September 11, 2012

Jacques Berlinerblau on the Death of American Secularism

by Nathaniel Torrey

Jacques Berlinerblau, associate professor of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University and author of the forthcoming How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious, gave a lecture at Duke University Sunday evening entitled The Bible in the Presidential Elections of 2012, 2008, 2004 and the Collapse of American Secularism. In the talk he pointed out what he sees as the rise of biblically influenced rhetoric since the 2008 presidential election. “The question for secular people” he says is “What does it mean when scriptures have been cited by presidential aspirants in those past four years alone than they were across two or three decades of American history?” He points to the rise of the religious right in the past half-century, simply pointing out that if a powerful base “wants the Bible, the base gets the Bible.”

And that is where the commentary by most secularists ends but Berlinerblau points also to “a complete unraveling of the secular status quo” as another reason for the rise in religious themes from the political stump. Whereas half a century ago the separationist thought of a John F. Kennedy or William H. Rehnquist ruled liberal thought, Berlinerblau sees more of an accommodationist or perhaps an active courting of progressive religious people on the Left. He points to Obama’s increase of faith-based initiatives that began in the Bush administration, not to mention his frequent references to the golden rule or the favorite passage of liberals, Matthew 25:40, that scriptural references and rhetoric are no longer simply monopolized by those on the Right. As for the future, Berlinerblau says that either secularism must “reinvent, retool, or reevaluate itself or the sermonizing of Rick Perry is the road map to the American future,” a reference to the infamous “prayer-a-thon” hosted by Rick Perry in his short-lived campaign for the Republican party’s presidential nomination. Whereas in the past, references to God were short and restrained, now there is extensive sermonizing on both the Left and the Right.

However, Berlinerblau is skeptical and extorts all citizens, believers and non-believers alike, to be skeptical as well about how much biblical references are actually influencing the policies of these presidential hopefuls. As Christians, we must certainly separate the sheep from the goats and cut through biblical rhetoric and encourage concrete policies shaped by a traditional Christian worldview.