The End of Secularism

Secularism Exposed
A Review of The End of Secularism, by Hunter Baker

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.

Mythbusting

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.

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7 Comments on “The End of Secularism

  1. I am in total agreement with this part: 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.

    I would add, however, that the state (or representatives of the state — e.g., public school officials or student forums) should not be involved in any way in any religious or anti-religious activity, especially sectarian activity. I keep coming back to the example that I experienced as a child when a religious organization was allowed to pass Christian Bibles to all the students at my elementary school. They should not have been allowed to come onto public school property.

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  2. “With religious pluralism church and state coexist in healthy tension and civility.” How are you defining “religious pluralism”? If you are speaking of it in its most simple sense, “the presence of varying forms of fatih,” then your point is well taken. But in its more thorough sense, pluralism is an insidious, compromising, milquetoast set of beliefs that dilute sound doctrine on the altar of a new ecumenicism. In the face of historic and orthodox Christian doctrine I am not free to embrace pluralism at any level that would invite compromise of Biblical truths that this nation has embraced since its origin. We are as President Lincoln declared us to be, “One nation under God,” that is one nation under one God (and we all know who that God is historically speaking). Yes, there is room in America for all kinds of people from all kinds of traditions; and all are welcome to practice their faiths freely until they either attempt to supplant our rich Christian tradition or treat it with a callous irreverance (secularism). At which point, citizen or not, they need to get the hell out of America.

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    • Good question. Hunter used the term, and I just repeated it, but as best I remember (it was months ago when I wrote this) the idea is more along the lines of “the presence of varying forms of faith.” I’m not a pluralist, and I don’t believe Hunter is either. I believe in the objective truth of God’s existence, Jesus’s resurrection, and an impending judgment. These are facts to be reckoned with, not an expression of my private preferences.

      Pluralism withing the professing church is insidious, I agree. Pluralism in America’s public square is different though. I see it as simply an expression of liberty and respect. Atheists and secularists are citizens too, enjoying equal freedoms. What they may not do, or at least we should not allow them to do, is claim atheism or secularism as the reigning paradigm of the public square.

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  3. What Hunter did very well was expose Secularism for the partisan, particular view it is, while it poses as a neutral referee. He made his case very well. It’s a worthwhile read.

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  4. You are free to NOT be a pluralist, but America is pluralistic country. I disagree totally with the comment concerning “Biblical truths that this nation has embraced since its origin. We are as President Lincoln declared us to be, “One nation under God,” that is one nation under one God (and we all know who that God is historically speaking).

    It is un-American, I believe, to imply that we are one nation under a Christian God (or a Jewish God or an Islamic God or Buddist God, etc).

    I agree with Terrell that “Atheists and secularists are citizens too, enjoying equal freedoms. What they may not do, or at least we should not allow them to do, is claim atheism or secularism as the reigning paradigm of the public square.”

    I have always viewed the definition of “secular” and “non-sectarian”, but I understand Terrell’s claim that some secularists wish to exclude an religious expression from the public square.

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  5. We absolutely are one nation under a Judeo-Christian God, Les, regardless of how some Americans believe or act. Read the founding fathers, Read “Mayflower”, Read “1776”, “John Adams”. It is preposterous to either neglect or reject the historic truth of our nation’s clear and irreplaceable Christian heritage.

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  6. I suggest you read the Constitution of the United States – the document that is the final word on the religion of the nation. Yes, a majority of Americans are Christians, but we are not a Christian nation. We do not have a national religion and non-Christians are as American as Christians.

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