The Ongoing Battle for a Secular America

This is a guest post by Rabbi Jeffery Falick of the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Metro Detroit.

To this day the biggest culture shock I ever experienced was my family’s move to Texas in 1978. From our fairly liberal and Jewish suburban Miami neighborhood (to which I’d return years later) I suddenly found myself in an overwhelmingly fundamentalist Christian world. The “buckle of the Bible belt,” they called it. Though I’d grown up around both Democrats and Republicans, I had never really known anyone from either side who opposed the Equal Rights Amendment or condemned Roe v. Wade. But in 1970s Texas no one supported adding women’s rights to the Constitution, much less interpreting it as permitting abortions.

All of this went hand-in-hand with a complete absence of any respect for the separation of church and state, especially in public schools. From graduations to football games and everything in between, every event at my school included prayers, invariably Christian, and always concluding with the words, “In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.” My high school was also festooned with announcements about Young Life, a popular evangelical youth group, and the Federation of Christian Athletes.

Neither was class content off limits. In junior year, my Social Studies teacher brought a woman to “testify” about Jesus to the class. This otherwise kindly woman who schooled us in the Cuban-Missile Crisis and other iconic American historical events was completely clueless about any constitutional violations. (With the support of my rabbi I did, however, procure a pass to sit in the library during the event.)

All these memories came flooding back to me when I heard about the outrageous Christian revival meeting held last week at a high school in West Virginia during instructional hours. According to reports by the Associated Press and others, students “were instructed to close their eyes and raise their arms in prayer…. The teens were asked to give their lives over to Jesus to find purpose and salvation. Those who did not follow the Bible [were told they] would go to hell when they died….”

By all accounts this was nothing new. The school regularly allows this sort of thing during an hour set aside for study, college prep, and guest speakers. This non-instructional time is its way of getting around our understanding of the Constitution’s 1st Amendment “wall of separation between church as state,” a concept championed by Thomas Jefferson. Had it not been for a misunderstanding by a couple of teachers who thought the assembly was mandatory – followed by a student walk-out protest the next day – the story would not have made national news.

As a result, organizations like the ACLU, Americans for Separation of Church and State, and our own Jews for a Secular Democracy condemned the entire practice of school-hosted revival meetings, citing the importance of separationism. But while they continue to wage the good fight for change, at least one prominent Jewish scholar says that the war is over and separationists have already lost.

Jacques Berlinerblau, who is both professor of Jewish civilization at Georgetown University and a vocal secularist (who spoke at our congregation at a 2007 IISHJ colloquium), is one of them. Writing this week at, he asserts that the doctrine of separationism is dead. He recommends that, given long-time judicial trends, secularists should give up on the notion of a wall of separation and “innovate accordingly.” Citing India, which constitutionally mandates “equal respect for all religions,” Berlinerblau suggests that secularists should instead emphasize the 14th Amendment’s “equal protection of the laws” and “focus on the lawlessness and inequality that arise when LGBTQ persons, nonbelievers, religious minorities and religious moderates are forced to live under one particular religious conception of God.”

There is some wisdom in this. And secularists have not ignored the 14th Amendment argument when faced with the reality that, wall or no wall, the religious perspective that is privileged is almost invariably fundamentalist Christianity. When I spoke recently about abortion rights I pointed out that Reform and Conservative rabbis have repeatedly filed briefs with the courts stating that abortion bans actually violate both their 14th Amendment “equal protection” and their 1st Amendment “free exercise” of religion which actually requires abortion under some circumstances. Neither of these arguments relies on separationism.

But are we ready to let go of the centuries-old separationist interpretation of the 1st Amendment? Paul Golin, executive director of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, is the lead visionary of Jews for a Secular Democracy. I asked him yesterday about Berlinerblau’s argument. He replied:

The meaning of nearly every word of the Constitution has changed over time. It may be true that the government doesn’t take the 1st Amendment to mean it has no role in regulating religion, but the “free exercise” clause in particular can and should be interpreted exactly as Berlinerblau is calling for: equal treatment of all religions and none.

Moreover, the Constitution is more than just the basis for law, it represents American ideals. And while those ideals have been imperfectly enacted, the general distaste for religious privilege expressed in the 1st Amendment, and baked into our country’s legal DNA, is what has – more often than not – allowed the Jewish community to thrive in America. Whatever theoretical value India’s approach to religious minorities may hold, in practice that country has suffered widespread and ongoing death from religious strife since its founding; as bad as our Supreme Court looks today, I can’t imagine America’s Jews ever envying India’s Muslims.

One of the values that has made the United States a haven for Jews and Judaism (of all types) has been America’s rejection of an officially recognized (or, in 18th century terms, an “establishment of”) religion.

While the concept of a wall of separation has been controversial since Jefferson’s day (as Berlinerblau also points out in his piece), the lack of a wall actually opens our nation up to a kind of official established religion, namely, conservative evangelical Christianity. True, that covers a number of religious denominations, including conservative Catholicism, Southern Baptism, and Pentecostalism, but it absolutely elevates them and their ilk over moderate and liberal Christianity, all kinds of Jewish denominations, Islam, Hinduism, and belief and nonbelief of all kinds. So while evangelical Christianity may not be a specific religion, per se, it’s close enough.

No matter the specific arguments we choose to make or which amendments we choose to emphasize, America’s neutrality on the question of religion must remain at the center of our democracy. With so much else in danger, Jews cannot afford the luxury of sitting on the sidelines.

This is why Humanistic Judaism has placed Jews for a Secular Democracy at the center of its agenda for social justice and equality. So much else depends upon it.

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