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Friday, September 4, 2015

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An unsubtle prescription for a complex problem

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


Recent events in our country, particularly the government of Quebec’s promotion of its so-called “charter of values,” have caused many Canadians to think about the proper relationship between government and religion. I hoped How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom, by Jacques Berlinerblau, professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., might shed some theoretical light on the place of religion in the west. Unfortunately, it didn’t help much.

I liked the way Berlinerblau lays out the historical background of the problem. He gives a cogent summary of the history of the separation of church and state in the United States. The American founders, with the possible exception of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, were not strongly committed to the idea of separation. They were in favour of religious freedom, but for most of them that meant founding a Christian country where all denominations of Protestant Christianity would feel at home.

They agreed that no one branch of Protestant Christianity should be the officially established religion of the country, but some of the founders and their followers, for a few decades, and perhaps beyond, saw no problem with the possibility that a smaller unit, like one of the individual states of the union, might have an established religious identity. When the United States (and for that matter, Canada) was born, no one would have wanted all levels of government to separate themselves from all manifestations of religion.

The heyday of separation of church and state in the United States was, Berlinerblau explains, from the 1940s to the 1970s. The Supreme Court at the time took on an activist role, broadly interpreting the idea that religion should not be established, and outlawing such things as school prayer, which the founders and almost all Americans for the first two centuries had considered part of the fabric of American society. Here in Canada, too, school prayer – generally The Lord’s Prayer, (Matthew 6:9-13, a prayer introduced by Jesus’ words, “Pray then like this”) – was an integral part of our allegedly non-denominational public school system.

No doubt, Jews and members of other minority groups have benefitted from the mid-20th-century move toward more separation of church and state, and view this as an advance. Berlinerblau is concerned that right-wing Christian forces in the United States are trying to undo these advances and return religion to a prominent place in the public sphere. His book is an action plan to combat this by rallying forces that support a secular worldview.

But Berlinerblau’s conception of the ideal state is never made clear in this book. Just how much separation between church and state does he desire? Should Christmas (in the United States and Canada) and Good Friday (here in Canada) stop being civic holidays? Should we adopt the French laicité model, now being promoted in Quebec, and not allow anyone representing or paid by the government to display prominent religious symbols? Should we stop allowing tax breaks for people who contribute money to churches and synagogues, because such tax breaks are, without a doubt, a way that government supports religious institutions? I was hoping to find some subtle distinctions in this book, but all I found was the claim that more separation of church and state is better than less.

Since the back cover of the book lists Berlinerblau as director of Georgetown University’s Program for Jewish Civilization, I had been hoping for some insight into Jews, Judaism, and the question of church and state, but I was disappointed. He does discuss Jews in the United States, expressing the hope that if other religions learned from Judaism, there would be less of a problem of religion in the public square. He notes that a large percentage of Jews define themselves as secular and wishes that members of other religious groups would follow that model. He argues that being religious, on the one hand, and being secular or supporting a secular worldview, on the other, are not mutually exclusive.

It is true that many Jews call themselves secular, even though they identify as Jewish, but that’s because Jewish identity need not be religious – it can be national, cultural or ethnic. The latest survey of U.S. Jews by the Pew Religion and Public Life Research Project reports that almost one one-third of American Jews born after 1980 refer to themselves as “Jews of no religion.” But this may be unique to Judaism. Just because being a “secular Jew” is possible does not mean that being a “secular Lutheran” or a “secular Sikh” is.

Berlinerblau’s hope that more people in the United States start to identify as “secular” the way so many Jews do is ultimately just a code for the hope that more people in the United States exclude religion from their lives or, at least, make it peripheral to their core values. In the end, his hoped-for solution to the problem boils down to the obvious point: if fewer people in the United States take religion seriously, there will be fewer problems of religion and state. This is not a subtle solution to the complex problem.

Berlinerblau’s fear of right-wing Christians trying to de-secularize the United States is well placed. But we will have to await a more carefully reasoned and creative book to really grapple with the appropriate place of religion in modern western countries.

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