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The Politics of Christianity, and of Secularism

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 14, 2011

It is interesting to see the media in a dither over the religious beliefs of the Republican candidates for President. Bill Keller wrote in the New York Times that the Republican candidates “belong to churches that are mysterious or suspect to many Americans.” In the International Business Times, Maggie Astor opined that the “fire-and-brimstone” rhetoric of Michele Bachman and Rick Perry prove that they have no respect for the separation of church and state.

Though he is apparently near death, a still unrepentant Christopher Hitchins complained in Slate that Bachmann considered Hurricane Irene to be a message from God, and that Perry has (gasp!) called prayer meetings, quoted Scripture, and branded evolution an unproven theory. But not to worry: In the Washington Post, Kathleen Parker has pronounced that, with respect to religion, most Americans will not vote for “the kind of literal mindedness that leads straight to the dark ages.”

These references are courtesy of the September 9th edition of The Week. I do my best to avoid such publications, and I use The Week for surreptitious peeks. But the assumptions underlying some of these statements are as bizarre as any doctrine of an obscure religious sect. Does Christopher Hitchens really mean that it is impossible for a person to be both religious and political at the same time? Or that all politicians must evaluate scientific theories in the same way? And does Kathleen Parker really believe that her statement about literalism and the dark ages has some rational meaning? It sure sounds like an incantation to me.

Fortunately, Bill Keller gives us something to work with. But I think his net should be cast wider still. In fact, a great many politicians of all stripes, and particularly those in the modern Democratic party, hold beliefs that are “mysterious or suspect” to many Americans, including the highly dubious belief systems of secular liberalism or relativism. Such beliefs are both mysterious and suspicious, especially when their adherents—as political occasions often demand—mysterioiusly and suspiciously invoke the name of God.

Which brings me to Maggie Astor’s assertion that Evangelical Christian rhetoric (“fire-and-brimstone”) is dangerous to the separation of church and state. This actually deserves close attention, because as a general rule it is the opposite of the truth.

The test for the separation of church and state is not whether a candidate has clear and strong religious beliefs, but whether he or she intends: (a) to impose specific religious observances on the citizenry, or (b) to require behaviors that cannot be known to be good and desirable through reason, or (c) to place the civil authority in the hands of the leaders of a particular church. Anything else is simply the influence of religion on the human person and, through him, on the social order, working as all influences work.

Now one may judge something of a candidate’s worldview and moral values from his religious affiliation, and these are certainly relevant politically. But it is also true that both religious affiliations and spiritual rhetoric are often formed in childhood and do not always provide the key to an adult’s deepest convictions. Politicians in particular, concerned as they are with natural solutions to social, political and economic problems, are seldom capable of articulating precisely how their beliefs influence their politics, and why—whether they believe in Catholicism or Secularism.

So we must be very careful about turning out whole theories of political order from the occasional religious turn of phrase. Michele Bachmann may believe Hurricane Irene is a message from God. But to understand what that means, you have to first realize that everything that happens to us is a message from God, that is, another occasion for examining our lives and discerning God’s will.

But the critical political question in this context is whether a candidate believes that the political order is to be governed according to principles derived exclusively from “his beliefs” or principles derived from the natural law. In fact, strong Christian convictions typically sharpen our understanding of the distinctions between Church and State, as they do between the supernatural and the natural orders. They tend to make it easier to understand the natural law (since Christian revelation and the natural law come from the same Creator). They help us to see that just as all supernatural duties must be voluntary, as arising from love, so too our natural social duties may be lawfully enforced, as arising from justice. Thus does Christianity permit us more easily to apply the proper standards in both the spiritual and the secular realms.

Islam cannot say as much, of course, but then neither can any form of secularism. The modern religions of secular liberalism and relativism embody a set of deeply ingrained but wholly gratuitous beliefs that lead to a terrible confusion between the sacred and the profane. Any intelligent observer of the American political scene can see at a glance that adherents of the secular creed typically deny the very existence of anything outside the purview of the State, and therefore attempt to subjugate everything in man that properly belongs to the spiritual realm.

For this reason, in the modern West, the real danger of something very like theocracy clearly comes from the secular side. Most Christians know it is both wrong and counter-productive to impose their supernatural beliefs by force. But few secularists know that it is wrong for government to substitute human laws for the natural law and press citizens to change both their beliefs and their lives accordingly. The modern secular state is very like a crackpot religion, with no reasonable claim to any sort of Revelation, that dreams up bizarre doctrines and imposes them on an entire culture by force.

If this were not crystal clear in theory, the history of the West since the French Revolution proves the thesis beyond any reasonable doubt. Columnists who wish to motivate through political fear ought not to deal in bogeymen. They ought to have something both real and frightening in mind. Christianity may be challenging, but it is hardly scary, and it is also the origin of the distinction between Church and State. Truly, our pundits would be far wiser to fear the set of beliefs that devours everything. They ought to fear politicians who embrace contemporary secularism.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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