Share this page
Follow Salvo online
The Crux Project Archives: Government/Politics
HOW AMERICAN POLITICS BECAME SECULARIZED
An excerpt from the book Total Truth
Throughout the Middle Ages, a constant tug-of-war was waged between church and state, between pope and emperor, with one gaining predominance for a period, then the other redressing the balance. An important turning point came after the Reformation. The split in the medieval church had fractured the religious unity of Christendom, yet both sides continued to hold a territorial view of the church. They simply assumed that everyone living within a certain nation or geographical region should belong to the same religion. As a result, for more than a hundred years, beginning in the late sixteenth century and continuing throughout most of the seventeenth century, Europe found itself embroiled in religious wars. Many people had to flee persecution in their homeland, becoming religious refugees.
How did a century of religious warfare affect people's attitudes toward morality and politics? When people saw that Christians were willing to shed blood over religious differences, they began searching for an alternative basis for the social order. They sought a purely secular arena of discourse, autonomous from religion, that would function as "neutral" territory to bring peace to warring religious factions. As Jeffrey Stout explains, many came to think they could "contain the violent effects of religious disagreement only by creating nonreligious means for discussing and deciding matters of public importance."
Up until this time, the state had been regarded as a moral and spiritual entity even though it was institutionally independent of the church. Ordained by God, its duty was to protect the "common good" of the body politic, conceived in moral terms like Justice, Mercy, and Righteousness (with the definitions of these terms ultimately derived from divine revelation). Rulers regarded themselves as mediating, or participating in, God's own righteous rule over the nationswhich included the duty of protecting "true religion" and upholding the church.
After the Reformation, however, people began to ask, Which church? Then, after a hundred years of warfare between conflicting churches, many began to answer that the state should not have the job of upholding any church. They even began to contest the moral function of the state: Since morality is derived from religion, any religious conception of the "common good" that was proposed might well be challenged by a competing religion. No, a purely secular basis would have to be found.
The first rise to the challenge was Thomas Hobbes. He proposed that the ultimate basis for the political order was the fear of violent death. The "state of nature," as Hobbes pictured it, was hostile and violent―a war of all against all. The threat of death hangs over everything and (in his famous phrase) life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Each individual has a natural "right" to preserve his own life, taking whatever he needs, even if that means stealing or killing. The state arises when individuals decide that life would be more pleasant if they would give up certain rights, such as the right to defend themselves, and transfer those rights to a civil authority. This transferring of rights is called a contract, and for Hobbes it becomes the basis of all moral obligations.
The crucial point is that social duties no longer arise from a "common good" for civil society, constituted by transcendent principles such as Justice. Instead they are simply the product of individual choicewhen people decide it is in their interests to contract away some of their own rights. This is a form of pre-Darwinian naturalism, where the foundation of civic society is not a higher good but merely the individual's biological urge for self-preservation.
John Locke presented a similar scenario, except that for him the ultimate source of the civil order is hunger. The most basic right is the right to eat, and the threat of death does not come from other people (as it did for Hobbes) but rather from hunger. By exerting his labor to find food, or to grow it himself, the individual creates private property―and to protect his property more effectively, he enters into a social contract with others. Now, Locke assigned a much more limited role to the state than either Hobbes or Rousseau did, which is why he became the favorite of political conservatives. Yet like the other social contract theorists, he did not base civil society on any higher good. Instead he portrayed it as the creation of individuals, motivated by enlightened self-interest. Locke's picture of society is atomistic, where all that exists ultimately are individuals and their needs or wants.
Rousseau derived civil society from the natural instinct of "self love" (amour de soi) or self-preservation. Thus for all the social contract theorists, the ultimate basis for the political order is purely secular. They based civil society not on moral ideals derived from religion but strictly on the natural, biological instinct of self-preservation. The sole source of political legitimacy is the consent of isolated, autonomous individuals.
Ironically, social contract theory presupposes a completely unrealistic conception of human nature. The atomistic creature that populates the state-of-nature scenario appears to be an independent, fully developed, autonomous individual. "The theory starts with an image of, say, a 21-year-old adult male," comments Christian political theorist Paul Marshall. Obviously, no one actually comes into the world that way. Each of us begins life as a dependent, helpless baby, born into a family and a complex social, religious, and civil order. Only through the love and sociality exercised toward us by others do we grow into mature, independent creatures. As Bertrand de Jouvenal once commented, social contract theories "are the views of childless men who must have forgotten their childhood." Biology and history both teach that humans are intrinsically social beings.
Yet, despite its unrealistic starting premise, social contract theory became the dominant political theory in Americawhile at the same time a powerful force for secularization. As we have seen, what united the various versions of social contract theories was their rejection of transcendent moral ideals, to be replaced by a lowest-common-denominator biological urge as the foundation of the political order. Religious perspectives were marginalized, while the state took over as the central institution in modern society.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that many evangelicals in the eighteenth and nineteenth century failed to recognize what was happening. Having embraced a two-story concept of truth, they assumed that political philosophy was a lower-story "science" that could be pursued apart from any distinctively Christian perspective. As a result, many evangelicals at the time simply adopted secular political philosophiesespecially that of John Locke. Whatever Locke's personal religious faith was (which is endlessly debated), there can be no doubt that his political theory was at root secular, grounding civil society not in moral goods like Justice and Right but merely in individual self-interest.
How did evangelicals miss that? As George Marsden explains, "Locke's contract theory of government was, in practice, sufficiently like the Puritan concept of covenant that no one in the revolutionary era seems to have thought it significant to criticize its essentially secular theoretical base." By treating the lower story as philosophically neutral, Christians failed to recognize alien philosophiesand sometimes even adopted them without being unaware of it.
In our own day, this same secularization process explains why politics leaves so many people disillusioned and spiritually dissatisfied. "The liberalism of Hobbes and Locke is founded upon the relatively 'low' human goals of self-preservation and the desire for wealth," writes Stanley Kurtzwhich accounts for "the chronic disenchantment at the heart of modernity." At the core, humans are moral beings, and we long to see our highest moral ideals expressed in our corporate life. Ultimately the secular version of civic life fails to satisfy the human longing to live together in moral communities, committed to Justice and Righteousness. •
© 2014 Salvo magazine. Published by The Fellowship of St. James. All rights reserved.