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

Do “Religionists” and “Secularists” Share the Same Goal? March 24, 2013

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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