by Ken Burrows
Reflections on How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom by Jacques Berlinerblau
“Every new and successful example of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters is of importance. Religion and government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together.” — James Madison, letter to Edward Livingston, 1822
“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” — John F. Kennedy, speech in Houston, 1960
“The ‘wall of separation between church and state’ is a metaphor based on bad history, a metaphor which has proved useless as a guide to judging. It should be frankly and explicitly abandoned.” — Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist, dissenting in Wallace v. Jaffree, 1985
“Whatever the Establishment Clause means, it certainly does not mean that government cannot accommodate religion, and indeed favor religion.” — Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, interviewed in Hamodia magazine, 2009
As the quotes above suggest, something has happened over the last couple of centuries, and even in the last half-century, to the concept of church-state separation as seen by America’s leading voices. How did this come about and what might it mean for the future? If it’s a trend, is it inexorable?
This past year Jacques Berlinerblau attempted to answer such questions in his book How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom. One of its main theses is that secularism—defined by him as a philosophy wherein the state does not establish a religion or embrace an official preference for any—is in peril, and this peril is owed to extremism on both the right and the left, to both the fundamentally religious and the aggressively irreligious. In fact, in what may sound contradictory, he contends it is religious moderates that offer one of the best hopes of saving the secular state from demise.