In this season of intensified public debate spawned by pre-election campaign rhetoric, David Theroux, founder of the C.S Lewis Society of California and The Independent Institute, argues against the establishment of a secular theocracy that marginalizes the voice of people of faith in the public square.
We live in an increasingly secularized world of massive and pervasive nation states in which traditional religion, especially Christianity, is ruled unwelcome and even a real danger on the basis of a purported history of intolerance and “religious violence.” This is found in most all “public” domains, including the institutions of education, business, government, welfare, transportation, parks and recreation, science, art, foreign affairs, economics, entertainment, and the media.
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.
For the renowned Christian scholar and writer C.S. Lewis, such a view was fatally flawed morally, intellectually, and spiritually, producing the twentieth-century rise of the total state, total war, and mega-genocides. For Lewis, Christianity provided the one true and coherent worldview that applied to allhuman 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.” (The Weight of Glory)
In his book, The Discarded Image, Lewis revealed that for Medieval Christians, there was no sacred/secular divide and that this unified, theopolitical worldview of hope, joy, liberty, justice, and purpose from the loving grace of God enabled them to discover the objective, natural-law principles of ethics, science, and theology, producing immense human flourishing. Lewis described the natural law as a cohesive and interconnected objective standard of right behavior:
This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all values are rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgement of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or (as they now call them) “ideologies,” all consist of fragments from the Tao itself. Arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess. If my duty to my parents is a superstition, then so is my duty to posterity. If justice is a superstition, then so is my duty to my country or my race. If the pursuit of scientific knowledge is a real value, then so is conjugal fidelity. (The Abolition of Man)
And in his recent book, The Victory of Reason, Rodney Stark has further shown “How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and the Success of the West.” Similarly and prior to the rise of the secular nation-state in America, Alexis de Tocqueville documented in his 1835 volume, Democracy in America, the remarkable flexibility, vitality and cohesion of Christian-rooted liberty in American society with business enterprises, churches and aid societies, covenants and other private institutions and communities.
In his book, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, William Cavanaugh similarly notes that for Augustine and the ancient world, religion was not a distinct realm separate from the secular. The origin of the term “religion” (religio) came from Ancient Rome (re-ligare, to rebind or relink) as a serious obligation for a person in the natural law (“religio for me”) not only at a shrine, but also in civic oaths and family rituals that most westerners would today consider secular. Aquinas further viewed religio not as a set of private beliefs but instead a devotion toward moral excellence in all spheres.
However in the Renaissance, religion became viewed as a “private” impulse, distinct from “secular” politics, economics, and science. This “modern” view of religion began the decline of the church as the public, communal practice of the virtue of religio. And by the Enlightenment, John Locke had distinguished between the “outward force” of civil officials and the “inward persuasion” of religion. He believed that civil harmony required a strict division between the state, whose interests are “public,” and the church, whose interests are “private,” thereby clearing the public square for the purely secular. For Locke, the church is a “voluntary society of men,” but obedience to the state is mandatory.
The subsequent rise of the modern state in claiming a monopoly on violence, lawmaking, and public allegiance within a given territory depended upon either absorbing the church into the state or relegating the church to a private realm. As Cavanaugh notes:
Key to this move is the contention that the church’s business is religion. Religion must appear, therefore, not as what the church is left with once it has been stripped of earthly relevance, but as the timeless and essential human endeavor to which the church’s pursuits should always have been confined. . . . In the wake of the Reformation, princes and kings tended to claim authority over the church in their realms, as in Luther’s Germany and Henry VIII’s England. . . . The new conception of religion helped to facilitate the shift to state dominance over the church by distinguishing inward religion from the bodily disciplines of the state.
For Enlightenment figures like Jean-Jacques Rousseau who dismissed natural law, “civic religion” as in democratic regimes “is a new creation that confers sacred status on democratic institutions and symbols.” And in their influential writings, Edward Gibbon and Voltaire claimed that the wars of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were “the last gasp of medieval barbarism and fanaticism before the darkness was dispelled.” Gibbon and Voltaire believed that after the Reformation divided Christendom along religious grounds, Protestants and Catholics began killing each other for more than a century, demonstrating the inherent danger of “public” religion. The alleged solution was the modern state, in which religious loyalties were upended and the state secured a monopoly of violence. Henceforth, religious fanaticism would be tamed, uniting all in loyalty to the secular state. However, this is an unfounded “myth of religious violence.” The link between state building and war has been well documented, as the historian Charles Tilly noted, “War made the state, and the state made war.” In the actual period of European state building, the most serious cause of violence and the central factor in the growth of the state was the attempt to collect taxes from an unwilling populace with local elites resisting the state-building efforts of kings and emperors. The point is that the rise of the modern state was in no way the solution to the violence of religion. On the contrary, the absorption of church into state that began well before the Reformation was crucial to the rise of the state and the wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Nevertheless, Voltaire distinguished between “state religion” and “theological religion” of which “A state religion can never cause any turmoil. This not true of theological religion; it is the source of all the follies and turmoils imaginable; it is the mother of fanaticism and civil discord; it is the enemy of mankind.” What Rousseau proposed instead was to supplement the purely “private” religion of man with a civil or political religion intended to bind the citizen to the state: “As for that man who, having committed himself publicly to the state’s articles of faith, acts on any occasion as if he does not believe them, let his punishment be death. He has committed the greatest of all crimes: he has lied in the presence of the laws.”
As a result, the Enlightenment set in motion what has become today’s secular theocracy. It is authoritarian and hypocritical not just for its denial of moral condemnation of secular violence, but its exaltation of such violence as highly praiseworthy.