Editor’s note: The original headline has been revised for clarity and accuracy.
There is no shortage of speakers and authors decrying the descent of our culture into a valley of secularism.
One account of this trend is a lecture at Notre Dame University given by William Barr, then Attorney General of the United States. He spoke to the Law School and the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture on Oct. 11, 2019.
Katherine Stewart, in a New York Times opinion piece on Jan. 11, 2021, connects recent statements and actions of Sen. Josh Hawley to Barr’s analysis.
In the prepared text for that lecture, Barr goes back to the birth of the United States and the founding generation’s discussions of the role of morality and religion in the envisioning of how society should operate in the new republic.
There is much to commend in Barr’s approach. He argues that the founders launched a great experiment, which was “fundamentally different than those that had gone before.” Religious liberty played a central role in the structure they imagined.
As Barr suggests, experience has shown that, “No society can exist without some means for restraining individual rapacity.”
We see that truth today in the need for measures to protect our environment from those who would take the earth’s resources for their own benefit without regard to the immediate and long-term impacts of their consumption.
Wealth gaps that arise from unconstrained capitalism are another example.
Barr also discusses the remedy the founders proposed. He quotes James Madison who said, “We have staked our future on the ability of each of us to govern ourselves.”
Neither tyrannical government imposing order nor unbridled pursuit of individual appetites at the expense of the common good is an acceptable outcome. The people must rise to the occasion and govern themselves. Each individual must participate in the effort to build a consensus and act accordingly.
The source of the values and virtues needed to function in this way was, and is, crucial.
The founders looked to religion as one source and provided for protection of its free exercise. They also made it clear that government should have no role in the establishment of any religion for such a purpose.
The people should freely choose and establish their own religious institutions. There was not to be any preference for any particular religion.
Insightfully, the founders also believed that religion was not necessary for this moral function.
Persons who were able to govern themselves and participate in the political process in a morally appropriate way were not to be forced to be religious or to pay taxes to support a state church, which had been the case in England and in some of the colonies.
After laying a foundation, Barr then says that, “In short, in the Framers’ view, free government was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people.”
Thus, Barr believes that secularism is an inevitable threat to religion and to be opposed for that reason. It undermines the functioning of a democratic government.
History, however, especially in Europe, shows us how religion can become a form of tyranny on its own. There is no guarantee that religious people will inevitably act in a truly moral way.
The Gospels are a record of Jesus showing religious people how to move from their piety and religious practice and observance to a more perfect way of acting toward fellow human beings.
The priest and Levite in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Zacchaeus, and Peter are prime examples of his teaching on this matter. Paul also learned that lesson on the Damascus Road.
Thus, we have a tension between religion at its best and religion at its worst. It is not a uniformly positive influence.
Secularism as an effort to undermine the influence of religion in any form has thrown out the baby with the bath water. It has sacrificed the positive effects in an effort to limit the negative effects.
We who affirm religion for its positive effects have reason to resist secularism, defined as an effort to undermine religion in any form.
Secularization, if it leads inevitably to secularism defined in this way, is a social process we can unite in resisting. There is, however, another way to see the process of secularization.
John Cobb has written an especially helpful book, Spiritual Bankruptcy: A Prophetic Call to Action, suggesting that secularization is a process that has recurred in a variety of eras of human history.
He also believes that secularization does not lead inevitably to secularism, a perspective that he describes as “amassing vast quantities of information, but in a way that is barren of wisdom.”
Sacred and secular for Cobb are not bipolar opposites – one to be defended without scrutiny and the other to be avoided at all costs.
Secularizers seek to critique religion in light of the categories of the secular. By that, Cobb means “this world and its real values and its real problems.”
They should not, however, disparage the sacred and must avoid being coopted by the views that all of life is defined by the natural and that modern knowledge supersedes all that preceded it.
Cobb finds interesting examples of secularization in previous eras of history. These include Greek philosophers, the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures and even Jesus himself.
In our own day, the chief agents of secularization are science, philosophy, the modern university and what he calls economism – reducing human actions to forces that can be understood and directed by the study of economics.
Surely, these agents have worked for great good in the modern world, but we leave them untended at our peril.
The challenge of the church in our day is to retain an emphasis on the way that Jesus taught us.
That includes negotiating a delicate balance between an emphasis on the sacredness of all of creation and the tendency of religions to coopt the sacred and ignore the problems and values of the real world.
It is appropriate to honor the Sabbath, but the world must also be fed.