Conference Analyzes Secularism
Published: Friday, February 22, 2013
Updated: Friday, February 22, 2013 19:02
The Program for Jewish Civilization’s three-day “Secularism on the Edge” conference addressed misconceptions about secularism Wednesday through Friday.
The conference included public interviews, panels and presentations covering topics ranging from women and secularism to Israeli religious secularism.
PJC Director Jacques Berlinerblau said that a common misconception, especially among Catholics, is that all secularists are atheists.
“Catholics haven’t always hated secularism. When they see that it can protect them, they embrace it,” Berlinerblau said. “As a premier research university, Georgetown has welcomed this discussion and research.”
Secularism is more of a political philosophy than a religious one, according to Berlinerblau. The opening event Wednesday was a public interview with Berlinerblau, in which he and Messiah College associate professor of history John Fea debated whether America is a secular or Christian nation.
Fea discussed the ways different interest groups — from the Christian right to secularists to the Christian left — have used historic documents to justify their views that America was founded as either a Christian or secular nation.
Fea said that the Declaration of Independence is dated “In the Year of Our Lord,” a fact that has been used to argue America’s founding as a Christian nation. However, Fea said that the line was simply added to the document by a clerk after the committee was dismissed.
However, 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.”
The BMW Center for German and European Studies, the Department of French and the Department of Government co-sponsored the event, along with the PJC.