The Christian roots and character of liberal secularism

Framing the American Constitution


What is the difference between the Muslim call for sharia law and the Christian aspiration that no civil law should be contrary to the core moral principles of the Christian faith? Answer: liberal secularism.

Not however, that destructive brand of secularism which is now at the heart of the cold culture war which is rupturing the civil and religious tolerance which the western world has enjoyed, on and off, for two centuries or more. We are talking about the secularism which has its roots in the development of the Christian church’s own teaching.

It is a fact of history that down through the centuries there has been a kind of law operating by which much of the development of Christian teaching – by which, I suppose, we mean our understanding of all the implications of Christ’s teaching – takes place in a context of conflict. This conflict comes from challenges from without or within to the practices and beliefs of any given time or place which are deemed to be consistent with and even central to what Judeo-Christian Scriptures and Tradition teach. Out of these conflicts comes a constantly developing thought about and practical approach to the journey on which Christian “wayfarers” are embarked and which in any given age seeks to meet the needs of this pilgrim people and the entire race to which they belong.

So, in the early centuries the true identity of Christ as God and Man became clearer, as did the special character of his mother’s identity and holiness. In later centuries the purpose, nature and structure of the government of the Church which he founded became clearer. In the early modern age – the epoch of the Reformation, Protestant and Catholic – that Church, weakened by the corruption of its all-too-human members, was challenged. That challenge threatened both its teaching and its very form. But in its response to that challenge and threat came a new understanding, hand in hand with its reaffirmation of its original foundational teaching.

Over 200 years ago a new framework began to take shape in the public square for the more peaceful coexistence of the city of God and the city of Man. The previous hundred and fifty had been pretty horrendous for both. The founding fathers of the United States of America searched for and found a formula which would free the city of Man of the charge of religious persecution and free the city of God of the charge and scandal of religious intolerance and denial of human freedom. It might not be perfect but it was a massive improvement on what went before. It has served us well – until now. It at least served the Anglophone world well. The French, with their Revolution did not buy into it and slaughtered the Christian faithful; the Germans with their Kulturkampf did their best to push the city of God into the obscure margins of society but in the end failed. The Communists and the National Socialists of course, wherever they raised their heads, thought they could kill off religion altogether but also failed.

Wrong turning: French revolution enthroned “reason” on the High Altar of Notre Dame Cathedral

The development of Christian doctrine which has occurred over the past 200 years in the light, it has to be said, of the wisdom of these men, means that words like those of Omar Ahmad, the co-founder of CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations), speaking to a Muslim audience in California in 1998, could not now be spoken by a believing mainstream Christian. He said: “Islam isn’t in America to be equal to any other faith, but to become dominant. The Koran should be the highest authority in America, and Islam the only accepted religion on earth.”

But, we may ask, is the culture of tolerance, even in the Anglophone world, now beginning to unravel? Unravel, not on the Christian side, but on the side of militant secularists. Has the spirit of tolerance which moved the Founding Fathers to safeguard their society from the horrors of religious wars and religious persecution finally died?  Are we being alarmist if we cite Ross Douthat’s recent observation in his New York Times column on the Arizona governor’s refusal to sign a bill protecting marriage as an indication of where America’s political elite is now taking it. He said that “what makes this response particularly instructive is that such bills have been seen, in the past, as a way for religious conservatives to negotiate surrender — to accept same-sex marriage’s inevitability while carving out protections for dissent. But now, apparently, the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.” Is traditional liberal secularism now dead? Has it been replaced with the militant secularism’s own version of sharia law?

But what were the roots of the Founding Fathers’ search for a new way. They were in fact Christian roots and had there been no Christianity it is very doubtful if we would ever have got to the reasonably tolerable place where we now are. Just as the American revolt itself was not a revolt against the culture and way of life in the British Empire of that time – but was an assertion of that very ethos which they felt privileged to enjoy – so their declaration of a new way of accommodating religious belief in the public square was not a rejection of Christian religion itself but was an affirmation of some of the deepest principles underpinning that belief, albeit not understood in all their depth – the rights of man, freedom of conscience and innate human dignity. The majority of the Founding Fathers were acting on the principles and ideas which had been emerging in Christian thought for more than a millennium. This is not something that neo-secularists are very willing to admit.

Larry Siedentop is an American intellectual historian and political philosopher who has worked in Oxford University for most of his academic life.  For him one of the tragedies of our age is the mistaken identification of “secularism” with non-belief, with indifference and materialism. In an article which he wrote for the February issue of Prospect magazine he discusses this in the context of what he calls “Europe’s undeclared civil war”, which he describes as being  “as tragic as it is unnecessary”. However, everything he says can also be seen unfolding in every jurisdiction where those who seek to adhere to the moral norms which have been the binding elements of western civilization for over 2000 years are now being challenged. In many jurisdictions those norms themselves are now being forcibly unraveled under the pressure of this hostile neo-secularism.

For Siedentop a flawed analysis leads to the view that liberalism and secularism did not have their fundamental roots in the Christian religion. He daringly asserts that this secularism can in fact, properly understood, be seen as “Europe’s noblest achievement and Christianity’s gift to the world”.

He explains, for example, that the most distinctive thing about Greek and Roman antiquity – to which the neo-secularists look as their source and inspiration – is what might be called “moral enclosure”. In this culture the limits of personal identity were established by the limits of physical association and from this they inherited unequal social roles. Those social roles pervaded their civilization from top to bottom. Then Christianity came along with its emphasis on the “moral equality” of humans and broke through these limits. Where does this “moral equality” come from? The Greeks didn’t have it. The Romans didn’t have it. It came from the very essence of Christianity itself. Siedentop explains how, with the advent of Christianity,

Social roles and rules became secondary. They came to be understood as subordinate to a God-given status shared equally by all human beings. Christians, therefore, were expected to live in “two cities” simultaneously, a dualism that would later be expressed in the distinction between the private and public spheres.

We can see this breaking out of moral enclosure everywhere in the New Testament. For St Paul, the love of God revealed in the Christ imposes obligations on the individual, that is, on the individual conscience. Paul refers constantly to “Christian liberty” and downgrades rule-following—the Hebraic “law”—in favour of action governed by conscience. In this way, the Christian conception of God provided the foundation for a new and unprecedented form of human society.

He argues, in this article and in his new book, Inventing the Individual: the Origins of Western Liberalism, that in contrast to most other cultures, western beliefs are informed by the assumption of “moral equality”, which underpins the secular state and the idea of fundamental or “natural” rights. Christianity played a decisive part in the emergence of this culture. Yet the idea that liberalism and secularism have religious roots is not widely understood, he says.

He cites the great medieval historian from the last century, Richard Southern, who extensively explored this same connection between medieval Christian thought – that of Anselm of Canterbury, Dominic Guzman and Thomas Aquinas, to name but three – and our modern sensibilities about relations between Church and State. It should not be very difficult for us to appreciate what Siedentop and Southern before him are talking about when we look at the view of humanity and nature preached by that deepest of deep Christian souls, Francis of Assisi.

The separation of church and state within the context of a healthy and Christian-friendly secularism has now been re-imagined in a manner which has drawn attention away from those religious roots – and makes secularism anything but friendly to religion. Now, religious belief and “godless” secularism are conceived as irreconcilable opponents and Siedentop speaks of the growing perception of a profound conflict being reawakened between secularism and people of faith – of the kind seen in the past, for example, in the unfolding of the French Revolution. For most of the millennium and a half since its foundation Islam was an external force besieging the borders of Christendom.  Now things have changed and  Sidentop observes that in recent years, with the insertion of Muslim populations into the Western mix of cultures a new dimension is added to the problem of harmonizing church and state:

In Europe, massive immigration and the growth of large Muslim minorities have widened the range of non-Christian beliefs dramatically—with significant consequences. Quite apart from the acts of terrorism which invoke—more or less dubiously—the name of Islam, Muslims are frequently encouraged by their religious leaders to look forward to replacing the laws of the nation-state with those of sharia. Islam appears to cohabit uneasily with secularism.

He adds to this mix the development on the North American continent of a militant fundamentalist Christian response to materialistic secularists. He does not put it in these terms exactly but what is now occurring there is that the children of the new hedonism of the Western world – abortion, euthanasia and an aggressive homosexuality are lining up for battle with those who want to live a Christian life. Secularism is becoming again, as he puts it, the enemy of the Christian rather than the companion.

In effect what is of course happening is that this kind of secularism has invaded the area of conscience and is setting up for itself dogmas of faith – redefining everything in its own image, declaring its full range of anathemas with a vehemence which will match any fundamentalist in any religion. Siedentop concludes his reflections with these words:

This is a strange and disturbing moment in the history of the west. Europeans, out of touch with the roots of their tradition, often seem to lack conviction, while Americans may be succumbing to a dangerously simplistic version of their faith. If we in the west do not understand the moral depth of our own tradition, we cannot hope to shape the conversation of mankind.

Understanding the moral depths of its own traditions must be, for any civilization, a sine qua non for survival. It is a beginning. But honesty, sincerity and simple rational intelligence are also sine qua non in this process. When a leader in a predominantly Christian country expresses the view that those who promote and carry out the killing of millions children awaiting birth should be blessed by God  – as President Barak Obama did when he ended a combative speech to the nation’s largest abortion provider last April by saying, “Thank you Planned Parenthood. God bless you,” then he cannot but risk triggering a tsunami of fundamentalism. The wave of Islamic fundamentalism which has been sweeping the world owes no small measure of its force to the scandalisation of Sayyid  Qutb, martyr for the Muslim Brotherhood, when he encountered, firsthand, the hedonism of segments of United States society in the two years he spent in colleges there in the 1940s.  We cannot doubt that the hedonistic follies of some of the Renaissance popes – considered by Barbara Tuchman in The March of Folly – and the complicity of the clerical establishment in the corruption of the aristocracy in seventeenth century France, contributed to the waves of destruction provoked by these excesses.  We are undoubtedly at a “strange and disturbing moment in the history of the west”. Whether we will come through it without another deluge in which much of what we know and love about out time will be swept away with the dross which surrounds us remains to be seen.

A version of this article has already appeared on MercatorNet.