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Secularism Cannot Sustain Liberty, a Response to Greg Forster

An author should be grateful for every serious book review and reviewer. Thus, I deeply appreciate the seriousness with which Greg Forster has reviewed in this space my latest book, The Gathering Storm. His review reveals a careful reading of the book and an acknowledgment that ideas really do have consequences. My response is not so much a protest of his review as it is a clarification of what I believe to be the issues at stake. And let’s be clear—the issues are urgent and unavoidable. What remains of Western civilization faces a precarious future. The streets of American cities are filled with crowds calling for its extinction.

As the title of my book indicates, I see the situation as dire. I believe that the project of civilization in the West, and in the English-speaking world in particular, has brought the greatest flowering of liberties and the greatest opportunities for human flourishing in human history. I also believe that this civilizational project has arrived at this moment of maximum danger after decades of both neglect and mounting opposition. The most fundamental problem is the loss of the intellectual and moral preconditions that make the project of ordered liberty possible.

I wrote The Gathering Storm so that thinking Christians (and other readers) would understand this danger and be able to trace at least some of the most pressing issues of cultural, theological, and moral concern to their sources and connections. The subtitle of the book suggests the basic problem, “Secularism, Culture, and the Church.” One of the central arguments I make in the book is that our American political charter and this long experiment in self-government and classic liberty is being undermined by massive shifts in the tectonic plates of our culture, and the most important of these shifts is secularization. In more recent decades, this long process of secular change has been driven by cultural forces that are increasingly committed to secularism as an ideology.

But in the first few paragraphs of his review, Greg Forster argues that my book represents “an illiberal Christian argument against liberalism.” He actually argues that I propose an “evangelical Christian nationalism.” The title of the review pushes the indictment further, seeming to accuse me of proposing a “Protestant Integralism.” 

Well, my guess is that Catholic integralists are shaking their heads in fury. The central argument of Integralism is that temporal power must be subservient to the spiritual power, and that spiritual power is the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, the Catholic Church’s moral teaching (and even power of coercion) should be integrated throughout the culture. Integralism is truly and honestly anti-modern and it is quintessentially Catholic. I am not only a Protestant, I am a Baptist. I am an ardent conversionist. I reject infant baptism and believe that the church consists only of those who have personally and consciously confessed Jesus Christ as Lord. I do not believe in a church ruled by a pope and magisterium. I am incapable of being an Integralist.

But, truth be known, if I were a Catholic I would at least be tempted by Integralism, simply by the logic of historic Catholic teaching. To this Baptist, the logic of Pope Leo XIII seems authentically Catholic, while John Courtney Murray seems far less so. I am very interested in the analyses offered by those Catholic thinkers like Patrick Deneen at Notre Dame and Adrian Vermeule at Harvard, who see the project of modern liberty as out of control. It is out of control, and it will destroy the very civilization that allowed its birth. But I do not see the project of ordered liberty as the problem.

I believe that the problem is the loss of any transcendent and objectively real basis for the declaration of human dignity, human rights, and human liberty. Put bluntly, a secular worldview cannot possibly sustain these goods or the American constitutional project. Instead, the very rights asserted in the Declaration of Independence, based upon “the laws of nature and nature’s god” are subverted and replaced with a new regime of endless “rights” based in nothing but positive law. And, to be clear, the apparatus of the state increasingly recognizes human law as the only law. Thus, we have a Supreme Court decision redefining marriage to include same-sex couples, and now the Court is aiding and abetting a revolt against the objective reality of sex and gender. This is a rebellion against reality—against ontology and created order. And it is both the result of unhinged claims of dignity and rights and a major engine for driving further disorder through the entire culture, leveling all who would stand in the way of this revolution.

I am not a Protestant Integralist, but I do profoundly believe that secularism cannot sustain either virtue or respect for life.

But Greg Forster opens his review of my book by declaring: “If political liberalism means anything, it means a civil law that does not take sides in religion. It therefore commits us to at least a limited form of secularization (i.e. secularization of the law).” Historically, there is a real sense in which that claim is true, but the key phrase is “limited form.” It is also abundantly clear that the secularists now in the driver’s seat are never satisfied with a “limited form of secularization” and that the goods of human dignity, human rights, and human liberty can be secured only by a transcendent source and a grounding in ontology. That ontological basis—which the existence of a Creator can alone establish—is now rejected with condescension by the intellectual class. This leaves human rights and human dignity without any foundation at all. Assertions are no substitute for reality.

In this sense, the founding of our nation and its experiment in ordered liberty was profoundly unsecular. The worldview of those who founded the nation was structured by Christianity. We need not argue, founder by founder, who was and was not a Christian in any evangelical sense. The bare unassailable fact is that their worldviews, plausibility structures, and moral sense were shaped by Christian truth and this is particularly true when it comes to the foundational principles of human dignity and human rights. The Declaration of Independence grounded those rights in both nature and nature’s god. John Adams would go so far as to argue: “The doctrine of human equality is founded entirely in the Christian doctrine that we are all children of the same Father, all accountable to Him for our conduct to one another, all equally bound to respect each other’s love.” This argument is typical of the founding generation and was typical of American political thought well into the 19th century.

Several of the leading figures of the American founding had at least some deistic beliefs, but deism is certainly not secularism. The point is not that John Adams was a conventional Christian. The point is that he had no frame of reference for defining and defending human dignity apart from Christianity.

The American experiment in ordered liberty and constitutional self-government is sustainable only under the conditions that made it possible in the first place. It cannot survive simply by asserting “rights” out of thin air. There is no evidence whatsoever that human dignity will be respected by a regime that rejects any ontological basis for those rights, and any transcendent meaning of the human person.

Those who believe that free markets can endure without respect for a revealed morality (even by natural revelation) and a true affirmation of human dignity are, I believe, sadly mistaken.

I am not a Protestant Integralist, but I do profoundly believe that secularism cannot sustain either virtue or respect for life. I am not a nationalist, but these days affirming the importance of the nation-state, the distinctive project of the nation, and the strengthening of a nation is enough to get one called a nationalist. I recognize that secularism and secularization are not identical and that secularization in a general sense seems to be inevitable under the conditions of modernity. I want Christians to help preserve our civilization and this great project of ordered liberty. I do not want them to abandon it.

But I agree enthusiastically with Greg Forster that educating and influencing Christian pastors is the most important work I can do. That is why I have dedicated my entire adult life to this cause. I am uncertain about prospects for the future of Western civilization, but I am supremely confident that the gates of hell shall not prevail over Christ’s church.

The writing of books and book reviews is a form of conversation long respected in the English-speaking world. I appreciate Greg Forster’s contribution to this conversation. I hope to be able to continue that conversation in person as well as in print. More importantly, this conversation needs to be joined by all those who care about our common future, and who see the storm clouds gathering.

Reader Discussion

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on August 04, 2020 at 07:25:15 am

The exchange here with Forster is most welcome, and I have just ordered the author's book. But I was left concerned on two scores. The first - which Forster raises - is the issue of secularization. Here I would commend two recent books by Steve Bruce: Scottish Gods and British Gods, which deal with developments since about 1900 in Scotland and England, and displays a collapse of religious belief - and its inter-relation to certain kinds of social change - which Mohler should find worrying. The problem, here, is the development of various social factors which lead people - both outside and within churches - into a kind of subjective consumerism towards doctrine, and to an intolerance towards any religion which does not fit their ideas about what 'religion' should be: this ends up including orthodoxy! Further, he documents the degree to which people are no longer brought up with even a background in Christian ideas (such that it is then difficult to evangelise them), the strikingly low rates of conversion of people from a secular background, and the poor rates of retention of their children, by families which are Christian, add to the problems.

My second concern, however, is that as things stand, conservative Christianity looks in a poor way, intellectually. It is not clear - outside of some people in the Dutch Reformed tradition - that any serious attempt has been made to offer an alternative to the kind of defence of conservative Christianity which was offered by the Old Princeton tradition. While as James Barr has argued at some length (e.g. in his Escaping from Fundamentalism), conservative evangelical Christianity seems to have attached itself to views about scriptural authority, which it is difficult to see could be defended, and to a tradition of poor-quality 'responses' to these sorts of criticisms which don't pass intellectual muster.

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Jeremy Shearmur
on August 04, 2020 at 08:19:03 am

The exchange between Forster and Mohler is thought-provoking and valuable. I would like to suggest that a central target of the debate is misspecified. It is not secularism that is the source of our current cultural rot; it is deep confusion in ontology and epistemology that leads to universal subjectivism and nihilism.

Mohler makes this clear without realizing it (excuse the long quote): “The American experiment in ordered liberty and constitutional self-government is sustainable only under the conditions that made it possible in the first place. It cannot survive simply by asserting “rights” out of thin air. There is no evidence whatsoever that human dignity will be respected by a regime that rejects any ontological basis for those rights, and any transcendent meaning of the human person.
Those who believe that free markets can endure without respect for a revealed morality (even by natural revelation) and a true affirmation of human dignity are, I believe, sadly mistaken.”

The ontological basis, transcendent meaning, and natural revelation he correctly identifies as essential are compatible with secularism. For example, every one of these is found in Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, and the idea of natural rights, derived from the objective nature of man, is not inherently theological. It can be derived from reasoning about the observed world. That seems (to me) to be Forster’s point concerning doctrine that Church Doctors derived one thousand years ago and he fears Mohler rejects.

Contemporary leftism is not secularist or the product of secularism; it’s the product of a radical rejection of objective reality and denial of the efficacy of reason to discover reality. It’s nihilistic, and the pinnacle of this is (so far) post-modernist philosophy.

A secular defense of natural rights and a religious one can be perfectly compatible and complementary with each other. They are utterly incompatible with postmodernist nihilism.

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Charles N. Steele
on August 04, 2020 at 09:18:36 am

Just to be clear, here’s the point Forster makes about Church Doctors 1000 years ago:

“The doctors of the church began affirming as early as the 12th century that individual human rights are universal and are grounded in the design of our nature, and are therefore knowable independent of special revelation. If this were not the case, unbelievers could not be morally accountable for their actions, nor could we justify legitimate authority for non-ecclesial social institutions.“

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Charles N. Steele
on August 05, 2020 at 07:08:55 am

The problem, here, is surely this: if Mohler has in mind a Thomistic theory, then he has to explain how this is defensible as metaphysics (or indicate if he joins those like Finnis and MacIntyre who, in various ways, try to run it without metaphysics). If (I think understandably) one rejects such an enterprise, one needs to offer and defend a moral theory which can handle these matters by other means. This, I believe, is our (difficult) situation; but I don't think that Rand is of much help!

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Jeremy Shearmur
on August 05, 2020 at 09:33:40 am

To JS: If one assumes “secularization” is the problem, one misses the fundamental philosophical issues. As I’ve already said, they are the metaphysical and epistemological, and can be summed up as nihilism. These are not inherent or implicit in secular thought, and Rand’s Aristotelian Objectivism is a good example of that. Focusing on the wrong problem offers no solution.

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Charles N. Steele
on August 05, 2020 at 16:39:52 pm

As a secular conservative I am glad to see you defend a secular version of natural rights, even if they are not exactly compatible with religious versions. As long as we all want them, agree basically as to what they are (trial by jury, freedom of conscience, et al.), and are willing to jointly fight for and defend them, we can otherwise agree to disagree as to their ultimate source, nature, cause, etc. My main concern here is that we appreciate just how fragile rights that (in my view) basically and really rely on social agreement and political consensus truly are. In my reply to the 6/15/20 L&L essay Keys to the Progressive Kingdom I provided some expansion on my view that morality is a mixture of inherent genetically defined psychological characteristics and socially or culturally derived elements, so I will not expand on that here.

But when you describe contemporary leftism as nihilistic postmodernism, we must also recognize that even if that is true, THEY believe their ideology is "scientific", logical, "reality based", part of the "arc of history", and thus inevitable if they keep at it long enough with the "right leaders" in place. Someone (C. S. Lewis perhaps?) said "you cannot reason someone out of a position they were never reasoned into in the first place." I suspect we are in close agreement on that.

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R2l
on August 06, 2020 at 01:58:36 am

R2L,

I read your comment, the essay from June that you referenced, and your comment to that essay. I would offer the following thoughts:

The real issue is not whether secular or religious principles are better for matters of social flourishing, political efficacy, or "progress." A more basic question is where religious and secular thought part ways in matters affecting rights, laws, and so forth, and whether this has any practical importance. I agree with you that morality is a mixture of psychological and culturally derived factors, but I suggest we can dig even deeper than that.

The fundamental principle at work here (in my opinion) is the ancient Greek observation from physics that pretty much anything; a physical system, bureaucracy, religion, economy, culture, etc. when perturbed from an equilibrium state will change in a manner determined by its nature. A rock dislodged from a mountainside will move under the influence of gravity in a manner consistent with its nature as a rock on a mountainside; a chemical mixture, when heated will respond according the nature of its components and its environment, and so on. The key point is, again, when something is perturbed, its response is in accordance with its nature. If one wishes to constrain that response somehow, e.g. make the rock move uphill, that response must account for the nature of the thing perturbed. This is a basic fact of human existence. It is so basic, that one might even say that the nature of a thing is observed in how it responds to a perturbation. A corollary of this is that when things respond according to their nature, they follow rules; i.e. the nature of a thing can be described by the rules that determine how it responds to stimuli or perturbations.

The idea that nature can be observed in the rules that affect changes in things leads to beginning of moral thought. One way to think about justice is that it means that the actions and decisions of humans will be associated with the appropriate consequences. Appropriateness is determined by the nature of the subjects and objects involved, and accounts for immediate as well as long term consequences, and includes consequences for the individual and the larger group. Morality arises from the recognition that actions and decisions have natural consequences. Thus, the basic foundation of morality is contained in the idea that things change according to their natures, that these changes entail consequences that are desirable and undesirable, and since humans have the capacity to contemplate the future and consequences, they have a basis on which to consider actions and choices as moral and immoral.

Where religion and secular thought part ways is just before recognizing that nature provides a set of rules. The secularist uses reason to understand these rules, and may validly reason from them without further inquiry as to their source. It is enough that the basic principle is true. The religious person can do exactly the same, and therefore there may a great deal of consistency in the moral reasoning of the two approaches, but the religious person also considers the Source of the rules. This additional inquiry is due to the perception of the religious person that there are not only worldly consequences to actions and decisions but spiritual ones as well.

Nothing in this approach negates the psychological and cultural influences of morality, nor invalidates one approach or the other. The essential point is that some type of moral reasoning is essential to a flourishing society and culture. Being that this reasoning depends on recognizing the nature of things, it cannot be arbitrary or indefinitely relative or elastic.

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z9z99
on August 07, 2020 at 06:55:13 am

This comment provides instruction. It defines one ground on which participants in this discussion may stand; a potential "starting point" for civilized discussion. I and, I am certain, many others hope for more, much more, commentary at this level. Thank you.

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Latecomer
on August 04, 2020 at 11:47:18 am

Greetings, Dr. Mohler: I would like to have been present during a discussion between you and former Pope, Benedict XVI. You would have found areas of agreement; so many as to cause some wonderment. He is now, alas and alas, reported to be too fragile to engage in such an exchange.

His writings cannot replace his actual presence; this would have allowed you to come to know him in a more personal way. They will however provide you with responses to some of the issues you raise about the subject of "integralism"; also the current positions held by the prominent Catholic professors mentioned by you. Other great teachers provide a different "frame of reference"; a different "way of seeing" Catholicism. I very much regret that you were not able to engage with Pope Benedict himself. In many writings, he carefully addresses your concerns as you describe them in this response to Greg Foster. There are so many. Each is valuable. (Perhaps a commentator here has a comprehensive list of those that address your subject.) "The Regensburg Lecture" by James V. Schall, S.J. is one. It includes the complete text of Benedict's "Regensburg Lecture". A small volume, "The Dialectics of Secularization - on Reason and Religion" is another. I have extra copies and will be most happy to send them to your professional address, if asked.

My own comment is that of a Catholic sojourner whose journey included a blessed year of "Bible Study Fellowship". This took place in the sanctuary of a Baptist Church. About three hundred women attended. I was almost certainly the only Roman Catholic. The sense of Christian fellowship was unforgettable; we shared love of the gospel teachings; we shared love for the person, Jesus Christ, Word of the Father. To have had the words to share with them the holiness and beauty of the Eucharist would have completed my happiness. But I do not have the words. God has the words and will send them at His pleasure.

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Latecomer
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on August 07, 2020 at 20:30:18 pm

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