What’s a Christian theologian doing at a conference on secularism?

As a Christian theologian, I gladly accepted the invitation to speak at the conference “Secularism on the Edge: The Church … Continued

As a Christian theologian, I gladly accepted the invitation to speak at the conference “Secularism on the Edge: The Church and The State in the United States, France, and Israel.” The reason I did is that I believe people of faith need to wake up and realize that they must defend secularism as absolutely indispensible to protect freedom of religion.

Secularism is a bulwark against religious establishment, that is, the political privileging of one religion over all others, as it describes and affirms a political life free of religious control. And where one religion has control, the freedom of other religions is diminished, as is the freedom of those of no religion.

For there to be religious pluralism, and freedom of conscience, there must be a political sphere where no one religion can gain control over citizens because of religious beliefs.

As a woman, I also need to defend secularism as indispensible to my equal rights. I am a US citizen not primarily because of religion. In the nineteenth century, even my own New England Congregational tradition issued a pastoral letter denouncing women’s equal rights in the public square.

No, I am a voting citizen because of the idea of a “secular” politics where whatever a religious belief system may say regarding my gender inequality (or equality) before God, as a human being I am a citizen. Yet, on the other hand, we must also say the right for women to vote was not “self-evident” to the framers of the Constitution, however secular they may have been, and the right of American women to vote is not even one hundred years old in our democracy.

The struggle of women for equal rights in the face of religious opposition, both past and present, is, of course, not confined to the United States by any means. I spent January of this year in Israel and Palestine teaching a course for Chicago Theological Seminary students. As part of the study tour, we met with Anat Hoffman, the Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center or IRAC. We also listened to a training session on the “Freedom Rides,” the volunteer actions to confront gender segregation on buses in Israel, a practice pushed by ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Unfortunately, we learned that rigid gender segregation in Israel is not confined to public buses in Israel, but is being pursued by the ultra-Orthodox, in contradiction to the law, in the waiting room of a health clinic in Jerusalem, an event by a government body, the entrance to a grocery store, or even on streets with separate sidewalks for men and women. In Israel, the ultra-orthodox are literally try to push women out of the public square.

Anat Hoffman has been arrested, as have many other women, at the Western Wall, for prayers, Torah reading, and wearing prayer shawls, most recently on Feb. 11, 2013.

Anat Hoffman is not “secular” in the way the term is used in the U.S., i.e. non-religious, though in the eyes of the ultra-orthodox, as a Reform Jewish Rabbi, she is not considered either a Rabbi or even religious by virtue of the power to define Judaism the ultra-Orthodox hold under Israeli law. And thus it is not just religiously wrong, in the eyes of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel for Rabbi Hoffman to pray, read Torah and wear a prayer shawl at the Western Wall, it is illegal for her to do so and she can be, and has been, arrested for these religious activities.

Clearly, Israel has work to do on securing a public and political secular space where women can move freely and act religiously as they will.

Yet, in my paper that I will give at the conference on secularism this week, I also note that contemporary secularism is not exactly a paradise for women.

Why is that?

Our own Susan Jacoby, who wrote the lively and interesting “Spirited Atheist” posts for On Faith for several years, has always been unflinching in her critiques both of religion and secularism for harboring irrational prejudices, including gender prejudice. She writes in another publication that there is an “actual denigration of female intellect by some male secular activists (which you wouldn’t think would exist among male creatures who pride themselves on their rationality).” She cites this as “an important reason for the underrepresentation of women at all levels of the secular movement.”

I believe there is a profound relationship between religion and secularism when it comes to their failure to full apprehend the importance of gender equality. Addressing gender dualism in both religion and secularism is a way forward for both perspectives to engage the work of creating more just and equitable societies, not only in the United States, Israel and France, those we are considering in this conference, but around the world.

There is a way for this can happen. But you’ll have to come hear my panel presentation on Friday morning at the Georgetown conference on secularism in order to get my solution!


Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and immediate past President of Chicago Theological Seminary. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her most recent books are "#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power" and, as contributor and editor, "Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War."
  • backspace1

    for those of you attending.
    It’s Ms. this or Ms. that.

  • quiensabe

    Upon reading your headline this morning, Susan Jacoby came to mind. You, however beat me to commenting about her. As a Christian who seldom, if ever, agrees with your brand, Susan’s thoughts were at least non self-agrandizing.

  • backspace1

    I’ll wait for the translation? as most would say.
    However collectively, those of us abandoned for not speaking in tongue( ?)find it difficult to interact amongst so many fine, confident and well dressed.

    yes, i was/will be disruptive, in class . However, I don’t ever rush to leave?
    apologies for using this place, as for personal post’s.

    is there anything else?


    Christ was the world champ in womens rights! Also, think about it: when Christianity is embraced in a country, womens rights raise dramatically! We should all tolerate secualrization of church and state called freedom, but it’s done us no favors-turn on the news! Any religion that professes a pro death world view must not be tolerated however! You know who you are and we do too!

  • backspace1

    sorry if i was a distraction. I tried to hide.

    the nut doesn’t fall very far from the tree, does it?
    your use of onflection at the’ interogitive’ isn;t a surprize. I had heard that about you.
    thank you for not quizzing me. I’m not the “evil” they portray me to be and there is a certain control “act” of usurping (?)

    I am humbled at all the brilliance reflected in group, overall. Comprehension just of understanding the significance, of place took awhile. I think those gifted with clear analytical processes have a bright future.
    The coffee is questionable…

    I don’t have any sin to offer in solution, i had merely wanted to hear you yell in
    definance. DEFINANCE
    it was nice to see you.

  • MaineWoman

    I found your column interesting and am glad to see that people of good will can reason together, whatever their beliefs (or would secularists prefer to call them convictions, “belief” being too religiously fraught?). One correction: Anat Hoffman, while a commited Reform Jew, is not a Rabbi. You don’t have to be ordained to lead prayer services in Judaism. When she was serving on the Jerusalem City Council and had a son, her Orthodox colleagues would not perform the mitzvah of attending his circumcision because it was held at a Reform synagogue. As far as they were concerned, they told her, that was a church, and they wouldn’t enter it.

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