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.