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A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State

by Daryl Hart

Ivan R. Dee, 288 pages, $26.95

Why Politics Needs Religion: The Place of Religion in the Public Square

by Brendan Sweetman

InterVarsity, 256 pages, $19

AFTER TWO THOUSAND years, we are still mulling over Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees who baited him with the question of whether it was lawful to give tribute to Caesar. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” Jesus answered”leaving it to us to figure out exactly what belongs to each.

By the closing years of the eighteenth century, three distinct models of church-state relations had emerged. The English model combined an established church with at least limited toleration of dissenting faiths. France, on the other hand, declared itself a secular state and severed all ties to religion. The American model was a hybrid: The rough consensus among the Founders was that no religious denomination should be given special privileges but that religion in general should enjoy the protection and at least the verbal homage of the state.

This American view was held even by such determined secularists as ­Jefferson and Franklin, who shared the general conviction that religion promoted virtue and was therefore indispensable for republican government. Only in the last half century has there been any effective resistance to that view, and it has come entirely from courts, not from the American people or their elected representatives. But because it has had the force of law, it has done much to narrow the traditional public role of Judeo-Christianity in America.

Not surprisingly, it has also set off a backlash from those who regard it as an attempt by elites to foist secularism upon a religious people. By the early 1980s, the culture war was well underway, and the church-state battle became one of its main theaters. Indeed, the fight over religion in the public square continues today, if anything, even more intensely than in the past. Both sides seem anxious to find, if not a knockout punch, at least a rhetorical strategy that could put their opponents permanently on the defensive.

Daryl Hart and Brendan Sweetman are only two of the recent ­writers who have taken up the fight”but what makes them interesting is their arrival, from entirely different starting points, at the same rhetorical strategy, one that relies heavily on irony.

Hart, the director of academic projects and faculty development at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, argues that if Christians would only think through the implications of their own faith, they would find themselves agreeing with the secularists. The irony is encapsulated in the title of his book, A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State . Sweetman, a philosophy professor at Rockhurst University, argues in Why Politics Need Religion: The Place of Religion in the Public Square that the aggressive, crusading secularism of our time is itself, at least in form, a religion; thus, along with other religions, it should be allowed a place at the public table but not be allowed to monopolize the discussion.

Hart thinks the root error of Christians who try to bring their faith into the arena of politics is the failure to understand that it just doesn’t fit. Christianity is “essentially a spiritual and eternal faith.” It is “useless” for resolving “America’s political disputes” and, because of its intolerance of other faiths, “impractical if not damaging to public life.” Christian evangelicals of both left and right come in for criticism in Hart’s book, but the left”he includes Jimmy Carter and Jim Wallis in this category”gets blamed mainly for “lighting the fire of the culture wars,” thus legitimizing the right’s crusade to bring its version of Christian values into the political arena.

We get the drift of Hart’s own political orientation early on when he remarks that Sen. John Kerry, “an observant Roman Catholic,” was rejected by many voters because he “looked to be insufficiently devout.” That is a peculiar way of putting it. If looking to be devout were what Americans most wanted from politicians, Bill Clinton would have gotten 100 percent support in the 1992 election instead of the modest 43 percent he actually received. As for John Kerry, a number of polls have shown that the reason many people, not just Catholics, turned against him was not that he didn’t look sufficiently devout but that he opposed all attempts to outlaw the physical act of shoving a scissor through the head of an about-to-be-born baby and vacuuming out its brains.

But that gets us into religion, Hart might say, and religion should be kept out of politics. Religion belongs in church, and the purpose of churches is mercy; politics has to do with the state, and the state’s purpose is justice. “To confuse the two is to misconstrue the bad cop (the state) and the good cop (the church).” Hart’s church is one that would be hard to locate in Western history. It has an abstract quality, reflecting very little of the actual traditions of Christian people. In this country, as ­Tocqueville was not the first or last to observe, Americans have kept Christian denominations separate from the state, but not Christian morality or culture.

Even in his analysis of Christian Scripture, Hart seems to distance himself from the subject. The Sermon on the Mount is “this string of maxims and exhortations,” which “is supposed to contain some of the most practical and profound teaching about the Christian’s responsibilities.” Hart’s cool tone sounds a little like Edward Gibbon’s, though the comparison is probably inapt. He is not a scoffer but an elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and that seems to be the reason, or at least his justification, for the position he takes on Christianity.

Founded in the 1930s by a group of conservative Presbyterian ministers led by J. Gresham Machen, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church is dedicated to saving the traditional tenets of Christianity, such as the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Christ, from repudiation by the forces of modernist Presbyterianism. Its nerve center is the Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, established in the late 1930s as a rival to Princeton Theological Seminary, after Princeton, once the bastion of conservative Presbyterianism, had succumbed to the modernists. Hart, a former librarian at Westminster and now an adjunct professor at Westminster in California (loosely affiliated with the Philadelphia branch), dedicates his book to Machen’s memory and legacy.

Though the gravamen of Machen’s case against modernism was the modernists’ indulgence of theological heterodoxy, the political implications of his fight won him admirers from far outside Presbyterian ranks. (H.L. Mencken was one.) Machen called attention to a grand irony that had been hiding in plain sight for decades: Many of the same modernists who were casting doubt on biblical Christianity were pushing in its name all sorts of social and political bromides”Prohibition (then considered a progressive cause), pacifism, socialism, and whatever else was thought to pave the way for the Millennium. As Machen saw, one of the incidental benefits of orthodoxy is that it frees Christianity from its entanglement with causes that are”or should be”purely secular.

But Machen’s primary concern was orthodoxy: He wanted to preserve the purity of religion by keeping politics out of it. Hart’s real concern goes the other way: He wants to preserve the purity of the secular by keeping religion out of it. Here, he believes, he has true Christianity on his side. His contention is that Christianity is “a secular faith” because it carves out a sector of life wholly separate from religion. While he sees this as implicit in Christianity from the beginning, he credits Protestantism with bringing it to the fore. By discrediting the authority of the Church in science and other secular areas, the Reformation made it possible to call oneself a “Christian secularist,” which is what Hart calls himself.

One can understand and even empathize with Hart’s attempt to draw a line separating the secular from the religious. Catholic thinkers have long sought to distinguish questions of prudential judgment from ones that directly involve Christian teaching. Sensible Christians do not turn to Scripture to determine whether to cut short-term interest rates or launch a new Mars explorer.

The controversy is about where the line is drawn. Hart’s line is one that would push religion into the far corners of American public life. Christians would be allowed to go to church and to pray at home and at private gatherings, but they could not make any reference to their religion in debates over public policy, nor display any signs or symbols of their religion in any state-subsidized place.

Secularists have been arguing this for years in American courtrooms, but Hart, a “Christian secularist,” is calling for it in the name of Jesus. He takes “my kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus’ reply to Pilate’s question of whether he was a king, as grounds for interpreting Christianity as a religion of quietism. No mention is made of Jesus’ prayer to his father that “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” nor of Jesus’ dramatic engagement with the world, reflected in his cures of sick and lame people, his physical attack on the tables of the moneychangers, and his warning that he was bringing not peace but a sword. Even the Ten Commandments, for Hart, are meant only for those in the “believing” communities of Judaism and Christianity; they are “not blueprints for public morality among the Chaldeans, Philistines, Romans, or Greeks.”

Hart could perhaps have avoided this cul-de-sac by taking some account of the philosophical tradition of natural law. By its lights, stealing and murdering are wrong not just for Christians and Jews but for everyone”including Chaldeans, Philistines, Romans, and Greeks. It is true that Hart comes from a strand of Reformed Protestantism that has been suspicious of natural law; but it was Paul, a saint much revered by the Reformers, who wrote: “For the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves. Which show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness.”

Indeed, even Protestant America has not been unfriendly to natural-law thinking. Jefferson declared, and Lincoln reaffirmed, the existence of certain unalienable laws that trump the laws of man, and in more recent times a Baptist minister named after Martin Luther cited Thomas Aquinas as one of the sources supporting his argument that laws violating natural law are invalid.

Since natural law provides such robust support for the political relevance of religion, you might think Brendan Sweetman’s Why Politics Needs Religion would eagerly embrace it. But Sweetman is wary of natural-law philosophy, at least what he calls the traditional kind. It is “essentially defensive in character. It often concedes an essential point to liberal political theory”that one should not bring one’s religious beliefs into the political arena.” His own response to the secularists takes a very different turn. He would put them on the defensive by using what amounts to a tu quoque argument: Sure, I’m religious, but so are you.

Religion and secular humanism, he contends, have this in common: They are comprehensive worldviews based on faith and reason. The contents, of course, differ radically, but in form they rely upon these five different sources: texts (such as the Bible or John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty ); authorities (such as Billy Graham or Richard Dawkins); a profound personal experience (like “God is near” or “people are all equal”); a tradition (such as that of the Church or Western liberalism); and trusting faith (“God will make things right” or “science will unravel all mysteries”).

They mix these in varying degrees with reason, so that within every worldview some beliefs use less reason and some more. The ones using less reason require more faith, while the more rational kinds require less faith. Belief in the Trinity requires more faith than reason; so does the secular humanistic belief that there is no such thing as human nature. Beliefs that have to be taken with a large dose of faith he calls “higher-order” faiths, and the ones not requiring so much faith he calls “lower-order.”

Now here is Sweetman’s argument: Religious people have a right to bring their lower-order beliefs into debates on public policy. Secular humanists have a similar right”but they don’t have the right to rule religious beliefs out of order in the public square, for their beliefs, at least in form, are also religious.

He notes that there are different levels of religious belief, and this permits him to distinguish his position from that of Pat Robertson and other fundamentalist spokesmen. His position, he claims, is similar to that of Richard John Neuhaus in The Naked Public Square . Neuhaus has written that “public decisions must be made by arguments that are public in character,” which would rule out arguments based solely on a private interpretation of Scripture. Sweetman suggests that what he calls “lower-order” beliefs are basically the same as Neuhaus’ public arguments, because both can be rationally defended.

The thread that, tugged a bit, starts unraveling the fabric of Sweetman’s carefully constructed argument is the word rational . What does it mean? Presumably, something that does not require an appeal to faith. He declares that he is “prepared to make a major concession to the secularist on this matter” by ruling out any appeal to the five different sources of faith mentioned above”authority, sacred texts, tradition, and so on. That means religious people must limit their arguments to ones based solely on “rational argument, evidence, and human experience,” which he calls the “sixth source” of religious belief.

But if religious people do that, how are they different from natural-law philosophers, whom he criticizes for giving away too much to the secularists? Sweetman seems caught in a dilemma. Is he going to go with Pat Robertson or Aristotle? If Robertson, then he violates the Neuhaus rule of public argument. If he goes with the pagan Aristotle, relying on “rational argument, evidence, and human experience,” he can probably work up a good natural-law argument; but religion, at least in his view, then starts to slide off the stage.

Perhaps he means that lower-order religious beliefs require some faith but just not a lot. If, as he asserts, all worldviews, religious and secular, “are faiths to some degree,” it follows that even lower-order beliefs are sprinkled with faith, though not (like higher-order beliefs) saturated in it. It is a question of degree. Presumably, then, when the degree of faith required gets too high, that belief should not be allowed in debates on public policy.

But what happens in disputed cases? Suppose someone says that your argument is based on higher-order beliefs and is therefore inadmissible”but you say no, it’s lower order. His answer is that “this dispute must be part of the debate.” So we’re almost certain to have a series of preliminary debates, debates over whether to admit certain arguments into the debate, setting off a series of Monty Python exchanges: “I say, that’s a high-order belief!” “No it isn’t.” “Yes it is!” “No, it isn’t . “Is!” “Isn’t!”
THEN, JUST IN CASE things haven’t gotten complicated enough, Sweetman insists that the parties to the debate must be allowed to make their arguments from their own worldviews. The Catholic gets to argue from his worldview that his argument is lower-order, and the secular humanist gets to counter that from his viewpoint it is higher-order. How could any meeting of the minds emerge from such a discussion? His answer apparently is that “we all strive for our worldviews to be as rational as possible.” But that is a dangerous concession. It suggests that there is some outside standard, called rationality, by which to judge the various worldviews. But that would bring him back to natural law”or, worse, to some kind of metatheory, la John Rawls, a theory Sweetman rejects at length in one of his chapters.

In the end, Sweetman turns to democracy as his deus ex machina. Here is the big Monty Python foot that abruptly closes the discussion: We count heads. If the majority wants to make official its particular brand of religion (Christianity, Islam, secular humanism, whatever), then so be it”provided the beliefs it enacts are all lower-order. The minority can challenge any one of those laws by arguing that it is really higher-order in nature. But the majority, embracing its majority worldview, gets to makes the final call. (In Sweetman’s ideal state, there is apparently no Supreme Court, at least not one that can overrule the majority.)

It is hard to see how this is any ­different from the Moral Majority approach criticized by Neuhaus in The Naked Public Square . If, Neuhaus wrote in 1984, a majority faith gets mobilized, it can always force its religious views on everyone else. “But every such victory is a setback in the search for a public ethic.”

The search for that elusive ethic continues today. Hart looks for it in what amounts to laicism, whose implications would lead toward the banning of crucifixes and headscarves in public schools; it would probably be even less successful in America than in contemporary France. Sweetman’s public ethic would be embodied in a republic where everyone talks past each other and then debates over what is debatable”which sounds like a Swiftian view of the U.S. Senate.

Both models seem to be of very limited use in winning over others to your side. Still, the search continues, and it is a serious endeavor; its outcome will affect many areas of our lives, from marriage and family to the way we treat the most vulnerable members of our society. It is to the credit of Sweetman and Hart that they have put some provocative suggestions on the table, challenging us to see if we can do better.

George McKenna is professor emeritus of political science at City College of New York. His latest book is The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism (Yale).