Saturday, January 14, 2012

Has the United States become a secular theocracy too?

Secular theocracy is a result of the tendency in the modern world for faith in government to replace faith in God. In the past I have tended to associate secular theocracy with Australia, New Zealand, Britain and other countries in Europe, rather than the United States. When I first visited the US in the 1970s, I remember mentioning to someone that Americans seemed to take religion much more seriously than I had expected. He pulled a bill from his wallet and pointed to the words, ‘In God we trust’, suggesting that those words were a key to understanding America.

Until very recently I thought that the differing influence of secular theocracy in different countries could be explained entirely by the differing influence of collectivist ideas – a desire for security being satisfied by the welfare state rather than by religion. From where I sit, in Australia, it seemed that secular theocracy could be attributed to the varying influence of ideas of people like Karl Marx and J S Mill, leading to establishment of more extensive welfare states in some countries than in others. While I am an admirer of many of Mill’s writings, it seems to me that his introduction of the term ‘social justice’ played a significant role in the development of secular theocracy in some countries. The faith that many people have in social justice seems to me to be much like religious faith.  When people say that social justice demands this or that, it seems to me that they are actually using nebulous secular language to make claims about our religious duties toward other humans.

So, how did I react when it was suggested to me recently that secular theocracy stems from the separation of church and state? My initial reaction was not favourable. From my limited knowledge of history, the separation of church and state seems to be inextricably linked to the history of recognition of religious freedom and individual liberty. According to this view, the separation of church and state stems from recognition that in order to promote and preserve individual liberty it is necessary for religious organizations to be kept away from exercise of the coercive powers of the state.

An article recently published by David Theroux, president of the Independent Institute in the US, presents a somewhat different view of secular theocracy. David suggests that modern America has become a secular theocracy, with a civic religion (nationalism) replacing God. The view he presents is linked to that of C S Lewis, who argued that there is no sacred/secular divide and that a theopolitical world view of hope, joy, liberty and justice enabled Christians to discover objective natural-law principles of ethics, science and theology, producing immense human flourishing.

In support of his view that nationalism has replaced God, David Theroux points to a statement by Supreme Court Justice William Brennan in a land mark case in 1963 relating to bible reading in schools. Brennan argued that the function of public schools is the training of American citizens in an atmosphere in which children may assimilate a heritage that is ‘civic and patriotic’. He went on to suggest that ‘patriotic and united allegiance to the United States is the cure for the divisiveness of religion in public’.

David Theroux argues that in the United States secular theology ‘exalts a sovereign and powerful state that pervades all of life and compels obedience not just to its mandates but to secular nationalism of the Zeitgeist itself, for which the populace is forced to conform to and to fund’. The flag has become the most sacred object in US society. He suggests: ‘The religious-secular split enables public loyalty by Christians to the nation state’s secular violence, including invasive wars, torture, and “collateral damage”, while avoiding direct confrontation with Christian beliefs about the supremacy of God and natural law teachings’.

I have no hesitation in recommending David Theroux’s article. The existence of a pervasive secular theology of nationalism seems to me to be another important key to understanding modern America. 

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