Press Coverage from the "Secularism on the Edge" Conference at Georgetown

The press coverage from the first day of the “Secularism on the Edge” conference is starting to appear.  (You can listen to the podcast of my conversation with Jacques Berlinerblau here).

Religion News Service:  Kimberly Winston, “Scholars Seek to Reclaim a Dirty Word: Secularism.”  (Republished in The Washington Post).

Colette Gilner in The Hoya.  (One correction: Gilner mentions that it was the Declaration of Independence that ends with the phrase “In the Year of Our Lord.”  It is actually the U.S. Constitution).

Here is a taste of Gilner’s article:

Fea said that the first article of the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli stated that “the United States is not, in any sense, founded as a Christian nation.”

Secularists have often used this line as evidence against a religious origin for America, but Fea said it is necessary to be wary of the treaty because, at the time, Americans were attempting to stand on neutral grounds with Muslim Tripolitania.

“If you’re going to make an argument that America is not a Christian nation, I think you need to be cautious when using the Treaty of Tripoli, because it’s so easy to take this thing out of context,” Fea said.

People who believe America was founded as a Christian nation have unfavorable opinions of secularism, according to Fea.

“They think of aggressive atheists who have a particular agenda to try to remove anything related to religion from public life,” Fea said.

Fea also said he appreciated how this conference is working to redefine secularism. Fea is an evangelical Christian, but said he is also secular.

“My faith as an evangelical requires me to try to win you to Christ,” Fea said. “My desire would be to evangelize you and have you become a believer. Now, I don’t believe the state should be doing that. But I think in conversations over coffee, I want to talk about my faith.”

Laura Kurek (SFS ’16) valued the talk’s objective approach.

“I thought it was a very educated discussion,” Laura Kurek (SFS ’16) said. “I liked how it was historical. Fea did a good job at not letting his personal views detract from the topic at hand.”

Ann Yang (SFS ’15) agreed with Kurek.

“As a liberal, minority Christian, I am often uncomfortable with the Christian right,” she said. “This discussion was enlightening. It was refreshing to see that there’s a body of scholars who holds my views.”

Fea concluded by saying he was hopeful for a secular American future.

“I’m happy working with people of all faiths or no faiths at all to promote the common good,” he said. “We don’t need to have a Christian nation in order to live faithfully in the world.” 

"Secularism on the Edge" Wrap-Up

Fea and Berlinerblau

The title of this post is a bit misleading.  The “Secularism on the Edge” conference at Georgetown is actually continuing through Friday, but due to other commitments I needed to leave shortly after my session yesterday afternoon.

And what a session it was!  Jacques Berlinerblau kept saying that he was “taking a chance” by having me do a public interview with him as the opening plenary session of the conference.  Perhaps he thought that I was a theocrat or something similar.

I think Jacques invited me to this conference for two reasons.  First, to provide some historical context for the relationship (or lack thereof) between secularism and the American experience.  Second, to destigmatize the idea of “secularism” for the journalists and public policy experts in the audience by having a Christian speak who is somewhat sympathetic to secularism as defined in Berlinerblau’s How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom.

Apparently a video of the interview (and the entire conference) will be online soon, but to whet your appetite I have posted some of the questions Jacques asked me:

Q:  What types of folks these days will proclaim full-throatedly that the United States is a Christian Nation?

Q:  Can you exegete the God-language in the Declaration of Independence?  What about the religious language in the U.S. Constitution?

Q:  What role does the Treaty of Tripoli (1797) play in the entire Christian nation debate?

Q:  In your work you draw attention to the preamble of the Constitution of the Confederate States of America.  What’s relevant about this?

Q: Before moving to the contemporary frame, let’s look at one of your conclusions from the book.  “Between 1789 and 1865 Americans–North and South, Union and Confederate–understood themselves to be citizens of a Christian nation.”

Q:  What do Christians think secularism is?  When they hear “secular America” what do they think that entails?

Q: What are some positives for Christians of a secular America, with secular defined as that nagging fear of entanglement between civil and ecclesiastical authority?

Q: If I were to come to Messiah College for a lecture twenty-five years from now, what would have changed?

You can get the answers to some of these questions by reading my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.  For the rest of the answers you will have to wait for the video.  I will post it when it comes available.

Here are a few tweets from the session:

Before our 2PM interview w/ , why not read his piece in ‘s abt Xtians & secularism?

“What will we be talking about in 25 yrs. concerning secular America? I’m skeptical about the term secularism catching on.”
“What will we be talking about in 25 yrs. concerning secular America? I’m skeptical about the term secularism catching on.”
On religion & politics: “When you mix horse sh*t and ice cream the horse sh*t stays the same, but the ice cream is ruined”
“John F. Kennedy in this 1960 speech represents the kind of secularism this conference is about”
“The claim that a ‘wall of separation between Church and State is high and impregnable’ does not reflect practice on the ground”

“This question of American religious identity became a contested idea only recently”

This Week’s "Anxious Bench" Post at Patheos: "The United States: Christian or ‘Secular?’"

Those who of you who thought I had gone off the deep end with last week’s critique of Dr. Ben Carson’s National Prayer Breakfast speech will probably be even more disturbed by the fact that today I will be speaking at an international conference on secularism.  (I explain my decision to accept the invitation to do a plenary session at this conference in a post that appeared yesterday at The Washington Post).

In light of the “Secularism on the Edge” conference at Georgetown University in Washington D.C.  this week, a reporter asked me to answer a few questions about secularism.  I thought if I posted the questions and my answers here at The Anxious Bench it might trigger some good discussion.
Q: Why is the question of whether America is a Christian nation or a secular nation important? (WHY SHOULD MY READERS CARE?) 
Fea: First a little history.  This was not a question that many people were asking until the 1970s when the emerging Christian Right, led by Jerry Falwell and others, began to convince their followers that “secular humanism” was creeping into schools and other parts of public life and in the process eroding the Christian character of the nation.  The question of whether or not America is a Christian nation thus became a major battleground in the culture wars.  So why does this matter?  It matters because the idea that we are a Christian nation or were founded as a Christian nation informs the way Christian conservative politicians justify policy–from abortion, to stem-cell research, to gay rights, and to what our kids should be learning in school.  The defense of America as a “secular” nation has been a response to this view.

Read the rest here.

Should Christians Embrace Secularism?

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.

Speaking at "Secularism on the Edge"

On Wednesday I will be at Georgetown University for a conference entitled “Secularism on the Edge.”  (Yes, you read that correctly–a Jesuit university is sponsoring a conference on secularism!).  The conference is the brainchild of Georgetown Jewish Civilization professor Jacques Berlinerblau, author of How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom.

The opening plenary session of the conference will consist of a public conversation with Jacques focused on some of the themes in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.  If you are in the D.C. area, be prepared for a free-wheeling discussion on the religious beliefs of the founding fathers, the current debate over Christian America, the historic understanding of the separation between church and state, and the political life of American evangelicalism.

I will be speaking in my capacity as an American historian, but also as a committed evangelical who found a lot of useful ideas in How to Be Secular.  Stay tuned.  This should be interesting (and fun).