Posts tagged with: secularism

In this week’s new Birth of Freedom short video, expert Robert P. George explains why it is impossible for secularism to function as a neutral ground for debate.

Acton Media’s video shorts from The Birth of Freedom are designed to provide additional insight into key issues and ideas in the film. A new short is released each Monday. Check out the rest of the series, learn about premieres in your area, and discover more background information at www.thebirthoffreedom.com.

Last week I attended a lecture on the campus of Calvin College given by Richard Swinburne, Emeritus Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion, University of Oxford. His lecture was titled, “God and Morality,” and was the fourth in a series of lectures for a summer seminar, “Science, Philosophy, and Belief.” The seminar was focused on the development of Chinese professors and posgraduate students, and included lectures by Sir John Polkinghorne, Alvin Plantinga, and Owen Gingerich.

Swinburne, who is a convert from Anglicanism to Orthodoxy, has recently turned his attention to questions of morality, having previously dealt with most every aspect of the philosophy of religion. I will not attempt a summary of his presentation here. The lecture has been digitally archived on the seminar site (downloadable MP3 here), and the comments and critiques I offer below will best be understood after having listened to the presentation yourself.

Swinburne’s list of publications includes a forthcoming article, “What Difference Does God Make to Morality?” in Is Goodness without God Good Enough?: A Debate on Faith, Secularism, and Ethics, ed. R.K. Garcia and N.L. King (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), scheduled for release in October of this year later this month. This article will presumably present a similar case as appeared in Swinburne’s lecture. (more…)

Yesterday I was a guest on “The Jesse Lee Peterson Radio Show,” a production of BOND (Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny), to discuss the presidential election and the faith-based initiative, with a special focus on the proposals laid out by Democratic candidate Barack Obama. A streamlined version of the interview is available for download.

After the July 1 speech in Zanesville, Ohio, where Obama called his plan for a new Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships “a critical part” of his executive plans, he continued to campaign on this issue, saying that “faith-based” social service would be “a moral center” of his potential administration.


One of the groups that has faced the dilemma of phasing out faith after taking government money is the Silver Ring Thing, a Christian ministry dedicated to “offering a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as the best way to live a sexually pure life.” In 2006, the ACLU settled a lawsuit with the government over federal grants to the Silver Ring Thing (SRT), on the condition that appropriate safeguards would be implemented to separate out faith elements from programs that received federal dollars.

The success of groups like SRT have made in connecting human sexuality to spiritual and emotional life makes secularists cringe, who judge that the Religious Right “has warped our sexual politics and forced even the most hardened secular humanists to sing from the Christian hymnal.” You can be sure that secularists won’t hesitate to use government funds to undermine the integrity of groups that see faith-based messages like chastity being the biblical standard.

In the course of the interview I refer to a paper produced by the Acton Institute about the service areas that faith-based initiatives tend to focus on, “Faith Makes a Difference: A Study of the Influence of Faith in Human Service Programs.” I also borrow (with attribution) Joe Knippenberg’s witticism, referring to the Obama plan as the “faith-erased” initiative.

I also discuss what I have called “the fungibility phenomenon” and the way in which the White House office sets the tone for the rest of the country. But the coup de grâce of my argument, I think, comes when I liken the faith-based initiative to the sin of simony.

Simony is commonly defined as “a deliberate intention of buying or selling for a temporal price such things as are spiritual of annexed unto spirituals.” Think about this a moment. If what the government’s faith-based initiative boils down to is the appropriation of the vigor and vitality of a uniquely spiritual ministry by means of offering federal money so that this ministry can be controlled and absorbed by the temporal power, that sounds very much like a form of simony to me.

Here’s part of the story of Simon Magus from Acts 8: “When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, ‘Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.’” Peter answered: ‘May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money!’”

Weigh in on what you think ought to be done with the faith-based initiative in our blog poll question on the right side of the page, and share your thoughts in the comment section below.

And, honestly, I can’t say it enough. Visit the Samaritan Guide and find a charity that needs your support and give it to them.

A new blog has been added to our blogroll sidebar (along with a much-needed round of housecleaning on old and out-of-date links). Announcement below:

The Social Science Research Council is pleased to announce the launch of The Immanent Frame, a new SSRC blog on secularism, religion, and the public sphere.

The blog is opening with a series of posts on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, including recent contributions from Robert Bellah, Wendy Brown, Jose Casanova, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, and Colin Jager. Robert Bellah has called A Secular Age “one of the most important books to be written in my lifetime,” and there will be more to come on Taylor’s major work in the weeks ahead, with posts by Rajeev Bhargava, Akeel Bilgrami, Hent de Vries, Amy Hollywood, Tomoko Masuzawa, Joan Scott, and others. Meanwhile, Charles Taylor himself has just made his own contribution to the already ongoing conversations.

But The Immanent Frame won’t be limited to discussions of A Secular Age. Later this fall we’ll also host a series of posts responding to Mark Lilla’s The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West. And there will be posts on a variety of other topics too-from pluralism and the “post-secular” to international relations theory, religious freedom, and the future of shari’a.

This new SSRC blog will draw on, and is closely linked to, the Council’s expanding work on religion and the public sphere. We invite readers to email us with comments or questions at religion@ssrc.org.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Wednesday, October 10, 2007

I used to have more regular and extensive interaction with people whose worldviews were starkly different from my own. That’s not so much the case anymore, so it’s good to be reminded occasionally that some people live in different worlds that are sometimes hard to comprehend. That happened today when I came across an announcment for a conference, “The Secular Society and Its Enemies.” In the strange universe in which the conference’s organizers live, “The world is finally waking up to the dangers of religious faith,” “The American courts are stacked with judges who openly denigrate the nation’s vital and historic separation of church and state,” and “societies the world over face the ominous threat of de-secularization.”

Not meaning to be too flippant, I concede that the question of the relationship between government and religion is critical, especially in light of the advances of Islam around the world. But the conference description suggests that its agenda will be driven by the silly view that Islamic advocates of sharia and conservative American evangelicals and Pope Benedict XVI all have pretty much the same problem: they’re theocrats.

HT: James Kushiner at Mere Comments

Reading, [w]riting, [a]rithmetic, and…religion? So says Cal Thomas in a post from the WaPo blog On Faith.

Writes Thomas, “Religion as a subject and the beliefs of individual religions absolutely should be taught in all schools and at all levels.”

I doubt, however, that Thomas would say that “one should not expect an individual faith to be singled out for special consideration or imposition” in the case of explicitly religious schools. He seems to have in mind the limitations inherent in the public school system.

Thus, he writes, “Neither should a specific prayer be promoted in public schools and universities, as has been advocated by some in the past.” That presumably includes a prayer of secularism.

But surely Cal Thomas realizes that a naked public square does implicitly promote the ‘faith’ of secularism. This confusion and difficulty associated with teaching religion in public schools is real. But all too often the source of the problem is attributed to religion rather than to secularist nature of the public schools itself.

In a plenary address a couple weeks back to the Evangelical Theological Society, law professor and journalist Hugh Hewitt spoke about the religious affiliation of political candidates and to what extent this should be considered in the public debate (Melinda at Stand To Reason summarizes and comments here). In advance of his forthcoming book, A Mormon in the White House?: 10 Things Every Conservative Should Know about Mitt Romney, Hewitt used Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney as an example as to why evangelical Christians should not withhold their votes for a particular presidential candidate purely based on theological disagreement.

In the intervening time, the so-called “Mormon question” has received a great deal of media attention. (Hewitt says that yesterday was “a day of interviews about and with Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.”) Here’s just one example, Time magazine’s story, “Can a Mormon be President? Why Mitt Romney will have to explain a faith that remains mysterious to many.”

A number of people, including Glenn Reynolds, have wondered about the potential hypocrisy in examining Romney’s Mormonism so closely, while apparently giving a free pass to politicians like Harry Reid. But for Hewitt, the appropriate treatment of a Mormon politician would look more like the reception Reid has gotten than the scrutiny that Romney has gotten.

Hewitt’s argument goes like this: if the long knives are brought out by Christians to attack Romney on the basis of his religious commitments, it won’t be long before secularists attack Christians on similar grounds. This is a sort of “all who draw the sword will die by the sword” argument, and it is one that is shared by “Evangelicals for Mitt,” who note that most of the objections to Romney’s fitness for the presidency are on theological matters that are “absolutely irrelevant to the presidency.”

David French of “Evangelicals for Mitt” does address one of the questions I had coming out of the Hewitt talk, which was whether Hewitt’s claims that the religious and theological commitments of candidates should be off-limits was true for practitioners of all religions (or even strands of individual religions). French writes, “Let me be clear: I am not saying that theology is never relevant. When theology dictates policy, it is fair and proper for a voter to take that theology into account.”

These are not the types of theological issues to which evangelicals are taking offense, however. Says French, “The questions we receive deal with the Mormon view of the Trinity, the Mormon doctrine of salvation, the Mormon view of the afterlife, etc. Not only are these questions not relevant to the presidency (though certainly relevant if the Governor were applying to be your pastor), by even attempting to inject them into the debate evangelicals play a dangerous game. Do we think we can reject a candidate for theological reasons and then cry foul if the media or political opponents attack our own theology?”

This distinction between theological positions that bear directly on matters of public policy and ones that do not may indeed be helpful in distinguishing when it is appropriate to discuss faith commitments ad hominem. It would certainly seem to distinguish Romney’s Mormonism from, say, an Islamo-fascist faith which would attempt to impose and enforce Sharia law with government coercion.

Moreover, disqualification of Romney simply on the basis of his Mormon faith is a mark of a theocratic tendency which holds that only Christians are fit to rule. An apocryphal saying attributed to Martin Luther is his expression that he would “rather be ruled by a wise Turk than by a foolish Christian.” We’ll get to more of what Luther actually did say about Islam in a bit. But for the moment, let’s reflect on how this sentiment bears on the conversation.

The idea is essentially that the office of government can be rightly exercised by those who from the Christan perspective hold heretical theological views. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The state possesses its character as government independently of the Christian character of the persons who govern. There is government also among the heathen.”

Acknowledging this truth does not mean that it is of no consequence whether the politician is or is not a Christian. It may simply be of no political consequence. “Certainly the persons who exercise government ought also to accept belief in Jesus Christ, but the office of government remains independent of the religious decision,” says Bonhoeffer.

Back to Luther. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, October 9, 2006

A week ago, The CBS Evening News with newly installed host Katie Couric featured the father of one of the victims of the Columbine school shootings in their so-called ‘freeSpeech’ segment. In this ninety-second spot, Brian Rohrbough said,

This country is in a moral free-fall. For over two generations, the public school system has taught in a moral vacuum, expelling God from the school and from the government, replacing him with evolution, where the strong kill the weak, without moral consequences and life has no inherent value.

We teach there are no absolutes, no right or wrong. And I assure you the murder of innocent children is always wrong, including by abortion. Abortion has diminished the value of children.

Suicide has become an acceptable action and has further emboldened these criminals. And we are seeing an epidemic increase in murder-suicide attacks on our children.

As Gina Dalfonzo at The Point writes of the reaction to the segment, “CBS received bushels of mail from people who acted as if Rohrbough had gone on the air to advocate the drowning of kittens.” Dalfonzo links to a WaPo story that summarizes some of the complaints, including this gem, which referred to Rohrbough’s remarks as “the biggest load of hogwash I have ever witnessed. How could you use an unspeakable tragedy to give a rightwing flat earth nut job a podium?”

So much for the absolute moral authority conferred on the family members of the victims of tragedies. Terry Mattingly over at GetReligion notes, “Rohrbough’s views were strongly stated, but millions of Americans would affirm all, most or much of what he said.”

Count me among those in agreement. Moral education matters. Here’s what Herman Bavinck has to say about the importance of the dignity of the human person created in the image of God:

The acceptance or rejection of this point of departure is decisive for education and upbringing. Whoever maintains the divine origin, divine relationship and divine destination of man arrives naturally to another theory and practice of upbringing than he who rejects all that and knows only the dumb power of nature. If anyone says what he thinks of man’s origin and being, it is easily shown which pedagogy, at least in principle, must be his.

One specific way in which we can see which pedagogical principle is in play is by measuring a person’s view of the value of human beings relative to that of other creatures.

In this way, Bavinck writes that in light of the unique dignity of the human person,

there is no other conclusive reason thinkable why the killing of an animal is permitted and that of a man is unlawful, than that which lies in the background that man, separated essentially form the animal and related to God, is God’s offspring. He who, with the theory of evolution, obliterates the boundary between man and animal, making both the same kind, must also, as a matter of principle, think lightly concerning the killing of a man. Or, out of fear of this consequence, he must seek support with Buddhism, and respect as inviolate all life also in the animal, and as much as possible in the plant. It is noteworthy that both these trends find innumerable spokesmen in our day. On the one hand it is cynically taught by some that in our day men spend too much care upon the weak and ill, and ought rather to cooperate with the strong to improve our generation; while on the other hand, a sentimental sympathy is preached which has more pity for animals and plants than for man.

What better identifiers of the “moral vacuum” and godless secularism to which Rohrbough refers than these?

Just a brief note addition to Kevin’s post: the free article from May’s Touchstone magazine is Terence O. Moore’s feature, “Not Harvard Bound.”

A key quote:

The elite schools no longer command the reverence and deference of red-state America. The parents and students of “flyover country” are starting to put their money where their morals are or where they believe truth is.

There’s a discussion of Moore’s article at Touchstone‘s reader discussion site, Treaders.

HT: Mere Comments

Joe Knippenberg raises three issues with respect to my critique of the faith-based initiative (here and here). He writes first, “any activity that depends upon money is potentially corrupting, whether the source is governmental or private…. Why governmental money is different from private in this regard isn’t clear to me.”

I agree that the potential for corruption is present in both cases, but the immediate constituency differs from private to public funds. For the former, the donors are the immediate stake-holders and the charity is accountable to them. For the latter, politicians and bureaucrats are those who hold the charity immediately accountable.

Despite the best intentions of many people who work in government, special interests and ideologies can skew their proper stewardship of taxpayer money, and does not always represent the interests of the citizenry. Since taxpayer money is mediated through the government, there is another layer of institutionalization that serves to increase the distance and thus the accountability between the charity and the donor constituency.

This raises another important issue, which is that strictly speaking taxpayers shouldn’t be considered “donors” in the traditional sense at all. Paying taxes is enforced by the power of the state in a way that voluntary donation to private charities is not. One aspect of this is the distancing effect I just pointed out, but another effect is that the moral virtue of the act of giving is displaced by the coercive nature of the taxpayer/government relationship. Surely those who voluntarily give even more to charities than they are required by taxation are worthy of even greater praise because of this, but nevertheless the nature of the money flowing in to charities from these two sources is quite different. One is coerced the other is voluntary. (more…)