The Texas state bar recently decided not to allow a class on religion and legal ethics, offered by the law school of a Catholic university, to count toward continuing education requirements, on the grounds that to do so would constitute violation of boundaries between church and state. In his dissenting analysis, Peter Berger explains the underlying conflict between “secularity” and “secularism.”
Secularity is not an ideology but a fact, like it or not. Much of the time there is no choice: you cannot operate in a modern economy by following the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, and you cannot fly an airplane on instructions from the Talmud.
By contrast, secularism is an ideology (as the suffix indicates). It celebrates secularity and seeks to enlarge its space at the expense of religion. It comes in different versions. Its extreme version, from the Jacobin cult of reason to the “scientific atheism” of the Soviet Union, has become quite rare. Certainly in the U.S. it usually takes the form of a program to confine religion to private spaces—churches or other overtly religious institutions—and keep it out of public spaces, especially when these are supported by tax funds.
Probably there have always been tensions between the “no establishment” and “free exercise” phrases of the First Amendment. Secularists rank the first over the second. As in this case: the Texas state bar committee is offended by the intrusion, however academic, of a “Catholic orientation” into a program of necessarily secular legal education. The spokesman of a Catholic institution regards its religious orientation as the right to free exercise. . . . [E]ven if I were a committed secularist, as a sociologist I would observe that a broad understanding of religious freedom is conducive to civic peace (especially in a democracy).
Sign Up For Our E-Mail List Get the latest from Mosaic right in your inbox
Sign up now for unlimited access