Someone once said that India is the most religious place on earth, and Sweden is the most secular. And the United States “is a nation of Indians, governed by Swedes.”
America is broadly theistic and Christian; a majority professes some belief in God and acknowledges some authority of the Bible. In the public sphere, however, among the various cultural elites, there is intense hostility to the Scriptures and the Christian faith.
Secularism can be defined as an indifference to religion, an antagonism toward an established religious order, or the exclusion of religious consideration from the affairs of state. Secularists hate religion in general (or Biblical Christianity in particular), despise organized religion (their anti-clericalism being focused on institutional churches), or protest official religion (any mixing of church and state). So how did secularism triumph in Amerca? How did the Swedes take over?
The movement to disestablish churches, which gained traction during the American Revolutionary generation, contributed to secularism. Many state churches in the era were disestablished, de-funded, and cut off from state support. Religious test oaths in states were modified and de-emphasized — usually by replacing specifically trinitarian language with more generic theistic language. Schools like Princeton saw more and more students studying law, and fewer preparing for the ministry.
A strange coalition contributed to disestablishment. Evangelical Baptists and Presbyterians who had chaffed under the Anglican establishment led the fight in Virginia. A resolution of Hanover Presbytery (October 24, 1776), for instance, called for religious liberty and freedom of conscience. Though “free-thinkers” had different motives, they shared a goal of de-funding the Anglican Church. Virginia’s Act for Religious Toleration (1786) includes, amidst the theological verbiage, vigorous Jeffersonian prose, “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical…” 1 Some, like Patrick Henry, hoped to retain state funding for religion in general — a kind of 18th century religious voucher system — but they were ultimately unsuccessful. 2
Many state churches were disestablished in the era, but society still respected Christianity and gave it a place in the public square. The Treaty of Paris (1783), in which Great Britain recognized American independence, begins “In the Name of the Holy and undivided Trinity….” The First Amendment, furthermore, specifically protected the rights of states in matters of religion, prohibiting Congress from establishing a federal religious establishment or tampering with the free exercise of religion. Presidents, Jefferson included, still generally encouraged the Christian religion by sponsoring missionaries and Bible publication.
Broad religious coalitions contributed to the rise of secularism by stressing moralistic concerns rather than theological ones. In the early 1800s, religious reformers were concerned about a variety of issues, such as education, temperance, health, and abolitionism. Theological distinctives were muted so that reformers from diverse denominations could cooperate on solving common national problems.
While this unity was laudable, it often sacrificed orthodoxy. Coalitions that included Unitarians were invariably more moralistic and theologically fuzzy. “Scratch any American cultural fever blister,” an alert historian once observed, “and you’ll find Unitarian pus.” In their zeal to stop ignorance, slavery, and demon rum, evangelicals teamed up with questionable allies, compromised on doctrine, and lost a distinctive witness.3
This should be a warning to the Christian Coalition and similar organizations. We do not want the cause of Christ identified with one political party or a time-bound political crusade. The Protestant Church was once dubbed the “Republican Party at Prayer.” Christians must never become cheerleaders or “Pray-Boys” for any secular organization. When a Christ-centered witness is lost, all that quasi-Christian activists have left is a squishy moralism.
Our generation is not the first to worry about the corruption of the church by compromise with the spirit of the age. In 1886, William Shedd warned, “The secularization of Christianity and the church is one of the evil tendencies of the day…. Now, the attempt is to make the Christian religion a universal religion by emptying it of its distinguishing tenets, flattering it into a system of morality, and converting ‘the righteousness of faith’ into ‘the righteousness which is of the law.’” (For Dabney, the compromising spirit was obvious in popular worship. The danger of pop-evangelical songs, he argued in 1876, “is that of habituating the taste of Christians to a very vapid species of pious doggerel, containing the most diluted possible traces of saving truth, suitable to the most infantile faculties supplemented by a jingle of ‘vain
Civil Religion is the quasi-official religion of a state in which a secular ideology and patriotism are blended with Christian or sacred themes. Civil religionists may endorse a generic Christianity, but insist that it be subservient to the state. Despite the apparent piety of leaders (they may still say, “God bless you”), they still believe that Caesar is Lord. The position of the church must be absolutely clear: It neither needs nor seeks authority from Washington, D. C.; it is not an agency of the civil government; its authority comes from King Jesus — who alone deserves its allegiance.
Some hate Biblical Christianity because it threatens a statist order, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau made clear in a section on civil religion in The Social Contract. Longing for an emasculated religion that supports the state, he said, “There is a purely civil profession of faith of which the Sovereign should fix the articles... as social sentiments without which a man cannot be a good citizen or a faithful subject.” Rousseau wanted people to believe in the existence of the Divinity, heaven and hell, and neighborly morals. The only doctrine he prohibited was “intolerance” — for “wherever theological intolerance is admitted…the Sovereign [state] is no longer Sovereign….” Rousseau concludes with this chilling charge: “[W]hoever dares to say ‘outside of the Church is no salvation’ ought to be driven from the State….”5
The New Religious Establishment
Man is not and cannot be neutral. Man is an essentially religious and spiritual creature: if he is not living in covenant with and in submission to the Living God, then he is in rebellion. Human institutions, furthermore, cannot be neutral. Either they will reflect God’s law-order, or they will defy the Sovereign God, reflecting some other religious or ethical value-system.
What is our established religion today? What creed do Americans embrace, require submission to, and tolerate no deviation from? It might be labeled democratic, humanistic, hedonistic statism. This new worldview emphasizes human authority, the power of the state, the collective good, and a materialistic and hedonistic ethic.
J. Gresham Machen commented on this secularist and statist ethic in Christianity and Liberalism (1924). Noting the pervasive socialistic and materialistic influences in America, he warned about the public schools and their “soul-killing system.” Concerning the tyranny of “materialistic paternalism,” Machen said, “Place the lives of children in their formative years, despite the convictions of their parents, under the intimate control of experts appointed by the state, force them to attend schools where the higher aspirations of humanity are crushed out, and where the mind is filled with the materialism of the day, and it is difficult to see how even the remnants of liberty can subsist.” The most important social institution for Christians is the family, Machen wrote, but “that institution is being pushed more and more into the background…by undue encroachments of the community and of the state.” It is astonishing to read Machen’s warnings, which were written eighty years ago. 6
A National Covenant
The history of the Jewish kings provides some encouragement for modern Americans. The record of moral decay during the monarchy is startling. Children were made to pass through the fire, homosexuality ran rampant, idolatry was tolerated, and the worship of Jehovah was in decline. But King Josiah is a good example of what can happen when a nation commits itself to God’s covenant and national reform (2 Kin. 22-23).
In 1798 the Presbyterian Church was alarmed at the moral condition of America. The chaos of the French Revolution threatened the infant republic of the United States. The Presbyterian General Assembly commented on examples of gross immorality in government, tendencies to infidelity in the American people, and the precipitous decline of popular religion. The General Assembly’s Pastoral Letter had a sobering conclusion: “The eternal God has a controversy with this nation!”
Within a few years, revival broke out in America — in the colleges and on the remote frontier. The religious life of the United States was about to be transformed. We live today in a time of religious declension and pervasive secularism and, humanly speaking, things look grim for the United States. We can, however, pray for a new Awakening and for leaders with the zeal of Josiah.
Jerry Falwell has long preached for national revival, and he is the most optimistic Christian leader I know. Recently he organized a Faith and Values Coalition, aimed at bringing moral issues to the forefront of American politics and turning back the secularist jihad. At a recent convocation service at Liberty University, Falwell gave students an exhilarating commission: “Young people – win the world for Jesus Christ!” It only would have been better if he had added, “and drive back the Swedes!”
1 Think about Jefferson’s “sinful and tyrannical” line whenever you are paying taxes to support the public school system — which is part of the American humanistic establishment. The best book on Jefferson’s views of public religion is Daniel Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State ( New York: New York University Press, 2002). Dreisbach is absolutely clear. The Constitutional wall of separation was between the federal government on the one hand, and states and churches on the other. The Supreme Court has mutilated the First Amendment, establishing a wall separating state and federal institutions from churches and all religious organizations.
2 Jefferson and Madison were terrified of Henry’s proposal for a general religious establishment. Jefferson wrote to Madison: “What we have to do I think is devoutly to pray for his [Henry’s] death” (emphasis added). Anyone who says that Jefferson didn’t believe in prayer is wrong. He encouraged prayer that Christian reformers would die! Madison had a better suggestion — get Henry elected governor (which happened), so that his sizeable support in the legislature would dwindle (which also happened). From Driesbach, “Church-State Debate in the Virginia Legislature,” in Dreisbach and Sheldon, eds., Religion and Political Culture in Jefferson’s Virginia (NY.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000), 150.
3 It has become fashionable among neo-evangelical historians to argue that earlier evangelicals inadvertently contributed to secularism. Evangelicals tried to dominate the culture, but ultimately lost the battle to secularists because they left the mechanisms of cultural power. I am suspicious of this argument and think it is a case of special pleading. I will grant this much — that in their zeal to retain or gain cultural hegemony, evangelicals lost a distinctive witness. And that encouraged secularism.
4 Shedd is quoted in Ian Murray, Evangelicalism Divided ( Carlisle, Penn.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2000), ix-x. Dabney, “Lay Preaching” (2:94-95) is quoted in Hart and Muether, With Reverence and Awe ( Phillipsburg, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2002), 171-172.
5 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (N.Y.: Dutton, 1762, 1950), 139-140.
6 J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923, 1981), 10-14, 154.