about religious freedom in the public sphere.

Now I understand full well historical context. I understand Jews throughout time have had happy/prosperous and brutal times. That tolerance one day can replaced by intolerance.

That being said, we’re around 2% of the US population. What right to do we have as Jews to set limits on the majority of Christians’ right to worship in the public sphere? They haven’t prevented me from practicing Judaism at any point in my 60 years. They’re also the biggest defenders of Israel, far better friends to Jews than Jews are to them.

My point is as long as I’m free to practice my faith I really don’t care how they practive theirs. Who am I to dictate religious terms to them? They’re the majority. We interfere with their freedoms at our own peril, IMO.

Before outlawed we recited the Lord’s Prayer beginning the school day in a predominant Jewish community outside Boston. I don’t recall any of my Jewish classmates permanently scarred or massive converting to Christianity as a result, nor do I recall anyone prevented from observing Judaism or going to Hebrew School as I did.

I think we Jews better reassess our controlling need to conform society around us and what suits us, and should instead be more intent to adapting to our society as it really is.

Arnold Colon says:

Separating religion from government is certainly a worthy goal. But some separation is more equal than other separation. Why is it that a religious organization can purchase commercial property and then receive tax exempt status for that property? Or, an edifice worth millions of dollars and acres of parking lot is exempt from taxes while still enjoying the protection of public safety that is paid for by the rest of the community? Practicing religion in any form is a constitutional guarantee, but mandating all citizens to shoulder the expense for that personal choice, which generally is very discriminatory, is violation of at least three of my constitutional guarantees.

PhillipNagle says:

Seperation of religion from government is impossible. Since much of what advocate politically has to do with what believe to be right or wrong, it is based on religious beliefs (even if we are loathe to admit it). Take the civil rights movement as an example. Much of it was led by men of the cloth and justified on religious grounds. A secularist, who can really have no absolutes of right or wrong, would have not been able to make as strong a case. Our society can fubction as a “secular society” when the vast majority of people have a similar concept of right and wrong. When there is a conflict, the abortion issue is a perfect example, it is a problem.

    Dan Orr says:

    The original revivalists were, quite often, dedicated anti-abolitionists (e.g. Charles Finney). So the religious tinge of the civil rights movement had a 100-year history *before* the 1960’s! The crucial difference is that these movements and contemporary movements were not directed at setting spheres of state-sanctioned religious authority. Rather, insofar as authorities was established (and they were, e.g. to enforce desegregation), these authorities were completely secular.

      PhillipNagle says:

      Certainly the anti abortion had to do with secular authority rather than religious authority. There never any request for religious authority but as in the civil rights movement religious people seeking the state to enforce their idea of right and wrong. Another case is the anti war movement (I don’t know if you are old enough to remember the Viet Nam war), where much of the movement was led by religious leadership, including Quakers whose objections to war was totally theological.

jacob_arnon says:

Good article but misnamed. We still live in a secular nation even though some would challenge that.

You revive what is already dead not what is still around though in an enfeebled and senescent state.

It is odd to see the virulent Jew hater, Martin Luther, included in a list of religious leaders who supported secularism. Luther opposed practices of the Catholic Church and was for freedom of conscience for himself. His anti-Jewish diatribes were printed verbatim in the Nazi papers to support their hate campaign. John Locke was for religious freedom only for theists. Roger Williams was a genuine secularist but neither Luther nor Locke were secularists.

What is this article about? It contains a statement that the author you are writing about “warns that the indispensable hedge that keeps church and state apart is being trimmed to within an inch of its existence” but your article contains no examples of this so I am at a loss as to what specifically your complaint is about.

ardwellpolicyforum2020 says:

Secularism may be timid in USA but not so in UK where secular campaigners – usually in fact being militant atheists – though tiny in support , enjoy huge and favoured publicity in the media ….


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The Secular Revival

Jacques Berlinerblau’s book How To be Secular makes a historical case for a strong church-state division

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