The Limits of Secularization
Secularization is part of a long trend toward moral liberalization. That the Iowa Supreme Court would unanimously rule prohibition of gay marriage illegal when a decade ago this would have seemed impossible is just one example of this very welcome trend. ~Will Wilkinson
This is a tricky subject for me – on the one hand, I agree entirely with what Will is arguing here in regards to the end of gay marriage prohibition; on the other hand I think there are very real dangers in pushing for a totally secularized, modernized – even liberalized – society. Accepting that modernity, liberalization, and so forth are simply good without fail is a sort of blind faith all its own. Wilkinson and many others are correct in many of their critiques of religiosity in America, and especially the highly politicized zealotry that has come to dominate the religious right. I would argue that it has also been bad for religion and for the religious in America, many of whom are not reactionary or very political who find their loudmouthed brethren are causing a great deal more harm than good to their causes.
But it’s easy to conflate religion and morality with religiosity and faux morality. I think this is because, in America, there have been two types of religious moral frameworks coexisting which really cannot be defined as “conservative” and “liberal” but rather as traditional vs revanchist. Sam Tenenhaus broke conservatism down into similar categories, but I think the same can be applied to Christianity.
The revanchist moralists have been largely responsible for the culture wars, and as with all the other wars (on drugs, on terror, etc.) the culture wars have been largely a failure. Much of the blame for this can be laid at the feet of the warriors themselves, often revealed to be hypocrites, bigots, or merely men and women hungrier for power than for true cultural change. The tactics of these culture warriors are often brash, loud, and hostile. More often than not they eschew the humility and love that Christ taught in favor of judgment and condemnation. They paint a picture of Christianity and Christians that is angry, reactionary and proud, and quite frankly, not very Christian. Andrew Sullivan has come to call these revanchist moralists, Christianists. Damon Linker calls them theocons. Whatever the term, the real defining aspect of the revanchist Religious Right is that it has adopted political means to achieve moral aims, as opposed to cultural or moral aims to achieve political ends. In other words, this particular brand of religiosity is intent on using the political process to enforce its set of irredentist morals and beliefs from the top down, rather than using cultural means to influence society from the bottom up. In a decidedly secular state, with a constitutional separation of Church and State, this is bound not only to fail, but to fail miserably.
There is a corresponding Religious Left, I suppose, though in terms of political clout and influence, the Religious Left is rather insignificant as a religious movement. The Christian Left has long ago accepted secularization as the way forward, and are thus outside the question posed here.
The other moral framework that the Christian community in America operates within could better be defined as “traditional” or “cultural” Christianity. Under this framework the culture wars are personal struggles; the politicizing of religion is seen as dangerous. I think both liberals and conservatives can be of this stripe, actually, though both those terms have taken on less and less meaning for me. My own mixed bag politics make it very hard for me to know what to call “conservatism” or “liberalism” anymore. The important distinction is that it is not a top-down approach to moral concerns, but rather a grassroots effort; or perhaps not an effort at all, just a way of life.
The natural desire for autonomy and liberty is strong in traditionalists, but so is the need for preservation of culture, history, and of course, tradition. This is the strength that religion can bring to a civilization. Tradition is important, as is some semblance of social cohesion. Where multiculturalism and secularization can lead to a splintered social order, and fragmentation of groups within a society, tradition can help sustain common culture. And a living tradition can adopt and then preserve change in a way that the empty shell of secularization cannot.
This is the danger in adopting the sort of attitude toward secularization that Wilkinson and many other libertarians and liberals advocate. While there is no denying that some good has come out of secularization and science and modernity – indeed, I’ve mentioned before that I think the addition of strong, intelligent atheist voices to the religious dialogue is in fact a good thing, regardless of how I personally feel about some of the New Atheist’s deeper motives – nevertheless, secularized society cannot preserve tradition or liberty as well or as deeply as a society with a deep moral and religious tradition. In the Soviet Union God was pronounced dead along with millions upon millions of Russians – often professors and intellectuals. In secular Europe, God has not been lost entirely, but rather replaced.
Where secularization succeeds is in the promotion of liberty and the advancement of technology and science. These are good things, to be sure, but I would argue that a liberty devoid of morality is a shallow creature, flighty, easily dispersed. Technology without a moral tradition and the wisdom of that tradition is made too easily into a weapon. Without moral and religious inhibitions to the advancement of technology we risk dismantling much of what makes us human; through cloning or weapons of mass destruction or the acceptance of death as a cure to our age or our sadness. We also risk a reaction to secularization which embraces a resurgence of the revanchists who promise a more fiercely fought battle, and a more politically (and thus more tangible) return to “family values” and other culture war talking points. In other words, secularization is all well and good until people lose faith in it. Far better to wish for a better, smarter embracing of religion. There is no need to do away with Christianity in America; most Christians accept science and equality and justice. Indeed many of these things were born out of the Christian tradition, which has been inextricably bound to the larger Western tradition. Of course, there have been bumps in the road; for a time the Earth was believed to be the center of the universe; witches were burned and crusades were futilely waged, sometimes against the Muslims, sometimes against fellow Christians.
But to wish for a purely secular society is to wish for the untested, untried and essentially unmoored civilization; one without distinct moral traditions, without deep roots or a steady source of spirit. This is to wish for a ship without compass, sun or stars. Indeed, the ship can float on its own. It can house its crew and carry its burden. It can do it all in a moral vaccuum. But if it founders, if it becomes lost at sea, will it ever find its way home again? Will it even know after a while, where it set out from and thus where it is bound?