This review of How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom by Jacques Berlinerblau appeared in Humanistic Judaism (Vol. XLII no. 2, Winter/Spring 2014) and is reprinted with permission.
During the past several years, advocates of public vouchers to fund private religious schools have been stymied by state constitutions that prohibit using public money to pay for sectarian schools. It turns out that these provisions were not enacted for secular philosophical reasons; in fact, these “Blaine Amendments” (named after the nineteenth century politician James G. Blaine) were generally passed to undermine Catholic schools. And why had separate Catholic schools emerged a generation earlier? Because the routine Bible readings in public schools invariably mandated that a Protestant version of the Bible be used, since “Protestant officials concluded that the Protestant King James Bible was ‘nonsectarian’ and ‘nondenominational.’ As a ‘neutral’ text, it was deemed appropriate for all public school pupils…Through it all, many Protestants cast themselves as defenders of the idea of separation.” (How to Be Secular, p. 96)
We modern secularists like to think that there was golden age of the separation of church and state: the Founding Fathers were essentially deists, who didn’t believe in the personal or active God of traditional religion. Even though the Declaration of Independence says men were “endowed [with rights] by their Creator,” that was not the same as God the lawgiver or God the Judge at the end of days. The U.S. Constitution contains no reference to God at all, and explicitly prohibits any religious test for federal office. The First Amendment prevents Congress from designating an established national religion, and the 1797 Treaty with Tripoli, ratified unanimously by the Senate and signed by President John Adams, put it even more clearly: “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,…” Mail was even delivered on Sundays from 1775 onward!
Into this paradise of separation between church and state, between religion and government, goes our narrative, religious institutions have been sinisterly insinuating themselves ever since: fighting for prayer in public schools, voucher funding for religious education, public affirmations of Christianity, and on and on.
But real history is more complicated, and more interesting. And Jacques Berlinerblau’s newest book, How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), explores this complicated history with a clear purpose: to inspire today’s defenders of the secular public square to be more effective by basing their claims on real history, by forming coalitions with appropriate partners, and by learning the virtue of moderation in the pursuit of secular liberty. By exploring the extremes of absolute secularism in the Soviet Union with its official League of Militant Atheists and contemporary France with its ban of all religious clothing (head scarf, kippah or cross) in public schools, as well as the odd bedfellows that created the basis for today’s church-state separationists, Berlinerblau offers lessons both in how to be secular and in how not to be secular. And he does so with his trademark wit and sardonic humor, which makes for an entertaining, almost conversational, read.
Berlinerblau is the director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University and holds two Ph.D.s, one in Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Literature and one in Theoretical Sociology. His previous books include The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously and Thumpin’ It: The Use and Abuse of the Bible in Today’s Presidential Politics. Those who attended Colloquium 2009 of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism remember his enthusiasm for both Secular Humanistic Judaism and the concept of secularism; his keynote address was, “A Manifesto for a New Secular Judaism.” In his current book, Secular Humanistic Judaism makes an appearance (p. 187), though Berlinerblau distinguishes between Secular Jews and “secularish” Jews – secularized, but not self-consciously or philosophically secular à la Humanistic Judaism. One of the hallmarks of How to Be Secular is Berlinerblau’s conscientious commitment to accuracy and clarity, even if it complicates the story we want to tell ourselves about America’s “secular” past.
Berlinerblau points out, for example, that Bible readings and school prayer were the norm until the early 1960s, when a series of court cases in “blue” states such as Illinois and New York began the change. (When Southern Christians insist that stopping prayer is “removing God from the classroom,” they are historically if not constitutionally correct.) In Engel v. Vitale (1962), the New York Board of Regents’ official prayer was struck down; it ecumenically read “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country. Amen.” And in 1963, Abington School District vs. Schempp struck down the practice of reading prescribed Bible verses and the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). According to Berlinerblau, fully 70 percent or more of Americans disapproved of these decisions, a statistic from which he draws the following lesson:
Pursuing a judicial strategy unattached to any legislative plan or grass-roots organization is a tactic that has served minorities well …[yet] there are risks. Namely, that times change, opinions change, and, most important, the ideological drift of the Court changes.
Secularism prevailed in the judiciary but not in the legislative branch. Secularism won in the courts, but it never won hearts and minds. Many Americans felt that Washington, DC, had imposed secularism upon them. (p. 109)
Berlinerblau also demonstrates that the common assumption (by the religious and secular alike) that only non-theists would support a secular government is historically false. In the 1830s, during a debate over Sunday mail delivery (which did not end until 1912 as a result of a collaboration of labor unions and religious leaders), Baptist minister John Leland defended continued Sunday delivery:
The powers given to Congress are specific – guarded by a ‘hitherto shalt thou come and no further.’ Among all the enumerated powers given to Congress, is there one that authorizes them to declare which day of the week, month, or year, is more holy than the rest, too holy to travel upon? If there is none, Congress must overleap their bounds, by an unpardonable construction, to establish the prohibition prayed for.
A Baptist minister defending separation of church and state? Given the insistent push for public religiosity emblematic of southern Baptists today, we tend to forget that the original use of that phrase appears in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut!
On the other hand, that same president and Founding Father, John Adams, who signed the Treaty of Tripoli denying that the United States was a Christian nation, also drafted the 1779 Massachusetts state constitution with the inclusion of these words: “It is the right as well as the duty of all men in society, publicly, and at stated seasons to worship the SUPREME BEING, the great Creator and Preserver of the Universe . . . [citizens should] make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the institution of public worship of GOD.” Indeed, as Berlinerblau points out, “Jefferson framed legislation punishing Sabbath breakers, as did Madison.” (p. 38)
What this shows is that even those who have separationist impulses are not always consistent, and, conversely, even the very religious might be recruited to the cause of a secular public square. Berlinerblau observes that “more than a few forms of Christianity lie on the secular spectrum” (p. 157) and that many of the origins of the founders’ American secularism derived from their experiences with Christian sectarian strife. Mainstream liberal religions could also be allies: “members of the liberal faiths sometimes perceive secularism as militantly antireligious (the equation they have in mind is secularist = extreme atheist). In fact, liberal religious groups have historically found themselves occupying an uncomfortable ‘third way,’ or ‘mediationist,’ position, stuck somewhere between orthodoxy and infidelity. Secular activism will need to rectify that problem by finding ways to let the liberal faiths comfortably situate themselves on the spectrum.”(p. 161) Likewise for other religious minorities like Hindus, Muslims, and religious Jews, and political fellow travelers like libertarians (whose slogan, in the libertarian Reason magazine, is “free minds and free markets”).
Berlinerblau’s last chapter, “Tough Love for American Secularism,” may not have won him friends among the activists at American Atheists or the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who never met a public faith affirmation they wouldn’t fight, but it does provide some pragmatic advice, including to be pragmatic: “Secularists must recall that politics is the art of the possible. Total separation of church and state is a nonstarter in the White House and it matters little if its occupant is a Democrat or a Republican.” (p. 201) There are times to use your opponents’ radicalism against them, times to “Fight Anti-Atheist Prejudice,” and times to “Grin and Bear It:”
There is no constitutional sanction against [President Barack] Obama or [Texas Governor Rick] Perry, as private citizens, doing God talk. Interestingly, the Freedom From Religion Foundation tried to prevent Obama from authorizing a national day of prayer. The Federal Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Wisconsin snippily dismissed the foundation’s case, arguing that ‘hurt feelings differ from legal injury.’ . . . Secularists, for now, need to focus solely on the significant trespasses. (pp. 205-206).
As Humanists and Secular Humanistic Jews, we know that there has never been a paradise, whether for Jews, or for secularists, or for anyone. And there never will be as long as humans are human. But we also know that if we work together to incrementally improve the world, we can make a difference. Berlinerblau’s full-throated defense and exhortation to American secularism is to do just that.