Jacques Berlinerblau’s new book, How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom , is both a scholarly look at the political theory of secularism and a rallying cry for reasonable-minded people to coalesce against extremists. Berlinerblau directs the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University.
What led you to write a book about secularism?
The book evolved as a consequence of twin frustrations. On the one side, I saw a discourse emerging from antitheist New Atheists. Their understanding was that secularism was atheism. That didn’t correspond to what I knew as a scholar about the history of secularism. On the other side, I saw a discourse on secularism coming from the Christian Right equating it with a great moral evil and undermining the very fabric of American society. These two owned the public discourse. I sought to achieve some clarity. Both sides are misunderstanding the secular vision.
What do you mean by saying that the separation of church and state is misunderstood?
Pro-secular people will speak about the constitutional right to separation of church and state. Critics of that model will say, “Show me the line in the U.S. Constitution.” For secularism to get its house in order, it has to begin a process of radical re-examination where it stops with these platitudes and empty slogans.
Why do you recommend jettisoning the idea of total separation of church and state?
As the Supreme Court justices have pointed out, if there’s a fire at a church does total separation mandate that the state not send over firefighters? That doesn’t mean we have to go the other way and assume a theocracy. Still, this idea of achieving a total separation, which is the New Atheism utopia, is impractical and unrealistic. Secularism in its purest form posits that churches have a right to exist. The more extreme versions want to get rid of churches. Things get out of control when you say it would be ideal if churches didn’t exist. To me, that’s a forbidden thought.
How do you get large religious groups to endorse secularism?
Secularism is not at odds with what most Americans believe. Deep in the American psyche, even among majority religious groups, is the belief that no one should be subjected to the religious views of another. That’s one way to get people to understand the pricelessness of the secular vision. We have liberty of conscience.