You often hear that Europe is much more secular than America. Just take a look at the Netherlands, for instance. How much more secular can you get?
But one place in which this stereotype rings false is in terms of academic institutions. You can pursue (as I currently am) a degree in theology at a European public university. Can you imagine that in the United States?
No, here we have departments of “religious studies” in public colleges and universities (if we cover religion there at all, and to be sure, “theology” and “religion” aren’t identical). My friend Hunter Baker might point to this difference not as secularism in a strict sense, but rather an institutional separation between state and church (for more on his definition of secularism, check out his book, The End of Secularism).
And thus from accounts of the institutional differences between the academic study of religion and theological study in America, you might easily get the impression of a kind of intellectual or academic secularism. After all, to study theology in America, you have to go to a private college or seminary (as I also am currently doing). This perspective from the Chronicle of Higher Education is representative, “The Ethics of Being a Theologian,” in which K.L. Noll writes, in part,
I do not presume to tell theologians how to be theologians, and I will not attempt to define the value of theology. I simply request that theologians fulfill basic ethical obligations, such as the affirmation that theology is not knowledge and must position itself apart from those academic disciplines that try to advance knowledge, such as history, anthropology, religious study, and (perhaps especially) the natural sciences.
I did an interview with the Harvard Political Review several weeks ago. The story is largely a paean to secularism. Steven Pinker even takes credit for democracy as an achievement of secularists. I know. That’s the history you get from an evolutionary psychologist.
To the author’s credit, I was certainly treated fairly. I only wish she’d offered more of our interview to her readers. For those who would like to read it, I have posted it in full over at First Thoughts.
The Big Hollywood blogger and actor Adam Baldwin, recently of the television series Chuck and Firefly, has taken up his virtual pen to defend Brit Hume from those who have criticized him for suggesting that Tiger Woods should consider Christianity in his time of crisis. Hume made the statement on Fox News Sunday, thus prompting outrage from secularists who find such an offering offensive and irrelevant.
Baldwin scores several times in his blog piece. Here is the foundation:
As an avid golfer, Christian man, and therefore a witness to the historic fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Mr. Hume clearly offered his message in good faith with honest concern for both Tiger’s future and for that of his family, friends, fans and business associates.
Look carefully at what Baldwin has written. Brit Hume believes Christianity is true and is based on an actual historical event. He is not adverting to some mystery religion (reach for the seventh level, Tiger), but is instead giving advice every bit as practical, or perhaps more so, than urging Mr. Woods to seek marital counseling or to find a good attorney.
This is what secularists simply do not understand. They think Christianity is “inaccessible” to others. It is not. You can accept it or reject it, but there is no reason for confusion. The basis of the faith is quite clear. Either you accept the evidence that the resurrection of Christ actually occurred in time and space or you do not. In no case should you accuse the Christian of hitting you with a bunch of magical mysteriousness that you cannot possibly understand.
You should really consider reading the entire post. Baldwin completely exposes the inappropriateness and unfairness of the comparisons of sincere Christianity to Jihad and deftly analyzes the pretensions of secularism. I could try to summarize, but would just end up reproducing his essay.
The New York Times is not known to be the most reliable or informed commentator on matters religious, but a recent Times article (marred, unfortunately, by a couple of inaccuracies) highlighted that France’s claim to have separated religion from the state is only true in parts. French cities and the countryside are dotted with beautiful churches, but few realize that the state is responsible for the physical upkeep of many of them. This is a legacy of the famous (or, infamous, depending on your perspective) 1905 law – Loi du 9 décembre 1905 concernant la séparation des Églises et de l’État – in which a militantly anti-Catholic French government unilaterally abrogated the Concordat of 1801 and ended state-funding of religious groups (which meant, in overwhelmingly Catholic France, the Catholic Church).
But it didn’t quite cut all the ties. As part of the 1905 law, the French government declared that all then-existing religious buildings were the property of the state (specifically, local government), thereby legalizing the greatest theft of private property owned by a religious organization since Henry VIII’s dissolution (or, more accurately, government-sanctioned sacking, pillaging, and destruction) of the monasteries. Unlike King Henry, however, the French state allowed Catholics to keep using these places of worship and even today maintains their upkeep – something that lends itself to all sorts of mischief-making on the part of politicians.
A good example of this was highlighted in the Times article which reports that a beautiful 19th century church in the town of Gesté in the province of Anjou is scheduled for demolition because the local council has decided that it is too costly to maintain and cheaper to build a new one. But many opposing the council’s decision say that it has nothing to do with government budgets and everything to do with trying to reduce local unemployment.
Given the state of much post-1960s church architecture, it’s likely that the new church will be just as hideously ugly as most other churches (of any confession) built since 1960. The wider point, however, is that it should surely be up to the local bishop and the parish itself as to whether to renovate the church or build a new one. Instead, the choice has been made by Gesté’s local council, of whom one can safely presume a good number (even in the still very Catholic province of Anjou) are not believers or haven’t darkened a church door in several decades. Christians presumably would not expect to have a say in the building or demolition of the local Communist party headquarters, feminist collective, or Masonic temple. Yet in France if the local village atheist gets elected to the local council, he is henceforth in a position to make decisions about the fate of many houses of worship.
Such are the perils of government funding for churches – or mosques or synagogues for that matter. Inevitably, one’s independence is unjustly circumscribed.
In his essay, “Intellectuals and Socialism,” Friedrich Hayek asked how it was possible for a small group of people to have such influence on the ideas and politics that affected millions. He argued that it was because the socialists influenced the “influencers”–those “secondhand dealers in ideas” like the press, educators, and editors, who spread socialist thought into the mainstream.
A parallel can be seen in the cultural battles over religious symbols during the Christmas … I mean, the holiday season. One would think from media coverage that there exists an overwhelming consensus that religious symbols have no place on public property. But the reality is quite different. There may be a clear consensus among the secular intelligentsia, but it doesn’t hold for most Americans.
A recent poll showed that a majority of Americans are perfectly happy with displays of religious symbols and believe it is fine for schools to celebrate religious holidays.
A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 76% of adults believe religious symbols like Christmas Nativity scenes, Hanukkah menorahs and Muslim crescents should be allowed on public land. Just 13% disagree, and another 10% are undecided.
Eighty-three percent (83%) believe public schools should celebrate religious holidays. This figure includes 47% who think the schools should celebrate all religious holidays and another 36% who believe they should only celebrate some. The question did not single out which holidays should be celebrated and which should be excluded.
Only 14% think the public schools should not celebrate any religious holidays.
Additionally–news for retailers: “Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 72% of adults prefer “Merry Christmas,” while 22% like “Happy Holidays” instead.”
So why the widespread sense that Christmas is the holiday that must not be named? It’s another example of a small minority of Scrooge-like secularists spreading their gloom to the rest of us in the guise of enlightened tolerance, a secular Uniculturalism that strips America of our traditions and vitiates the human experience.
A few weeks ago Hunter Baker posted some thoughts on secularism and poverty, in which he wrote of the common notion that since private charity, particularly church-based care, had failed to end poverty, it seems only prudent to let the government have its chance.
Hunter points out some of the critically important elements in creating a culture of prosperity and abundance, what Micah Watson calls “cultural capital.”
But it’s worth examining in more detail the point of departure, that is, considering the relationship between the church’s approach to charity and the creation of the welfare state. Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef write of this in a brief essay contained in their book, The Deacons Handbook: A Manual of Stewardship, first published in 1980.
DeKoster and Berghoef argue in “The Church and the Welfare State” that “The Church is largely responsible for the coming of the modern welfare community.” But they also contend that the diaconal office is the key to answering the challenge posed by the welfare state: “The Church could be largely responsible for purging welfare of its faults and problems. IF enough deacons caught the vision!”
The church helped to bring about the welfare state in two ways. First, the Church embodied the idea of loving self-sacrifice in service of others. “The Word which the Church proclaims demands charity and justice for the poor. As this Word has permeated at least the Western world, an alerted public conscience has demanded public welfare,” write DeKoster and Berghoef. “The Church is the parent of the welfare community.”
But this “welfare community” became secularized when the Church “did not, and perhaps in some respects could not, measure up to her own ideals. Not all the starving were fed, not all of the homeless given shelter, not all of the oppressed and exploited relieved. The cries of the needy ascended to heaven. The Lord answered with the welfare state. The government undertakes to do what the Church demands and then fails to achieve by herself.”
In this sense, the welfare state is understood to be God’s preservational (thus imperfect) answer to the failed duty of the Church:
Thus the Church is, both by commission and by omission, author of the welfare state. Deacons start from here. Government has undertaken to do what conscience, tutored out of the Scriptures, demands but fails, through the Church, entirely to achieve.
In the brief essay Berghoef and DeKoster go on to outline some practical steps that can be taken to address this failing and rein in the scope of governmental responsibility. Some of these specifics need updating given what has happened in the United States over the last thirty years. But the vision of The Deacons Handbook, that the core of the answer lies in the diaconate, is a worthy and compelling insight.
Hunter will be pleased to note that among the practical advice given by Berghoef and DeKoster is that the meaning of the First Amendment needs to be reconsidered. Their advice for the deacon? “Do a study of what is so readily called ‘the separation of Church and state’.” This aligns with the argument Hunter makes in his new book, The End of Secularism.
This much remains true:
What is important, with an eye on tomorrow, is to discern what constructive relations may be developed between alert diaconates and public welfare. And it is immediately obvious that diaconates are uniquely qualified to amend what are commonly perceived as defects in the welfare system.
A colleague recently mentioned that a wag had observed the church had failed to solve poverty, so why not let the federal government have a try?
I think it is interesting that anyone, such as the wag in question, could think that the federal government can effectively solve the problem of poverty. I don’t think it can because it resolutely refuses to confront the sources.
Really, truly, don’t we know the cause of a great deal of the poverty in our midst? Here’s a hint: Adam Smith thought the poor who gravitated to the fiery preachers were wise. Why? Because the hell and brimstoners alone preached the doctrines that might prevent the poor from the catastrophic consequences of things like losing their jobs and money on liquor and gambling.
I can recall having lunch with Micah Watson, a colleague who teaches at Union, and he was talking about the trouble Jackson, TN has with some of its public schools. He said something that stuck. He said, “Many families in our school district lack the cultural capital to succeed.”
And he is right. Anyone who looks at the research in a dispassionate way will discover that people who do just a few things will almost never live in poverty. Those few things are that they will graduate from high school, get married, and delay childbearing until after marriage. If you do that, you will probably not spend your life below the poverty line.
Going a little further you will also find that children who come from intact, two parent families are significantly more likely to do better in school, to have fewer behavioral problems, to commit fewer crimes, to stay out of jail, to avoid sexual and physical abuse, and to stay off of public assistance than are their peers from broken homes or from single parent homes. These things are true even if you control for race.
For some reason, and I would argue that it is partially because of our silly secular mindset that favors avoiding moralism, we are unwilling to embody some of this knowledge in our public policy. When President Bush suggested that maybe we just might consider trying to encourage marriage among the poor, protest erupted. It was the same old thing, theocracy, blah, blah, blah . . . For some reason the morality that extends welfare to poor people is perfectly fine while the morality that would gently urge them toward the things that help human beings flourish is threatening and terrible and ultra-religious.
Does the church do enough? It does not, but I would argue that in part we fail to combat the problem of poverty adequately in the church because we think the duty has been subcontracted out to the state. The larger the state becomes, the less air is left in the community space for everyone else, especially the church because we buy into the idea of a secular state. (This is a point I talk about, by the way, in The End of Secularism.) The state eats up both resources and social influence. The system does not realize it has a soul, or if it does it is busy trying to kill it.
My article from this week’s Acton News & Commentary:
Soviet communism adopted Karl Marx’s teaching that religion was the “opiate of the masses” and launched a campaign of bloody religious persecution. Marx was misguided about the role of religion but years later many communists became aware that turning people away from religious life increases dependence on government to address life’s problems. The history of government coercion that comes from turning from religion to government makes a new study suggesting a national decline in religious life particularly alarming to those concerned about individual freedom.
The American Religious Identification Survey, published by Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., reports that we should expect one in five Americans to identify themselves as having no religious commitments by 2030. The study, titled “American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population,” reports that Americans professing no religion, or Nones, have become more mainstream and similar to the general public in marital status, education, racial and ethnic makeup and income. The Nones have increased from 8.1 percent of the U.S. adult population in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008.
According to the study, 22 percent of American 18 to 29-year-olds now self-identify as Nones. For those promoting dependency on government to handle the challenges of everyday life, as well as those who wish to take advantage of a growing market for morally bankrupt products and services, the news of declining religious life is welcome. (more…)
The point has been made by outstanding thinkers like Stephen Carter and Richard John Neuhaus that the New York-Washington, D.C. establishment eats up left wing religion and declares it delicious. Give a radical a cross and we have activists bravely “speaking truth to power” and “speaking prophetically.” Put the cross in the hands of a conservative and suddenly secularism is the better course and church and state must be rigorously separated lest theocracy loom every closer.
I tried to draw attention to this double standard in my new book The End of Secularism by talking about both history and current events which prove the point. Mollie Ziegler Hemingway provided an excellent example in her Houses of Worship column for the Wall Street Journal last Friday as she reminded readers about the way faith-based initiatives have been viewed in this administration and its predecessor.
Bush filled the faith-based initiatives office with a prominent Ivy League sociologist and then with a former lawyer for Mother Theresa. Obama has chosen a Pentecostal preacher in his twenties to head up the office. Barry Lynn of the Americans for the Separation of Church and State was an avid critic of the Bush office. His position today? He serves on the advisory council’s task force for the office. Strangely, his concerns about the interaction of religion and politics seem to have dissolved now that the presidency has changed hands.
As I read Ms. Hemingway’s cutting piece, I couldn’t help but think about the Swedish socialists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who were determined to destroy the tie between the nation’s church and state. Once they gained power, however, they had a change of heart. The church could prove useful under their enlightened leadership. I wonder if Barry Lynn feels the same way.
… the president’s audacious plans for the expansion of the government — from the stimulus to health-care reform to a larger role in education — are likely to spell trouble for the vitality of American religion. His $3.6 trillion budget for fiscal 2010 would bring federal, state and local spending to about 40% of the gross domestic product — within hailing distance of Europe, where state spending runs about 46% of GDP. The European experience suggests that the growth of the welfare state goes hand in hand with declines in personal religiosity.
A recent study of 33 countries by Anthony Gill and Erik Lundsgaarde found an inverse relationship between religious observance and welfare spending. Countries with larger welfare states, such as Sweden, Norway and Denmark, had markedly lower levels of religious attendance, affiliation and trust in God than countries with a history of limited government, such as the U.S., the Philippines and Brazil. Public spending amounts to more than one half of the GDP in Sweden, where only 4% of the population regularly attends church. By contrast, public spending amounts to 18% of the Philippines’ GDP, and 68% of Filipinos regularly attend church.