Why is Secularism Exempt from the
Separation of Church and State?
by John Hendryx
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,
or prohibiting the free exercise thereof
Amendment I of the Constitution of the United States of America
The following are excerpts of an ongoing conversation I have been having with a good friend of mine who is a PhD. Candidate in history and is a self-proclaimed postmodern secularist. Almost by default, secularists tend to think their views are "neutral" and thereby believe our country should exclude "religious groups" from influencing the content of our children's education as well as public policy matters. I took my friend's discussion of the gay marriage issue as a launch pad to discuss his own presuppositions - and pointed out that they are no less religious than anyone else's.
This pretended neutrality has placed Secularists in a dominant position in
our society. But instead of being resigned to this, and thereby handing Secularists
exclusive power in our public policy, we should really be utilizing the separation
of church and state against their own intrusive religious tyranny into public
policy. It is because there is no neutrality in the area of morals I argue that
Secularists should also fall under the same "non-establishment" limitations
that all other religious groups must abide by.
In the discussion my secularist friend is highlighted in blue.
Comments and Discussion
John: "We've been fascinated by the explosive developments in the human rights movement out in San Francisco and Massachusetts over the past few weeks. Find it interesting that so many conservatives are so opposed to marriage for gays... something I suspect in almost all cases stems from a deeply felt animosity towards the mere existence of gays, not from any deep analysis of the impact of allowing them to marry on the institution of marriage. So many have argued that marriage is a 'sacred' institution... baffling, since this is an argument over what the secular and civil state should do. No one is trying to force the churches of America to recognize these marriages. Secular marriage is most emphatically an important, treasured, valuable, and historic institution, but not a sacred one... a sacred marriage, to those who believe in such things, would have to occur under the auspices of some religious official, not a state official. I'm interested in hearing your views though..."
Ayoooo, I knew I could count on your for stirring up a good dialogue on some contemporary event. Sure, I'll take the bait. I will respond to you with my own thoughts about the homosexual issue in particular, and then I would like to deconstruct a few of the thing you said to me in your above comment.
I think it is clear that Scripture does not conceive of the church's primary role in the world as one of opposing public immorality through political means. The early first and second century Christians lived in an extremely diverse, corrupt and immoral society where they did not have any access to political power or influence in public policy other than through persuading people to believe the gospel. These early Christians did not waste their time picketing or protesting, as we now see some doing. Shouting matches were not their calling. They witnessed to the historic fact of the resurrection, they prayed, worshiped, and lived pious & holy lives. Indeed this witness, in many cases, influenced society, but in many other cases, society went on in its paganism. These Christians knew that if there were to be a vast change of public ideas of morals, it would have to come through the grace of God by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by an imperial edict or judicial ruling. Laws do very little to change people's thinking or heart's disposition on such matters. And there is no evidence that Jesus went out of his way to take on any political causes, probably because, in themselves, they do have any power to change hearts.
Of course, many wanted Jesus to be a political organizer but that wasn't His interest (except in an eschatological sense). But that does not automatically mean He approved of the status quo. On the contrary, it simply means that the path of Jesus Christ is not identical with the path of political activism. I think Jesus' view of society really tended to grow out of his view of our individual and corporate alienation from God. He gave a diversity of responses to our alienation, but He did not mistake any symptomatic aspect of our lost condition--sexual depravity, greed, poverty, war, ignorance--from the root cause and remedy of that alienation: the gospel.
Jesus lived His life submerged in a culture of social problems and sympathetically tended to those problems, yet he never held out any hope for the substantial eradication of those problems apart from the gospel. The first century Christians, as revealed in the Scriptures, exemplified radical kinds of love and service, but none of these manifested itself as a stress on political activism. So there is great hope in the difference in the way Jesus views the actions of a Christian from the romantic possibilities for a political utopia, which may restrain some evil but itself really has no power to transform anyone.
Frankly, I have always viewed moralizing crusades with great suspicion. It appears to me to commit the church to such a course of action, which was never part of its original purpose, and is an attempt to accomplish something that must ultimately fail. The ultimate effect of merely attempting to focus on legal change might very well be to impede the hearing of the Gospel by those who need it most. To put it in other terms, we cannot minister to people if they perceive us primarily as their political enemies. I will give to you, however, that many biblically/theologically illiterate so-called Christians are crassly political and hostile to all kinds of groups. So surprising as it may sound to you, a more conservative view of theology is the answer to dealing with such ignorance and bigotry.
The theologically conservative position is that Christians should take no more
interest in what gays do in their private lives than in what any other fallen
sinner does, and that we should not distinguish ourselves by obsessing on the
various homosexual agendas. Of course when we vote, we must do what we think
is best by Biblical standards. But it is clear that homosexuality has by no
means outpaced heterosexuality in the committing acts of evil. I am convinced
that the response of Christians must include a great deal more love genuine
acceptance of our gay friends and family. A Christians' principled opposition
to gay marriage ought to be one form of confessing how unworthily we as Christians
have treated marriage itself.
(The Internet Monk)
Now, I would like to challenge some of the basic assumptions evident in your letter to me.
Perhaps I should begin by pointing out that your opinion about the merits of homosexual marriage is itself, no more "neutral" than my own. It is profoundly influenced by your own religious presuppositions. In fact I would argue that your view that homosexuals have the right to marry is no more "value-neutral" than any other religious view. You would impose on the collective society a view that cannot be demonstrated to be right, except that it is your own groups' arbitrary preference. The fact is that your own particular beliefs on the matter are anything but "secular' or "neutral" for they are ultimately based on your own underlying base commitments that you cannot ultimately account for, except by your own self-declared authority. A secular society doesn't mean only "secularists" can determine our laws and educational content, it means that all voices have the right to debate in the free market of ideas. This is because someone's concept of justice, morality and goodness will always ultimately be imposed. Bias is something that is impossible to avoid. We are all religious creatures and cannot refrain from making moral judgments every day of our lives. Our deepest social problems are thus, pre-political, embedded in our worldviews.
So it is naive to think that the only thing that makes one religious is that one goes to church and reads the Bible. It is difficult to see how Christians are under more influence from their own interpretive community than others are from theirs. Thus, it seems obvious to me that you enjoy being a postmodern secularist, and the philosophy of this group has been influential on you, but ultimately you just believe what you like to believe. This preference is derived from the answer you find most satisfactory but is by no means self-validating. It is hard for me to see, therefore, how you can escape a kind of communal solipsism. What therefore, gives your group the right to be exempt from the limitations of the "separation of church and state" since you appeal to an absolute authority for your morals that you cannot account for?
It is a fact that we live in a pluralistic society. But when pluralism starts
to become a philosophy, or a religious dogma then it takes on new characteristics
and could be characterized by calling it something more akin to "religious
pluralism." It has affirmations and denials and a missionary force. This
contemporary dogmatism itself is evidence that postmodernism is really just
ultramodern. Religious pluralism has become so opinionated that it tends to
drive out empirical pluralism; its plea for tolerance is so imperial that it
is remarkably intolerant. True tolerance, however, simultaneously argues for
truth and insists people have the right to disagree without fear of coercion.
To give you a better idea of what I mean, you often are morally outraged that
some conservatives have a gall to attempt to determine for the rest of us the
standards our society will operate on, all the while you secularists are free
to arbitrarily determine the standards our society should operate on (because
you hide under the umbrella of so-called non-religious relativism). There seems
to be a double standard here. By calling my position a religion you can conveniently
neutralize any attempt by Christians to be involved in public policy in a society
governed by separation of church and state. Yet your own belief system (that
you somehow believe to be neutral and non-religious) can have free reign to
alone determine the direction of our society. But there is no way to verify
the authority of your claims to know truth. Thus your assumption is that
liberal religious pluralism does, in effect, have a monopoly on the truth. It
alone claims the vantage point from which the true relation of the religions
can be seen. This religious pluralism is already, therefore, presupposed to
be the summum bonum, the god by which all other claims must be judged. But
it is a totalitarian imposition to enforce the view that all views are equally
You said: "We've been fascinated by the explosive developments in the human rights movement out in San Francisco and Massachusetts over the past few weeks. So many have argued that marriage is a 'sacred' institution... baffling, since this is an argument over what the secular and civil state should do."
I think it is understandable, given your assumptions about the world, that you see homosexual marriage as a human rights issue. So it follows from this that you believe it is immoral for society to impede such marriages from taking place. You argue that the conservative postion is unjust and reject the traditional contention that marriage is sacred. However, by making it into a moral issue, you yourself would appear to be claiming the institution of marriage to be sacred. Where did your morality come from to declare this right or wrong? It would appear that you believe your views are self-validating. By claiming that such moralistic things as your views of human rights and injustice applies to all, you postulate and lay claim to a moral absolutism. But every proposition necessarily excludes its contradictories; therefore, anyone who affirms anything, as you are, is asserting an exclusive proposition. But since relativism is only a personal preference, how can you be angry with others for having a different opinion? And then impose your individual preference on them?
If there are limits to freedom how do you determine where to draw the line? Each time you extend the boundaries of freedom or draw the line at something like polygamy how can we understand your stance any other way than to believe you are deriving this moral authority from a self-authenticating starting-point, based solely on your own basic pre-commitments - premises you hold as unquestionable? It would appear that you thereby end up exalting your own reasoning as the supreme and ultimate authority as to what is right and wrong.
Your postmodern religious community should, therefore, not dominate public discourse by default. This appears to me to be nothing short of a power grab. The earliest appeals to separation of church and state in America were TO freedom of conscience and FROM the legal establishment of the supremacy of a particular denomination/religion. They were certainly not designed, as you seem to think, to keep Christians (or any religious group) from exerting influence. By exempting yourself from the "non-establishment clause" for your group you are using coercion, establishing secularism as the state religion, and all the while believing you are upholding tolerance. Haven't you thereby redefined "secular" to mean that the US meant to establish a secularist society, censoring out all opposing "religious" viewpoints from education and discourse in the public square? Don't you see the irony in being a relativist? Since you are willing to impose certain standards on others (like justice, human rights), you insist that some things are absolutely true, even though other things are not -- and of course you have then become the judge as to where to draw the line, as though truth could be a mere matter of personal convenience! (Bahnsen) So you build an unintelligible world by being both a rationalist and an irrationalist at the same time.
To take it a step further, objective and universal standards of reason, morality, and beauty simply cannot exist in your purely material world. You are fighting Christianity with borrowed Christian weapons. Secularism is borrowing objective rationality and morality from the Christian worldview in order to attack the rationality and morality of the Christian worldview. If relativism were true, morality, tragedy, and sorrow would have to be equally evanescent. If there is no personal revealed God, then all abstractions are mere chemical reactions, like vapor over noxious water. This would mean that we have no reason for assigning truth and falsity to the chemical epiphenomena we call reasoning or right and wrong to the irrational reaction we call morality. If no God, mankind is merely a carbon unit consisting of mostly water. Objective morals cannot be derived from such impersonal substance.
In other words, Objective truth, justice and human rights cannot be validly derived from the premises of your relativistic worldview. Furthermore, each time you assert to know the apparently esoteric knowledge that "there are no absolutes", you likewise are claiming the very knowledge you say no one else has since this statement is itself a strong assertion about the nature of spiritual truth. It is, therefore, a religious statement. In doing this, are you not demonstrating the same spiritual arrogance you accuse Christians of? The question comes down to how you know that truth is relative? Do you have some bird's eye access above us all that gives you this knowledge? So what makes it any less arrogant for you to impose on society your relativistic ethos than for a Christian to promote his? You often seem upset when Christians do something in the public square since you invoke "separation" all the while promoting your own pre-committments which are no less a religion.
This fatal inconsistency divests your system of any possibility of coherence.
I would argue that these internal contradictions in your worldview, therefore,
do not provide the preconditions for making sense out of man's experience. Do
you see how you end up opposing yourself? Only belief in a personal God can
account for moral absolutes. These moral opinions of yours are not self-validating.
One other thing. I wish to comment on one of your statements. You said, "I suspect in almost all cases stems from a deeply felt animosity towards the mere existence of gays "
Isn't it possible that Christians might be for preserving our civilization and limiting certain behaviors because they actually love the people who are in bondage to them? Love hates what is harmful and destructive in others' lives. Love is not just sentimental. When I see my friends caught in something that is ultimately harmful I come humbly with a clear attitude of "I love you and am committed to you but I can't stand to see what this is doing to your life." This is both true on an individual and a societal level. I come myself as one also broken by sin, not in arrogant pride or hate, for I am no better. In calling persons to leave their idols that hold them in enslavement, you may interpret as hate, but this is really not the motive or affection going on in our hearts. Of course, I cannot speak for everyone. But those who are truly committed to their faith do have such affection.
Feel free to respond at your convenience.
First, You lay claim to universal truth as a Christian invention. There were religions that preceded your's and one of them was even a revealed religion of the sort you favor (Judaism). Moreover, Islam has developed since Christianity, and focuses on the same revealed god. So don't try to claim universal truth for Christianity... you all simply did not invent the concept, and while you do employ it, it is also employed by others.
Actually, I did not deny that other religions/worldviews laid claim to the idea of absolute truth and morality. The point in my letter to you was actually that all worldviews do in fact inescapably hold to absolutes. It is unavoidable because this is God's universe. Every time you open your lips and put a sentence together with logic, you are counting on the fact that there are universals. You are thereby "borrowing" from a system that you repudiate in order to repudiate that system. We live in a universe where logic and morals are unavoidably absolute. The point I was making is that I believe your system is unintelligible because on the one hand you deny absolutes, but in the other, you employ them when it seems to be convenient to you. You claim to be a relativist yet your life and practice betray your claim. Even the very statement you make that there are no absolutes exposes the inconsistency of your position. For you must believe that it is absolute that there are no absolutes. Thus you are claiming to have religious knowledge that others don't have. It is a claim to understand the nature of reality that cannot be verified. A bird's eye view of reality of the world that you claim to see and others cannot. So this absolute claim to relativism is a claim to know truth just like mine, except you cannot account for yours because it is hopelessly self-refuting, even under simple analysis. You are invoking universals to claim there are none. That confused logic is fatal to your system.
Second, my view of values (which you parody) is that they emerge from lessons widely drawn from human experience and around which consensus has emerged. Human rights as a language and as a normative construct came out of the horror of WWII. Such ideas emerge through consensus-building and eventually take on axiomatic existence for most people: Slavery IS bad. Torture IS wrong. Racism IS repugnant. These ideas emerged socially and became axiomatic socially.
I am certainly not denying your civic right to believe these things. But I must point out that, given the above ideas you espouse; it is still quite arbitrary of you to have determined that values and morality come forth from some kind of consensus. How do you know this method of deriving morality is right? What authority are you presupposing? This is a belief system adopted by you but you cannot account for it or justify how you know this is what everyone should do. Your consensus-building concept is still an appeal to something that is not self-validating, no? Adding more numbers to your interpretive community does not make it so. At least there is nothing here under the Constitution that is makes this position any more validating than someone else's. Previously you said Christianity should have no place in making public policy because it is a "religion" under the establishment clause. What I am trying to point out to you is that your view is not any more unbiased (non-religious) than my own. When you make your position into public policy you are likewise promoting your religious dogma derived from a source you have arbitrarily determined to be authoritative. You have affirmations and denials as to what is good and bad, do you not?
Furthermore, National Socialism was built under consensus. The vast majority
of the German population delighted in what the Nazis were doing. It was the
liberal churches in Germany who had long since determined that the Bible was
not to be taken seriously (higher critics) that were taken captive by the cultural
consensus and fell right in with Hitler's evil plans. It was only those in the
church who were confessing (the conservatives of the day) who were the people
who stood up for what was right and many were executed for it. Hitler hated
them. Therefore, consensus does not make anything right, unless you would like
to argue that killing Jews was right at the time? No, I think you know that
you are appealing to absolutes that go way beyond just a mere preference here.
You said "Slavery IS bad.
Torture IS wrong. Racism IS repugnant." If you really
believed that morality was relative then such statements would be unintelligible.
Can you justify such concepts rationally with your worldview? Is it mere consensus
telling you this? To be consistent as a relativist you could only say these
things are bad for yourself. How is it not arbitrary to adopt such an ethic?
Why does consensus make it any more valid than an individual or any other religious
view? Either you are claiming it is true that these things are bad, or you are
merely telling me your preference derived from a self-appointed authoritative
source. And if it is merely your preference then you have no right to impose
your personal ethic on society. This is an appeal to absolutes or you would
not have such strong feelings toward it.
Third, I don't want to suppress religious viewpoints in the public arena, but rather prevent any one particular organized religion from dominating the state and using it to suppress others' views.
Then, on the surface, it would appear that we share the same goals.
And when you say I want to suppress religious people's views through means of the separation of church and state, you miss my point: I want to prevent organized religious institutions from invading and taking over the state mechanism. No Catholic church telling the kings what to do. No Saudi ulamas telling the people what is and is not moral-legal. No theocratic state a la Iran or the Taliban. I dislike the capture of the state mechanism by a competing organization based on appeals to religious authority. Separate authorities for separate spheres. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's.
I couldn't agree more. The depth of our depravity as human beings should preclude the possibility of giving this much power to any one man or group. However, I noticed a glaring absence from your list. It appears that you have overlooked the inclusion of your own religious view: postmodern secularism. Convince me that you do not intend to suppress other people's views by also including secularism on this list. By not including it, you exempt yourself from the limitations of the separation of church and state and thereby give yourself and proponents of your view free reign to exert power, while everyone else remains limited. Awfully convenient for you to claim this exemption, don't you think? A truly liberal society, I would argue, is one that allows all views to participate. You see, by excluding yourself from this list, you appear, from my perspective, to have become the very thing that you wish to avoid. Please explain to me how you're your viewpoint is any less susceptible to setting up a tyranny than any other religion.
Don't you see the irony here? I am all for limiting the power of any group, including my own, since I am well aware not only of my own depravity but also the same propensity in others. "Secular" and "Secularism" are different animals. One is a fact, the other a philosophy. The country of France now is in the midst of instituting just such an anti-God policy. They have merely replaced "religion" with secularism. What is the difference? How is the divine right of kings in ancient Europe any different than states that have established secular monopolies? Worldwide Communism and National Socialism were both founded on secularist principles. In other words, totalitarianism looks the same whether it is in the name of religion or irreligion. When we set out to establish a secular country it did not mean that only secularists should make public policy. By imagining that your views are neutral, you advance a form of tyranny by default. For you yourself are appealing to your own interpretive community when appealing to values, morals and the like. From the point of view of the civil magistrate your view should be no more authoritative than a God-believing "religious" view. Really, our laws should be deduced from which ideas are most persuasive and intelligible. Let us decide through open debate rather than censor any group as you propose.
I am really appealing to you as an individual to see that you are building
your castle on the sand. My appeal is for you to consider that you might be
taken captive by a philosophy that I have shown you reasonably to be internally
inconsistent. I am not so much concerned about the ebb and flow of history,
as I am about you. I am hoping you will be skeptical of your skepticism and
recognize that a self-contradictory view, by definition, cannot be true.
I don't agree with your arguments, and think that they are ignoring important realities for the benefit of your own views .... I fear our worldviews are simply so far apart that we will never convince each other of anything... I don't believe that your religion is non-self-referential and self-affirming, for example). Anyhow, I hope you're well, and as I've said before, when we exchange e-mails, I'm generally interested in your personal positions and views on things...
Thanks for being honest about how you feel. I understand and don't blame you for not wanting to discuss the topic.
You said that you didn't believe my religion to be self-affirming ... but as you know that isn't what I was attempting to convince you of (yet). I was merely pointing out that because your philosophical bias is not value-neutral and self-validating, as you claim, then it too belongs under the constraints of the law of non-establishment with all the others. ... Too much power in the hands of any one group can be a dangerous thing, whoever it is. I don't think we are learning from history when we ignore such things.
In responding to your comment that my position was "ignoring important realities "for the benefit of [my] own views" I do admit that I have some selfish motives in not wanting to live under tyranny, but that does not make it any less true.
All I can say is that when people with your worldview dominate the institutions of our society, which they already do to a great extent (and no doubt will become more powerful), I hope you remember to be moderate and allow opposing voices to exist no matter how much you dislike them. I fear censorship is already a common thing in our country. Perhaps some day you will see that our land is behaving undemocratically, especially since courts have begun over-ruling the will of the people. It is as if we are determined to do away with mediating instutions and feel comfortable becoming an oligarchy. I must accept Providence, however, and know that it will eventually work out for the good, but I feel obligated, at least, to speak up when I see unjust structures being established.
I think of you often my friend and recall the good times we used to have together ... I only think of you affectionately and you are often in my prayers.