After Secularization (special double issue)   /   Spring/Summer 2006   /    Articles

Secularity without Secularism

David Novak

No group has benefited more from modern secularity than have the Jews. Modern secularity has enabled Jews to become full and equal participants in the secular societies in which almost all Jews now live. In pre-modern, pre-secular societies, Jews were at best tolerated and at worst they were persecuted as foreigners. Nevertheless, when these beneficiaries of modern secularity are told that they must affirm secularism as the ideological foundation of the secularity from which they have so benefited, then the cultural integrity of the Jews, especially but not exclusively, is seriously threatened.


We need to define at the outset what is meant by “secularity” and then what is meant by “culture.”


“Secularity” can be taken in two distinct senses. First, secularity is the modus operandi of a society that does not look to any particular religious tradition for the validation of its political authority in matters pertaining to the bodies and the property of its members, that is, matters dealt with by criminal and civil law. So, for example, that is why even though a majority of the citizens of the United States are Christians, and Christianity looks to the Bible to authorize all its practices, one cannot invoke biblical authority as a reason for public acceptance of any authorized practice in the United States. The authority of the Bible is only cogent for the members of a particular religious community who accept their tradition’s normative interpretation of the Bible. In theory and in fact, this has meant that even different groups that call themselves “Christian” do not accept each other’s biblically based normative teaching. As such, suggestions of “Christian America” break down on the question: Whose Christianity—Catholic or Protestant—and if the latter, which Protestant Christianity? Even if one were to speak of “Judeo-Christian America” and assume that the biblical foundation of that society was the Old Testament (whose authority is accepted by both Jews and Christians), Jews would hardly accept as authoritative Christian biblical interpretation, any more than Christians would accept Jewish biblical interpretation on any significant normative issue.

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