The End of Secularism
Secularism in America is a poser and a squatter. So says Hunter Baker in The End of Secularism, his “bill of particulars” against secularism.
An academic specializing in law, religion, history, and culture, and an admitted former secularist, Dr. Baker opens the discussion by tracing church-state interactions throughout Western history. At the risk of oversimplification, from the first century until about AD 300, the church was unrecognized. From that point until the Reformation (1517), church and state were wedded, at which point the Reformation gave way to religious wars in Europe and religious plurality in America. This is where and when secularism, the idea that religion should be a purely private matter, was born.
In response to the European wars, an array of theories concerning church-state interactions were proposed, and secularization theory, which emerged through the skeptical thread of the Enlightenment, was one of them. Secularization theory posited that as humankind advanced, ignorance (read: religion) would give way to pure reason, and societies, no longer corrupted by ignorance and superstition, would break out of their intellectual adolescence to arrive at a harmonious, more excellent consonance.
Shifting the focus to America, the first nation ever to be born with a foundational principle of church-state independence, Baker analyzes the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and concludes that the Constitution did not choose a particular structure for church-state relations, but left the matter for individual states to define. One popular approach, reflected in founding documents, was deism, a sort of rational religion which overlooks doctrinal particularities but broadly agrees on the existence of God and adheres to a Judeo-Christian ethic. Deism generally prevailed in America until the mid-1800s, when it began giving way to secularism, which shunned recognition of God altogether.
Baker deftly dismantles two misconstructions about secularism. The first is the premise inherent to secularization theory which says that secularism is the natural progression of society. This, he says, is patently false and unsupported by historical evidence. On the contrary, the secularization of America was the intentional agenda of secularizing activists laboring to arrange the public order – academia, media, and government – according to their preferences. The result of their campaign, achieved as thoroughly as if it had been a carefully plotted hostile takeover, is a national disposition in which “separation of church and state” has become “imposed secularism.”
The second is the pretense that secularism provides an open, neutral ground where competing claims can be freely deliberated. It provides no such thing, and Baker nails secularism for the partisan, particular view it is concerning how religion and politics should relate. Instead of freeing up public space for common access by all, it “emerges as a power player that arrogates to itself the right to define the role of religion in politics,” having “no more claim to neutrality than a starting pitcher of a baseball team who anoints himself umpire in the middle of the game and begins calling balls and strikes.”
Baker presents a compelling case for the end of enforced secularism and recommends a shift to a more favorable and truly liberal ethos, religious pluralism. With religious pluralism, church and state coexist in healthy tension and civility. All views are permissible for deliberation, religious and non. “We simply enter the public square and say who we are and what we believe,” always seeking to persuade rather than to coerce.
Now that would be open, neutral ground. It also sounds like a long-overdue breath of fresh air.
This article first appeared in Salvo 13, Summer 2010.