Book Review: The “Secular State” – picking words and picking battles

by Ken Burrows

Reflections on How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom by Jacques Berlinerblau

cross flag“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.

bookBerlinerblau is a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, a contributor to the Washing Post’s “On Faith” column, and host of the podcast “Faith Complex” that addresses religious politicking. Agree with him or not, in part or in whole, Berlinerblau lays out provocative challenges to some time-worn perspectives on these critical and volatile issues in an analysis endorsed by people as diverse as Harvard Divinity Professor Harvey Cox and Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Herewith is a look at How to Be Secular, with occasional commentary by this observer.


Definitions, real and perceived

To lay a foundation for his analysis, Berlinerblau offers this definition of secularism: A political philosophy that is deeply suspicious of any and all relations between government and religion, and one that seeks to balance two vital needs: 1) the individual’s need for freedom of, and from, religion and 2) the state’s need to maintain order. So rather than considering secularism to entail the whole panoply of all things non-religious (arguably its more common definition), Berlinerblau considers it specifically as a basis for how religion and government should interact and also ensure order. [For these reasons, I believe a more literal and less confusing title for his book would have been How to Be A Secular State; keep his narrower definition of “secular” in mind for purposes of this commentary.]

The author says the understanding of secularism in the religious and political spheres has become warped by both its critics and its supporters, and has come to entail more than just the relationship of government to religion. Secularism’s critics today equate it with godlessness, totalitarianism, and even murderous regimes, and see “secularists” as trying to redesign America to meet their narrow vision. So it is that even nominally moderate politicians, Tony Blair and Barack Obama among them, have attacked secularism for what they see as its dark and doctrinaire character. Meanwhile certain elements among secularism’s defenders do it no favor by insisting, for instance, that because the Constitution is a secular document, virtually all religion should be kept private, it should have no role in public discourse, the political arena should be cleansed of all religion’s traces. This can reach the extreme of, in effect, advocating for irreligion to replace religious pluralism.

This has led to secularism being identified, and successfully vilified, as atheistic, and even aggressively anti-theistic, neither of which it is by Berlinerblau’s definition. He insists both extremes misconstrue secularism and ignore the indispensable role it has played in history. He reminds defenders that one can actually be both religious and secular. [Here one sees the confusion his definition can trigger. It would be clearer to say one can be religious and still advocate for a secular state.] He reminds critics that far from being the enemy of religious pluralism, “secularism is its guarantor.”

The author also strains to strike a delicate, if problematic, balance among principle, passion, and pragmatics. One would be hard pressed to see him as a fanatic; quite the contrary, if anything he might be seen as too accommodating of opposing viewpoints. The reason for this even-handedness, at least in this reader’s eye, is that Berlinerblau is more interested in results than in rant. He wants to save and restore a viable, enduring secular state and is willing to, so to speak, cross the aisle to do so. “Re-cross” might actually be a better term, because he’s convinced secularism fared far better in its years before it became a cudgel for adversaries to whack each other with. If it cannot reclaim that legacy, Berlinerblau is pessimistic it can survive. It could be said he seeks to keep the secular state baby from being thrown out with secularism’s bathwater. Bathwater that today is seen as contaminated, the result of both detractors and proponents misrepresenting what secularism really stands for.

The beginnings of secularism

lutherWhat about that flourishing past for secularism? As the author reviews its beginnings, he cites five key individuals who he says would be on secularism’s Mount Rushmore. Four come as no surprise—Roger Williams, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. The fifth is not so expected—this being Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism. Berlinerblau says despite Luther being fanatically religious, he put into place “the basic, raw justifications for keeping religion out of the state, and vice versa.” James Madison would, in fact, some three centuries later give credit to Luther for distinguishing what is due to God vs. what is due to Caesar. Which is one reason Berlinerblau states that while secularism is popularly seen as a phenomenon of the Enlightenment, “its roots are sunk in both Reformation and Enlightenment soil.”

Berlinerblau reminds us that early secularism arose in Europe and gained traction because religious violence had for centuries threatened to break down social order, or worse. This is why maintaining order and guaranteeing individual freedom are both part of secularism’s mission. Locke, the renowned political philosopher known to have influenced America’s founders, would go on to contend that nothing threatens order like religion, because any religion that directs the state wreaks havoc upon order. (Think today of Iraq, Egypt, or Syria.) Locke is thought to have himself been influenced by the writings of Roger Williams, the devout Puritan minister (an often overlooked historical factoid) who founded Providence as a refuge for anyone persecuted for their religion or other matters of conscience. Williams was a fierce defender of the freedom of the individual conscience. He thought church and state should be entirely separate, calling for a “wall of separation” a century and a half before Jefferson.

Berlinerblau says of these early proponents of secularism: “They knew about all these things… societies tend to rip themselves apart when the power of a religious institution is aligned with that of the government.”

Of Jefferson and Madison

The most often credited architects of the relationship between church and state in America are Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the one known for authoring the Declaration of Independence and promulgating the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (and also, of course, penning the iconic “wall of separation” letter to the Danbury Baptists), the other for composing the powerful and persuasive Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments and going on to become known as the “Father of the Constitution” due to his being its chief draftsman.

bill of rightsBoth founders are known to have been influenced by their pro-secular predecessors, and both expressed strong views on the relationship between religion and government and the need to keep them separate. But Berlinerblau probes beyond the most common knowledge about Jefferson and Madison to bring added nuance to not only the two men’s views but also to the environment in which they functioned and the concept of church-state separation they championed. Two of the more eyebrow-raising chapters of Berlinerblau’s book, at least to this reader, are the ones titled “Were the Founders Secular?” and “Does Secularism Equal Total Separation of Church and State?” To anyone who instinctively answers “Yes” to both questions, Berlinerblau’s narrative can’t help but make one, at a minimum, reexamine the meanings of the terms and phrases in the questions.

The author points to a number of lesser known facts, such as George Washington looking upon Madison and Jefferson as having “minds of peculiar structures” in believing that national morality could thrive in the absence of religious principles. Washington did not think the state must be strictly separated from religion, Berlinerblau writes, and did not share Madison’s specific limitations on government in this sphere. Other founders like John Adams were even farther removed from separationist views. On the matter of what might be termed strict secularism, in the broadly generic definition, it’s useful to remember that even in his oft-cited letter to the Danbury Baptists, Jefferson made positive references to God, Father, and Creator. In his equally oft-cited Memorial and Remonstrance, Madison wrote about “the duty we owe to our Creator” and later on penned “Before any man can be considered a member of civil society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governor of the universe.”

So for the most part the founders were not secularists in the classic sense. They were not irreligious. But leading voices such as Jefferson and Madison were clearly advocates of a secular state. They echoed Berlinerblau’s concept of secularism in that they were suspicious of relations between government and religion and adamant about the individual’s right to freedom of religion, including freedom from government influence in religion. Jefferson insisted “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions,” and for legislators or other civil rulers to push religious influence onto the citizenry amounted to an “impious presumption” that ultimately corrupts any religion it is meant to encourage.

To underscore the less than absolutist stances of even Jefferson and Madison, Berlinerblau notes they favored legislation that penalized those who worked on the Sabbath. Jefferson started attending church services in the House of Representatives a mere two days after writing his Danbury letter (some contend this was for strictly political reasons). And Madison himself wrote: “It may not be easy, in every possible case, to trace the line of separation between the rights of religion and the Civil authority with such distinctness as to avoid collisions and doubts on unessential points.” Note the equivocation evident in the phrasing “unessential points.” It will come up again later.

The courts look at separationist issues

Partly due to divergent views in the early years of the nation, and in spite of some impassioned advocacies on its behalf, church-state separation did not actually come to the fore much. Disestablishment was the predominant battleground issue—not allowing government to officially impose religion, declare one as superior to another, mandate church attendance, or demand financial support for religion. This fell considerably short of advocating separation. Berlinerblau writes that separation actually did not gain much attention until it surfaced in a number of judicial interpretations and rulings in the middle of the 20th century. He says it then “took off on a midcentury thrill ride” with such cases as Everson v. Board of Education (1947—public transportation for private religious students was okayed, but the ruling is famous to this day for stating a church-state wall must still be kept “high and impregnable”); McCollum v. Board of Education (1948—school release time for religious instruction ruled unconstitutional); Engel v. Vitale (1962—nondenominational school prayer ruled unconstitutional); Abington School District v. Schempp (1963—Bible reading to start the school day violates the establishment clause); and Lemon v. Kurztman (1971—public subsidies for teachers in religious schools nixed because it leads to excessive government “entanglement” with religion).

gavelcrossYet there was also a case, Zorach v. Clauson, in 1952 that permitted students to leave school during regular hours to attend instruction in religious facilities. Justice William Douglas, hardly an enemy of separation, wrote in his majority opinion that “the First Amendment does not say that in every and all respects there shall be a separation of Church and State. Rather…there shall be no concert or union or dependency one on the other.” And in the Lemon case listed above, Chief Justice Warren Burger remarked: “Our prior holdings do not call for total separation between church and state; total separation is not possible in an absolute sense… separation, far from being a ‘wall,’ is a blurred, indistinct, and variable barrier.”

Lest this sort of activity be interpreted as secularism being out to subdue religion, as its critics today contend, Berlinerblau flatly states: “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.” He adds later on: “Secularism’s suspicion of religion is tempered by an earnest effort to protect religion. Secularism, contrary to popular belief, takes religious freedom very seriously.”

Atheism in the mix

In recalling that religious leaders were among the key originators of secular concepts (remember again that for purposes of his book, “secular” refers narrowly to the relationship between religion and government), and these were leaders who valued religious freedom, Berlinerblau has called into question the popular perception among today’s fundamentalists and other religiously conservative people that secularism automatically equals atheism and/or anti-religious sentiment. That was clearly not the case at its dawn. But this perception has lately taken considerable root. Despite its falsity, it provides a toehold from which religious extremists menace the concept of the secular state.

church state signThis leads Berlinerblau to exhibit a certain disdain of his own for today’s “New Atheists,” for he sees their all-out assault on religion in principle to be abetting the perception that secularism equals atheism. He writes at one point: “Too much of what Americans see of secularism is related to a type of knee-jerk assault on inoffensive forms of religion in the public square” [italics added]. Here he is virtually mirroring Madison’s own equivocation on “unessential points” that need not be fought over since the church-state separation line cannot always be that distinct. Berlinerblau contends the tendency to equate secularism in general with godlessness is turning off people of faith who could otherwise be allies in preserving the secular state. “It reduces secularism’s personnel to the size of the tiny American atheistic movement,” he says, and attacks “the one constituency in whose hands the future of secularism lies: religious moderates.”

He offers an historic contrast in the person of 19th century Englishman George Jacob Holyoake, considered by many to be the true father of secularism and renowned for his 1871 work The Principles of Secularism. Holyoake was a relentless critic of Christianity and called religion “the right arm of political oppression.” He wrote: “The State should forbid no religion, impose no religion, teach no religion, pay no religion.” But in defining secularism, he omitted any reference to atheism. Berlinerblau observes that “Secularism for him had nothing to do with theological teaching or anti-theological teaching. For Holyoake, theism and atheism should be equal in secularism’s eyes.”

Berlinerblau goes even further by alleging the founders created no space for nonbelievers and “there is no phrase in the Constitution that sanctifies this identity [i.e., atheism].” But this is not completely true. Madison, for instance, in his Remonstrance, wrote that while he was asserting the freedom of the individual to observe religion he considers to be of divine origin, “we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us.” That is surely creating space for atheists. As for saying the Constitution does not specifically encompass atheism, one could remind Berlinerblau it does not specifically encompass church-state separation either. These constitutional findings are inferred through interpretation based on the studied intent of the founders.

Legal and demographic trends

Berlinerblau calls “extreme atheism” dangerously anti-secular [this would be oxymoronic except for his narrow definition of secularism in his book] and says it does not jibe well with secularism’s principle of freedom of conscience. But he says “moderate atheism” shares common interests with secularism, and moderate atheists can be assets to the cause of the secular state, just as religious moderates can and as the liberal wings of larger faith groups already are. He points out that nearly all nonbelievers are separationists, but not all separationists are nonbelievers. Which is one reason he sees large segments of believers as potential crucial allies to be enlisted for the cause of the secular state. His fear is that constant activism in favor of an absolute separation of church and state (something even moderate believers are wary of), and especially militant anti-theism being seen as a consort of secularism, will alienate the moderate religious allies needed to save the secular state.

bible flagThis is pivotal, he says, because the upward trend of secularism’s gains peaked in the 1940s to 1970s—most notably through judicial decision-making that strongly favored church-state separation—and shows signs of having stalled, if not actually begun to decline. As Berlinerblau points out, the gains were primarily through the courts, were often largely out of step with democratic sentiments, and the mood and leanings of different justices in later court cases can undo past gains. Witness again the quoted remarks at the opening of this article by Justices Rehnquist and Scalia, or recall Rehnquist’s claim in the same Wallace v. Jaffree case that even Madison did not view government as needing to be neutral on the merits of religion and irreligion, and “There is simply no historical foundation for the proposition that the Framers intended to build the ‘wall of separation’” that other courts had cited in previous decisions. Consider as well that, today, six of the nine Supreme Court justices are Roman Catholics whose pope instructs them that their first loyalty must always remain to church doctrine. One of those six, Justice Clarence Thomas, has stated his view that the Establishment Clause applies only to federal actions and does not bind individual states on church-state matters.

So the courts, in Berlinerblau’s eyes, are one unpredictable factor in the future of the secular state. The other is the democratic process itself. He cites a study done by Eric Kaufman (author of Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?), who says “religious fundamentalists are on course to take over the world through demography.” Legally and through sheer numbers, opponents to the secular state might prevail unless they are counter-balanced. Berlinerblau points out that religious moderates are in many instances opposed to excessive mingling of religion and government, and they comprise the kinds of numbers, organization, and sophistication that can be a counter-balancing force to religious extremists. Provided they are welcomed in instead of driven away by the advocates of a secular state who cling to their own brand of extremism. Religious moderates, he says, will for the most part not want to become secular humanists or Brights or New Atheists but will join the cause for the pragmatic, self-interested reason of preserving their own religious liberties. They can respond just as readily as committed separationists to the merit and the warning in James Madison’s words in his Remonstrance: “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?”

Which way forward?

Thus does Berlinerblau suggest that separation of church and state should not be fetishized and should always be combined with a healthy commitment to religious liberty. In his mission to bring religious moderates to the cause of the secular state, he goes so far as to wonder if the door should be opened to “accommodationism,” wherein the government, rather than distancing itself from all religions, “maintains a benevolent proximity to all religions without giving any one an advantage over another.” It can support and collaborate with religion provided it shows no preference for any one religion. [As radical as this sounds to separationists of almost any stripe, recall this is pretty much what Justices Rehnquist and Scalia have already said. Rehnquist was explicit, saying in Wallace v. Jaffree that the Establishment Clause does not prohibit “the Federal Government from providing nondiscriminatory aid to religion.” One has to immediately wonder how achievable such perfect equal treatment could ever be, and what kind of slippery slope to unconstitutional government entanglement with religion would come into play. The Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives begun under George W. Bush and continued as the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships under Barack Obama has already revealed inherent pitfalls along these lines.] Even as he offers such food for thought, Berlinerblau does repeat that “as we define it, secularism must ensure freedom from religion. By that standard, accommodationism has built-in deficiencies.”

faithsAnd yet further on he again speaks positively of it, saying “If a government offered truly equal support to all religious groups and nonbelievers, perhaps accommodationism could be fashioned into a workable alternative to separationism,” calling it an approach that is “religion-friendly in the extreme” and thus capable of drawing in believers to the cause of the secular state. [I find Berlinerblau truly conflicted on this accommodationism concept, seemingly willing to pay any price if it garners religious allies for secularism, and naïve to what the end effect on that secularism might be.] Finally, as for atheism, he says nonbelievers need to make peace with the idea of the existence of religion, or they will not function effectively in a democratic polity that has sacralized religious pluralism.

In what he calls tough love for secularism, Berlinerblau directly asserts a view he’s been flirting with and building up to: he says it’s time to choose disestablishment over separation as the primary goal, citing as reasons that only the former has unquestioned constitutional sanction, no one wants to live under anyone else’s establishment, and “total separation is not, at present, a reasonable goal.” Extending this argument, he says secularists should tone down opposition to Madisonian “unessential points” by giving less attention to things such as nativity scene challenges, criticizing “Christing-up” activities of politicians, opposing National Days of Prayer, trying to exorcize “In God” references, etc. He says there is “no constitutional sanction against Obama or [Texas Governor Rick] Perry, as private citizens, doing God talk.” [Note he does not, however, question whether such God talk is actually being done by such officials as “private citizens” or as representatives of government.]

Berlinerblau ultimately comes to an updated definition of what he calls a “big-tent” secularist: “A secularist may be a believer or a nonbeliever, secular and/or secularish*, but always someone who rejects religious establishment. She or he maintains that a good society is one whose government permits its citizens the maximal degree of freedom of religion and freedom from religion while maintaining order. A secularist is flexible as to how government may accomplish this goal and is thereby willing to consider options ranging from separationism to accommodationism.”

(*Berlinerblau coins and uses this term to refer to people who may not self-identify as definitively “secular” but nonetheless exhibit secularish qualities such as tolerance toward others, moderation, and willingness to question one’s faith. He sees them as substantial in number and readily amenable to secular philosophy.)

Summary comments

justiceOn the plus side, I believe Berlinerblau has raised some valid issues surrounding church and the secular state and has cast some new and thought-provoking light on them, as well as on some long-held perceptions and positions about the history of church and state in America. He has done a service in challenging adherents on all sides to reexamine their views. I also believe he has tried to approach the ongoing conflict between secularism and religiosity with a sincere attempt to find common ground that will ultimately save and strengthen the secular state. There is certainly merit in his goal of trying to add religious moderates to the forces supporting this brand of secularism. Last but not least, his thoughtful tone reminds us there is a need and a place for greater civility on the part of all players in this contentious arena of the church-state relationship.

But I think in his near obsession to “solve” the conflict, he has become accepting of an over-mingling of government and religion through accommodationism in order to win the support of the religious moderates he considers indispensable to the cause. He refers to it at one point as offering “moderation in belief and practice.” Granted, the church-state debates could benefit from some moderation that would ultimately contribute to a coalescing of forces to enhance the secular state. But Berlinerblau’s accommodationism requires abandoning opposition to certain entanglements between church and state that, at a minimum, tread dangerously close to constitutional transgression. He is at risk of destroying the secular state village in order to save it. At what point does moderation become appeasement?

Another concern that would arise from a broad engagement with accommodationism is the difficulty in ensuring its required equitability among all faiths. The dynamics that could come into play would likely widen the religious and political divides Berlinerblau seeks to bridge. I would further contend it is naively optimistic to think religionists would meet accommodationists halfway, embracing the kind of restraint that would keep the church-state interplay from tilting toward religious imposition and other theocratic impulses. Religions, being generally absolutist by nature, do not comfortably abide limits on their reach. As Bob Dylan once out it, we never ask questions when God’s on our side; this is not conducive to accepting compromises.

So, bottom line, I’d say Berlinerblau has made an earnest effort to blaze an agreeable trail through this longstanding, contentious thicket where religion, law, politics, and culture engage each other, and he has given us new perspectives to consider. But his proposed strategy to resolve it all goes too far. It looks to harbor as much risk to his idea of secularism as the already existing perils he is trying to lessen. It seems likely to end up rearranging rather than neutralizing threats to the secular state, and might even deepen them.

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