Religion and religious violence are evoked almost daily by politicians and journalists, who often distinguish between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ politics.
Jacques Berlinerblau, a professor at Georgetown University, questions popular and academic usages of ‘secularism’, which often seem contradictory. Berlinerblau argues that: “Talking imprecisely about secularism is now an American rhetorical tradition. Politicians, policy makers, and journalists routinely deploy the term without really knowing—or caring—what it connotes. This is bad for us and for them, since secularism is germane to so many domestic- and foreign-policy problems.”
Berlinerblau poses a number of intriguing questions about ‘secularism’ in contemporary political culture: “Is it appropriate for an elected official to invoke God in public? Can censorship be justified in deference to the feelings of the faithful? How can nonbelievers be accorded equal rights under the law? Does one country have a moral obligation to assure that there is ‘religious freedom’ in another? What is ‘religious freedom,’ anyway?”
There is a clear need for scholars of religious history to develop stronger definitions of ‘secular’ and ‘secularism’, according to Berlinerblau.
Jacques Berlinerblau’s article on secular studies appears at the Chronicle of Higher Education online.