In October 2013, President Barack Obama and Israeli President Shimon Peres are expected to attend the opening of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. The presence of such dignitaries attests to the tremendous significance that this endeavor holds for Jews worldwide as well as...
It never fails. It happens every time I am lecturing or doing a radio interview about American secularism and the exceedingly complex question of whether our Constitution defines our nation as secular. Like clockwork, somebody calls in and asks me about the Treaty of Tripoli.
"Latinos," says Dan Cox, Director of Research of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI)," are not a single-issue constituency." This is certainly true, as is the claim that whatever issues the Republicans advocated in 2012, Latino Americans did not find them particularly appealing.
Reckoned to be about 17 percent of the nation's population, this group gave seven-tenths of its vote to Barack Obama on Election Day last November. This has caused, understandably, considerable consternation for the current GOP. Yet Mr. Cox's analysis suggests that no immediate panacea is in sight. Unless...
According to PRRI's research, Republican positions on immigration reform (no, "self-deportation" was not a winner), economic inequality (it just might be that many Latinos took umbrage, as did so many other Americans, with being consigned to some mooching 47 percent), and the expansion of government (to paraphrase Obama, it's not about big government or small government, but what type of government best serves the people of the United States) are singularly distasteful to these Americans. Any Republican turnaround will need to address these liabilities with dispatch.
Cox's observations on Catholic Latinos and Evangelical Latinos ought also disconcert red-state strategists majorly. Whereas the former used to swing Democratic and the latter Republican, in this past election both gave the majority of their support to the party of Obama.
George W. Bush in 2004 did not have these difficulties with Latino voters. Whether this was due to his compassionate conservatism or his far more loving and far less lashing conception of his evangelical faith remains to be examined by social...
This unbelievably interesting interview with the unbelievably interesting Professor Phil Zuckerman of Pitzer College is meant for all those of you who have pondered the distinction between the three terms that adorn the title of this blog post.
Let there be no doubt: There is a lot of disagreement...
By early summer of 2012, many of us Faith and Values pundits were nervously asking an important and troubling question: Why were the Obama and Romney campaigns spending so little time and effort discussing God and religion on the campaign trail? Why?
It was an important question because this...
Upon reading Rabbi Eric Yoffie's needlessly polarizing "The Self-Delusions of Secular Jews," I found myself incredulously checking the byline. This must be, I thought, some sort of mistake. Why would the esteemed and estimable past president of the Union for Reform Judaism upbraid his secular brethren (and in the...
The 2012 Presidential election campaign -- an election campaign in which the United States Conference of Catholics Bishops repeatedly clashed with the Obama administration -- is over. "The Democrats," points out Father Thomas Reese of Georgetown University, "won the election" (a line delivered in a wry and understated...
After last night's election, secular Americans can do things they haven't done in years: They can celebrate. They can feel a smidgen optimistic about the future of their country. And they can stop prattling on about repatriating to Canada.
For a while there, house-hunting expeditions in Manitoba seemed like...
Back in hoary antiquity -- say, prior to the presidential election of 2004 -- a secularist's voting preference was fore-ordained. To wit, a secularist voted for the Democrat and the Democrat only.
It didn't matter if that Democrat was Bible-thumpin' liberal evangelical Jimmy Carter, or the separationist Wonder Twins...
For the last few election cycles we have heard much about politicians who "speak to people of faith" and "truly understand the concerns of religious Americans." Indeed, the national political stage has been overrun by prayerful sorts, Republicans and Democrats alike. Bibles have been thumped, blessings have been dispensed, and...
Defund it! That seems to be the not-exceedingly-cost-effective solution that certain conservative politicians have identified as a means of simultaneously : 1) reducing the deficit and 2) stifling forms of creative expression with which they disagree.
The literary, artistic, intellectual, cinematic and mixed-media work that these conservatives so abhor is often accused of being part of a broader scheme to de-Christianize or to secularize America.
But is there really such a thing as "secular art" and is it as sacrilegious as so many conservative believers insist it is?
Conservatives are correct that some forms of art that are colloquially called secular do frontally, as it were, criticize a religion or religions in general. Whether federal funding should be made available to support such work is a very tricky question.
Those who want to answer in the affirmative might ponder this scenario: What if the extremely well-organized and strategically savvy folks on the religious right had some of their own platoons of painters seek government grants for work celebrating our "Christian Nation"? If they did receive funding wouldn't that be as constitutionally dubious as a mixed-media piece lambasting the pope supported by taxpayer dollars? (One possible way of out this is to have the government support training in the arts, as opposed to specific artists.)
Yet, it seems to me that we need to be cautious about what we refer to as blasphemous art. And that's because some artists accused of blaspheming vigorously deny the charge.
The case of Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" (destroyed recently by Christian fundamentalists in France) is perennially instructive. The controversial 1987 piece embroiled Serrano and others in the "NEA 4" in all sorts of debates about public funding of anti-religious art.
Complexifying matters is that the artist himself observed, "I have always felt that my work is religious, not sacrilegious. I would say that there are many individuals in the Church who appreciate it, and who do not have a problem with it. The best place for Piss Christ is in a church." So if a work deemed by some to be sacrilegious is produced by an artist who claims to be working from, in part, religious convictions, is that blasphemous art? Is that secular art?
Another way of going at the question is to think of art that seems not hostile, but oblivious, to religious concerns. I cite in the video above the architecture of LeCorbusier and the paintings of Mark Rothko.
Surely a secular government could fund work of that kind. But here as well we run into a difficulty. What is to be done if the artist and/or the artist's audience find religious or spiritual significance in the supposedly secular art in question? For what it's worth, I have always found that reading the novelist Philip Roth is a spiritual experience. Though I am pretty sure that Philip Roth would not describe his compositional process or overarching worldview as "spiritual."
A final way of thinking about secular art is to consider work that is human-centered. In other words, it takes no position on the existence or non-existence of God. Rather it focuses exclusively on the human -- her strengths, passions, frailties, heroisms and so forth.
I, personally, have always thought of jazz as secular art. Mainly that's because of the awesome artistic heights these musicians have to scale. To master an instrument, to improvise on the spot, to fabricate melodies and rhythms out of nothing, to communicate with other players so thoughtfully (and jazz is the ultimate art of communication), well, what could be more human than that?
Of course, none of that explains why so many great jazz artists were initially schooled in the melodies of the Church and see their music as exulting God.
So I confess to being a bit stumped. Though of this much I am clear: before trying to defund secular art, critics should spend some time trying to define...
As I watch the relentless, well-organized and increasingly effective national onslaught on reproductive freedoms across America I find myself asking: "What's secularism doing about all of this?"
In theory, secularism should be doing a whole lot. For, whether we are speaking about Personhood Amendments in Missisissipi and around the country, preposterous trespasses on patient privacy in Virginia abortion clinics, or last month's congressional vote on prohibiting abortions after 20 weeks in the District of Columbia, the assault always emanates from the exact same quarter: religious conservatives who wish to impose their doctrinal convictions on every woman (and man) in America.
This, my friends, is secularism's beat, for secularism encompasses a range of political positions that all share a deep skepticism about any and all undue entanglement between religion and government. Insofar as church-state issues are women's issues, one might assume that we'd be seeing intense synergies between the secular and women's movements.
This has not come to pass, for very complex reasons. American secularism's inability to partner on this issue has a lot to do with the fact that American secularism is in a state of disrepair. How far it has fallen from its glory days in the 1960s!
With each passing decade, secularism has lost ground in all three branches of government, this election year representing the nadir of the movement (witnessed in the House, the Supreme Court and -- yes -- the executive branch as well). That this decline overlaps almost perfectly with the resurrection of the religious right (which re-emerged in the 1970s largely in part over social conservatives' horror at the 1960s) is another point I am often at pains to make.
Secularism has not only lost political clout, but personnel as well. The once-mighty mid-century secular coalition housed under one tent religious minorities, like Jews and liberal Catholics; doctrinal separationists, such as Baptists -- yes, Baptists; professional guilds, including public school teachers and civil servants; as well as the very small but always formidable cohort of American non-believers.
Only the non-believers remain as energized, card-carrying "secularists." With the exception of the Baptists, none of the others really slammed the door on the way out, they just lost a good deal of their energy and passion for secular activism. Much of this is the fault of an asleep-at-the-wheel leadership, which in the Reagan, Bush I and Clinton years failed to recognize and strategize the threat from the religious right while mobilizing the base.
With this mention of nonbelief, we are now ready to get to the women's side of the equation. As I noted in this column a while ago, American secularism has become increasingly confused with American atheism (which, to be fair, was the one actor from the mid-century coalition that never abandoned ship).
For reasons that social scientists have yet to definitively unpuzzle, atheism and agnosticism are overwhelmingly staffed by men. This doesn't mean that there aren't any intelligent, influential women of non-belief, but their numbers are relatively small.
My guess is that women, particularly progressive, religious women, see secularism more as having to do with atheism than it does with the gender-based church-state issues of interest to them. Their political loyalty is understandably to the women's movement.
Maybe it's a question of communications and outreach. American atheist groups do place an emphasis on reproductive freedoms. The Secular Coalition of America, which is clearly a group for non-believers (as opposed to religious secularists), lists access to contraception among its concerns.
The potential is there for a strong alliance between secular atheists and secular believers on the issue of reproductive...
What does secularism stand for? Listening to those in the increasingly shrill "religious freedom" lobby, one gets the impression that secularism is some sort of civic anti-Christ. It allegedly strives for the suppression of public religious expression, the abrogation of free exercise and the silencing of people of faith.
Nothing could be further from the truth. If the continuing fallout over Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy's epic anti-gay marriage perorations has any redeeming value, then perhaps it can serve as a vehicle to clarify some of these misconceptions.
By now we are all familiar with Cathy's opinions on same-sex marriage. Defending what he called the "biblical definition of the family," Cathy declaimed:
I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, 'We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,' and I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to try to redefine what marriage is about.
But let me also be the first to say that Cathy has every right to completely ignore my scholarship, as well as that of other biblicists who have made similar arguments. The beauty of a well-functioning secular state is that folks like Cathy don't have to listen to the likes of me. "Believe what you want to believe!" -- that is the secular state's motto and it grants Cathy, Nancy Pelosi (who prefers KFC) and everyone else complete psychic sovereignty.
The secular state, then, cannot punish citizens for what they believe. As I note in the video above, this core secular principle was adumbrated by Thomas Jefferson in his "Notes on the State of Virginia."
It is essential to recall because conservative commentators have forgotten that many liberal and secular voices made precisely this point. Mayor Bloomberg, probably the most intuitively secular politician in America, opined that it was wrong "to look at somebody's political views and decide whether or not they can live in the city, or operate a business in the city, or work for somebody in the city."
Bloomberg understands that secular states don't regulate beliefs. They can and must, however, regulate acts based on those beliefs. A truly just government attempts to strike a complex balance. It aspires to permit religious and irreligious citizens maximal free exercise. It lets citizens act on their convictions to the greatest extent possible. But there are boundaries.
Take the controversy over the Obama administration's HHS mandates. There the government refused to permit Catholic employers to deny access to contraception in their employees' insurance packages. The government did that because it recognizes contraception as a good for all citizens (it also recognizes that the overwhelming majority of employees at Catholic institutions -- be they Catholic or non-Catholic -- want access to contraception). The secular state thus says to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that Church teachings on contraception cannot be translated into domestic policy.
In the case of Chick-fil-A, the fast-food chain has committed no offensive acts. Rather, it has just expressed what are (to many of us) offensive beliefs. Until the company starts discriminating against gay employees and patrons -- and let it be said that Cathy has created a fairly odious professional work environment -- then governments across America have no bone to pick with Chick-fil-A.
Far from being a civic anti-Christ, secularism stands for the right of Cathy to think whatever he...
Secularism must be the most misunderstood and mangled ism in the American political lexicon. Commentators on the right and the left routinely equate it with Stalinism, Nazism and Socialism, among other dreaded isms.
In the United States, of late, another false equation has emerged. That would be the groundless association of secularism with atheism. The religious right has profitably promulgated this misconception at least since the 1970s.
More recently politicians such as Newt Gingrich have gleefully fostered this confusion. During his raucous, unforgettable 2012 presidential run, the former Speaker of the House fretted that his grandchildren were poised to live in "a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American."
Claiming that secularism and atheism are the same thing makes for good culture warrioring. The number of nonbelievers in this country is quite small. Many Americans, unfortunately, harbor irrational prejudices toward them. By intentionally blurring the distinction between atheism and secularism, the religious right succeeds in drowning both.
Yet it is not only foes, but friends of secularism, who sometimes make this mistake as well. Nowadays most major atheist groups describe themselves as "secular." Many are in fact good secularists. But others, as we shall see, are beholden to assumptions that are strikingly at odds with the secular worldview.
Let's start with some brief definitions. Atheism, put simply, is a term that covers a wide variety of schools of thought that ponder and/or posit the non-existence of God/s. Among scholars there is a fascinating debate about when precisely atheism arose. One compelling theory (see writers like Alan Kors and Michael Buckley) is that nonbelief as a coherent worldview developed within Christian theological speculation in early modernity.
Secularism, on the other hand, has nothing to do with metaphysics. It does not ask whether there is a divine realm. It is agnostic, if you will, on the question of God's existence -- a question that is way above its pay grade.
What secularism does concern itself with are relations between Church and State. It is a flexible doctrine that can embody a lot of policy positions. Strict separationism is one, but not the only, of those positions. At its core, secularism is deeply suspicious of any entanglement between government and religion.
Secularism needs to be disarticulated from atheism for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, these two isms are simply not synonyms. One concerns itself with primarily with politics, the other with (anti-) metaphysics. They have different concerns, intellectual moorings and histories (though, interestingly, it may be that both emanated from Christian theological inquiry).
Second, for secularism to reinvigorate itself it needs to reclaim its traditional base of religious people. As I noted in my forthcoming book, the secular vision was birthed by religious thinkers, such as Martin Luther, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (the last two, admittedly were idiosyncratic believers, but believers nonetheless).
Throughout American history it has been groups like Baptists, Jews, progressive Catholics as well as countless smaller religious minorities who have championed secular political ideas. But religious believers today, even moderate religious believers, will not sign on to secularism if they think it's merely the advocacy arm of godlessness.
Finally, we need to distinguish secularism from atheism because some atheists, of late, have taken a regrettable anti-secular turn. True, secularism is a proponent of religious freedom and freedom from religion. It sees the "Church" as a legitimate component of the American polity. It doesn't view religion as "poison" (to quote Christopher Hitchens) or hope for an "end of faith." As noted earlier, secularism has no dog in that fight.
Most atheists, of course, are tolerant to a fault and simply wish for religious folks to reciprocate (and most do). Yet as long as some celebrities of nonbelief continue to espouse radical anti-theism (in the name of "secularism," no less) the future of secularism is...
What do you do with public figures who wear their religion on their sleeves, who use their celebrity to extoll their beliefs, who advocate on behalf of political issues which speak to their faith commitments?
Let's call this the Tebow Quandary. Here we refer to incoming New York Jets' backup (?) quarterback and Evangelical icon Tim Tebow, who has somehow landed in one of the least Evangelical-friendly markets in the United States.
This is the question I ask on this week's episode of The Secular Center, a show devoted to thinking through basic issues of interest to those religious and non-religious people who consider themselves to be American secularists.
As I wrestle with this dilemma, I am pretty sure the answer to my questions above are: You don't do a thing. You exhibit tolerance. You shut your yapper. And you make noises only when certain lines are crossed.
This isn't France, after all. We don't have a long and hard-fought tradition of banning religious symbolism and iconography in public space (and I want to be very clear that the French have their profound historical reasons for doing so). Nor is there any constitutional requirement in this country that citizens refrain from openly discussing their faith.
But this does raise the question: What would be crossing a line?
Were Mr. Tebow to correlate his team's victories with some type of divine favor (as some of his fans seem inclined to do), we could accuse him of poor professionalism, not to mention having a shaky grasp of theology.
Were he to create a locker room atmosphere in which non-Evangelical athletes were made to feel uncomfortable, then that, too, would rouse the ire of secularists.
Were he to derisively call out or mock other faith traditions, that would clearly be a trespass upon the vaunted American tradition of religious tolerance and pluralism (i.e. secularism).
Were he to make noises about this being a "Christian nation," once again, we'd have cause for concern.
But the point I wish to make is that, up until now, we simply see a young athlete who is very serious about his faith and acting charitably in accord with the dictates of his conscience.
I render this verdict of "so far, so good," admittedly, with a lingering pessimism. The fact of the matter is that many American Evangelical icons have engaged in one or more of the aforementioned illegal procedures, personal fouls, and crackback blocks.
We have seen none of that in Mr. Tebow's behavior. What we have seen -- and I do wish all variety of secularists would consider his example -- is a commitment to building hospitals and helping sick children.
So while secularists may disagree with his extremely public exhibitions of faith -- I wish he would forego such effusions -- there presently doesn't seem to be much to complain about and a good deal to...
According to an important 2001 survey, 44 percent of American Jews by religion claimed to be "secular," or "somewhat secular." I repeat: 44 percent!
The next religious group to embrace the "secular" designation with as much verve were Buddhists at 22 percent (which makes sense when you consider the Dalai Llama's views on secularism, see his recent book, "Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World").
Yet the question remains: What does it mean to be a secular Jew? Having studied the phenomenon for years, let me propose a good way to figure this all out: Let's not fix this fluid and complex identity into a tight definitional box just yet. Why not spend the next few years surveying the possibilities?
There are professors who think through this issue, philanthropic organizations such as the Posen Foundation (now led by the young and charismatic Jesse Tisch) and there is even a fully fledged religious denomination known as Secular Humanistic Judaism. All have their own take on the matter, and as far as I am concerned, for now it's all good. Secular Judaism is in its "discovery" stage.
SHJ, as the aforementioned denomination is sometimes called, is associated with the late Rabbi Sherwin Wine, a larger than life figure who broke from mainstream Judaism in the 1960s all the while intimating to Time Magazine that he did not believe in God. Its seminary, the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, is now located in Chicago under the leadership of Rabbi Adam Chalom, and I have always found the group to be both fun and serious.
SHJ also possesses an Israeli branch and on today's episode of Faith Complex we caught up with one of its most leading representatives, Rabbi Sivan Maas.
During our interview we discuss whether SHJ is doctrinally atheist as some have alleged. We also look at the reception of the small, upstart, denomination in Israel. Most interestingly, when I asked Rabbi Maas to describe SHJ in one word, she responded: "inclusion."
That's a great place to start as Secular Judaism comes into its...
What little recent Western media attention has been given to the remarkable country of Nigeria has not been positive.
This is somewhat understandable as horrific images of violence against Christians has become an all too common news item. The treacherous headline-grabber here is the al Qaeda-affiliated Boko Haram group, which has perpetuated unconscionable acts of terror against the country's Christian population.
Just this past Christmas, dozens of Catholic Nigerians were murdered in a string of suicide attacks at churches in Abuja and around the country. This is just one in a series of escalating operations against civilians, the press, schools and so forth.
With so little information in the Western media available about Nigeria, and so much of it focused on the havoc wreaked by this jihadist group, assessments of the Nigerian future tend to be extraordinarily bleak.
Urging us to view the situation in broader perspective is Georgetown University School of Foreign Service professor Gwendolyn Mikell. On today's episode of Faith Complex, the anthropologist and student of Africa rejects recent claims that Nigeria is "on the brink."
In fact, on the very pages of The Huffington Post two years ago, she wrote:
The main flaw in Ambassador Campbell's somber portrait is that he reduces Nigeria to two monolithic, antagonistic and inexorably colliding blocs, one Northern, the other Southern. This is a false reality since Nigeria is a nation of roughly 150 million people with more than 200 ethnic groups. There is no insuperable Mason-Dixon line separating a wholly Muslim North from a wholly Christian South. These hypothetical blocs are convenient intellectual fictions that do not accord with the complexity of the country's vast national tapestry. There are portions of Southern Nigeria where Muslims are in the majority or are large minorities as there are swaths in the North where Christians are the majority or a significant minority. As in our own country, Nigeria's cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity is at times a source of tension but also a tremendous national asset and a source of national pride. Despite occasional local outbursts, Nigeria's Christians and Muslims occupy the national space with considerable peace and tolerance.
Everybody has heard about the tragic Trayvon Martin murder. Far fewer, however, are aware of the brutal killing of Shaima Alawadi, an Iraqi-born American citizen and mother of five, in her home near San Diego. There are conflicting reports about the facts of the crime. In some accounts,...
One doesn't spend a quarter-century working in the American academy without coming across all manner of opinionated, irrational and overheated types. None more so, in my own experience, than those whose out-of-class (and sometimes, regrettably,...