Discover more from 3am Thoughts
The U.S. Christian Right is a threat to secular equality.
Writing in the 8th Century, a monk named Alcuin of York highlighted a central thesis of early Christianity:
“Faith must be voluntary not coerced. Converts must be drawn to the faith not forced. A person can be compelled to be baptised yet not believe.”
Far from these foundational principles of Christianity, coercion, force, and compulsion, have become the hallmark of America's religious Right. This pathology has aspects that are uniquely American; the survival of forms of fire-and-brimstone Protestantism that were largely expelled from Europe (Ulster and Scotland excepted) in the 16th Century, coupled with the hysterical reactionary Right-wing politics of the post-Watergate Republican Party.
It also, however, adds a peculiar twist given the historical animosity between the split Catholic and Reformed religions; the merging of a resurgent militant Catholicism reimposing itself on society. This makes for interesting bedfellows in the nearly three-centuries old crusade for “one nation under God”; the Protestant evangelicals provide the bulk of the voting power to the Republican cartel, while the GOP machinery has positioned a largely Catholic Right-wing Supreme Court to disassemble the brief 20-year period of progress under the Warren Supreme Court that history will look back on as an anomaly in the trajectory of the most Right-wing democracy in the annals of this political system.
To anyone in Ireland, the Catholic imposition makes for either déjà vu or PTSD. For those of you unfamiliar with Irish history, with the foundation of the modern Irish state a century ago, the Catholic Church stepped into the political, economic, and social power vacuum created by the departure of the Crown. Aided and abetted by the State, the Catholic Church pursued a reign that can at best be described as gaslighting and psychological trauma on a population scale, and at worst as a remorseless systematic program of raping (boys), beating (boys and girls), ostracising (women, single mothers, gays/lesbians, Protestants, anyone different), and murdering (infants born to unmarried mothers, which they were happy to undertake while enforcing bans on contraception and abortion). All while lecturing the masses from the pulpit about morality. The social and psychological sequelae are still playing out today, and will likely continue to play out over future generations.
While the Catholic Church perpetrated, sanctioned, and covered up, similar crimes in America, it was in the entirely different context of a pluralistic society where the church itself was not a monolithic presence in the lives of every American. The church in Europe was associated with social and political hierarchies, and thus exerted ubiquitous influence. In the U.S., however, there has never been a monolithic church. Denominational terms like ‘Protestant’ or ‘evangelical’ may belie uniformity, but the reality is a dizzying plurality of different churches. As a result, for much of American history, relations between church(es) and State were characterised by secularism.
It is important to discuss what secularism really means, because the current manner in which the term is used is divorced from the Christian ontological origin of the concept. Deployed now, “secularism” is little more than equivocation for materialism, consumerism, apathy, and a supposed spiritual void from rejection of religion, a portrayal of secularism as a negative affect on society popularised by the likes of Jordan Peterson. As Oxford's Larry Siedentop has illustrated, however, it’s not just that this definition of secularism is wrong, but that it divorces the reasons for the evolution of the concept in the early church, reasons which have fundamental importance to considering the role of religion in society today.
This divorce was precipitated during the 17th and 18th Century by a trend of anti-clericalism which took hold in the historical scholarship of the day (see Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as an example). This vehement anti-clericalism manifest in their scholarship as a desire to link the (then) modern state with the ancient Classical world, presenting Classical societies as ‘secular’, i.e., where religion was separate to the State, and which combined with the presentation of Classical societies as egalitarian. This anti-clericalism represented a backlash against European wars of religion, the Inquisition, and the French Revolution, that portrayed the church as theocratic dictator. This was an argument primarily for political purposes, but its legacy is that Western democracies subsequently misattributed the ideal of secularism to the societies of antiquity, rather than to where it belonged: the evolution of Christian theology in the 12th to 14th Centuries.
As Siedentop traces in detail, this was born out of a misunderstanding of the nature of religion in Classical societies, which emphasised the family unit and ancestral lines through paterfamilias. To look at such societies through our lens, with an emphasis on the individual, is to apply “inappropriate tests for its organisation and expression.” The fundamental social unit in Classical societies was the family, who owed duty to the State. There was nothing secular about these societies, but the social organisation of religion was different; it was the family and its ancestors. The cult of ancestors, enshrined in family religious practices, was what underpinned the social contract between family members and the State. Classical societies were deeply unequal, an inequality which was derived from the concept of “reason” as the commanding faculty, which directed action. Reason was something you were born with or without, and provided the justification for social status. Understood through the more appropriate lens of paterfamilias and the concept of “reason”, many pagan Classical societies were both religious and deeply unequal.
The post-Roman, early Christian evolution of the concept of the individual was an evolution of agency and conscience: society as an association of individuals. This was the monastic origins of Christianity, and the early church; monasticism emerged in the form of self-governing settlements of individuals predicated upon an assumption of moral equality between each, irrespective of the station of their birth. The 12th Century theological emergence of the concept of “natural rights” underpinned this evolution. Siedentop quotes a 12th Century text, In Nomine:
“natural rights is a certain ability by which man is able to discern between good and evil, and in this sense natural rights is a faculty...and this is free will.”
This rhetoric is not semantic: moral equality was innate. It arose from within, by virtue of the fact that an individual had a soul, and therefore was born with agency. Individual moral intuition provided the basis for questioning the relationship between the individual, possessed of free will and agency, and institutions of power, both Church and State. This duality formed the ontological basis of the concept of secularism. It emerged from Christian theology in the 12th to 14th Centuries, predicated upon the assumptions that if everyone is born with individual agency, the prescription of authoritative opinions or imposition of inequality by any group was incompatible with that individual free will. It was secularism, properly understood, that allowed for the Reformation; it was individuals expressing their agency of thought and questioning the very church itself.
Thus, in the evolution of the early church, secularism was not understood in terms of the materialism and spiritual void of the anti-secular rhetoric of today, but in the foundation of distinct spheres of the individual’s life: the spiritual sphere of the soul - of individual conscience and will - under the guardianship of the Church, and the legal sphere of the person - of individual natural rights and liberty, under the protection of the State. This distinction was fundamental to the emergence of the modern nation state. To quote Siedentop, the crux of this Christian construct of secularism was:
“…that belief in an underlying or moral equality of humans implies that there is a sphere in which each should be free to make his or her own decisions, a sphere of conscience and free action... This is also the central egalitarian moral insight of Christianity... Enforced belief was, for St Paul and many early Christians, a contradiction in terms... When placed against this background, secularism does not mean non-belief or indifference. it is not without moral content... Rather, secularism identifies the conditions in which authentic beliefs should be formed and defended.”
Thus, secularism in the traditional sense recognised that faith by coercion was not faith at all, but a contradiction in terms. Understood in this way, secularism was the liberty to form authentic belief based on individual conscience and will. Per Siedentop, secularism:
“...provides the gateway to beliefs properly so called, making it possible to distinguish inner conviction from mere external conformity.”
The consequence of this secularism for Europe and the U.S., for a time at least, was the capacity to facilitate pluralistic societies in which an individual was free to choose any faith they desire, including none. A proper understanding of the true meaning of the concept of secularism is thus fundamental to grasping why a “war on secularism” merely serves to highlight how divorced we are from an understanding of the moral evolutions of our societies. The Christian ontological origins of secularism sought to reconcile the duality of moral equality and the rights of an individual, with the sphere of influence of institutions in society, both Church and State.
In a prophetic passage, Siedentop asks in relation to secularism in America:
“And what of the United States? There is no room for complacency. The rapid growth of Christian fundamentalism may not jeopardise the traditional American understanding of secularism as the embodiment of Christian moral intuitions. In the Southern and Western states especially, ‘born-again'‘Christians are coming to identity secularism as an enemy rather than a companion. In struggling against abortion and homosexuality, they risk losing touch with the most profound moral insights of their faith. If good and evil are contrasted too simply, in a Manichaean way, charity is the loser. The principle of 'equal liberty' is put at risk.”
Writing in 2014, the learned author may not have known how the American Christian Right has defined the concept of “liberty”. In 2007, Chris Hodges wrote:
“The ‘infusion’ of the ‘spirit of the Lord’ into society also includes its infusion into society’s legal system. Liberty is defined as the extent to which America obeys Christian law. When America is a Christian nation, liberty becomes, in this view, liberation from Satan. This slow, gradual and often imperceptible strangulation of thought - the corruption of democratic concepts and ideas - infects the society until the new, totalitarian vision is articulated by the old vocabulary.”
Pay attention to what is being articulated here. In the case of abortion, the “old vocabulary” has been to describe the issue in Constitutional terms, as one of “states rights” rather than a federal issue. This provides a clever veneer from the real intention, which is the imposition of “Christian principles” on society. Were the federal route to be the most effective means to their ends, the Republicans would simply reverse the rhetoric. This facilitates the erosion and corruption of democratic norms, because the ends justify the means. Per Hodges:
“Justice, under this process of logocide, is perverted to carry out injustice and becomes a mirage of law and order. The moral calculus no longer revolves around the concept of universal human rights; now, its center is the well-being, protection, and promotion of ‘Bible-believing Christians’. Logocide slowly and stealthily removes whole segments of society from the moral map.”
What you are witnessing in the jurisprudence emanating from the Christian Right-wing Supreme Court is not an accident. It is a direct reflection of the mainstreaming of Christian fundamentalist thought into the Republican Party, a process which started under Reagan, became more visible under George W. Bush, before finding its ultimate expression under Trump. Sarah Posner, who has unveiled the depths of the alliance between Christian fundamentalists and the Trump presidency, writes:
“For decades, the Christian right has successfully used the mechanisms of democracy, such as voter registration and mobilization, citizen lobbying, and energetic recruitment of religious candidates to run for office, to advance its agenda. In these efforts, conservative evangelicals are driven not by a commitment to liberal democracy but rather by a politicized theology demanding that they seize control of government to protect it from the demonic influences of liberalism and secularism. Previous presidents pandered to evangelicals, but Donald Trump constitutes the culmination of a movement that has for decades searched for a leader willing to join forces in this battle without cowering to shifting political winds... Trump reassures white evangelical voters that he will restore the America they believe has been lost - the ‘Christian nation’ that God intended America to be, governed by what they claim is ‘biblical law’ or a ‘Christian worldview’.”
This is what you have to understand: you, dear Liberal, see these decisions - the elevation of religious freedom rights to the point of discrimination, the shredding of the Voting Rights Act, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and the decisions yet to come, as outrageous and unjustified. Yet in the framework of those making the decisions, and the political bloc that acts in unison to get them there, all of this is entirely justified. Not by reference to the Constitution or anything else (although they will use that “old vocabulary” to make it seem a political, rather than religious matter); but by reference to their own sense of God-given righteousness to remake society along Christian fundamentalist lines.
Writing about former Attorney General Bill Barr, Fintan O’Toole encapsulated this justification:
“How does Barr square such conduct with his identification of 'moral relativism' as the great enemy of society, the theme of his speech at Notre Dame? The answer illuminates the deep religious structure of Barr’s ideology...its primary purpose is to delegitimize the view of democracy as an arena that is neutral with regard to religious identity and belief. It divides citizens into the proper ones who recognize the authority of divinely inspired absolutes (prohibitions on abortion or same-sex marriage, for example) and the improper ones who do not. Barr’s core belief, shared by Vice President Mike Pence and by the wider evangelical brand of religious authoritarianism, is that the entire American polity is possible only if its citizens are not just religious believers but believers in an absolutist ‘transcendent moral order which flows from God’s eternal law’.”
With this justification to act according to “Gods eternal law”, speaking in the language of “democracy”, “majority”, or “equality” is to entirely misdiagnose what is at play in America. That a majority of Americans want access to legal abortions is irrelevant. That it is anti-democratic to gerrymander voting districts to favour White conservatives is irrelevant. That it is anti-equality to discriminate on the basis an individual being gay, lesbian or any other sexual orientation or gender identification, is irrelevant. The ends justifies the means, and that end is “one nation under God”, where that nation is only one along Christian, biblical lines. Stop thinking about these issues through the traditional prisms of “democracy”, as if that matters in this emerging America. There is one side playing by an entirely different set of rules - their own rules - and these are concepts that the Christian Right does not care about, so appealing to those concepts is of no value.
And while anger is understandable, the anger should not be allowed to be another means for American liberals to absolve themselves of the total political ineptness of their movement. Yes, the cards are somewhat stacked against them with minority-rule institutions. But overturning Roe wasn’t a shock. It wasn’t sudden. It wasn’t achieved by stealth. It was in plain view, for four decades. If there is a hard truth for American liberals to swallow, and swallow it they must, it is that their party allowed this to happen as much as the GOP made it happen (letting Ruth Bader Ginsberg die in the seat being one example). One senses that, like the conversation over racial injustice or any other inequitable aspect of U.S. life, liberals will just pour thousands of thinkpieces out pointing the finger of blame at opaque concepts and theories, understanding nothing of the characteristics of the movement opposing them. And doing nothing. Dobbs has highlighted the distinction between holding office, the sole focus of the Democrats who covet the presidency, and holding power, the remit of the GOP for whom holding the presidency is a helpful asset, but not a prerequisite for imposing its agenda through the legislature at federal and state level, and the judiciary.
This is why overturning Roe is only the beginning. In America’s 246yr history, a period spanning from the early 1930’s to the late 1960’s constitutes the only period in which America could truly be considered to be the nation of liberal democracy, freedom and progress, that it so self-importantly self-professes to be. Much of this was underpinned by the 15-year period of the Chief Justice Earl Warren Supreme Court, ending desegregation, expanding voting rights, expanding sex and gender equality, expanding anti-discrimination scope. All of this is now in the crosshairs. Per Posner:
“One of Trump's signature achievements for the conservative movement has been his compliant stacking of the federal judiciary with nominees who have espoused extreme right-wing views on race, LGBTQ rights, abortion, and religion and state issues... Many of Trump's judges are skeptical of - if not outright hostile to - the legal structure protecting civil rights. Eleven Trump nominations refused to say during their confirmation hearings whether Brown v. Board was correctly decided. Others have openly derided diversity and pluralism.”
For clarity, Brown v. Board of Education was the Warren Supreme Court decision that ended desegregation.
The recent official decision in Dobbs, overturning Roe, should not be seen as existing in a vacuum. The Right-wing Christian majority on the Court have signalled their intent in a swathe of decisions leading up to this. Nevertheless, it is understandably the decision which is generating the most outrage. Perhaps on the issue of abortion, Americans can learn from the Irish experience, articulated with scathing prose by the University College Dublin English professor, Anne Enright:
“Still, women suffered silently and always anonymously. Some women died. There were a few hard cases before the courts, but no names were given; they were just letters—A, C, X—followed by legal depositions. In 2012 Savita Halappanavar died in a Galway hospital when she was not offered proper care for a miscarriage, out of concern for the already doomed fetus. Her husband, Praveen, asked, ‘Why didn’t they look at the bigger life?,’ meaning Savita’s, and this question was so normal, so self-evident, that it made the equal right of ‘the unborn’ seem a hopeless abstraction. It was suddenly impossible to explain, to a man who had grown up in India, that Catholic Ireland had a big ‘idea'‘about life, to which his wife had been sacrificed.”
The American Christian Right has a big idea about society, to which many more women will now suffer silently and die anonymously, and to which concepts of equality, integration and inclusivity, and democracy itself, will be sacrificed at the altar of the “an absolutist ‘transcendent moral order which flows from God’s eternal law’.” The tragic irony is that America was once the only country to maintain the true definition of secularism, as understood by the early Christian church, that placed a primary on individual conscience and agency, and on the need for faith to be arrived at by free will. American Christianity has traded service in God and with love for thy neighbour for service to raw, unadulterated temporal power, at the expense of their fellow human beings. The rank hypocrisy of religion laid bare for us all to see. This tumultuous week in America has reminded us of the fundamental importance of secularism to our modern, pluralist societies.