Do “Religionists” and “Secularists” Share the Same Goal?

Do “Religionists” and “Secularists” Share the Same Goal?

Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life and a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors. His column “Secularists, Meet the Religionists” appeared in USA TODAY March 22. A large, bold print side bar appears to be the article’s subtitle: “You may have different beliefs, but you do share the same goal.” Really?

Much of the article is based on a book entitled How to Be Secular by Jacques Berlinerblau who is described as a “secular Jew” on the faculty of Catholic Georgetown University.

The gist of the column (I haven’t read Berlinerblau’s book) is that “secularism” is the solid foundation for religious freedom and therefore “religionists,” including conservative evangelicals, should embrace it.

According to Krattenmaker (and apparently Berlinerblau) “Properly understood, secularism is not about total godlessness or an absolute separation of religion from government. It is, more precisely, a model of church and state….” According to this definition, “secularism” is simply non-interference in religion by the government and non-control of the government by “church authority.”

Krattenmaker argues that “even the most vigorous religionists” should oppose church-state entanglements because if they don’t some rival religious group may eventually control the state and persecute them. (I’m paraphrasing what I understand his argument to be.)

He specifically mentions how Baptists vigorously opposed church establishment in early American history.

I have a few quibbles and qualms about Krattenmaker’s (and apparently Berlinerblau’s) argument.

First, Krattenmaker suggests that some Christians want to make “Thou Shalt Not Be Gay” the law of the land. The thrust of the column is that “religionists” ought not to attempt to persuade government to enshrine their ethics as law. The current controversy over “gay marriage” seems to be the catalyst for the column.

But who among “religionists” is trying to make “Thou Shalt Not Be Gay” the law of the land? Well, perhaps some are. But that’s not clearly stated by any that I know. Rather, most conservative Christians involved in this debate say they are simply attempting to keep current laws and stop them from being changed to expand “marriage” to include same sex couples. Is that the same as trying to make “Thou Shalt Not Be Gay” the law of the land? That seems to me to be a leap beyond anything I hear from most conservative advocates of traditional marriage.

Second, does “secularism” really mean just separation of church and state? Of course not. A case can be made that it includes separation of church and state, but there’s much more to “secularism” than church-state separation—especially in popular meanings.

Having said that, it’s true that “secular” can mean (according to the Oxford Dictionary) simply non-religious. However, to the average person in today’s society, secularism often means anti-religious.

Years ago theologian Harvey Cox made a helpful distinction between “secularity” and “secularism.” I think this distinction has to be brought into the discussion. “Secularity” means simply without religious affiliation or commitment. “Secularism” is a worldview that is anti-religious. A government based on secularity is one thing; a government based on secularism is something else.

Which does Krattenmaker mean? Well, in his column he says “’Secularism’ is not the church person’s bane as it’s often made out to be but the best protection ever devised for religious freedom.” Really? Secularism is the best protection ever devised for religious freedom?

I think Krattenmaker is confused about his categories.

Separation of church and state is one thing. Secularism is another. He is confusing them. A secular state is one thing. A state that resists being influenced by religious believers is something else.

Furthering the impression of confusion, Krattenmaker begins the column with “religionists” being advocates of specific religious teachings enshrined in laws. But he ends with “religionists” being champions of religious freedom. Apparently the turning and connecting point is “Baptists and other evangelicals” who believe in separation of church and state but who also advocate for their religious beliefs in law. The entire column seems aimed at convincing them to drop their advocacy of religious beliefs enshrined in law—especially traditional heterosexual marriage.

And yet, in the middle of the column, Krattenmaker, relying on Berlinerblau, denies that secularism is about “total godlessness or an absolute separation of religion from government.” Really? I think “secularismis that whereas secularity may not be. Also, the thrust of the column seems to be for an absolute separation of religion from government. If religious conservatives ought not to attempt to influence government to keep traditional laws regulating marriage, how ought they to relate to government?

I would like to give Krattenmaker the benefit of the doubt and think that some editor at USA TODAY slaughtered his column. That’s happened to some of my writings. As published, the essay is confusing at best and confused at worst.

My main concern, however, is with the suggestion, which Krattenmaker and Berlinerblau seem to make, that religious people should not attempt to influence government.

Sure, no ecclesiastical authority should dominate government. But many people confuse separation of church and state with absolute resistance to, total deafness toward, religious beliefs by governments.

Many advocates of gay marriage base their message, aimed at changing laws, on religious beliefs such as the dignity and equality of all people based on the image of God. (The article includes a picture of an Episcopal priest who will soon be officiating at same-sex weddings. I’m confident he would say his decision is at least partly based on his religious beliefs.)

Given Krattenmaker’s and Berlinerblau’s logic (as expressed in the column), such religious advocates for gay marriage should have no influence over government and law. If they should, then so should opponents of gay marriage, defenders of traditional laws regarding marriage—whatever their motives may be.

What this column appreas to be is a call for “religionists” and “secularists” to find common cause for religious freedom in separation of church and state. Sure, that’s a good call. But it doesn’t settle anything with regard to what role beliefs should play in law.

The implication seems to be that religious beliefs should play no role in preserving or reforming laws. But why only religious beliefs? And aren’t many progressive causes based on, rooted in, religious beliefs? Whatever revisionist historians may say, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s was largely based on, rooted in, religious beliefs and driven by religious motives. Was it therefore wrong when it took aim at bringing down segregation laws and establishing The Civil Rights Act? And why reject only religious beliefs from influencing laws? Haven’t we learned from postmodernity that there is no such thing as absolute neutrality, a “view from nowhere,” “pure reason?”

My overall point is not about laws regarding marriage. My point is that this column, published in a major national newspaper, contributes more confusion than clarity to the issues it deals with.

Krattenmaker’s book The Evangelicals You Don’t Know will be released by Rowman and Littlefield next month. I can’t wait to review it here. Watch for that.

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  • Marshall

    Here’s a link to the column.

    He is advocating for “interest in keeping churches and consciences free of government control, and government free of church control” by all hands. Maybe it’s stretching it to say that this strategy is generally accepted, but I think it’s clear enough what he’s talking about? And it’s a good idea?

    • rogereolson

      That’s not all he was talking about–as I pointed out in my post. Read it with a hermeneutic of suspicion after reading it with a hermeneutic of charity. I think you’ll see he is calling on “religionists” to stop trying to influence government.

      • Marshall

        I know the attitude you are talking about exists. Recently some anonymous person has taken it upon themself to remove memorial crosses from the highway here. That is an example of the seculatarian (?) imposing restraints on the free speech of the religious because they are speaking with a religious vocabulary. Whereas a heathy modern society ought to be maximizing tolerance for differences and expressions of difference, it seems to me … I hope you agree.

        • rogereolson

          I do. And so (apparently) Krattenmaker and Berlinerblau. This is mentioned in the column discussed in my post (“Secularists, meet the religionists”). Berlinerblau argues (according to the column) that secularists shouldn’t get all worked up about “Cross-shaped memorials on public land, non-denominational prayers at public events” (etc.).

  • Hugh Macken

    Dr. Olson – Thank you for expressing some of the thoughts that came across my mind as I read this USA Today column first and foremost being my observation that Mr. Krattenmaker was suggesting that religionists want to make “Thou Shalt Not Be Gay” the law of the land.

    Among the Christians I know, not a single one of them bases their opposition to the legalization of gay marriage on the belief that Christian ethics or the Bible somehow express or suggest that “Thou Shalt Not Be Gay.”

    Not one.

    Are there “some” who claim to be Christians who have this belief? Of course. But I can’t imagine that Christ Jesus would consider them to be “Christians.” Christ never said “Thou Shalt Not be Gay.” And neither do any of my Christian friends.

    What we do say is that gay sex is immoral.

    What we do say is that such privately help convictions regarding peoples’ ACTIONS do in fact have a vital place in the public square.

    What we do say is that many progressive causes were based on and rooted in privately, often faith-inspired, beliefs of conscience.

    What we do say is that the voice of our conscience when that voice speaks on matters relating to peoples’ ACTIONS, not (I repeat ***NOT*** their orientation), deserves the highest respect in the public square.

    Not respecting the right of THIS voice to speak and speak freely without the speaker being called a bigot constitutes a grave – indeed bigoted in its own right – assault on our God given and Constitution-affirmed rights of conscience, religion and free speech.

  • Ray

    I must comment on Hugh’s statement that Jesus never said “thou shalt not be gay.” While it is true that these specific words were never uttered by Jesus, Jesus did affirm the creation of humanity as male and female with the intention of male and female coming together in marriage. Jesus affirmed the law which included a prohibition against homosexual activity and likewise Jesus condemned fornication (sexual immorality) which from a Jewish standpoint referred to any sexual activity outside of the male-female marital bond.

  • “Are there “some” who claim to be Christians who have this belief? Of course. But I can’t imagine that Christ Jesus would consider them to be “Christians.”

    It’s true that ALL Christians sometimes say dumb things and have screwy ideas about what’s right or wrong, but how about we defer to the Lord and let him determine who among us is a real Christian?

  • I suppose what bugs me about this is the failure to distinguish between religiously-motivated moral/social rules and the outward and visible forms of religiosity. I have no sympathy whatsoever with “Christian ethics.” Of course, I support gay marriage: and of course I detest the program of the religious right.

    But I enjoy Christian ceremonies and symbols. I’d like to see a world plastered with religiosity–Christian and otherwise: a “world full of gods” (external link deleted) where religiosity was syncretic and all pervasive. But the association of religiosity with the Evangelical Religious Right has poisoned it for most people–and this is a shame, because religiosity is fun.

    I as a Christian share the same goal as most secularists–to maximize utility, to promote a state of affairs in which insofar as possible people can satisfy their desires. And that means gay marriage, abortion on demand, and all the other things that most secularists support. But, jeez, I love religion! I desire religiosity: I’d like to see endless rituals, processions in the streets, endless religiosity. So why is that inconsistent with the shared goals that we “religionists” and secularists support? Why can’t secularists recognize that these religious goodies–the ceremonies, symbols, myths and folk religion–are harmless and fun?

    • Tim Reisdorf

      Ms. Baber,
      Might I ask you what you love so much about religion? You talk about how “religious goodies” are harmless and fun, but I take them as anything but that. God did not create the world on a lark, and He did not suffer and redeem the world to win a wry smile.
      There are some in the Evangelical Movement that Roger speaks of, who have taken issue with the term “Religion” (or “religiosity” as you might put it). They want to distinguish what they see as the core of religion (the relationship with God) from its trappings (the ceremonies, symbols, myths and folk religions). An old SWB song captured this: “I’m Not Religious, I Just Love the Lord”. It is this love of the Lord that is dangerous and anything but fun – it set the world on fire. When you speak of harmless and fun in religion, I fear that we are using similar words but meaning something worlds apart.

      • rogereolson

        Thanks, Tim. My sentiments exactly. But I was hoping someone else would respond and you have–better than I could have.

  • vorjack

    I have read Berlinerblau’s “How To Be Secular,” and I’m sorry to report that it’s not much better that this article. It basically boils down to a pragmatic political stance for the non-religious without much philosophical underpinning. Berlinerblau spends much time with the obscure figure of George Holyoake – whom he acknowledges never created a consistent definition of the word “secularism”- while ignoring thinkers like John Courtney Murray and Richard McBrien who have wrestled with the word much more systematically.

  • Hubert Frost

    I’m for gay marriage because of the golden rule. These folks did not choose to be gay, they cannot love someone of the opposite sex and most of the time they don’t harm anyone through same-sex relationships.

    However, I find the promiscuity rate about homosexual couples quite alarming, I think this is certainly the main cause of the high depression rates.

    That’s why I think they are far better off to get married and strive towards a life-long relationship.

    I know many fundamentalists reading that will be quite angry.
    They would say that if it pleases God to hate homosexuality we have to submit to his will.

    But no Christian can appeal to the arbitrary will of God because Jesus clearly teaches us that each command of God is for our good (the Sabbath has been made for man and not man for the Sabbath) and that the golden rule of love is the greatest commandment.

    So if a Christian wants to challenge me, he has to show me on EMPIRICAL grounds that I’m wrong and that homosexuality is harmful for society, the individuals involved, or both.