My wife and I live about five miles outside a western town of less than 200 inhabitants. The town boasts a regional school, a post office, a diner, a small general store, and two non-denominational churches. Our nearest neighbor lives two miles away, and most of our neighbors raise wheat, beef cattle, and children. In other words, our community is probably what the modern media moguls visualize when they speak of “red states.”
Weather permitting, most Saturday mornings we walk across the fields into town to enjoy the signs of the seasons, collect our mail, catch up on the local news, and break the fast at the diner. Last week it was there we met an attractive young man, university educated, who has moved into the area to work at a regional airport thirty miles from us. He was holding forth with a small group of our coffee-drinking neighbors on the evils of religion and how religious faith is the root of all hatred and conflict in the world.
In his telling of the human story, modern Islamic jihad, the Inquisition, and the Crusades loomed large. After listening for a while, I asked him how he squared his thesis with the 20th century and the unprecedented hatred and conflict spawned by that century’s militantly secular and anti-religious states, specifically Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and China. He seemed strangely baffled by my question, as if he had never heard of the 20th century or didn’t understand why I was using a nice, polite word like “secular” to describe these states.
On our walk home, I reflected on how often we hear some version of this young man’s worldview expressed or implied by the Media. It is prettily and seductively summarized in John Lennon’s song “Imagine.”
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace
Many of the Christians I know seem either oblivious to the harm that this false narrative is causing or at least indifferent to the working assumptions of our secular society. Perhaps their silence on the topic is really signaling frustration and a growing sense of helplessness.
What are these assumptions? Let me take a stab at naming them:
- That “separation of church and state” means that religious beliefs (as well as the sources of those beliefs) are or ought to be a private matter and not imposed on others by being brought into the so-called public square;
- That those who are seriously religious, particularly Christians, are intolerant and bigoted, starting with their missions to native peoples and extending to their opposition to a woman’s abortion rights and to homosexual acts and gay marriage;
- That those who are seriously religious, particularly Christians, are ignorant and stupid because they refuse to find in science a sufficient explanation for reality or to give science a free hand in experimenting with human life;
- That those who are seriously religious, particularly Christians, tend to be militaristic and jingoistic, eager to shed the blood of others in spreading their faith or defending their causes;
- That a myriad of psychological disorders and “hang-ups” visited on successive generations can be laid at the feet of the seriously religious, particularly Christians, as a result of their puritanical inhibitions and prohibitions;
- That those who are seriously religious, particularly Christians, are by and large hypocrites, either pretending to virtues they don’t possess, or failing to practice what they preach, or finding faults in others rather than acknowledging their own;
- That a secular society is the best means of safeguarding liberty, including the “free exercise” of religion, and of building a more just and safe world;
- That, in short, the world would be a safer and happier place if religion, as Marx predicted and Lenin hoped, would wither away.
It would be difficult these days to find a product of Hollywood, a popular talk show or sitcom, or a news story that doesn’t explicitly, or more often by inference, paint Christians in this light and work from one or more of these assumptions. Anyone challenging these assumptions is made to feel uncomfortable, as if defending the indefensible or siding with the strident talk shows hosts of the hard right. When I challenged the anti-religious argument of the young man in the diner simply by asking a question he couldn’t answer, it made my neighbors uncomfortable. They didn’t agree with him, but they didn’t want to challenge him either. It wasn’t neighborly. Not even in our “red state.”
Besides, we know that some of this criticism of Christians is on target, and American Christians are paying the price for promulgating a false view of their faith and allowing their churches to become clubs for the morally complacent and politically correct rather than hospitals for the spiritually sick. The truth is, contrary to the working assumptions of our secular society, Christianity was much better for America than America was for Christianity.
What I have called the working assumptions of our secular society are what our children are taught in school these days. The young man in the diner didn’t spring from his mother’s womb convinced that religious belief lay at the root of hatred and conflict in the world. He learned this from a mainstream public education — not one of those private, left-wing, Eastern universities — for which American taxpayers, religious or not, paid. For this reason, I believe it’s important for us to know not only what our faith teaches, but also what history tells us. To know the facts and to teach them to our children. I don’t mean by this to imitate the secularizers by making a selective reading of history. I want an honest reading, one that not only begins, as every Christian act must, with a recognition and confession of where Christians have pursued their own unjust and selfish wills, sometimes ascribing them to God, but one that also carefully examines the claims of the secularists in light of history.
Let’s start with my question to the young man in the diner. Why is it that the first explicitly secular societies in history were also, by far and away, the most repressive and murderous societies in history? Is this merely a coincidence? Arguably, the second of these societies after Robespierre’s France was Russia. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 led to the establishment of a self-defined “godless” state (in which religious freedom was constitutionally “guaranteed”) and deliberately set out to secularize society, a process that Stalin, prematurely perhaps, declared complete in 1934. By then, of course, tens of millions had died in the Gulag. In the single brutal camp of Butova, shrouded in secrecy just outside Moscow, between 40,000 and 200,000 mostly Christian priests and monks were executed. I daresay none of these facts are given careful study in the modern American university when examining the presumed safeguards of secular society or challenging the notion that religion is the root cause of hatred and conflict in the world
Everyone seems to know the story of Nazi Germany and its death camps. The “scientifically” defended and designed extermination of whole classes of people, millions of them – the mentally ill, gypsies, Jews, and yes, Christians who refused to acknowledge the moral superiority of the secular State. But all of this in the popular mind is happily laid to rest at the feet of a single crazy megalomaniac, and the rest of the time is spent blaming the Church for not doing more to prevent the Third Reich’s well-oiled slaughtering machine. Largely ignored in this discussion is the Third Reich’s stunning success in secularizing the State. Not even the grim reminders of the French Revolution’s earlier secularizing Reign of Terror in James Billington’s Fire in the Minds of Men and Michael Burleigh’s Earthly Powers were enough to silence forever the defenders of a secular order.
My argument is not that we should be promoting theocracy in Christian schools or deluding our students into thinking that we ever had or could ever have a “Christian” state. It is rather to remind them in the words of St. John Chrysostom’s Liturgy, “Put not your trust in princes and in sons of men in whom there is no salvation.” No form of government, democratic or otherwise, and no societal construct, secular or theocratic, will automatically safeguard our freedoms, promote justice, or keep the promise of peace. Secularists put their trust is these forms because they have no choice. For this, they deserve our pity and our prayers. Against the verdict of history, they must try again and again and again with “princes and sons of men” because that’s all they have. For them there is no God and the only heaven to hope for is the one they construct here on earth. This beguiling and elusive end justifies their means, whatever they are.
Our students should know before they go off to the university that the burden of proof is not with the Christian who never hoped to build heaven on earth and whose efforts to govern and live by the precepts of the Gospel, though they often fell tragically short, never managed to create the hellish nightmares of the modern secular states.
One might argue that the emerging secular states have learned somewhat from the short history of these failed experiments. Until recently, none seemed eager to reject or oppose religious institutions and beliefs outright or to repudiate the laws and precepts derived from the religious sourcebooks, as we have seen in all previous secular experiments. By the same token, they are loath to acknowledge their debt to Christian civilizations, and by allowing human embryos to be cloned and killed, normalizing deviant sexual practices, legalizing exploitative and addictive enterprises, and repressing traditional Christian teaching and practice, they now seem poised and eager to frame laws and establish institutions designed to displace the pillars of that civilization. Without a referent outside of themselves, this trend will continue until reductio ad absurdum.
Surely it is worth bearing in mind a couple of Proverbs when considering these things:
He that sins against me wrongs his own soul: all they that hate me love death. (8:36)
There is a way which seems right to a man, but the end thereof is the way of death. (14:12)
It would be a mistake for classical-Christian educators, in my opinion, to neglect the careful study of these secular state experiments, beginning with the French Revolution. Their students are growing up and will eventually assume citizenship within the most recent of these experiments. They need to know the track record and be able to detect the propaganda that inevitably accompanies these experiments, usually from the most exalted intellectual quarters.