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Response to Secular Theocracy, Pt 2

{Format update: My apologies for disappearing for the weekend. More than usual is going on for semester prep this term. Also, I will be moving to a weekday publishing schedule from seven days a week.}

Back in December, David J. Theroux, of The Independent Institute asked me to read and offer comment on his essay, “Secular Theocracy, Part 1.” To summarize, Theroux made the argument with supporting extended quotes from C. S. Lewis, Rodney Stark, Alexis de Tocqueville and William Cavanuagh that the rise of secularism in the West has reached a point that service and loyalty to the secular nation-state has reached the point of religious devotion, and even is demanded as a form of coerced worship, effectively creating what he calls a “secular theocracy.”

Last week, Theroux published the second half of this essay, and again at his invitation, I offer my thoughts. (Both parts of his essay, with footnotes, can be found as a single webpage.)

One of the primary characteristics of the civic religion, according to Theroux, is the replacing of ‘religious violence’ with ‘secular violence’, which the State views as necessary to counteract and put down the religious violence. After that ‘corrupting influence’ is put down, the secularist argues, there should be no need for any violence, as humanity will thrive in the utopia of common devotion to the state. Reading quotes from several secularists and an analysis by Cavanuagh, it brings to eerie recall books assigned in high school English classes, “1984” and “Brave New World.”

What I find interesting in this resurgence of a secular utopianism is in trying to understand why it is resurging.

One hundred years ago in the heady days of the height of the Industrial Revolution, people were exceedingly optimistic about the power of science and technology to solve all of humanity’s problems. This optimism was dashed (many thought irrevocably) by the horrors of World War I. The use of this wondrous new technology to perpetuate so much slaughter brought crashing home the dark side of our advances.

From those ashes, socialism and communism began to ascend in parts of the world, primarily the Soviet bloc, initially. For seventy years, give or take, the statist views competed directly with the republican democracies of the West, until they largely fell 20 years ago. I think many of us in the West breathed a collective sigh of relief, and felt some justification over the success of our political-economic system over the other.

But we missed something important. Two things, actually.

Throughout the Cold War, we were constantly fighting attempts by statists to influence our society. Bit by bit, they were successful, in the name of helping the less fortunate, in changing the historical attitude of ‘rugged individualism’ to a more seductive, ‘easier’ route of delegating social justice to the province of government, so that through our taxes and government programs, the poor and other societal issues would be taken care of, so we could focus on enjoying our wealth and freedom. As both government and the citizenry got used to the idea, both groups have become more and more suspicious of those who want to take civic responsibility for themselves and not delegate it.

This delegation of civic responsibility to the government freed us to pursue our individual and corporate dreams, which led many to an increased self absorption and pursuit of wealth without regard for deleterious effects on others, because taking care of those issues was now government’s job. As greed increased, so did the government’s attempts to rein it in through legislation (in its new role as keeper of civic morality). Business sought to get around the regulations, which led to more regulations (at least partially due to government’s desire to social engineer as much as control excess). Business and government have been in this deadly dance for decades now, each hating and needing the other simultaneously.

What has resulted is the second thing we missed. We now have the worst of capitalism fighting and dancing with the worst of statist policies. The resurgence of statist utopianism is due to the ‘proof’ that capitalism is defunct and unworkable. However, we must be careful to note that it is secularist capitalism that has failed, and the secular statists that are trumpeting their moral superiority. So we are exchanging one secular worldview for another, and both are doomed to fail.

How did we arrive at a secular capitalism? It is a complicated series of steps. The excesses that led to the Great Depression radically shook our confidence in capitalism. Rather than realizing we had strayed from Christian principles in business, we allowed the government to step in. It promised to aid us just until we were on our feet, but few government programs truly sunset.

The other reason we moved to secular capitalism is through education. Here, the secular capitalists and the secular statist were unlikely bedfellows. The early industrialists wanted an educated workforce, but only educated enough to be a good workforce and not entrepreneurial competitors. The secular statists wanted people educated in a secular fashion to be loyal to the state, to follow the civic religion. In other words, both wanted a population that was educated just enough, but not too much. Their desire was for trainable serfs rather than citizens able to maintain their roles as custodians of the nation’s freedoms.

Theroux quotes Supreme Court Justice William Brennan on the role of public schools:
“the training of American citizens in an atmosphere in which children may assimilate a heritage common to all American groups and religions…. This is a heritage neither theistic nor atheistic, but simply civic and patriotic. A patriotic and united allegiance to the United States is the cure for the divisiveness of religion in public.”

Justice Potter Stewart replied in his opinion that the effect of this ruling would “not [be] the realization of state neutrality, but rather as the establishment of a religion of secularism.”

The evolution of the American Dream was in part due to this incomplete education. We began to primarily seek our individual prosperity over community prosperity—the white picket fence and automobile isolating us from each other. Don’t get me wrong, it lifted the standard of living of the nation as a whole by an unimaginable level, and the desire to pursue more education has been on the whole very beneficial. However, the downside is that as we pursued our own prosperity, we sought to separate societal ills from our wealth and security, and government was happy to step in, then turn around and condemn us for it. This guilt trip encouraged us to give even more of our income and freedom to the government as penance for our selfishness.

Theroux continues on the success of the civic religion on even the American Christian. So successful has the state been in converting the populace to worshipping the state that many evangelicals have difficulty separating their patriotism for America from their faith in Christ, something on which I think I have written before.

The most eye-catching passage was:
“Among most Christians in the U.S. for example, very few would agree to kill in Christ’s name, while killing and dying for the nation state in war and supporting “our troops” is taken for granted. The religious-secular split enables public loyalty by Christians to the nation state’s secular violence, including invasive wars, torture, and “collateral damage,” while avoiding direct confrontation with Christian beliefs about the supremacy of God and natural law teachings.”

Wow. Simply wow. It is particularly poignant after watching tonight’s Republican debate in South Carolina where one candidate was brutally booed for basically suggesting this very point. Again, don’t get me wrong—I agree that serving in the military is a very honorable profession, and I am very grateful for their mission to protect our nation. We should not however be afraid to question the state’s use of the military. There is a difference, as Theroux implies, between supporting our troops unconditionally and supporting them uncritically.

Throughout his discourse, Theroux talks about natural law, the philosophical source of all true morality. Of course natural law has its source in the character of God, but the secular statists seek not only to divorce natural law from God, but to divorce their morality from natural law so the state can define its law independently from any foundation outside of itself.

One could argue, and Theroux does explicitly, that this last—being the foundation for a moral code is the prerogative of God and by trying to do this, the civic religion, the secular theocracy, is deliberately setting the State up as divine. Hear and obey.

In this vein, Theroux concludes by quoting Lewis, who is quoting Lord Acton, making this a quadruple layered quotation (surely this is close to a record!):
“[S]ince we have sin, we have found, as Lord Acton says, that “all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The only remedy has been to take away the powers…. Theocracy has been rightly abolished not because it is bad that priests should govern ignorant laymen, but because priests are wicked men like the rest of us.”

In my response to part 1, I indicated anticipation that Theroux would give some direction in what to do about the secular theocracy. In this conclusion, he argues that the solution is to shrink government to reduce its ability to wield the power of a state religion, or power of any kind for that matter.

That’s all fine and good. But two questions remain. The first is how to really accomplish this. There are two basic kinds of people involved in politics—those seeking to solve problems and those seeking power. As a rule, those seeking power find it and hold on to it. Those seeking solutions generally either find their way blocked and quit (either giving up entirely or finding a way apart from politics to achieve their goals) or become seduced by the power and transforming into the power seekers. How is it possible to transform a megalith the size of the federal government into something too weak to be big brother?

The second question is will Christians be content to live in a truly free society, relying on personal persuasion to lead others to Christ, or will they continually seek to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth legislatively? In short, can we agree to live in peaceful coexistence with a plurality of worldviews, or will people from this group or that seek to take over and create a new State in their image? I’m afraid that as long as there are people hungry for power, even in the Church, turf battles will never cease. As long as that is the case, there will be basic distrust between different groups, so any and all truces will be temporary and unstable. But it still might be an improvement over what we have now.


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