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The End of Secularism

  • Hunter Baker
  • 2009 19 Aug
The End of Secularism

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from The End of Secularism by Hunter Baker. (Crossway).  

Chapter One: The Early Church and the Empire

As defined in the introduction, secularism means that religious considerations are excluded from civil affairs. We live in a time when public secularism is something of a taken-for-granted reality in the United States. Although the U.S. is one of the most religious of the developed nations, there is still an expectation among those who define public reality in the media, academy, and government that appeals to God should be saved for one's private life. When someone breaks the pattern by publicly invoking God as the reason to either embark upon or avoid a course of action, the reaction is typically one of distaste, surprise, or feeling threatened. The reason for the adverse reaction is that secularism is widely believed to be rationally more attractive than the alternatives and a superior strategy for attaining social peace in a pluralistic setting. To swim against the tide of secular modernity indicates one may be uncivil, unbalanced, and possibly even dangerous.

The question posed by this book is whether public secularism is desirable and, more specifically, whether it lives up to its billing. In order to answer that question, it is useful to look back at how we reached the current cultural and political moment, in the West generally and in the United States specifically. Just as atheism is by definition a reaction against something, which is belief in the existence of God, so too, is secularism a reaction against something. In the West, where the concept was born, secularism is a reaction against the notion of a religious state, particularly a Christian one. Thus, if one proposes to make a critical study of secularism, then one must obtain a degree of familiarity with the story of the Christian church and the state since the time of Christ.

The Rise of Christianity and the Challenge of Power
For most of human history, religious and political authority has been unified. Typically, both governmental and religious rule have been united in a single structure or the two have occupied distinct organizations but with a mutually reinforcing relationship.1 Christians and non-Christians often attribute the eventual growth of church-state separation in the West to the enigmatic statement of Jesus who famously said, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."2 The statement referred to a coin bearing Caesar's image and appears pregnant with possible meanings, but a common lesson drawn from the scriptural moment, employed repeatedly for two millennia now, is that God cares about sacred things, such as a pure heart and religious observance, and delegates more prosaic matters such as regular law, order, and commerce to earthly rulers. This single interpretation of what Jesus meant—the idea of separating the sacred from the pragmatic business of community governance—is the seedling of the modern secular arrangement of public affairs. In fact, secularism is sometimes referred to as the gift of Christianity to the West.3

Although the Christian thus instructed aimed to be a good citizen of the empire into which the early church was born, obedience carried one important caveat. God must be obeyed rather than men, so where God's law differed from the law of men, Christians were forced to follow the higher law.4 The paradigmatic example of a clash between the two realms involved emperor worship. At first, Christians were able to employ the same exemption from the practice that Jews enjoyed, but ultimately the government sorted out the two camps and began to persecute stiff-necked Christians whose refusal to subordinate their unique religiosity to the civil cult of the emperor posed an apparent threat to the legal order.5

From Persecuted Minority to Rule by the Lord's Man 
Faced with growth of Christian churches, the empire had the choices of secularization (which was unthinkable), extermination (which had not worked), or conversion of the ruler to Christianity.6 What meaning would Christ's words about the image on the coin take on if Caesar himself were a Christian? After battling to win the rule of the whole empire, Constantine did convert. Because conversion was seen as a way of dealing with the growth of the Christian cult and because of his deathbed baptism, his status as a believer is often questioned. In answer one might note that the empire was not yet majority Christian, and the practice of baptism at the end of life was commonly considered a prudential way of cleansing all sin right before death.7 Constantine held the traditional Christian belief that God was the God of history and had revealed himself through the resurrection of Christ. He referred to the faith as "the struggle for deathlessness."8 Historian Henry Chadwick asserted that whether or not Constantine's grasp of the Christian faith was subtle, the ruler was quite certain that the Christian God was the author of his military victory over his rival Maxentius in Rome.9

Christians and non-Christians alike often speak disparagingly of Constantine's conversion, as though Constantine made Christianity the state religion and thus ruined the purity of the faith by corrupting it with power and wealth. Contrary to popular belief, however, Constantine did not impose the Christian religion on the empire.10 His regime is more accurately described as having embraced "provisional religious pluralism." He believed and said that "the struggle for deathlessness must be free."11 His legislation did favor the Christian church in some instances though. He gave residences to the bishops of Rome and gave large percentages of provincial revenues to be used in church charity. The law itself also took on a more Christian flavor. He generated greater protection for "children, slaves, peasants, and prisoners."12 He ended the practice of branding criminals' faces because of the image of God in man. Courts closed on Sundays unless there was a slave to be freed.

Although Constantine's Christian humanitarianism continued to influence the law, his policy of religious toleration gradually fell by the wayside in the West. For a long time afterward the church was possessed by a different view, which was that of the loving constraint of heresy and apostasy.

The Religion of the State, but Not the State's Religion 
Under Constantine, the church first escaped persecution and then gained the bounty of endorsement by the most powerful man in the empire. In the latter half of the fourth century, Theodosius did what Constantine had not, which was to set up a Christian state where heretics had their civil rights sharply curtailed and pagans were tolerated but controlled. Half a century later, Theodosius II made serious doctrinal divergences subject to the death penalty and no longer allowed pagans to serve in the army.13

Ambrose set a precedent for the independence of the church when he refused Communion to Theodosius for his massacre of townspeople in Thessalonika after an imperial officer was killed in a riot there. The emperor did penance.14 He was the head of the state but not the head of the church and lacked the power to absolve himself or to declare his actions right. The action not only established the church's independence but also showed that it was not a slave to its private interests.15

Augustine's State: Necessary Evil or True Justice 
Augustine was one of the first major Christian commentators to live in an empire that was to some degree a projection of Christianity rather than a threat to it. For that reason, perhaps, his assessment of the state was thoroughly mixed.

Augustine viewed the natural state as little more than the most successful power play in a world of theft and contest. In one justly famous passage, he remarked:

Without justice, what are kingdoms but great robber bands? What are robber bands but small kingdoms? The band is itself made up of men, is ruled by the command of a leader, and is held together by a social pact. Plunder is divided in accordance with an agreed-upon law. If this evil increases by the inclusion of dissolute men to the extent that it takes over territory, establishes headquarters, occupies cities, and subdues peoples, it publicly assumes the title of kingdom! This title is manifestly conferred on it, not because greed has been removed, but because impunity has been added. A fitting and true response was once given to Alexander the Great by an apprehended pirate. When asked by the king what he thought he was doing by infesting the sea, he replied with noble insolence, "What do you think you are doing by infesting the whole world? Because I do it with one puny boat, I am called a pirate; because you do it with a great fleet, you are called an emperor."16

The Early Church and the Empire 
For a state to reach out and subdue peoples who have not endangered it is little more than grand larceny.17 Great legends arise out of conquest, but Augustine viewed that path with contempt. In an unfallen world, no one would ever have servant status imposed upon him by another man.18 Man was not created to serve a state. And man was not created to serve another man under coercion.

Augustine's account of the pre-Christian state is definitely that of the glass half empty. In addition to being a robber band with better publicity, the state is something to be endured. Temporal life is training for eternal life,19 and one should not complain too much as long as he lives under a state that does not compel him to commit impieties during his short life.20

With the coming of Christ, however, the state could aspire to more. The government could, if led by servants of the Lord, seek true justice and thus form a real republic rather than continuing to exist as a noble veneer covering larceny. God placed the empire in Constantine's hands for the very purpose of proving that his people could rule rather than exist as a permanent protest movement. In fact, the event of continued Christian leadership would prove extraordinarily "felicitous" for the people of the republic.21

Socrates already had part of the puzzle. He realized good morals were required to purify the mind so that it might then grasp higher things.22 Taking on the mind of Christ is necessary to apprehend real justice upon which to found the republic; consequently, the Christian emperor should rule justly and remember he is human. He will use power for the greatest possible extension of the worship of God and he will fear and love God, be slow to punish and ready to pardon, punish for ends of government and not for his own hatred, and grant pardon in hope of correction. There is an important distinction to be made here where Augustine spoke of serving God. The old way was to serve God in the hope that he would grant dominance and power. The way of the Christian is to serve God through charity and caring. Finally, the Christian ruler will restrain extravagance as much as it might have been unrestrained by his predecessors.23 This is the picture of the city of God.

To the extent possible, the earthly city should seek to identify its destiny with that of the city of God. In this way it could rise above theft, coercion, and temporality to strive for an eternal destiny. The city of God recognizes that there can be no right to do anything unless it is done justly. There is no right that proceeds simply from strength. What Augustine declared was later echoed by Martin Luther King Jr. many centuries later, as he wrote from the Birmingham jail, that an unjust law is no law at all. He appealed implicitly to the city of God and explicitly to Augustine's claim that God's justice has little to do with martial superiority.24

Despite his desire for republics ruled by Christians seeking after true justice—Christ's justice—Augustine realized that members of the city of God sometimes live in the earthly city without political power (as had been the pattern for the faith for the majority of its existence) and that cities where they do reign are surrounded by cities with different allegiances. Christians can live obediently in cities that seek mere earthly peace as long as those cities do not impede worship. 25 When in power, they are not to seek war with an adversary unless visited by iniquity.26 The differences between the city of God and the city of man get sorted out in the last judgment. God holds the responsibility for sorting wheat from tares.27

Though Augustine's work seemed to point in the direction of something like religious toleration, he, like so many other great theorists, found himself compelled to make hard choices based on events. His community in Africa was one of the most contentious spots for Catholic-Donatist strife. While all involved were Christians, there was little forgiveness and occasional violence.28

Ironically, the subject of the long-running dispute was the persecution the church had been through in the past. Those Christians who appeared to have lapsed under coercive pressure wished to rejoin the church or regain their clerical positions. In the main, the Catholic Church was willing to forgive with appropriate penance, but there were others (the Donatists) who held the stricter position that apostasy could not be forgiven, and they clashed with the rest of the church. They cherished the memory of martyrs for the faith and argued that forgiving the offense of the lapsed demeaned the martyrs' sacrifice.29

Dissatisfied with the existence of a nearly century-long dispute within the church, Augustine moved to conclude the issue with a council. Though he was in principle opposed to coercion as a method of resolving the controversy and tended to think it would merely result in fake conversions to his side, Augustine eventually came to embrace the opposite point of view. The government began putting pressure upon the Donatists and met with some success in changing hearts and minds. Augustine began to believe that a mind changed by coercion might eventually find itself in true agreement and thus be really reconciled. Slowly, he embraced a policy of moderate coercion and thus put his own imprimatur on "paternal correction" of dissidents.30

The council in Carthage (411), which addressed the situation, finally settled on fines, exile of Donatist clergy, and confiscation of Donatist property. Even with official policy against them, the Donatists continued on in Africa for nearly three more centuries. Perhaps the only reason we are not talking about them today is that they were eventually wiped off the map by expansionist Islam in the seventh century.31

The decision to suppress through the vehicle of law was one the church (in various manifestations) and Christian states would make at several points in history. Examples include the Medieval Inquisition directed against heretics such as the Cathars, who were clearly non-Christian, and the Waldensians, whose heresy looked a lot like mere Protestantism before its time; witch trials; and the suppression of both Catholics and Protestants by each other in Reformation and post-Reformation Europe. The idea behind the suppression was that of loving constraint. Love toward the community and toward the heretic himself required coercion and hopefully persuasion toward repentance so that the offender might save his soul. The "struggle for deathlessness" was no longer free. Rather, it was guided by church and state for better or worse.

The End of Secularism
Copyright 2009 by Hunter Baker 
Published by Crossway Books, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers 
1300 Crescent Street Wheaton, Illinois 60187

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