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Jacques Berlinerblau Jacques Berlinerblau is an Associate Professor and Director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at the School of Foreign Service. Berlinerblau has published on a wide variety of issues ranging...

A collaboration with Washingtonpost Newsweek Interactive's On Faith site, The God Vote explores the role of faith in this year's election. It is featured here as well as on Georgetown/On Faith.


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Freedom from Religion

March 18, 2008

Tonight we are debating the proposition that “religion should have no place in politics and government.” Let me state from the outset that I--a garden-variety Jewish atheist—wholly concur.

It has come to my attention, however, that many of my compatriots do not. Reverend Barry Lynn’s organization recently reported that 65 % of Americans believed that "the Founders intended the United States to be a Christian nation.” A 2006 study by the Pew Forum noted that nearly 7 out of 10 citizens say that “liberals have gone too far in keeping religion out of schools and government.”

In short, many Americans of good conscience have rejected the core principles of secularism. For them, considerations of faith must inform our leaders’ political deliberations. That, they argue, it what the Founding Fathers wanted. Our inability to respect their wishes, it is alleged, has transformed our country into something of a secular Apartheid State. Ours has become a nation where the whims of a small elite have supplanted the will of the majority.

Now let me be frank: The most pressing challenge facing American secularism today consists of refuting these beliefs. But the challenge cannot not only be waged in the higher courts--up until recently the “home field” of our secular worldview.

Instead we must prevail in the arena of public opinion. For, American secularism is facing a “legitimation crisis.” As the statistics cited above indicate, we have yet to convince our fellow citizens of truths we hold self-evident. Therefore it is our task not merely to litigate, but to persuade.

So in the name of persuasion here are three reasons to adopt tonight’s proposition. First, mixing religion and politics will grant an unfair advantage to one religion. Why is that? In a country where 80% of the population self-identifies as Christian, those who infuse faith into the government risk creating some sort of Christian Establishment.

But Christianity is many things. It is Southern Baptism and Catholicism, Mormonism and Methodism, Presbyterianism and Pentecostalism. Given how diverse American Christendom actually is, such an Establishment will not only alienate religious minorities, but most Christians as well!

This brings me to a second point: keeping the public square free of religious considerations has been a boon for people of faith. It keeps Christians, among others, off one another’s backs. Moreover, it provides believers of all stripes with the ability to worship the divine in peace and security.

Finally, the idea of segregating faith and politics is not antithetical to Christian thought, but lies at the very heart of its intellectual tradition. We find traces of it in Bible. We glean hints of it in the writings of Augustine (and isn’t it interesting that Pope Benedict recently commented that he found “true secularism” in Augustine’s City of God. If the Holy Father can find something redeeming in Secularism than it must be kosher, so to speak). We see this idea engaged in the political philosophy of Martin Luther and John Locke, to name but a few. The endeavor to keep the public sphere naked—pornographically naked if you like those sorts of metaphors-- is an idea with a Christian genealogy.

To conclude, I will proclaim that “there is no religious freedom without freedom from religion.” The two go hand in hand. It is this idea which I wish to convince you of tonight.