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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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547473345
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 09/11/2012
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(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.

Read an Excerpt


A few days before the commemoration at Ground Zero marking the tenth anniversary of the World Trade Center tragedy, an article appeared on the front page of the New York Times titled “Omitting Clergy from 9/11 Ceremony Prompts Protest.”* The protesters in question were incensed over Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision to prohibit religious officials from speaking at the official memorial honoring those who perished in the attacks.

Uproar aside, the decision was entirely consistent with the city’s usual practice. In the past, services on this day of national mourning did not feature any official representatives of religious groups. That clerics were not invited to participate on September 11, 2011, was neither unprecedented nor unusual. But leaders of the Christian Right suddenly deemed this arrangement unacceptable.

Richard Land, a major figure in the ultraconservative and highly influential Southern Baptist Convention, was quoted in the article as saying, “We’re not France . . . Mr. Bloomberg is pretending we’re a secular society, and we are not.”* Elsewhere, Land lamented that Bloomberg’s action “demonstrates the mindless secularist prejudice of the political establishment on our nation’s Eastern Seaboard.”* 

Doing its own reporting on the growing controversy, the Christian Century cited the president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, who charged that New York’s mayor was “ignoring most Americans and most New Yorkers by pretending religion is unimportant.”* The same article mentioned a right-wing blogger who accused Bloomberg of launching a “de facto jihad” on religion.*

As the controversy crescendoed, the mayor’s detractors certainly had reason to believe that they might prevail. After all, in recent decades the Christian Right had been routing American secularism (a term that, as we shall see, has been defined, derided, used, and abused in a bewildering variety of ways). The growing influence of this movement was evident in the manner in which faith and piety had come to permeate the rhetoric of politicians and, ultimately, law and policy. Reproductive rights had been checked across the country—so much so that legal abortions are extraordinarily difficult to procure in many states of the Union. Science’s role in shaping national dialogue on questions such as the teaching of evolution or the threat of climate change had been degraded. American public education had been challenged by attempts to de-secularize the curriculum or even remove students from its institutions via voucher programs or homeschooling.

Now the conservative Christian “outrage machine” was revving and whirring again.* And in New York City, for the love of God! This must have seemed like a slam dunk for the assembled activists. If the Christian Right could make it unsecular there, they could make it unsecular anywhere! Imagine the mayor of the most secular city in America, and possibly the world, being forced to bend to the will of a few Bible-thumpin’ pastors from the boonies!

That did not come to pass. In the face of a brutal battering from the media, Bloomberg held his ground, often with truculence. The fact that he had always maintained cordial relations with the city’s diverse communities of faith certainly strengthened his position.* Another explanation for his triumph was the refusal of the Catholic Church to join the evangelical Protestants who had initiated the scrum.* The ceremony proceeded solemnly and without incident. The critics quietly decamped from this theater of the culture wars. In all likelihood they’ll be back for another go. 

This book is about the recent crackup of American secularism and the therapeutic steps required for its rehabilitation. In understanding how secularism became institutionalized (or, more precisely, de-institutionalized) we will need to make sense of its complex historical past. In order to secure the future of secularism we will need to understand what secularism is and, more important, what it is not. According to its enemies, secularism is akin to atheism, hatred of religion, anti-Americanism and—why not?—radical jihadism.

The stakes are very high. Were secularism to completely collapse, the country might become the type of “Christian nation” that the New York protestors hope (and pray) for. In the mid-twentieth century, the U.S. Supreme Court assiduously labored to purge any such possibility from our political system. Yet the form of secularism they abided by has fallen upon some very difficult times. New ideas, new energy, and most of all new people are needed to resurrect it in America today.

To a large extent, the ceremony of September 11, 2011, exemplified the possibilities of a new vision for secular America, wherein both freedom of and freedom from religion are granted as much space as possible. Under the Bloomberg protocols, no state-sanctioned clergy or prayer was included during the memorial. Yet those citizens who wished to express their faith were completely at liberty to do so.

President Obama opened his remarks by quoting from the Psalms.* Rudy Giuliani read from the book of Ecclesiastes.* George W. Bush invoked Abraham Lincoln’s letter of condolence to Mrs. Bixby, which ends with the words “I pray that our heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”*

Yet some of the speakers said not a word about God. Perhaps they refrained because they wished to keep their faith to themselves. Or perhaps they did not believe in God. One imagines that Bloomberg’s no-clergy directive offered these mourners one less distraction on a day of sorrow.

Still others invoked religion with moderation, dignity, and restraint, which are hallmarks of the secular worldview. One mourner, Debra Epps, noted that her brother’s name was imprinted on the 9/11 memorial next to that of another victim, Wayne Russo. The men had sat next to each other at work. The family of the latter had called and asked for permission for their names to be enshrined side by side on the monument. “Christopher would have loved knowing,” Ms. Epps explained, as she closed a short speech otherwise light in faith-based themes, “that the love he freely gave to others was given back to us in his name. Thank you, and I bid you God’s speed.”

Introduction: Is Secularism Dead?

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—all can be lumped together and explained by the word secular, a kind of contemporary contraction of heathen and barbarian, with undertones of greed, perfidity, and vulgarity.
—Caspar Melville, “Mix and Match Secularism”

American secularism is in a very bad way. Conservative religious leaders rampage against it, demagogues denounce it on the campaign trail, all three branches of government give it the cold shoulder, and among the general public it suffers from a distressing lack of popular appeal. All of these are worrisome developments. But in the triage ward currently housing the secular predicament, one illness demands our immediate attention: a debilitating confusion as to what secularism actually is.

The idea of secularism has been in play for centuries—some might say millennia.* At the assorted genius bars of Western civilization, it has long been one of the regulars, and as such it has been defined in many plausible ways, many of which will be discussed in this book. Yet the following definition seems powerful, precise, and the most conducive to its survival: Secularism is a political philosophy, which, at its core, is preoccupied with, and often deeply suspicious of, any and all relations between government and religion. It translates that preoccupation into various strategies of governance, all of which seek to balance two necessities: (1) the individual citizen’s need for freedom of, or freedom from, religion and (2) a state’s need to maintain order.

When secularism achieves that balance—and sometimes it fails disastrously—it performs a public service that should always evoke awe. It enables citizens to live peacefully as equals with other citizens whose creed is different from their own. Secularism, then, is a political philosophy about governance that can bestow a secondary “bonus” effect: it may create or actualize certain dispositions and worldviews in us all. Foremost among these are the “secularish” qualities, such as tolerance toward others, moderation, and a willingness to be self-critical about one’s own faith.

As for its primary function, secularism guarantees that this country belongs as much to a Sikh American as it does to a member of the nation’s Protestant majority. It ensures that your child is not forced to join a “voluntary” prayer circle in the school cafeteria. It renders the authorities powerless to regulate any aspect of the consensual sex you will have tonight (secularism, by the way, wishes you all the best on that joyous occasion).

If you have ever marveled at the comparative lack of interreligious strife in America, you might want to say “Thank you, secularism!” In fact, why haven’t you said so already? After all, it has defended a reading of the Constitution’s inscrutable Establishment Clause that has done you a monumental favor: keeping federal and state government from molding you into an obedient subject of someone else’s religion. And if you fancy being able to think about God in any way you see fit, then once again, a little gratitude is in order. This type of freedom is secularism’s essence. This is secularism’s promise. This is the end to which all genuine secularisms aspire.

But this is not, to put it mildly, how critics in the United States and abroad see things. They don’t associate secularism with peace, freedom, and order. Rather, they equate it with godlessness, totalitarianism, and genocidal regimes. Secularism is depicted as a pervasive moral evil capable of undermining entire societies, or perhaps civilization itself. Many critics view it as a cancer. Still others treat it as a corpse: secularism had its heyday and was fun while it lasted. But now it’s gone—skip the funeral.

The turpitude of this concept has been depicted in many colorful ways. To get a sense of the range of this commentary, we start with Pope Benedict XVI. Not a fan of secularism, but an erudite commentator nonetheless, the pontiff has depicted it as a spiritual menace that leads us away from our “ultimate purpose” because it forces us to treat religion as a “private matter.”* Elsewhere he cautions that “there is something deeply alien about the absolute secularism that is developing in the West . . . a world without God has no future.”* Conservative Protestants in this country take a different tack. They have spent decades preaching that secularism is literally demonic.* One American Christian fundamentalist worried aloud that “today, within the bounds of the Church, we are witnessing a Satanic work of deception and substitution that is intended to deceive even the very elect.”*

Politicians express the same concerns but in a more secular idiom, if you will. The former British prime minister Tony Blair called on all faiths to join together against secularism.* In December 2007, the U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney likened it to “radical Jihadism.”* Newt Gingrich has often expressed his disdain for “secular fanatics trying to redesign America in their image.”* He then proceeded to write a book decrying Barack Obama’s “secular-socialist machine.”*

This last accusation is quite ironic since President Obama himself has, in word and in deed, attacked secularism. We will get to the deeds later, but you might recall that in his book The Audacity of Hope he chided fellow Democrats for equating “tolerance with secularism.”* By drawing this equation, argued Obama, his party had foolishly “forfeit[ed] the moral language that would help infuse our policies with a larger meaning.”* The Democrats, incidentally, got the memo and promptly delivered a brisk stiff-arm to the secularists within their traditional base. Loss of old allies: another headache for secularism.

Some detractors have moved beyond the critique stage and are performing a deathwatch. A conservative think-tanker deems secularism “a view of life ill-equipped to meet the political and existential challenges of the twenty-first century.”* Pastor Rick Warren, one of the most prominent evangelical leaders in the nation, counsels, “You need to understand that the future of the world is not secularism. It’s religious pluralism. You may not like it, but I’m sorry, that’s it. The world is becoming more religious, not less.”*

For Warren, there is an inherent contradiction between religious pluralism and secularism. He seems unaware of the close and complementary relationship between these ideas. The very concept of secular government arose during the Reformation and Enlightenment in order to safeguard religious pluralism, which theocratic governments were congenitally incapable of ensuring. Warren fails to understand that secularism, far from being the enemy of religious pluralism, is its guarantor. With a similar lack of precision Warren assumes that one cannot be both religious and secular. This flawed idea is pervasive and, as we shall see, has prevented many potential advocates from wholeheartedly adopting the ideals of secularism.

The same misconception can be observed among those who have already proceeded to the eulogy stage, and they are not necessarily religious conservatives. One distinguished theologian of the Left writes that “secularism is dead . . . people are turning to religious explanations for human existence and human meaning, and turning away from reason, science, and materialism.”* Another professor opines that “secularism has had a reasonably good life and has done some good to the society but has now exhausted its possibilities.”*

These and other diagnoses as to the continuing viability of secularism are astonishing not only for the breadth and boldness of their conclusions but also for the ideological range of those who promulgate them. Those who criticize secularism are liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, Catholics and Protestants, professors and politicians. They batter away at the idea to a degree that seems gratuitous; in some quarters the attacks amount to demagoguery. Giving secularism a good concussing is largely a risk-free undertaking because in public debate convincing counterarguments have not gained traction. Will anyone come to the defense of the secular virtues?

* indicates note

Table of Contents

Preface xi
Introduction: Is Secularism Dead? xv

What Secularism Is and Isn’t
What Is Secularism? (The Basic Package) 3
Were the Founders Secular? 20
Does Secularism Equal Total Separation of Church and State? 35
Does Secularism Equal Atheism? 53
How Not to Be Secular 69
The Very Peculiar “Rise” and Fall of American Secularism
The Rise of American Secularism and the “Secularish” 85
The Fall of American Secularism 103
Are Democrats Secularists? 120
The Christian Nation and the GOP 137
Reviving American Secularism
Who Could Be a Secularist? 155
How to Be Secularish (In Praise of “Secular Jews” and “Cafeteria Catholics”) 171
Tough Love for American Secularism 190

Acknowledgments 211
Notes 212
Index 289

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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How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"Thank you. I can understand it's painful. You can always say no, Raven. When someone pushes you too far." I pad out as I feel a vision creeping in. Darkness begins to fill my vision. "The past is agonizing. The future is tantalizing." I say over my shoulder, quoting Teller. I begin to worry as I leave. The tendrils of nothingness curl aroun d the sights around me, making everything seem to fall away around me. This happens every time. Every time, before the visions start, I go a little bit... distanced. Each time, more and more, insanity wraps its icy grip around me and I sink into the depths of my own hysteria. I'm just waiting to drown. ~Aero