I ask this question today in an op-ed at The Washington Post. (For some context, check out this post from yesterday). Here is the piece:
I didn’t know what to think when Jacques Berlinerblau of Georgetown University invited me to be the first plenary speaker at a conference called “Secularism on the Edge.” I am an evangelical Christian who teaches American history at a Christian college. In fact, I am writing this from a hotel room in Pittsburgh where I am attending “Jubilee,” an annual gathering of thousands of evangelical undergraduates from East Coast colleges and universities. In a few hours I will be conducting a seminar on how to integrate Christian faith with the study of history.
Though I do a lot of speaking at events that might be described as “secular” (American history lectures at colleges, universities, libraries, museums, etc…), I don’t normally get invited to public conferences devoted entirely to the subject of secularism.
For many of the culture warriors who share my particular brand of Christianity, “secular” is an adjective used to modify “humanism.” Secular humanists are often described as aggressive atheists and unbelievers who want to remove all traces of Christianity from public life. In the 1970s and 1980s, Jerry Falwell and other members of the emerging Christian Right warned evangelicals about an encroaching secular humanism that was creeping into American schools and threatening the Christian character of the nation.
As an evangelical believer, I, of course, see the world through the eyes of my Christian faith. I have many friends and acquaintances who do not believe in God, but I have profound differences with them about the origin, meaning, and purpose of life. If being secular means living in a disenchanted world in which God does not exist, or abandoning essential Christian beliefs such as the resurrection of Jesus Christ or authority of the Bible, then I am definitely not secular. But if secularism is something akin to what Berlinerblau describes in his book, “How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom,” then there is much of it that I can embrace.
Let me explain:
For Berlinerblau, secularism is more of a political philosophy than a religious one. Secularists, he writes, “are often deeply suspicious” of “any and all relations between government and religion.” In other words, secularism is essential to religious freedom.
Many Christians have believed in this kind of secularism. Martin Luther taught his followers that God rules over two kingdoms. The secular kingdom should not be confused with the spiritual kingdom. One kingdom upholds the law and preserves the common good. The other kingdom is a heavenly one where Christians experience God’s grace and find salvation.
Or consider the Baptists. Ever since the devout Puritan exile Roger Williams wrote about “a hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world,” they have defended religious freedom. In colonial Virginia Baptists suffered immensely under a so-called “Christian state” controlled by the Anglican Church. It should thus not surprise us that when Thomas Jefferson and James Madison called for religious freedom and a largely secular state in post-revolutionary Virginia, Baptists rallied to the cause.
Anabaptists—those from the Mennonite and Brethren traditions who founded the college where I work—have long resisted the temptation to equate the kingdom of God and the nation-state. As a result, one would be hard pressed to find an American flag on the campus of Messiah College.
In 2011, University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter, in his provocative “To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World,” urged his fellow Christians to abandon the notion that we can “change the world” through politics. He instead called for evangelicals to leave the political arena, stop trying to Christianize the nation, and practice their faith in the world through acts of Christian love in their local communities and neighborhoods. He described this approach to Christian living in the public square with the phrase “faithful presence.”
Trying to convince evangelicals that Berlinerblau’s “secularism” is a theologically legitimate way of understanding the relationship between church and state will not be easy. The Christian Right has successfully demonized the word. Many of my fellow evangelicals firmly believe that God has a special plan for the United States and the founding fathers, as servants of God, set out to create a uniquely Christian nation, not a secular one. Such an assertion is problematic on both theological and historical grounds, some of which I look forward to discussing Wednesday at the Secularism on the Edge conference at Georgetown. I hope to see you there.
John Fea is Associate Professor of American History and Chair of the History Department at Messiah College.
“Secularism on the Edge,” an international conference exploring secularism in the United States, France, and Israel, opens at Georgetown University Wednesday, February 20, through Friday, February 22. All events are free and open to the public. Visit the Web site for more details and follow the conference on Twitter @SecularismEdge for updates and live tweets of the events.