In his book The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, legal theorist Steven D. Smith coined the term “secular cage” to describe the Enlightenment ideal of a value-neutral public square where religious and philosophical beliefs are off limits. The construction of the cage originally had an elegant rationale: if everyone were to lay aside their subjective opinions and commit only to objective, verifiable facts, then the age of ideological religious wars could be left behind and universal consensus about the common good could be achieved at last.
After centuries of effort, this promised consensus remains as elusive as ever. The cage is rusty, and its inhabitants are restless.
Smith persuasively argued that the project was destined to fail from the start. As it turns out, the ideas of secular public discourse, whether embodied in quasi-religious expressions like “individual dignity,” “equality,” and “human rights,” or in mountains of purely scientific data, are not as objective as we might have supposed. The empirical data and the high-sounding terms alike are, he demonstrates, empty vessels into which public intellectuals, academics, pundits, politicians, and journalists pour their own meanings—meanings underwritten by the very sort of metaphysical orientations the cage was meant to exclude in the first place.
In other words, the secular cage operates as an intellectual black market. Governed by oppressive regulations requiring ideologically neutral arguments, people are forced to smuggle their deepest normative convictions into the public square in steamer-trunks stamped with politically correct slogans that pass scrutiny with customs agents from the Department of Secular Discourse. Invoking “equality” or “human rights” usually does the trick. But there is nothing secular about the contents of the trunks.
Literary theorist and scholar Stanley Fish agrees with Smith: “Insofar as modern liberal discourse rests on a distinction between reasons that emerge in the course of disinterested observation—secular reasons—and reasons that flow from a prior metaphysical commitment, it hasn’t got a leg to stand on.”
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat likewise observes that secularism hasn’t given up on religious ideology at all. It relies on metaphysical notions bequeathed by earlier generations. “The more purely secular liberalism has become,” he concludes, “the more it has spent down its Christian inheritance.” Elsewhere, he elaborates:
I don’t think that many humanists actually do have strong reasons for their hopes regarding human dignity and human rights. I think that they have prejudices and assumptions and biases, handed down as an inheritance from two millennia of Christian culture, which retain a certain amount of force even though given purely materialistic premises about mankind and the universe they don’t actually make much sense at all.
Italian philosopher and statesman Marcello Pera argues similarly in his book, Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians: The Religious Roots of Free Societies. Classical liberalism, he concludes, is ideologically underwritten by Christian ideas about human dignity and purpose. The purportedly secular public square has succeeded for so long because it has a presupposed ideological consensus about those ideas, even if we have naively papered over their Christian origins. Religion—deeply held, pre-critical normative convictions—is not optional. It is inescapable.
Thinkers less sympathetic to the Judeo-Christian tradition are offering similar concerns. In his recent book, The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology, philosopher Simon Critchley argues that religion and politics are inseparable. Politics cannot but be underwritten by metaphysical convictions. However, as an atheist, he is equally emphatic that the solution is not a return to Christianity. Recognizing that we need something very much like religion to ground our political concepts of liberty, equality, and rights, Critchley exerts his energies toward producing a credible counterfeit. As much as I admire his honesty, I am inclined to revise his subtitle: (Failed) Experiments in Political Theology.
What does any of this have to do with conservatism and the “religious right”? Conventional wisdom has it that evangelicals represent just one leg of the proverbial “three-legged stool” of conservative politics: the “social issues” or “values” voters, in contrast to economic conservatives or foreign policy hawks. Viewed in this light, evangelical conservatives are sometimes grudgingly allowed into the conservative movement merely for purposes of electoral victory.
But if the secular cage really is crumbling, if the possibility of “public reason” is in doubt, if the public square has been sustained only on the waning strength of its Judeo-Christian inheritance, then Christian theology affects more than just one leg of the stool. It is doubtful whether the other two legs, free-market economics and robust foreign policy, are themselves secular, self-justifying enterprises. After all, Christianity provides a moral basis for individual private property (e.g., “You shall not steal”) and the inherent economic incentives of work and reward (e.g., “subdue and have dominion”), twin pillars responsible for the economic prosperity of the West. Christianity also endorses the morally constrained use of violence by civil authorities to bring wrath on the evildoer (Romans 13:1-4). In principle this provides a moral basis for military intervention, even if actual practice has tended to ignore the “morally constrained” part. When these ethical foundations of secularism collapse, they collapse for everybody—conservatives included.
“When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” asks the Psalmist (Ps.11:3). At a moment when highly impressive thinkers are searching for a metaphysical worldview to justify the things valued most in Western society (individual dignity, human rights) might I suggest we give another look to the worldview that produced those values in the first place? Christian theology does not just underwrite “social issues” like abortion and marriage; it supplies the rationale for the other two “legs”—free markets and a responsible foreign policy—as well.
As liberals are busy attempting to prop up a house of cards, conservatives should recover the foundation that alone secures life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Brian G. Mattson serves as Senior Scholar of Public Theology for the Center For Cultural Leadership. His new book is Politics & Evangelical Theology: A Guide For Concerned Christians and Political Progressives.
The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse by Steven D. Smith (Harvard University Press, 2010)
Stanley Fish, Are there secular reasons?
Ross Douthat, Liberalism is stuck halfway between heaven and earth
Ross Douthat, What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?
Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians: The Religious Roots of Free Societies by Marcello Pera (Encounter Books, 2011)
The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology by Simon Critchley (Verso, 2012)
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