THE THREAT OF POSTMODERN SECULARITY TO FREEDOM IN AMERICA
Rev. Eugene C. Buie, Jr., DMin.
Shepherd in the Valley Series
December 6, 2016 - Copyright 2016. All rights reserved
Liberty and freedom are providential gifts of transcendent grace. Liberty is a legacy of power which may be granted through release and separation, given up through submission, or taken away by forced enslavement by a greater power. Freedom is a legacy of belonging, a kinship honored, respected, supported, and protected within a community of free people. Freedom is an inheritance of families, communities, and nations who live by faith, trusting in, relying on, and committing to one another.
As infants, according to the research of James M. Fowler, the first thing learned is faith, that is, whether his or her parents or caregivers are trustworthy and reliable. Is the infant loved and its needs provided? If not, even an infant senses its world is untrustworthy and does not acquire faith as a life-metaphor. At about the age of two, the child begins to learn power. Who is more powerful or less powerful? If faith does not modify power, power becomes the primary life-metaphor for the child. Conflict and the testing of power-relationships begins, first between child and parents. Being less powerful, the child learns to contract and negotiate power relationships through mutual arrangements which may change as the child gets older. Usually by the age of six, a child adopts a functioning life-metaphor of either faith or power modified by contract.
Liberty becomes relevant when power is the primary life-metaphors for individuals in community. Freedom becomes relevant within faithful relationships in families and communities, particularly in Western civilizations whose reference is the One who is, who was, and who is to come, known to Moses by the names recorded in Torah, "Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh" (I AM WHO I AM or "I will be what tomorrow demands" or "I will be what I want to be") and "YaHVeH." It was Ehyeh (I AM) who liberated the Hebrews, forcing Pharaoh to release the children of Israel from their bondage of slavery in the 13th-12th century BCE. It was Ehyeh who gave the Hebrew nation its "rule of law" in the Ten Commandments and community laws, "written on their hearts" (inscribed in their consciences) to regulate the sinful nature to which they remained enslaved.
It was YHVH-Ehyeh who ordained the sacrificial system, the periodic price of an interim redemption and forgiveness in Hebrew worship, eventually culminating in the ultimate and final sacrifice of the promised Messiah, the "Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world," in the 1st century CE. It was YHVH-Ehyeh himself who paid the price of redemption and liberated (released) humankind from the bondage of slavery to sin and death, thereby freeing the human spirit from eternal enslavement to egoistic desires that caused the original Fall from grace, as told in Genesis 3, and that continues to alienate the unfaithful from the Creator and Sustainer of life.
What must be understood in a relational universe: the human will is enslaved by an unnatural dysfunctional relationship with Ehyeh (a broken relation in which one dies). As historian David Hackett Fisher explains, the concept of liberation from slavery in Mediterranean cultures is hierarchical and a "privilege" that can be given or taken away by a higher power in the social order: slave subject to master; master to king; king to Nature; or Nature to "Nature's God." We might imagine the Founders drew upon the 8th chapter of John's Gospel, beginning with the 31st verse:
"So Jesus said to those Jews who believed in Him, If you abide in my word, you are my disciples; And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. They answered Him, we are Abraham's offspring and have never been in bondage to anybody. What do you mean by saying, you will be set free? Jesus answered them, I assure you, most solemnly tell you, whoever commits and practices sin is a slave of sin. Now a slave does not remain in a household permanently; the son does remain forever. So if the Son liberates you, then you are really and permanently free." (Amplified Bible).
According to the biblical narrative, when Jesus ascended to heaven after his sacrificial death and resurrection, he sat at the "right hand" of God, which is the seat of the ultimate and highest power. Aware of this proclamation through preaching during the First Great Awakening, the Founders would feel free indeed. Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." These were the words of a person liberated from the oppression of English power.
To frame the unique structure of the constitutional republic of the United States of America, the Founders merged the Mediterranean tradition of liberty with the Northern European Gaelic tradition of freedom associated with the kinship of free people, thus introducing the idea of a familial nation of equal and free people with unalienable rights, set free from the bondage of colonial slavery. It was a consequence of being part of the family of God "to serve and support a free folk who respected the rights of others who are free."
It was by faith in the providential will of YHVH-Ehyeh, known in the West as Jehovah, working by and through the gospel of Christ Jesus, that America's Founders were inspired and brought together (a) the ancient Mediterranean tradition of liberation and (b) the Northern European tradition of Brehon Law (the law of the Feni or Gaelic free people). These Mediterranean and Gaelic traditions were blended in a context of Christian virtue (the human conscience or "habits of the heart"), born of the Protestant First Great Awakening in the American colonies, to create the Constitution of United States of America. Founder Samuel Adams wrote: "The sum of all is, if we would most truly enjoy freedom as the gift of Heaven, let us become a virtuous people; then shall we both deserve and enjoy it."
Why then do the American people no longer speak of liberty and freedom in this postmodern age? Is it because we have forgotten the respective meaning of these terms and mistakenly use them interchangeably? Or is it because these two words have been stolen from the last three generations of American children, deliberately omitted by administrators and teaching staffs in American public education and university systems, bringing this nation to a crisis of identity and a condition of national schizophrenia? The obligation of each citizen to preserve, protect, and defend liberty and freedom, as established by the Constitution, seems to be vanishing from American sensibilities.
For that reason we again turn to historian David Hackett Fisher to define the ancient traditions of "liberty" and "freedom." In the introduction to his distinguished work, Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America's Founding Ideas, Professor Fisher writes:
"The Mediterranean tradition of liberty is an idea of separation and independence. It is an idea of hierarchy, in the variable possession of privileges that might be given or taken away by a higher power."
"Northern European traditions centered on freedom as a form of belonging and rights of connection to a community of free people. They imply tribal membership, and the existence of inalienable rights among all freeborn people."
The generation that gave us the American Revolution and the Constitution of the United States were the children of 1,000 years of Gaelic tradition mixed with Christian influence and political innovation. They engaged two unique movements in history that came together in 1740s: (1) the First Great Awakening of Protestantism that inspired a rebirth of virtuous living throughout the colonies; and (2) the rising spirit of rebellion against growing oppression by the English Crown and its religious establishment, the Church of England. One gave rise to the spirit of liberty as a people redeemed and set free by the Highest Authority from human enslavement. The other awakened the desire for freedom born of their Gaelic heritage. Drawing upon their faith in the liberating power of God, the Founders rebelled, trusting Jehovah would again release His people from England's authoritarian rule. Drawing also on the Gaelic tradition of the kinship of free people, the Founders claimed their "unalienable right" to independence and freedom.
Now, at the beginning of the 21st century and less than three hundred years after the founding of the United States of America, only half of the American people continue to claim this heritage while the other half are rejecting the principles and divine authority that enabled the birth of this nation.
THE THREAT OF POSTMODERN SECULARITY
The passage of years creates its own pattern of thinking. If, for example, church and state existed in a condition of co-dependency in Europe since the fourth century CE, after Constantine the Great institutionalized Christianity, how could they exist apart in eighteenth century colonial America? If European kings continued to rule by "Divine Right," using Catholic and Protestant churches to affirm that right, how could a people in the "new world" be free of a political monarchy without being free of ecclesial establishments? For the French, an answer was found in ten years of bloody revolution ending in 1799 that eradicated both the ruling aristocracy and ecclesial authority from French society. American revolutionaries found a different solution.
It is not surprising that a modern French intellectual like Denis Lacorne would project his national history onto the formative years of the United States of America and seek to redefine, from a French perspective, the creative work of America's founding generation. It is, however, disconcerting that American educators endorse his rewriting of American history, substituting misconstrued French perspectives for the revolutionary thinking instrumental in shaping the foundations of this nation.
"We interpret history by knowing more of it"1 wrote James T. Shotwell in 1913. We learn best from the writings of those who lived the events of the past or who heard and recorded their oral accounts of past events. Shotwell continued: "History is more than events. It is the manifestation of life, and behind each event is some effort of mind and will, while within each circumstance exists some power to stimulate or obstruct." 2
The preference of any serious historian would be first-hand accounts of historical circumstances and outcomes that reveal the thinking of people at that time. If the historian is selective, as is Denis Lacorne, using preconceived premises he wishes to prove, he is no longer functioning as a historian but as a propagandist.
RELIGION IN AMERICA: A POLITICAL HISTORY
The interpretation of history provided by Professor Denis Lacorne in Religion in America: A Political History encapsulates limited observations, subjective opinions, and personalized conclusions of various European visitors to America with his perceptions and interpretations in an effort to rewrite the true history of the American people... Contrary to expectations, the author does not present a cogent political history of American religion. Rather, he incorrectly attempts to prove that "radical laicity," the anti-ecclesiastical secularity that defeated religion in France and is now influencing much of Europe, originated as a Jeffersonian concept of a "secular Republic." Ignored are the prime objectives of America's revolutionary generation. These objectives were, first, to liberate colonial society from British rule and, secondly, to free American colonists from the Church of England and its complicity to rule with the English monarch as the Crown's religious establishment.
Lacorne offers a perceptively weak explanation of radical laicity as laicite' and quickly concedes to use the term secularism. He wrongly suggests that American Founders set a "precedence with regard to the principle of secularism" that influenced the French Revolution and led to the secularization of French society. To the contrary, the principles of secularism underlying the American Revolution and those of the French Revolution produced decidedly different social outcomes. The French Revolution led to such a radical secularization of France that by the twentieth century religion had been divested of its social power. Following the American Revolution, however, religion emerged vibrant and a healthy part of American society as reflected in these words from the Thanksgiving proclamation of President George Washington on October 3, 1789:
"Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the Providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and
"Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me to 'recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God';
"Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be, that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to the becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His Providence in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed…."
Secularism is commonly understood today as "life without reference to the idea of God and his alleged interventions in the processes of the world…Human beings put themselves at the center of reality and arrogate to themselves authority over life and responsibility for it." Believing they are capable of handling the affairs of the world without invoking divine authority, humans presume to know that the world has been turned over to them and it is now their responsibility.3
In 2008, Austin Dacey more accurately defined secularism and its derivatives from the viewpoint of America's founders. Secularism is "the political arrangement that separates civil and ecclesiastical power and, typically, affords robust freedom of conscience to citizens." In this sense, secularism separates church and state but does not divest either of respective social powers. It is neither atheism nor agnosticism. Secularity, on the other hand, is "the non-religiosity or religious indifference of the citizens…not necessarily agnostic or atheist, but one for whom organized religion holds little significance" and, therefore, conveys little if any social power to religion. Secularization is "the process in which societies tend to increase in both secularity and secularism as they modernize and urbanize." 4
The French Revolution and laicite' interpose a different and particularly French understanding to secularism. Not present in the American Revolution was "a national anti-clerical sentiment that fueled the French Revolution." Dacey further observes, "Laicization in France abolished the state church and deliberately set about divesting religion of social power." He concludes, "The French model of secularism combines not only strict separation of the church and state…., but also massive irreligiousness of the population." 5
PROGRESSIVE SECULARITY IN AMERICA
The French Revolution and the concept of laicite' may be regarded as a catalyst for the humanist agenda of Auguste Comte. Comte's progressive agenda was to liberate people from Christian religion and morals by way of adopting a popular alternative culture of individualistic ideals, such as those expressed during the French Revolution.
But Comte expected a society based on individualistic ideals to end in confusion, discontent, and chaos, as did the French Revolution. This crisis was expected to prepare people to submit to a parental state led by an elite class of scientists and industrialists who, according to Henri de Saint-Simon, would be capable of governing the masses and eliminating lower class poverty.6 As often happens with utopian agendas, history and the human quest for political power intervened through Napoleon. Nevertheless, the social power of the church was crushed in France by the beginning of the twentieth century.
Lacorne is partly correct that the American Revolution led to a secular system of constitutional government. He fails to recognize, however, that this system was conceived by pious men who, while ending the traditional political arrangement of shared power between church and state, still acknowledged the Judeo-Christian God as the Creator and Author of inherent freedoms that made America's constitutional government possible. Rejected by the founders was the assumed power of religious institutions to affirm a divine right to rule and, in exchange, be authorized to act as the imperial establishment's official institution of religion.
RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN AMERICA
Samuel Adams and John Adams observed that the American vision of liberty and freedom would be dependent on the predominant presence of a virtuous public guided by the moral values of a Judeo-Christian culture. This was the real narrative of the Republic which opposed the supremacy of any monarchy or governing authority and an establishment Church that would control civil society as well as the public's access to God and biblical revelation.
John Adams summed up the need for virtue, saying:
"Public Virtue cannot exist without private [virtue], and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics."
What did John Adams consider as public virtue?
"There must be a positive Passion for the public good, the public Interest, Honor, Power, and Glory, established in the Minds of the People, or there can be no Republican Government, nor any real Liberty. And this public Passion must be Superior to all private Passions. Men must be ready, they must pride themselves, and be happy to sacrifice their private Pleasure, Passions, and Interests, nay their private Friendships and dearest connections, when they Stand in Competition with the Rights of society."
John Adams' idea of public virtue was a product of evangelical Protestantism that freed the individual to take responsibility for self in relation to the welfare of others. At the beginning of the 18th century, society in colonial America was everything Samuel Adams cautioned against: "universally vicious and debauched in our manners." But in the 1740s, a reformation of American colonial life sprung from the First Great Awakening led by the preaching of Calvinist-Presbyterians like William Tennett and Jonathan Edwards, followed by George Whitefield and others. Their enthusiastic message of impending divine judgment and salvation by grace, rather than by works, spread to Congregationalists (Puritans) and other Protestant denominations.
Early in the 19th century, a Second Great Awakening spread through the American frontier. Inspired by Thomas Jefferson's vision of religious freedom, it was a "restoration movement" led by frontier ministers. Their goal was to return the practice of Christianity to its original or "primitive" form as the apostolic congregations existed prior to Constantine the Great. As expressed in his 1777 draft of the Bill for Religious Freedom, Jefferson envisioned religion once again free from civil and religious authorities and their "assumed dominion over the faith of others." This "restoration movement" was initiated by reformed Presbyterians like Thomas Campbell, Alexander Campbell, and Barton Stone who founded the independent Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) movement.
Contrary to Lacorne's perception, America's constitutional republic was less a product of the Enlightenment and more a response to the oppression of the English Crown and the Church of England on colonial society. Lacorne's premise of "rival narratives" led him to inaccurate and misleading conclusions. His political history of American religion presents a confused viewpoint of a uniquely American process that contradicted the French experience of national secularization after the French Revolution.
Lacorne's premise proposes the existence of two "rival narratives" during the formative years of the United States of America: a "secular Republic" narrative versus a "Neo-Puritan" narrative. To illustrate this presumed rivalry, Lacorne incorrectly cites Thomas Jefferson's Bill for Religious Freedom drafted in 1777. Prior to that moment in colonial history, the Church of England (the Anglican Church) was the British Crown's established church. In colonial Virginia, churches other than Anglican, such as, Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Methodist, were required by law to be licensed by the Church of England, as were their ministers. Such requirements were enforced by local magistrates backed by the power of the English Crown, a power that disappeared as the American colonies gained their independence.
Correctly understood, the Jefferson-Madison Bill for Religious Freedom "disestablished" the Church of England. Subsequent attempts to establish an alternative establishment church were rejected. The effect was that fourteen centuries of church-state interrelated history in Western civilizations was irreversibly altered. Virginia legislators severed the arrangement of cooperative political power between government and institutional Christianity. They conveyed to the state and to churches in general separate civil powers and religious rights subject to the will of the people. Religion would be exercised as it was before the fourth century CE, freely on the basis of individual conscience and without government intervention or enforcement.
While this bill promoted by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison is recognized as the basis for the "separation of church and state," it did not create a "secular Republic," abolishing religion or restricting it to the private sector of society. The Founders strongly believed religious freedom, the individual's freedom of conscience, and public virtue were essential to the functioning of a free Republic. Jefferson and his fellow statesmen did not envision a nation of irreligious people as was produced by the French Revolution.
JEFFERSON'S 1777 DRAFT OF A BILL FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
"SECTION I. Well aware that
WE, the General Assembly of Virginia, do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened [sic] in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities." 7
Jefferson intended for Virginians to be free from England's establishment church, its prelates, and the Crown as head of the church. By implication, his criticism extended to colonial governments that had established a particular expression of faith and who were guilty of persecuting the followers of other denominations.
The right to freedom of conscience in America was a gift to humankind from Almighty God, he declared, and should not be subject to human centers of political and religious power. Therefore, Americans would no longer be subject to the burdens of imperialistic civil and ecclesiastical authorities.
The American Founders were knowledgeable historians of Western civilizations. As such, they creatively shaped this new nation and went far beyond the philosophies of the Enlightenment, such as socialism, or separatist religious movements, such as Puritanism. Jefferson and others of the Revolutionary War generation desired not only liberty from political domination but also to restore Christianity to the earliest apostolic years of Christianity. The Founders' intent was to divest the institutional Church of its political power without divesting religion of its social power.
Even as George Washington neared the time of victory over the English, he acknowledged God's providential hand in their impending success with the following General Orders in the spring of 1778, following the Revolutionary army's winter in Valley Forge:
"While we are zealously performing the duties of good Citizens and soldiers we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher Glory to add the more distinguished Character of Christian. The signal instances of providential Goodness which we have experienced and which have now almost crowned our labors with complete Success, demand from us in a particular manner the warmest returns of Gratitude and Piety to the Supreme Author of all Good." 8
Patriots like Washington, Jefferson, Samuel Adams, and John Adams did not call upon the Church for deliverance from English rule. They did not appeal to the Church for God's intervention and support in the American war for independence. Drawing on the evangelical messages of the First Great Awakening, they rejected the intercessory power of the institutional Church, whether Roman, English, or Reformed, as the only doorway to God and the promise of freedom. With an individual boldness learned from the gospel message of salvation by grace and the teaching authority of the Bible, they appealed directly to the Creator as the author of human freedom. They drew upon the interwoven narratives of civil and religious history, making an extraordinary departure from the ecclesial-political traditions of Western Europe.
The constitutional Republic of the United States of America is a gift to be held or lost by each succeeding generation. It is the Providence of Almighty God that such a Republic be enjoyed only by virtuous people worthy of and capable of continuing its legacy of liberty and freedom. The foundation of the Republic is "a positive passion" for the public good, as Founder John Adams wrote, which is an expression of a love for God Almighty and for your neighbor as yourself.
This essay is published on the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a reminder that there are always those who would take away our freedom, conquer and enslave us. America's heritage of liberty and freedom must always be preserved and protected. Economist Walter Williams recently observed that's the unity of our nation is being destroyed. We are becoming a nation politically divided against itself. There are Americans who mostly want to be part of communities that live according to the rule of law and the U.S. Constitution and respect the rights of others. Another group, however, wants to intrude into and control the lives of others, ignoring the constitutional restraints on the federal government meant to protect our liberty and our freedoms. The future of our nation is in question as the vision of our Founders and loyalty to God Almighty is threatened by the secularism of European humanism.
Modern secularism, more fully understood as a secularity now found in postmodern American society and its educational institutions, as well as its politics and culture, can bring an end to this constitutional republic of the people. Only if the people reclaim their virtue and restore their faithful relationship with God Almighty will following generations know the blessings of liberty and freedom for which countless Americans have sacrificed and died.
1J. T. Shotwell, "The Interpretation of History." Source: The American Historical Review, Vol. 18, No 4 (Jul 1913), p.693. The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the American Historical Association. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1834766.
2Ibid. p. 693.
3Dictionary of Christian Ethics,
7Jefferson's 1777 Draft of a Bill for Religious Freedom; The precursor to the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment of the U. S. Constitution. Religious Tolerance.org. mhtml:file: //C: \Documents and Settings\Owner\My Documents\Thomas Jefferson. Originally published: 1999-Apr-10. Updated: 1999-Jul-11. Edited by B. A. Robinson. 6/20/2012.
8George Washington (May 2, 1778) as quoted in Novak, Washington's God, p.90.