If you’re old enough to remember the way America used to be, you probably remember a “Christian” country and wonder what happened to it. Why isn’t it a Christian country anymore?
According to sociologist Christian Smith, author and editor of The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life (UC Berkeley and UCLA Press, 2003), it is because a lot of people worked very hard for a long time to make it a secular society. The expulsion of Bible-centered Christianity from American public life — from the schools and universities, the law courts and the media — the authors find, was the result of “an intentional political struggle...to overthrow a religious establishment’s control over socially legitimate knowledge.”1
One might think this an honest, intelligent Christian assessment of American cultural decay. Many Christians, in fact, have made this very observation. For example, in The Messianic Character of American Education, Chalcedon’s founder, R. J. Rushdoony, described this secularization in the field of public education. However, editor Christian Smith, and his team of sociology professors, are only investigating a sociological phenomenon, and their worldview starkly contrasts with the orthodox Christian position. In his Preface, Smith writes:
[M]y own normative approach to these matters is structural pluralism.… I believe it is unjust to privilege all religions over non-religion.… But I also believe it is unjust to privilege the secular over the religious by excluding religion from whole spheres of public life.
And of course, this commitment to “pluralism” — or neutrality — prevents the authors from fully understanding the subject they mean to analyze.
How Did They Do It?
Secularism routed Christianity from American public life with the tacit cooperation of the Christians, Smith finds.
The winning side is “a rebel insurgency” of the “skeptical, freethinking, agnostic, atheist, or the theological liberal...who generally espoused materialism...and the privatization or extinction of religion.”2 The losing side was 19th-century Protestantism, which “failed to develop a defensible theological approach to knowledge and society that could withstand the attacks of elite challengers.”3 Protestantism lost because liberal Protestants “capitulated early to the basic assumptions and standards of the secularizers.”4 Even worse, Christian leaders never mounted an effective defense — all too often, no defense at all.
By the early 20 th century, higher education fell to the humanists. In 1861, 59% of American college presidents were Christian clergymen; by 1890, 15%; and by 1915, 0%.5 “Intellectuals” who not only replaced Christian educators, but also saw to it that “science” should be favored over religion on the campus, achieved this.
Then public schools followed, with elitists forming the National Education Association. Then, as now, they pushed vast institutional changes in favor of humanism, with little or no input from the rank and file.6
Darwinism provided secularists with a “scientific” foundation that quickly spilled into the mainstream in psychology, law, and even journalism.7 These professionals tried to present themselves as “scientific,” and therefore credible. This attitude is very much with us today.
Secularists ridiculed religion in the press, in school textbooks, and in the academic world. “Theology was weak...out of touch with the growing pluralism of professionals and elites...divided within itself.…”8 Catholics and Protestants, conservatives and liberals, this denomination versus that denomination — Christians never worked together to counter the secularist campaign.
We Told You So
This probably isn’t news to those Christians who have been fighting the secularization of American culture for decades, and even centuries. A. A. Hodge, in 1887 wrote of the secularization of education:
I am as sure as I am of Christ’s reign that a comprehensive and centralized system of national education, separated from religion, as is now commonly proposed, will prove the most appalling enginery for the propagation of anti-Christian and atheistic unbelief, and of anti-social, nihilistic ethics, individual, social, and political, which this sin-rent world has ever seen.9
As early as forty years ago Rushdoony chronicled the secularization of many other fields.
Yet if you check the index of The Secular Revolution, you will not find Rushdoony’s name. But both authors consulted the same historical record.
So if the book is not particularly timely, is it even helpful? That depends on what kind of help you’re looking for. Smith, in his “structural pluralism,” does not understand the “messianic character” of the secular movement. He finds only individuals using humanism “as a weapon in the struggle for power,” intellectuals’ natural hostility to religion, artistic elites’ resentment of “censorship” exercised by Christians, and a pervasive believe in “science” as opposed to religion.10 Blinded by his own ideology, he does not understand that humanism is the humanists’ religion — and an aggressive, intolerant, and ruthless one, at that.
But Rushdoony understood. Secular humanism, in the eyes of its adherents, is not an opinion but a religion — a religion whose god is not the Lord, but elitist, humanist man. Rushdoony also understood, as Smith and his colleagues do not, that while “religion” outwardly flourished in this country (which is why many of us remember America as a “Christian” country), inwardly, theologically, it was withering away. Very few Americans realized this at the time; more should realize it today.
Yet in the sad and often enraging, exasperating story told by Smith and his associates, there is hope for the cause of Christian reconstruction. Smith sees very little hope for a Christian recovery; but Mr. Smith is only a pluralist.
The Secular Revolution describes in great detail how small numbers of determined individuals, hard at work over 200 years, turned a whole country upside-down. But we must not forget how, 2,000 years ago, a handful of ignorant Galileans, empowered by the Holy Spirit, set in motion the Christian conquest of the Roman Empire. That was a much greater achievement than the secularization of America.
We rely on Jesus Christ to empower us to accomplish our mission; but there is one thing we can learn from Smith’s book.
If the humanists can conquer America, Christians can reconquer it.
1. Christian Smith, et al., The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life. ( Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 1.
2. Ibid., 1.
3. Ibid., 2.
4. Ibid., 135.
5. Ibid., 101.
6. Ibid., 161.
7. Ibid., 264, 270, 313, 421.
8. Ibid., 448.
9. R. J. Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of Education. (Vallecito: Ross House Books, 1963), 335.
10. Smith, et al., 38, 43-44.