If we ask what was the greater source of violence in the 20th century, secularism has to trump religion every time.
In my previous post, I asked whether our society is “post-Christian” (as is commonly reported), and I suggested that the question might matter to readers of this blog insofar as many of our revered legal and political commitments are arguably grounded in Christianity (or at least in the bibical or Judeo-Christian tradition). I also quoted T. S. Eliot’s provocative contention that “a society has not ceased to be Christian until it has become positively something else.” Eliot thought that “[w]e have today a culture which is mainly negative, but which, so far as it is positive, is still Christian.”
Suppose Eliot was right in 1939, when he gave his lecture. Even so, things might have changed. So we might ask whether our own society has become “positively something else” other than Christian. Has some other “positive” ideology or philosophy or faith come along to replace Christianity as a foundation for our social and political arrangements? If so, what is that “positive” replacement?
Several years ago in a conference at Cardozo and again in a book published earlier this year (The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom), I speculated that Christianity may have been replaced as a cultural and political orthodoxy by “secular egalitarianism.” Prominent political theorists today view equality– or a commitment to “equal concern and respect”– as the foundation of our legal and political order, much in the way that Christianity was thought to provide the foundational values and truths in centuries past. In addition, just as self-assured Christians often could not imagine that anyone could honestly doubt essential Christian truths, and so dismissed contrary views as the product of ignorance, willful error, or hypocrisy, so also the committed proponents of, say, same-sex marriage often suggest that traditionalists could only be acting from hatred or irrational prejudice, or else are in the grip of mindless tradition or religious authority. Finally (and ominously), secular egalitarianism resembles Christendom in that it is not content to regulate outward conduct, but instead seeks to penetrate into and purify hearts and minds– and to punish people who deviate in thought or word from approved egalitarian values.
Recent events might seem to confirm this speculation. The Mozilla-Brendan Eich affair. The Windsor decision’s invalidation of DOMA based on the Supreme Court’s indefensible and profoundly offensive contention that the law was enacted from “a bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group,” or from a “purpose . . .to demean,” “to injure,” and “to disparage.” (I have discussed Windsor at greater length here.) The avalanche of lower court decisions striking down state marriage laws, and often imperiously refusing even to stay their judgments pending appeal. Equality is at the moment a sort of cultural and political juggernaut, flattening all opposition. Tocqueville observed that “[d]emocratic peoples always like equality, but there are times when their passion for it turns to delirium.” We seem to be living in such a time of egalitarian delirium.
In sum, equality seems to be the order of the day. And yet, upon further reflection, I’ve come to think this interpretation contains a serious flaw. The difficult question, I think, is whether secular egalitarianism, for all of its current power, is something “positive” or rather, as Eliot put it, merely and “mainly negative.”
After all, at least as it functions in our constitutional doctrines and anti-discrimination laws, equality does not affirmatively tell political actors or employers what to do, or what criteria to act on. Instead it tells them what not to do (don’t “discriminate”) and what criteria (race, sex, . . .) they may not act on. More generally, equality cannot tell us what either a good life or a good society consists of. For that we must depend on other sources. Received traditions. Or Christianity, . . . or other faiths, . . . or their secular counterparts. Equality is a parasite; it attaches itself to already formed practices and institutions and then attempts to negate some of their features. (This can be a good thing, by the way: some inherited features– e.g., racial discrimination– may be harmful, and thus in need of negation.)
Take the cause du jour– marriage. Equality did not and could not make marriage. Marriage is the creation of human nature and need, rather, or culture and tradition, or perhaps of religion, or some mixture thereof. The current egalitarian movement, campaigning under the question-begging slogan of “marriage equality” (see here), takes marriage as an existing, already formed institution or practice, and then seeks to negate one of the traditional features that has defined marriage– namely, the feature of being a relation between a man and a woman.
Whether what remains after this feature has been erased still deserves to be regarded as marriage is of course a matter of some contestation. And indeed, in contemporary culture it is very difficult to say just what marriage is. Is it a relationship aimed at procreation? Not necessarily. A loving or romantic relationship? Again, not necessarily. A binding or enduring relationship? Once again: not necessarily. None of these features is either necessary or sufficient to make a “marriage.”
But if the secular egalitarians cannot tell us what marriage is, they do tell us (with unflinching certitude) what marriage is not, or must not be: it must not be a relationship that has as an essential feature a union between a man and a woman. Contemporary egalitarianism has negated that feature. Whether, having achieved its immediate objective, equality will rest content or will proceed to challenge and negate other features of marriage– so that “marriage” eventually becomes whatever anybody wants it to be– remains to be seen.
The more general point, once again, is that equality serves mostly to negate– to tell us what we must not do, what criteria we must not consider. So it could be that current egalitarianism leaves intact, and indeed even serves to confirm, at least part of Eliot’s assessment. “We have today a culture which is mainly negative . . . .”
And yet the second part of Eliot’s contention– namely, that our culture “so far as it is positive, is still Christian”– seems a stretch. It may be true that many of our revered institutions and commitments can be traced back to Christianity. But if Christian rationales are no longer invoked in our official public discourse– indeed, are deemed inadmissible in that discourse– is it really perspicuous to describe the culture regulated by that discourse as “Christian”?
So then if our culture and society are no longer Christian, and if equality turns out to be a “mainly negative” commitment, then what more positive description or term should we use to describe our public order today?
I can imagine a few likely– some might say obvious– answers to the question. (Liberalism, for example. Or maybe secularism.) But the likely or obvious answers seem to me problematic. Maybe we can consider some of these candidate answers and their difficulties in future posts.