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.
I’ve been reading America’s Secular Challenge by NYU professor and president of the Hudson Institute Herb London. The book is essentially an extended essay about how elite, left-wing secularism undercuts America’s traditional strengths of patriotism and religious faith during a time when the nation can ill afford it. The assault on public religion and love of country comes in a period when America faces enemies who have no such crisis of identity and lack the degree of doubt that leaves us in semi-paralysis.
The best compliment I can pay the book (by a Jewish social critic) is that it reminds me of the outstanding work of John Courtenay Murray (the great Catholic church and state scholar) who wrote:
And if this country is to be overthrown from within or without, I would suggest that it will not be overthrown by Communism. It will be overthrown because it will have made an impossible experiment. It will have undertaken to establish a technological order of most marvelous intricacy, which will have been constructed and will operate without relations to true political ends: and this technological order will hang, as it were, suspended over a moral confusion; and this moral confusion will itself be suspended over a spiritual vacuum.
John Milton (1608-1674): “None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license.”
Instead of secularizing a figure that has been deemed important in the history of political philosophy by some sort of post-Enlightenment textual deconstruction, Hobson attempts to show how Milton’s Christian convictions positively informed his perspective on the responsibilities of both state and church. For Milton faith was no vestigial appendage that contemporary observers might feel at liberty to amputate with warranted zeal.
At the same time, notes Hobson, Milton “started working out a coherent account of England’s religious situation. It wasn’t enough to insist that the church should be more ‘Protestant’, for that term was vague. He realised that the Reformation had evaded the whole issue of church-state relations; it allowed for an authoritarian state church. Real religious reform entailed going right back to the time of Constantine, and questioning the idea of a politically empowered church.” Hobson works out this thesis regarding Milton’s contribution to judge that Milton’s influence has been much more positively felt on the American side of the Atlantic rather than in his native land.
To say that the Reformers “evaded” the issue of church and state is perhaps misrepresenting Milton’s criticism a bit (or if it isn’t then Milton’s criticism ill-stated). It’s one thing to say that the Reformers didn’t address the question in the right way, or came up with the right solution, or didn’t go quite far enough in “reforming” the relationship between church and state. But it’s quite another thing (and a patently false one at that) to say that they didn’t directly and rather thoroughly discuss the issue.
What Milton was really concerned to fight, which Hobson accurately articulates, was the influence of a sort of Constantinian Protestantism, communicated to Britain via figures like Martin Bucer (whose De Regno Christi appeared in 1550) and Wolfgang Musculus (whose Common places were published in translation in 1563 and 1578 in Britain). And while there were important varieties of this Constantinian or magisterial Protestantism in the sixteenth century, there was near unanimity among the major first and second generation Reformers on the question of civil enforcement of both tables of the Law.
Both Bucer and Calvin preferred the hypocrite, who only endangered his own salvation, to the open apostate, who could lead many astray.
The distinction between “religious” obligations in the first table and “civil” obligations in the second table is not identical to a distinction between internal motives and external works. The conflation of these two distinctions is what paves the way for a corrosive kind of secularism, the kind that privatizes or internalizes religion and faith. And as Milton clearly saw, the institutional separation between state and church in no way entails the withdrawal of faith from public life. Indeed, since his own religious convictions so profoundly influenced his political views, to say otherwise would have been to render Milton’s own position untenable.
Kathleen Parker has a major case of secular reason sickness and it needs to be cured. I’ll keep this short and simple. Here is an offensive line from one of Kat’s latest columns:
How about social conservatives make their arguments without bringing God into it? By all means, let faith inform one’s values, but let reason inform one’s public arguments.
Problem #1: Social conservatives very rarely argue for their public policy positions on the basis of straight-up revelation. It is much more common to hear them talk about scientific evidence that life begins from conception (which could be found in an embryology textbook, for example) than to hear a scriptural exegesis of, say, Jeremiah 1. If anything, American social conservatives have worked quite assiduously to persuade their fellow citizens without direct appeal to revelation.
I think the Yale Law professor Stephen Carter was more correct several years ago when he complained conservative Christians relied on a platform that lacked spiritual distinctives and simply mimicked Republican positions. Mr. Carter is a scholar in the area of law and religion. His observation is well-informed by a review of recent history and current events.
Let us not forget that when some Christian leaders hid behind the separation of church and state to avoid addressing topics like Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and nuclear proliferation, their liberal colleagues were applauded for highly public spiritual approaches to those controversies. When liberals do it, we call it “speaking truth to power” or “speaking prophetically.” When conservative religionists enter the political process, everyone suddenly frets about impending theocracy.
Problem #2: Ms. Parker acts as though everything we discuss in politics can be parsed scientifically. This is the same sort of casual toss-off we get when some self-satisfied personage says, “You can’t legislate morality.” Really? Hate crimes? The illegality of segregation? A welfare state? Human rights?
The simple fact is that politics concerns itself with the realm of value as well as the realm of fact. There are both religious and philosophical approaches to questions of value. Is there any compelling reason to commit epistemological segregation, Ms. Parker? Must the religious contestants sit at the back of the bus to satisfy you?
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.