If Jacques Berlinerblau's How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is the best show that committed secularists can put on in the contemporary US, the small band of devoted people who call themselves "secular" are going to be disappointed. Apparently, they have a record of all but consistent recent defeat at the hands of their religiously devout opponents, whom the author calls "revivalists." "Over the past few decades, the Christian Right has pulverized secularism," the author writes. "Simply pulverized it!" Secularism, in Berlinerblau's frank admission, is singularly unpopular. "What the people don't want," he confides early on, "is, well, secularism."
The author, a professor and director of Jewish Studies at Georgetown University, defines secularism as "a political philosophy, which at its core is preoccupied with, and often deeply suspicious of any and all relations between government and religion." So far, so good: Many Americans, including many devout Christians, don't want the government fiddling around in any way with religion.
There are two major challenges to any traction that secularism might otherwise gain with the American public. First is the reluctance of most Americans to go whole hog down the separationist road. Americans don't want a theocrat in the White House, but they don't appear to want an atheist either. Second, as Berlinerblau admits, there are some nasty edges to secularism. "Secularism's zero-tolerance for disorderly religious acts," he admits, "unfolds into another unflattering truth. The secular vision is statist to the core. In a dispute between the state and religion, the state always trumps religion." That's not a comforting thought for people worried that an American version of the KGB may be hiding behind a bush in their front yard waiting to whisk them off to the gulag for holding a Bible study. To underscore the big-brother component of secularism, the author adds, "Thus, the revivalists [anyone the author deems to have an evangelical Christian conviction] are correct in tarring secularism as a form of rule akin to apartheid, in which a minority suppresses the will of the majority (that is, those who want the government to espouse a religion)." Woe betide the "revivalist" legislator, according to Berlinerblau, who doesn't check his personal faith beliefs at the door of the legislature.
Nostalgic for the 1960s
Berlinerblau is actually hard on atheism, considering it has been an obstacle to the broad acceptance of secularism. He takes atheist Sam Harris to task for insisting that people of moderate religious faith are as harmful to society as the most zealous believers. "Surely," he argues, "a school of thought that can't distinguish between a member of the Taliban beheading a journalist and a Methodist running a soup kitchen in Cincinnati is not poised to make the sound policy decisions that accrue to the good of secularism." The challenge for Berlinerblau is to come up with examples of admirable secularism that might be appealing to folks in modern times. To give him credit, the author writes eloquently and accurately about America's Founders, insisting that they were not secular. He cites John Adams as insisting in the Massachusetts constitution of 1790 that everyone should worship a Supreme Being, and Jefferson as framing legislation to punish Sabbath breakers. (He might have also mentioned what a diligent churchgoer Jefferson was when worship services were being held on government property on Capitol Hill).
It is hard to discern in this account what "secularists" actually believe—or don't believe—and somehow to make that attractive to readers. Berlinerblau himself seems to have a nostalgic soft spot for the 1960s, when the Supreme Court made a number of key decisions (notably Engel v. Vitale, banning official school prayer) that marked a significant retreat of religious expression in the public sphere. "In the middle decades of the twentieth century," Berlinerblau writes in a gush of soaring enthusiasm, "American secularism accelerated, took off, soared, and boomed sonically. Its momentous Concorde-like flight occurred during a post-war era characterized by confidence, introspection and plenitude."
"What a ride that was!" says Berlinerblau. The author seems to have been particularly upset that President Obama, during the 2011 Presidential Prayer Breakfast, made a personal profession of his Christian faith. "When a Democrat delivers a twenty-two minute address about his personal faith, drops half a dozen scriptural references along the way, and declaims 'I came to know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace Him as my lord and savior'—all we can say is that the sixties are over man!"
At various places in the book, Berlinerblau makes it clear that he utterly dislikes people of fervent belief, social conservatives, and probably Republicans. It becomes quickly clear that he is a supporter of gay marriage and is pro-choice, and an opponent of "Bible-thumpers," "revivalists," and "fundamentalists." He writes of the need to be what he calls "secularish," though it is not clear what that precisely means. Bottom line: The author is utterly contemptuous of evangelicals, though he admits that, in the battle for the allegiance of most of the American people, they have so far won many of the skirmishes. Well, maybe as he says, "The sixties are over, man!"
David Aikman is the author of One Nation Without God? The Battle for Christianity in an Age of Unbelief (Baker).
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