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A Secular Age?

Liberalism is the latest form of Protestant religion, practiced from the academy to the culture wars.
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Part of my summer reading included two recent books that created harmonic assonance as I serendipitously read them together. One was Joseph Bottum’s An Anxious Age, and the other was The Sacred Project of American Sociology by my Notre Dame colleague, Christian Smith. Bottum’s book is a engagingly-written historical, social, and theological examination of the rise of “Post-Protestantism” amid the declining fortunes of Mainline Protestantism and the growing confidence and irrelevance of traditionalist Catholicism during the 20th-century. Smith’s book is an equally engaging broadside against the putatively secular “project” of modern sociology (though his target easily extends to most of the social sciences and the humanities as well), in which he persuasively argues that academic sociology is in fact a “sacred” project whose aims are embraced with religious fervor, and departure from which is seen as blasphemy and reason for shunning.

In a word, both books are stories about the “sacred” nature of what we often call “secularism.” Bottum speaks of the decline of Mainline Protestantism and its replacement by the “Post-Protestant” denizens of academe, journalism, entertainment, business, most Protestant religious outside Evangelicalism, many liberal-leaning Catholics and non-Christians, and broad swaths of “non-elites” who have been shaped by these many leaders of culture and opinion. Smith writes of one segment of this population—sociologists—who are the embodiment of what Bottum calls the Post-Protestant “poster-children.” They are what we typically call “secular.” Both these books call into question the purported a-religiosity of this “secularism,” but rather point to the specifically sectarian nature of this particular form of “secularity”—not so much “Post-Protestant,” as Bottum describes, but Protestant after God.

What struck me through my juxtaposed reading of these two books is that they together tell the story of where Protestantism went and what Protestantism became when it ceased to be a “religion.” Bottum rightly focuses on the role of Walter Rauschenbusch in the development of Protestantism away from a “religious” religion and toward a “secular” religion. Rauschenbusch’s promotion of the “social gospel” aimed to turn Christians away from considerations of original sin, the baleful influence of Satan and temptations of evil, the failings of the human will, personal piety and prayer, and the gift of grace and redemption ultimately through Christ, and instead toward the overcoming of “social sin” and what he called “social salvation” and “the progressive regeneration of social life.” Rauschenbusch and prominent Protestants of his generation—including John Dewey, Herbert Croly, Jane Addams, and many other minor players in varied positions throughout society—helped to make Protestantism into a social and political project, even while taking it out of the churches. That process is what we call “secularization,” but it’s a deeply and distinctively religious and especially Protestant form of “secularism.”

Christian Smith fills in the express commitments of this purportedly secular, yet deeply “sacred project.” This unchurched (yet highly institutionalized) new-yet-old religion seeks to realize “the emancipation, equality, and moral affirmation of all human beings as autonomous, self-directing, individual agents (who should be) out to live their lives as they personally so desire, by constructing their own favored identities, entering and exiting relationships as they choose, and equally enjoying the gratification of experiential, material, and bodily pleasures” (pp. 7-8; Smith’s emphasis).

Smith, like Bottum, notes the influence of early American pragmatists and progressives, as well as an ungainly alliance of modern “-isms” such as Marxism, Freudianism, feminism, post-modernism, etc. But he is also quite explicit regarding the ways of a kind of shadow Christianity: this “sacred, spiritual project parallels that of (especially Protestant) Christianity in its structure of beliefs, interests, and expectations,” including shared emphases upon moral equality and dignity, self-direction and free will, and a strongly moralistic streak about how humans ought to live (p. 18). Smith then claims that “it would not be wrong to say that sociology’s project represents essentially a secularized version of the Christian gospel and worldview,” which perhaps misstates (in similar ways to Bottum in his insistence of calling this same class “Post-Protestant”) the nature of the belief. For, each would acknowledge, it’s not merely a secular belief, but in fact a very specific set of beliefs holding that human efforts can now bring about an earthly salvation. It is still deeply biblical—without the Bible—and Christian—without Christ—and salvific—without heaven—and millennial—without the Second Coming. It is, in effect, where Protestantism went, and what it became, after it moved out of the Mainline churches and into the modern research universities and the glitzy Richard Florida cities and the tony suburbs—where it became fashionable to be “spiritual but not religious.”

“Post-Protestantism” is not in fact really “post-“religious at all, but simply a new manifestation of Protestantism (now not limited to Protestants, of course) that now exists wholly outside the churches and instead has become exclusively a political, social, and educational project, albeit one with decidedly millennialist aims to transform the world (what would have once been called to “usher in the Kingdom of God”). What we call “secularism” isn’t just a world where “God is dead.” In fact, it’s the very opposite of what Nietzsche expected (and perhaps hoped would come to pass) in a world After God. It is not a world of pitiless ubermenschen who snuff out all remnants of Christian pity, imposing instead a new order of Roman-like rule of the strong. As Terry Eagleton has pointed out, “secularists” aren’t Nietzschean at all; but where Eagleton accuses them of living inconsistently with their own post-Divine presuppositions, Bottum and Smith help us see that in fact their inspiration isn’t Nietzsche in the first place, but rather Rauschenbusch and Croly and Dewey and Rorty and Rawls. Whatever their religious origins and identities and even non-religious claims, they are still deeply Protestant, even if they have now explicitly protested Protestantism itself.

Both books acknowledge the deeply Protestant nature and origins of this new “sacred/secular” order, but don’t altogether elaborate the ways in which this is the case. But, at base, Smith’s description helps us to discern its theological core. The aims of the “emancipation,” “equality”, “autonomy,” “self-direction” of agents who live out their lives as “they personally so desire” is the natural and inevitable end-station of the Protestant embrace of individualized belief. What begins as a breaking away from The Church as a series of institutional divorces, eventually devolves into the divorce of individuals from each other, resulting finally in a society in which the only agreement that can be achieved is that we should all mutually affirm each other’s right to pursue whatever version of individual truth (or untruth) and personal gratification one might desire. Ironically, the logic of Protestantism eventually turned against its own institutionalized origins in the churches, since such a setting comes to be seen as merely an arbitrary organization that seeks to exert social control over the individual. The only legitimate umbrella organization to which we all belong becomes the State, which is increasingly viewed as the agent of our mutual liberation. Thereby, the sacred project of autonomous liberation becomes collectivist; the perfectly libertarian society is also the most perfectly Statist (a marriage we daily see coming more into focus).

What these two books also help the reader see is that this form of post-Protestant “religious” secularity is the established religion of, and increasingly indistinguishable from, liberalism as a political, cultural, and social form of human organization. It was once believed by many that liberalism was a neutral political order within which a variety of beliefs could flourish—among them, Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, etc. But what is clear both as an intellectual and theological matter as well as an observable fact from many current cultural battlefields is that what Smith describes more broadly as a “sacred project” is increasingly intolerant of competitor religions, and stridently seeks their effectual elimination by “liberal” means. It does so not in the name of some amorphous and tolerant “secularism,” but in the name of the new, and increasingly established, State religion of America. What we call “secularism” isn’t simply unbelief—it is a system of belief with distinctive “theology” without God and this-worldly eschatological hope, and it demands obeisance or the judgment of blasphemy and condemnation.

Patrick J. Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame.



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