Concrete Secularism

The last chapter of Darryl’s book is obviously the one in which he steps up, wraps up, and sums up, and of course it is also the place where some of our more obvious disagreements come to the fore. Darryl’s basic assumption is that the coming of Christ ushered in a new relationship between church and state. “Consequently, even though religion and politics were one in the period of the Old Testament, in the new seclorum of the church these spheres were divided” (p. 241).

The division between church and state was a necessity for the first three centuries of the Faith because the state was pagan. But when Constantine converted, that brought in (according to Darryl’s take) a major reversion to the OT ways. It was not until the advent of Protestantism, in Darryl’s view, that this church/state coalition was seriously challenged (although implicitly, not explicitly). Darryl makes this point a number of ways.

“Protestantism implicitly heralded the kind of confinement of religion to a private or nonpublic sphere that would develop after the American and French revolutions, which formally disestablished Christianity” (p. 241).

“Protestantism, then, was not a passive bystander to the secularization of the West but a crucial factor in that development, a factor that stemmed directly from Christian ideas and arguments, not simply from conceptions hostile to Christianity” (p. 244).

“. . . it is strange that contemporary Protestants seem to long for Christian social and political influence in ways that their Reformation canceled” (p. 244).

“Of course both Luther and Calvin still labored in the context of Christendom and were a long way from the religious disestablishments of the late eighteenth century. But by recognizing the markedly different tasks of church and state they were articulating arguments based on Christian teaching, not from anti-clerical prejudice” (p. 244).

“The wonder is why present-day Christians in the United States have failed to remember these lessons from their own faith” (p. 247).

But in our previous installments we have noted that the magisterial Protestant participation in Christendom was not a function of inertia. These issues were thought through and settled, and it seems clear that settlement has a very slight resemblance to the vision that Darryl is presenting. He is of course correct that factors related to the Reformation were also related the process of secularization — but if we go by our confessional documents (like Westminster) Christendom is assumed. Put in terms that I believe Darryl respects, I subscribe — as part of my vocation as a minister — to the original English version of the Westminster Confession of Faith. My acceptance of the ideal of Christendom is therefore not a personal doctrinal conviction of mine; it is a confessional issue.

But Darryl still thinks that advocates of a Christian take on public policy are a little naive.

“Protestants today who regret or resist secular society do so often because they do not understand more nuanced definitions of secular” (p. 249).

There are two important responses to this. The first is that we are not fighting against secularism as an abstract idea. Secularism has an actual cultural embodiment, with high crime rates and everything. We are not dealing with an upright government that enforces the laws justly, and yet somehow, mysteriously, never mentions Jesus. Rather, we have a secular government that is pressing us with sodomite marriage, thousands of abortions daily, women in combat, preachers charged with hate crimes because they simply speak the Word in their own churches, and we can’t buy gas anywhere without seeing a rack of one-handed magazines behind the counter. In other words, we are fighting a very concrete form of secularism, one with a very clear agenda, and a very tangible expression. So the first issue is not what secularism could be like if Darryl were running it, the question is what is our secularism like? And the answer to that is bloodthirsty, idolatrous, horny, covetous, and hostile.

This leads to the second response. Can a secular state sin? And if the secular state can sin, then can Christian charge it with that sin? Can John the Baptist go to Herod and tell him what’s on his mind? And if a secular state can sin, what standard is it violating? What does the prophet say after the “Thus saith” part?

“Furthermore they do not appear to understand something crucial to their own faith, something that philosophers, historians, and sociologists have no hesitation in deducing and even applauding. It is that Christianity in a very important sense is a secular faith” (p. 249).

But is there a difference between this secularism that Jesus wants us to have (theonomic secularism?), and the secularism that is killing all the babies? Can we fault this second kind, and, if so, by what standard? The question cannot really be avoided.

“The question pursued in this book has been whether Christian-inspired policy, arguments, or candidates are appropriate on Christian grounds. My conclusion is that such involvement is inappropriate, because using Christianity for political ends fundamentally misconstrues the Christian religion” (p. 253).

Now it appears to me that Darryl is prepared to swallow the reductio so long as we are talking about secularism in the abstract. But secularists do the same thing that all religionists do — their theology comes out their fingertips, and so I would want to pose the same question to Darryl again, only with concrete examples. And, given the history of the last century or so, they are not crazy hypotheticals. Your next door neighbor, a Jew, is being hauled off to a concentration camp, where his life will be taken by a secular state for its secular ends? For a Christian to say, “No, in the name of Jesus,” is taken by Darryl to be a fundamental misconstrual of the Christian religion. Your next door neighbors, Bob and Sam, just got back from their honeymoon. They demand to be treated as any other married couple. Do you? Is it a fundamental miscontrual of the Christian religion to treat this legitimized sodomy as sodomy still? You are a third year med school student, and a decision has just come down requiring all medical students to learn how to perform abortions, and refusal to do will result in you being banned from the practice of medicine. Do you refuse, even though the state doesn’t interfere with any of your doctrinal convictions or liturgical convictions? After all, the practice of medicine is under the authority of the secular state, is it not? And if I refuse in the name of Jesus, am I fundamentally miscontruing the Christian religion?

The idea of a Christian “going along” with this kind of thing revolts all of us, I am sure, Darryl included. If the Christian says yes, he is sinning against Jesus in the secular realm. But if he says no, challenging the powers that be, and they ask him for a reason, is he allowed to say that the God of heaven and earth, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, forbids what you are doing?

“The argument of this book is that secular politics is thoroughly compatible with orthodox Christianity” (p. 257).

Yes, but again, define secular politics. Is secular politics answerable to God? Is it under God? Will God judge it on the last day, or rather judge secular politicians for what they did under the cover of this handy refuge for sinners? If God will judge them, can prophetic Christians warn them of the judgement? Given Darryl’s assumptions, how? “Secular politics” can sound pretty innocuous. But let’s drop certain specifics into the same sentence.”The argument of this book is that tax-funded partial-birth abortions is thoroughly compatible with orthodox Christianity” (p. 257). “The argument of this book is that homosexual marriage is thoroughly compatible with orthodox Christianity” (p. 257). “The argument of this book is that endless war is thoroughly compatible with orthodox Christianity” (p. 257).

Given this, it is odd to me that Darryl concluded the book with an appeal to the example of the prophet Daniel. “This Daniel, the assimilated and devout prophet, may be the best model for American Christians wanting to know how to participate meaningfully in public life” (p. 256).

“Which is another way of saying that for thinking through the difficult negotiations of faith and politics, American Protestants have seldom studied that page, but if they had they might have discovered a strategy similar to the one by which the Jewish prophet particiated in Chaldean culture, submitted to the Babylonians’ laws, and retained his own forms of Jewish devotion and worship” (p. 257).

I actually agree. Daniel is a great model, and, more than this, a significant type of what will actually come to pass in the coming days of Christ’s reign over the nations of men. What was the result of Daniel’s engaged but uncompromising stance?

“Then king Darius wrote unto all people, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth; Peace be multiplied unto you. I make a decree, That in every dominion of my kingdom men tremble and fear before the God of Daniel: for he is the living God, and stedfast for ever, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed, and his dominion shall be even unto the end” (Dan. 6:25-26).

“Then Nebuchadnezzar spake, and said, Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who hath sent his angel, and delivered his servants that trusted in him, and have changed the king’s word, and yielded their bodies, that they might not serve nor worship any god, except their own God. Therefore I make a decree, That every people, nation, and language, which speak any thing amiss against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, shall be cut in pieces, and their houses shall be made a dunghill: because there is no other God that can deliver after this sort. Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, in the province of Babylon” (Dan. 3:28-30).

Well, okay. I guess I could go for that.

Leave a Reply

Notify of