One Take on the Religious Neutrality of Secular Government

Will Herberg was a widely respected sociologist and theologian. He began his life as an ardent Marxist atheist, just as his parents were. Later in life he rediscovered his Jewish heritage while at the same time was introduced to Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr’s influence on Herberg cannot be overstated. Herberg would have converted to Christianity if… Read more One Take on the Religious Neutrality of Secular Government

Will Herberg was a widely respected sociologist and theologian. He began his life as an ardent Marxist atheist, just as his parents were. Later in life he rediscovered his Jewish heritage while at the same time was introduced to Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr’s influence on Herberg cannot be overstated. Herberg would have converted to Christianity if Neibuhr himself hadn’t introduced him to Jewish Theological Seminary. In the end, he embraced Judaism and became the “Rheinhold Niebuhr” of Judaism in America at his time.

Though he was well respected and influential among liberal academics, he was one of the few “liberals” to be fairly conservative on the issue of the First Amendment and what it meant for government’s role in religious affairs of its citizens. For example, in 1963 the Supreme Court decided prayer and Bible reading in public schools was no longer possible because of the First Amendment. This is part of Herberg’s response to that event:

With the meaning of our political tradition and political practice, the promotion [of religion] has been, and continues to be, a part of the very legitimate “secular” purpose of the state. Whatever the “neutrality” of the state in matters of religion may be, it cannot be a neutrality between religion and no-religion, and more than… it could be a neutrality between morality and non-morality, [both of which] are necessary to “good government” and “national prosperity.”

It’s a truly fascinating idea that government support of religion AND non-religion is part of the very purpose of a “secular” state. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. 

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