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Response to “Secular Theocracy”

David J. Theroux, of The Independent Institute asked me to read and offer comment on his essay, “Secular Theocracy, Part 1.” In it, he raises some excellent points from a historical perspective and based on thoughts by C. S. Lewis and William Cavanaugh, and I encourage you to read it. My thoughts here expand on those of Theroux’s.

Theroux begins by explaining how religion is being marginalized and expunged from every area of public discourse because it is accused of being factious and leads to violence. He writes, “A secularized public square policed by government is viewed as providing a neutral, rational, free, and safe domain that keeps the “irrational” forces of religion from creating conflict and darkness. And we are told that real progress requires expanding this domain by pushing religion ever backward into remote corners of society where it has little or no influence. In short, modern America has become a secular theocracy with a civic religion of national politics (nationalism) occupying the public realm in which government has replaced God.

This idea that secularism is ‘worldview neutral’ is so deeply ingrained into most secularists that they are fish that don’t know they are wet. In the very expressing of such a view, they promote secularism as being inherently better than any spiritually based worldview. In fact, they explicitly see themselves as more sophisticated, having matured past the need for such ‘primitive’ beliefs. Thus, they demonstrate the lack of neutrality, and are no better than the ‘narrow-minded exclusivism’ of theistic worldviews which they deride.

In addressing the secular theocracy, Theroux appeals to C. S. Lewis, though the ‘proof text’ Theroux selected from The Weight of Glory is, to me, weak. “For Lewis, Christianity provided the one true and coherent worldview that applied to all human aspirations and endeavors: ‘I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.’” Here, Lewis is merely defining his Christianity as a worldview—a filter for how he makes sense of the world. For the secularist, the exact same can be said for secularism, so I’m not sure how this shows secularism as fatally flawed, as Theroux suggests.

He continues more strongly, though. Staying with Lewis, he turns the corner towards addressing the historical rise of secularism. He begins in the Medieval period, describing how Christians did not have a sacred/secular divide in life, but everything flowed from the character of God and thus provided order for human freedom and development in all areas of life. Ultimately, this leads to the Renaissance, where the division first begins to appear.

While Lewis is essentially correct, he doesn’t go back far enough. In an earlier series of posts, entitled “What is Science?” I give a slightly expanded history:

For much of human history, folks made very impressive observations about natural phenomena that led to amazing projects like Stonehenge, the observatory at Chichen Itza, the Egyptian and Central American pyramids, gunpowder, ship building, navigation, etc. To these people, there was little division between the natural and the supernatural. Physical processes occurred due to the actions of the gods. To the extent that natural laws were separate, it was the gods that provided mechanisms for apparent violations of the laws. In spite of their amazing achievements, the natural world was still viewed as capricious and chaotic, and human understanding was recognized as being limited, thus elaborate rituals were performed to appease, placate, and/or supplicate the gods of nature.

Starting with the ancient Greeks, it began to be consciously realized that the universe was rational enough to be studied philosophically, and observations could be formally tested through experimentation. However, much of it was still up to the gods. A few hundred miles away, the Jews were developing a monotheistic culture based on an intelligent, personal and involved Creator. It can be argued that the expansion of Judeo-Christian theology in the context of Greek and Roman philosophy ultimately led to the Renaissance. The concepts of a rational universe, coupled with the creation of the universe by a single god who was loving and personal instead of capricious and random, ultimately, over the centuries, allowed Western philosophy to come to a point where the universe was viewed as completely rational and able to be studied in an organized way with mechanisms that occurred independently of specific action, although initiated by this god, leading to a cohesive framework of knowledge. Indeed, the early modern scientists such as Galileo and Newton expressly viewed their research as a way to better understand God. Their logic was that if this god was personal and real, then studying creation revealed aspects of personality and character, much the way studying paintings might reveal something about the painter.

Even the “Dark Ages” weren’t as ‘dark’ as we are lead to believe, as the monastic system preserved scholarship and learning during the waves of barbarian invasions. Some communities actually had surprisingly advanced understandings of natural processes. Early Christian fathers such as Augustine even indicated a belief in an old universe, and many understood the spherical nature of our planet. While the masses and even many royalty were so focused on surviving the next invasion that accurate natural understanding became fairly rare, it is a mistake to assume that no one was maintaining or even advancing what we would today call scientific understanding.

It was also during the time of the Renaissance that different aspects of reality began to be studied independently of each other, leading to the various branches of academic fields we have today. Initially, all were viewed as specialties in the art of philosophy. Scholars who were leaders in philosophy were titled ‘doctors of philosophy,’ hence, regardless of the academic field, the terminal (highest) degree is still called a Ph.D. Early fields were things like pure philosophy, natural philosophy, and the humanities.

Natural philosophy was the forerunner of modern science. It was concerned with the study of the natural world, and since mechanisms operated due to rules and laws rather than by divine intervention at every turn, a conscious separation between the natural and supernatural became formalized. In their worldview, God was still free to intervene, suspending or altering the natural mechanisms and consequences, but otherwise things ran according to the initial conditions and structure He set in motion.

Our understanding and knowledge of the natural universe expanded very quickly from this point, and hasn’t stopped accelerating. Parallel developments in philosophy, politics, and sociology also accelerated. As we understood nature better, we became more adept at manipulating it, leading to major technological advancements with increasing frequency. Our academic fields became further defined along discipline specialties.

With all of these things happening, people increasingly began to see the universe as purely mechanistic and separate from any theological foundations, and indeed there was an increasing belief that religion was necessary for imposing moral order upon society but was no longer needed for imposing physical order on the world. This viewpoint served as a foundation of the Enlightenment, which developed philosophy to the point where it is now in some circles viewed as being self-sufficient for creating moral order. {Emphases added.} These worldviews still coexist and intense debate between them has resulted in bitter disputes and even wars. Today there are basically four camps: (1) those that maintain that God is needed both for moral order and physical order, as explicitly revealed in some holy text, (2) those that maintain that God is needed for moral order and creation, but the relationship between God and mechanism is more complex, (3) those that maintain that some sort of supernatural force is out there, but what role He/She/It has/had with things isn’t clear and may not be all that important, and (4) those that maintain that both moral and physical order are fully explainable without God, therefore, He/She/It must not exist as deities were invented by early humanity to explain what wasn’t understood.

Group 4 are the secularists. While I focus above on scientific development and how it leads to the philosophical/political revolution of secularism, Theroux does a very nice job of expanding/explaining the philosophical/economic/political effects of Christianity, resulting in the Renaissance and the Western “democracies” and the evolution of the secular/sacred divide through the Enlightenment through references and quotes from Rodney Stark, Alexis de Tocqueville, and William Cavanaugh. Theroux traces key details while I painted {deliberately} with a very broad brush. For his purposes, the specificity and references are important and he communicates a lot of critical information succinctly.

The argument can be expanded somewhat (philosophically & graphically) as follows:
Note that I am not blaming the doctrine of the priesthood of believers for secularism. I think one thing has led to the next, yet the dissolution of the rigid hierarchy of Western culture does provide some expanded opportunity for the Gospel as people have the freedom to explore and find faith on their own rather than merely following a state sponsored/dictated faith. With increased freedom comes increased deviations from “ideal behaviour” yet it allows us to assume the mantle of individual responsibility more fully, which empowers the conviction of the Holy Spirit of our individual need for the Saviour. Please refer to the post, “The Race to Maturity” for a philosophical exploration of the moral/spiritual maturation of the human species.

Theroux concludes this first part of the topic with quotes from various Enlightenment philosophers showing their disdain of religion and condemnation of it as the source of all societal ills that the secular State has the wisdom and power to resolve. It is helpful to note that the ‘great’ thinkers of other ages had the same human tendency we all do today to be products of their times and to see things myopically in terms of current events of their age, so we have to take their assertions with a grain of salt. We call them ‘great’ because they seem to do it less and take a longer view than most of us, but they are not immune.

While the Enlightenment thinkers and other secularists seem to throw the baby out with the bath water in blaming religion for all ills and attributing none to the State, it must be clearly acknowledged that the Church bore some culpability for their disdain. They have rightly criticized the Church for a number of things, yet use them as excuses to satisfy their own desire to reject the Message because of the real faults of the messenger. Theroux brings us to this point, but stops prior to suggesting a course of action to remedy the situation. I suspect that will be the subject of part 2. In the meantime, I’d like to explore briefly the Church’s contributory role, and a possible correction.

Note that in this context, by “the Church” I mean primarily the human institutionalization of Christianity, as opposed to the Body of Christ spiritual Church universal, regardless of sect. (It needs to be noted also here that I am not opposed to “organized religion” per se, but the human-based abuses that have led to peoples’ rejection of it. To say one hates the Church but loves Jesus is to say “Hey, man, I like you, but I hate your wife.” Given that all believers are part of the Church universal, this akin to a form of autoimmune disease.)

The post-Constantine Church fell in love with and became accustomed to earthly power rather than the power of the Gospel, so its administration was shown to be little better than that of other earthly authorities, such as the monarchies, and it lost credibility with the growing educated class as it tried to hold onto the trappings of absolute authority (just as the monarchies) rather than helping to teach wisdom. Thus, it became an adversary to education, even as it promoted it.

The Church held to traditional dogma and insisted upon uncritical obedience rather than engaging and exploring where its ideology was out of balance. So, if it was wrong on the shape of the earth, in what other areas did it err? It became increasingly defensive, further promoting blind faith (especially in taught interpretations of Scripture) over applying Scriptural principles to new situations. Even as the Gospel promoted human growth and freedom, the Church tried to restrain it rather than shape it. It tried to be an exoskeleton rather than an endoskeleton, and only reluctantly molted, sometimes explosively.

In many ways, the modern Church has failed to learn these lessons from history. Its defensiveness remains in many corners. A number of churches and individual Christians are so threatened by secularism in various societal institutions that they reject the entire institution uncritically, whether it is education or science or other areas. They seem to collapse into holy huddles and lob hand grenades of their interpretations of Scripture at the world, and reject even discussing other interpretations with other Christians. This does not serve to combat secularism, but reinforces secularists’ stereotypes of religion and its followers.

Another of the continued failings of the Church even today, especially in evangelical political activity is to focus on overpowering the secularists with policy and law rather than the light of the true Gospel…and I say this as a politically active evangelical. There is a role for political activity, and to fill that role requires great wisdom. Secularists recognize neither spiritual truth nor authority, so appeals to Biblical principles not only has no effect, it has a negative one.

God put certain principles and precepts into Scripture because they contribute to the better functioning of society, not to be an arbitrary killjoy. Therefore, we need to understand the why’s behind them in naturalistic terms and be able to articulate them. For the believer, saying “God said so,” may be sufficient, but He said so for a reason. If the secularists see the validity of the reason, then they are more likely to go along with it. Dialogue can open, and the Bible can then be viewed as relevant wisdom rather than an archaic arbitrary bit of moralism sprinkled through weird/boring stories. The Bible has lost its authority in the mind of the secularist and needs to be reintroduced as such with supporting material.

Some would at this point cite I Corinthians 1 to rebuff the above argument, saying that the wisdom of God and the wisdom of the world are incompatible, and trying to bring God’s truth down to mere pragmatism cheapens it or destroys its power. They may cite the passage where Paul declares that spiritual things must be declared spiritually. There are a number of passages that relate to this general idea. To an extent, I agree in principle. There are things that are only spiritually discerned and are complete foolishness to the secularist. Two biggies are God’s existence and the authority and truth of Scripture.

However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t pragmatic things in Scripture, and we are foolish to ignore and fail to appropriate them. It is part of being salt and light to translate God’s Word to the natural world where it is appropriate and effective. Christ made a point of meeting regular people where they were, speaking their language, and leading them to truth. He didn’t hit them over the head with Scripture. He reserved that latter pleasure for those that knew Scripture and should have known better what it meant, yet twisted it to their own ends. In contrast, we often bash non-Christians with Scripture and fail to teach it to our own and hold them accountable for what they know. This is completely contradictory to Scripture, and it dulls our effectiveness, abdicating our authority, and the State rises to fill the vacuum.

The American church is now at a point where our faith in the State and faith in Scripture is grossly tangled. We want freedom from the oppression of big government on the one hand, and yet refuse to step up and make it unnecessary through self control and personal charity. Two of the issues repeatedly and strongly addressed in the New Testament (in particular) are conflict resolution and social justice. We have done such a good job of institutionalizing these things in the hands of the State that we have largely abandoned our responsibility for them to it. The State then becomes more powerful, and like any natural organism, becomes addicted to that power and seeks more. If God is the source of all true power, and the State wants more power, eventually, it will seek to take it from God.

We saw this in the Garden where Adam surrendered his God-given authority in his attempt to grab more due to the lies of the serpent. We saw it in the fall of Satan where he sought to surpass God. We saw it in Israel as they traded God’s rule for those of kings because of the abuses of the judges. We saw it in Israel’s kings as they sought power over the people and their own desires rather than serving God and the people, then lost it to invaders. We have seen it in the history of the Church, where it traded spiritual power for earthly. We are seeing it now in the State as the Church has misused its earthly power and people turned it over the State. When the State reaches the next stage of the cycle, anarchy is waiting in the wings. Restart the cycle for the next iteration.

If we do not get a handle on things, the Church will be forced again underground where it will again thrive until it regains political legitimacy in whatever world system is prevalent at the time.

Thus, it is evident that we as Christians must consciously realize that our faith and our politics are not identical. They are both important and overlap, and may even be concentric, but they are not the same. Our faith should inform our politics and behaviour (and done so with great wisdom and discernment), but the reverse flow must be severely constricted and monitored.

The “secular theocracy” is based on a competing worldview and it is seeking to conquer the Christian (and other religious) worldview(s). A successful pluralistic society therefore is a great challenge and may be an unattainable ideal. In the meantime, we need to see how best, as far as we are able, to live at peace with all, neither being obnoxious nor rolling over in further abdication.


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