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How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom

How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom

by Jacques Berlinerblau


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Founding father Thomas Jefferson believed that “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God,” but these days many people seem to have forgotten this ideal. Conservatives claim America is a “Christian nation” and urge that laws be structured around religious convictions. Hardcore atheists, meanwhile, seek to undermine and attack religion at all levels. Surely there must be a middle ground.

In How to Be Secular, Jacques Berlinerblau issues a call to the moderates—those who are tired of the belligerence on the fringes—that we return to America’s long tradition of secularism, which seeks to protect both freedom from and for religion. He looks at the roots of secularism and examines how it should be bolstered and strengthened so that Americans of all stripes can live together peacefully.

“Jacques Berlinerblau mounts a careful, judicious, and compelling argument that America needs more secularists . . . The author’s argument merits a wide hearing and will change the way we think and talk about religious freedom.” —Randall Balmer, author of Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts Faith and Threatens America

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780544105164
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 09/01/2013
Pages: 338
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

JACQUES BERLINERBLAU, professor at Georgetown University and director of the Program for Jewish Civilization, is the author of four books. He has appeared on radio, television, and print, including NPR, CNN, Al-Jazeera, The Economist, The Jerusalem Post, U.S. News and World Report and the Washington Post. He is the host of the webcast "Faith Complex," which appears on The Huffington Post and elsewhere.

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What Is Secularism? (The Basic Package)

Secularism is the dream of a minority that wishes to shape the majority in its own image, that wishes to impose its will upon history but lacks the power to do so under a democratically organized polity.

— T. N. MADAN, "Secularism in Its Place"

The people want religion in civic life! The people want their government to support communities of worship nationwide! The people want a more robust role for faith in public schools and other public spaces! The people want to hear "Merry Christmas," not "Happy Holidays" from clerks down at the mall! What the people don't want is, well, secularism. Indeed, its critics charge that secularism is antidemocratic, that it runs roughshod over the will of the people.

Might the critics have a point?

A Christian Revivalist in the United States could cite scads of damning statistics in support of this allegation. Sixty-five percent of Americans think that the Founders intended this to be a "Christian Nation." In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, nearly 70 percent told pollsters that they were praying more. Around 91 percent believed the words "under God" should remain in the Pledge of Allegiance. As for "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays" — 72 percent preferred the less secular salutation.

These gaudy numbers account for why "Put it to a vote!" is the newwar cry of Revivalists far and wide. Religious traditionalists from South Carolina to Syria have become much more democracy-lovin' of late. They are cognizant of their numerical advantage. A simple referendum, they maintain, would make it abundantly clear that secularism lacks broad appeal, that secularism is apartheid with lipstick.

Overheated as these claims might be, secularists should take them seriously. Secularism is usually about as popular as taxes (an intriguing analogy, which we shall probe anon). With the exception of France, one would be hard-pressed to find a country on earth where a large number of citizens get enthusiastic about secularism.

The majority Sunni Muslim population in Syria, for example, certainly does not like the tottering "quasi-secular" authoritarian regime of the Assad family, who are Alawites (a small breakaway Shiite group considered heretical by the Sunnis). Hindu nationalists in India are none too enthralled with a secular government they feel grants way too many advantages to India's Muslim minority. Nor have Islamists in Egypt warmed to the suggestion that the post-Mubarak state should be secular. "The ballot boxes will decide who will win"— this was the cheery prediction of a recently freed Islamist implicated in the assassination of Anwar el-Sadat. In the view of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt would do best if governed by sharia law.

"Just put it to a vote!" say the Revivalists around the globe, and then they ask, "Why is secularism so afraid of the democratic process?" And with that taunting and tantalizing prompt we are ready to confront some hard, albeit interesting truths about secularism. For while we speak offhandedly about "secular liberal democracies," it is important to grasp the following statement: the ideal secular state is not necessarily a direct democracy and occasionally may be less liberal than some suppose. Secularism is a complex project, with complex relations not only to democracy and liberalism but to religion as well.

But first things first. To understand secularism today, we need to understand the fundamental premises, the basic package of secularism as it developed way back in the Reformation (when the modern world was born, even as it came apart) and the Enlightenment (when philosophers tried to make sense of all of that creation and destruction).

The Yin of Order

Secularism is a political philosophy concerned with the best way to govern complex, religiously pluralistic societies. It aims to strike an extraordinarily delicate balance. On the one hand, it wishes to ensure the existence of a stable social order free of religiously themed strife. On the other, it aspires to guarantee citizens as much religious freedom and freedom to be nonreligious as possible.

Order and freedom: those are the yin and yang of the secular vision. Every secular society has to calibrate a functional equilibrium between the two. Successful versions, like France and the United States, have spent centuries fine-tuning workable accommodations. Other societies fail to achieve that homeostasis and frightful consequences ensue.

In most of those failed cases, the state's interest in preserving order overrides its interest in religious liberty. "Maintaining order" becomes an excuse for maintaining the authoritarian domination of one party. This grim scenario has played out in the former Soviet Union, Kemalist Turkey, Ben Ali's Tunisia, and the failed Baathist regimes whose ghosts haunt the Arab Middle East.

Still, the quest to achieve order is and always has been the raison d'être of the secular project. In the chaotic, combustible world of sixteenth-through eighteenth-century western Europe, where secularism arose, the threat of complete social breakdown due to religious violence loomed large. The attempt to manage this problem left a permanent scar on Western civilization. Today's secular liberals sometimes fail to appreciate the role that order and its alehouse crony, coercive state force, must play in their preferred philosophy of governance.

This emphasis on order appears evident in one of the most important texts in the syllabus of secularism. The author of that text might seem the least likely person to share intellectual DNA with today's secular liberals. But, as we've already seen, secularism is complex. In his 1523 work "On Secular Authority," Martin Luther exclaimed, "We have learnt that there must be secular authority on this earth and how a Christian and salutary use may be made of it." Three centuries later, James Madison, midwifing secular principles of government in America, spoke of Luther's "genius and courage." It was Luther, Madison noted, who called attention to the "due distinction ... between what is due to Caesar and what is due to God."

Our subject is brimming with ironies and here is a hefty one that may give pause to those who view secularism as a form of atheism: one of the major architects of the secular vision was a person who, by the standards of almost any century, could be considered a religious fanatic. Yet as far as zealous Luther was concerned, secularism was a Christian and God-ordained idea!

The reasons for Luther's embrace of secularism are bound up with his fear of disorder, an evil underwritten by the devil. The father of the Reformation viewed the world as chock full of sinners and the damned. "There are always," he lamented, "many more of the wicked than there are of the just." According to Luther, even most Christians are corrupt. "All the world is evil," he frets, and "scarcely one human being in a thousand is a true Christian."

Those distressing odds necessitate the firm grip of a strong prince who can keep the reprobates in check. For "where there is no government," Luther opines, "there can be no peace." But Luther didn't go the next step and insist that true Christians need other true Christians to establish and administer that government.

It would be optimal, Luther admits, if that scenario did come to pass. A less interesting or less dynamic thinker might have refused to compromise on that issue. But Luther identified Christian justifications for accepting the legitimacy of a prince who was not a true Christian. His sublime contribution was to outsource the problem of order to the secular prince. Let him deal with the thieves and murderers and barbarians at the gate — all the better to let Christians concentrate on Christ.

To understand how bold a move this is, compare Luther's breakthrough with the opinions of his near contemporary, John Calvin (1509–1564). The latter also pondered the question of the secular authority's relation to Christianity. Yet he came up with an answer diametrically opposed to that of Luther: no outsourcing of any sort is imagined. Calvin concludes, "The end of secular government ... is to foster and protect the external worship of God, defend pure doctrine, and the good condition of the Church." Calvin's "secular" government was astonishingly similar to a religious government.

But let's get back to Luther. Why shouldn't a true Christian be the person who maintains order and why should true Christians acquiesce to such an individual? Here Luther had some ace New Testament proof texts at his disposal. For starters, Christians are enjoined to "render ... unto Caesar." They are not interested in worldly power or order-maintenance activities and hence leave them to others. Luther invokes the well-known Romans 13:1–3, wherein Paul exclaims, "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God."

Based on this strand of New Testament thought, it is appropriate for a person to display obedience to rulers. A Christian willingly submits to the powers that be. Luther reminds us that the scriptures teach that "even though the powers are evil or unbelieving ... their order and power are good and of God." It is not for nothing that, centuries later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau would complain that "Christianity preaches only servitude and submission. Its spirit is too favorable to tyranny for tyranny not to take advantage of it."

Another reason for not wanting true Christians to govern is that this act degrades the soul. Rulers, Luther reasons, are entrusted with performing unchristian, albeit necessary, tasks (such as punishing criminals, collecting taxes, waging war). As such, it is better to delegate the job to a secular prince. In the best of all worlds that secular prince would also be a true Christian. Yet Luther is a realist of sorts; he appears resigned to the fact that princes do not typically achieve their position by virtue of their piety and grace.

The prince, then, has a God-ordained job that "has a proper and useful place in the Christian Community." But here is the rub and the starting point of modern secularism: the prince must limit his jurisdiction strictly to taxes, warfare, public order — what Luther termed "outward, earthly matters." As for the "internal" realm of faith, of the soul, of belief — the prince has no business meddling in that sacred domain. That restriction, that fencing off of the heart from what Luther called "the Sword" (meaning the state), is one of the staples of the secular idea.

John Locke's Memories

If Luther is John, then Locke is Paul — the reader can decide whether this is a biblical or a Beatles metaphor. A century and a half after Luther, John Locke would build off his basic ideas while exiled in Holland. Yet he would suffuse those comparatively crude Reformation intuitions with a vitality and sophistication that befits one of the Enlightenment's exquisite minds. Locke took Luther's insights and adapted them to a much more diverse Europe, a Europe teeming with mutually hostile Christian sects.

Luther craved order, but Locke adds an intriguing new twist: nothing threatens order like religion. The threat does not come from a particular religion (though for Locke religions like Catholicism were more subversive than others). Rather, any religion that commandeers the wheel of the state will wreak havoc upon order. Further, the state that cannot control animosities between religious groups will effectively sow chaos.

One of the reasons that secularism is a bit of a hard sell in today's United States is because we Americans don't have John Locke's memories. We have never seen our country ripped asunder from within by domestic religious strife. True, nineteenth-century America witnessed murderous urban riots that pitted Protestants against Catholics. In the same period there was no small amount of ugliness aimed at Mormons. More recently, we have witnessed similar extreme situations, such as the government's ill-fated assault on the Branch Davidian compound in 1993, which left eighty-seven people dead.

But this is all a walk in Central Park on a Sunday in mid-May compared to the faith-based carnage witnessed in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe. The post-Luther architects of secularism knew of the slaughter committed in the name of religion. They were familiar with the Saint Bartholomew's massacres of 1572, wherein Catholics killed thousands of Huguenots "without regard to sex or age" in Paris and across France. They knew of the Thirty Years War (1618–1648), during which Protestants and Catholics devastated each other and Germany to boot. Though the body count is difficult to ascertain, the figure is plausibly set at eight million. They knew of Puritan and Anglican hostilities that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands in England, Scotland, and Ireland during the civil wars of 1638–1651. They knew — moving to the micro level — of Quakers being imprisoned, beaten, and hanged in the 1650s and 1660s by Puritans in Massachusetts. They knew of the utter insanity of the Salem witchcraft trials.

They knew (depending, of course, on when they lived) about all these things. And all drew a similar lesson: societies tend to rip themselves apart when the power of a religious institution is aligned with that of the government. From Locke forward, the architects of secularism feared that societies with established religions were structurally unstable. By the time of the newly formed American republic, it was taken for granted that establishments of religion "engender strife" and give rise to "a spirit of pride and tyranny." It was Madison who remarked that "superstition, bigotry, and persecution" were the fruits of the "legal establishment of Christianity."

This connection between religion and disorderliness has left its mark on a few centuries' worth of constitutions and legal codes. Every variant of secularism, from the benign to the beastly, displays this obsession with order. The Charter of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations of 1663, issued by Charles II and approved by Roger Williams, proclaims that no person "shall be any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for difference in opinion in matters of religion, [that] do not actually disturb the civil peace of our said colony."

A century later, Maryland's Constitution of 1776 warned of the consequences that result when "under colour of religion, any man shall disturb the good order, peace, or safety of the State, or shall infringe the laws of morality." Article 10 of the French Constitution's Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789 famously proclaims that "no one ought to be disturbed on account of his opinions, even religious, provided their manifestation does not derange the public order established by law."

Even among the beastly secularisms we find this view of religion enshrined in similar documents. For example, a decree of revolutionary Russia in 1918 stipulates that "the free performance of religious rites shall be granted so long as it does not disturb the public order and infringe upon the rights of the citizens of the Soviet Republic."

Much later, in the context of human rights law, the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights reflects the same concern. Article 18.3 reads, "Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others."

Never underestimate a secularist's fear of religiously motivated anarchy. Never underestimate a secularist's desire for order.

The Yang of Freedom of Conscience

Revivalists know their history. They are quite aware of secularism's fetish for order. Armed with research on the failed Soviet system, the Revivalists take up their theme. They complain that secularism detests religion. It wishes to do great harm by tyrannically controlling people of faith in the name of social order. Secularism, they argue, is a form of bigotry or even violence aimed at the devout.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Secularism is not in any way opposed to religion. Rather, it does not approve of certain types of relations between religion and government. Such relations, be they establishments of religion, or theocratic rule, or Caesaropapism (wherein the government "treats ecclesiastic affairs simply as a branch of political administration"), always degrade order and religious freedom.

Moving from the state level to the psychological level, one might add that secularism is also suspicious of a certain type of religious mindset. One of Locke's most memorable asides is that "every one is Orthodox to himself." It is customary, Locke understood, for a believer to believe that his way of worshiping the divine is the right way.


Excerpted from "How to Be Secular"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Jacques Berlinerblau.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Introduction: Is Secularism Dead?,
What Is Secularism? (The Basic Package),
Were the Founders Secular?,
Does Secularism Equal Total Separation of Church and State?,
Does Secularism Equal Atheism?,
How Not to Be Secular,
The "Rise" of American Secularism and the Secularish,
The Fall of American Secularism,
Are Democrats Secularists?,
The Christian Nation and the GOP,
Who Could Be a Secularist?,
How to Be Secularish (In Praise of "Secular Jews" and "Cafeteria Catholics"),
Tough Love for American Secularism,
About the Author,
Connect with HMH,

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

How to Be Secular serves as an important reminder that, as I have noted in the past, we protect our rights to our personal beliefs by preserving the rights of our neighbors to believe otherwise. I agree wholeheartedly with Berlinerblau’s argument and highly recommend this powerful book.”
—Mario M. Cuomo, Former New York State Governor

“As someone whose faith is an important part of his life, I highly recommend this book and Berlinblau’s defense of religious freedom. With great insight and clarity, he explains why it is important to protect and preserve secularism as a philosophy and he then lays out a twelve step program to revive it.”  
—Ambassador Dennis Ross, Counselor to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former U.S. peace envoy to the Middle East

“In this new look at church-state relations in America, Berlinerblau manages to be serious and sprightly in equal measure. This is a call to reject extremism of any sort and return to the American genius for accommodation of our differences—even, indeed especially, our differences over the role of religion in our public life.”
—Elliot Abrams, former Deputy National Security Advisor

“This book brought tears to my secular Jewish eyes, it was so good. Berlinerbau is not just an astonishing secular thinker; he knows how to turn a phrase, and he knows how to keep the pages turning. Now put that down that tefillin and read it!”
—Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story, among others

“As the nasty strife has heated up between religious leaders who intrude their particular values into public life on the one side and noisy atheists who insist that religiously-inspired voices should be banned from the public square on the other, I have looked for a book that sorts all this out in a reasonable and convincing manner. This is that book. Well-informed, even handed and crafted in a readable, engaging style, it shines a clear light into the murkiness.”
—Harvey Cox, professor of divinity at Harvard and author of The Future of Faith

“This insightful book is not designed to convince you of the non-existence of God or the afterlife; it exists to convince both the non-theistic and the religious that if we don't find a way to work together, we will all pay a heavy price. Berlinerblau makes a compelling, urgent case, with rigorous regard to history as well as a keen eye for the relevance of today's many new variations of fundamentalism.”
—Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State

“Jacques Berlinerblau mounts a careful, judicious, and compelling argument that America needs more secularists—not only among nonbelievers but among believers as well. The author’s argument merits a wide hearing and will change the way we think and talk about religious freedom.”
—Randall Balmer, author of Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts Faith and Threatens America, among others

“Passionately arguing secularism as essential for observance of the First Amendment’s religion clauses, Berlinerblau eloquently divorces it from absolute separation and atheism, traces its history, emphasizing the mid-twentieth-century period of its greatest influence and the expansion of civil rights that abetted, and advocates its revival.”

“Berlinerblau offers a solid history of secularism in America and a defense of its virtues at a time when conservative Christians attack it as a moral evil and advance the 'flawed' idea that one cannot be both religious and secular...An impassioned argument for 'a firm and dignified defense of the imperiled secularish virtues and moderation, toleration, and self-criticism.'”
Kirkus Reviews

“Berlinerblau succeeds in making concrete the current threats to secularism and offers a reasoned blueprint for an organized secular movement to regain its political power.”
Publishers Weekly

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