When I heard Hillary Clinton’s statement at the recent 2015 Women in the World Summit that “Deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed” for the sake of giving women access to “reproductive health care and safe childbirth,” at first I was confused. She has spoken often about being a Christian and having a rich prayer life, and I have no reason to doubt that she has real religious commitments. I wondered how someone who attends church regularly, prays, and therefore presumably knows something about the value and the sanctity of religious belief could say something so hostile toward religion.
Then I thought of Harvey Cox’s The Secular City. Something about her statement rang that bell. I have no idea if Secretary Clinton read Cox’s influential and popular 1965 book, or assuming she did, if the book influenced her thinking. Tracing the particular influences behind anyone’s conceptions is rarely a simple matter. What struck me, though, was the possibility that I have been missing something big: It is likely that many of those who denigrate religious beliefs aren’t drawing just on secular, anti-Christian ideologies, but on liberal Christian ideas about God. What I assume to be anti-religious animus might in some cases actually issue from a particular form of religiosity.
In The Secular City, Cox wrote that Christians should embrace secularization as a natural and welcome consequence of biblical faith. Rather than finding God in institutions or in doctrine, Christians should encounter him and engage in the Kingdom of God by being on the forefront of social change. In Cox’s words, “Jesus Christ comes to his people not primarily through ecclesiastical traditions, but through social change.” For Cox, the Church isn’t an institution, but the people who are doing the work of God in the world, work which he identified then as liberating captives, in particular the black poor of the inner city.
Drawing on Marx, Cox described the Church as the avant-garde of God’s permanent revolution in the world. One of the tasks of Cox’s church, like any Marxist avant-garde, was to exorcise people from the demons of false consciousness. When I read again Cox’s description of the Church’s duty of cultural exorcism, I couldn’t help but think that this is exactly what Clinton has in mind:
The ministry of exorcism in the secular city requires a community of persons who . . . are not burdened by the constriction of an archaic heritage. It requires a community which, if not fully liberated, is in the process of liberation from compulsive patterns of behavior based on mistaken images of the world. . . . The church should be ready to expose the fallaciousness of social myths by which the injustices of a society are perpetuated and to suggest ways of action which demonstrate the wrongness of such fantasies.
In other words, people who cling to religion are getting in the way of God’s work in the world. The true Church, led not by priests or pastors but by community activists, social workers, and progressive politicians, must free such folks from their—let’s all say it together now—“deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases.”
The civil rights era was a defining moment for a certain liberal, ecumenical strain of Christianity. Many of the problems of Cox’s secular cities proved to be like quicksand, absorbing time, ideas, and money without providing a firm foothold. But when it came to overturning racist laws, civil rights leaders got traction and achieved tangible and radical change. For those like Cox who associated entering the Kingdom of God with progressive social change, the civil rights movement provided powerful validation. Perhaps a desire to renew this validation accounts for the religious left’s determination to frame issues as new civil rights movements. So many of our social and economic problems still resemble quicksand, but if something can be framed as a civil rights movement, then that familiar, solid ground beckons. Ahh, to be once again a member of God’s avant garde, his sharp and willing instrument in history, walking with him one step ahead of the rest. If your faith found its footing in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, new civil rights battles must feel like a revival.
One hates to interrupt a revival with theological quibbles, but when they are preaching that our religious beliefs have to be changed, it’s time to speak up. Those who would confuse historical change with the work of the Spirit might be due for a new round of the theological corrective that they’ve needed at semi-regular intervals at least since the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln reminded those locked in conflict over slavery that “the Almighty has His own purposes.” Memories of the civil rights era have surrounded all calls for equality and rights, no matter how radical or far-fetched, in a hagiographic afterglow. Reminders of the transcendence of God could be a helpful corrective: We cannot bend God’s will to serve our visions of the perfect human society, nor can we summon divine favor through incantations of equality. God still has and always will have his own purposes, and those who believe in him best begin by at least trying to discover what those might be.
Molly Oshatz writes from Mountain View, California.