Protect the religious from the secular elite

Posted: June 18, 2012

Robert Benne  is director of the Roanoke College Center for Religion and Society

Sociologist Peter Berger famously remarked that the United States is a society of (South Asian) Indians — a dominantly religious people — run by Swedes — dominantly secular liberals. That clever portrayal is even more accurate now, since the elite (the secular Swedes) are even less religious than they were when Berger first wrote his gem.

The old Protestant denominations once socialized the elite into a mild form of religion that at least gave them some solidarity with the Indians (the ordinary religious people). That function is now weaker as those denominations wane in membership and prestige. Now the gap — and the tension — between the Swedes and Indians is increasing.

One of the characteristics of the secular elite is that they assume that they are the "brights" who should grasp every opportunity to expand the regulatory state over a benighted citizenry that still clings to "guns and religion." They do this not only by growing the government but also by invading and deracinating the private social institutions that not only provide moral formation of the citizenry but also arrange for a layer of involvement and protection from the state itself. The erosion of those institutions results in the increase of dependent and malformed individuals who then have to be tended by the expanding state.

It is the fate of these intermediate associations — families, churches, church-related organizations, identity-forming associations such as the Scouts, private schools — that most concerns me. Their capacity to generate social capital is being hampered by the expanding state, the coercive power of the courts, and the influence of the media and the academy, all of them pretty much dominated by the "brights."

The "brights" have fastened on a weapon that I call "secular rationality" to eviscerate these associations of their capacity to form people properly. Secular rationality is defined by three key values — the freedom of individuals to act upon their desires and the protected right for them to do so as long as affected parties consent to their action. This triumvirate leads to a kind of cultural libertarianism. Its organizational principle is the contract, the limited agreement made by mutually consenting free individuals .

Social institutions, on the other hand, have far richer notions of membership, more specific expectations of behavior, and more organic connections among members. Often those connections are "given," not achieved or chosen. Their organizational principle is the covenant, whose commitments are characterized by more trust and permanent commitment and whose concerns are more holistic than contractual relationships. Marriage and the nuclear family are good examples of such social institutions.

For nearly two millennia in the West, marriage had been considered to be a faithful, loving, permanent union of a man and woman oriented toward the procreation of children and providing protection from sexual disorder. Those three purposes, first formulated theologically and then ensconced into the laws of every Western nation, governed cultural and legal definitions of marriage. This "thick" notion of marriage included stipulations that made marriage difficult to enter and exit, that placed sex and procreation within the bonds of marriage, and required men to take responsibility for their children. This "marriage constitution" held until the 1960s, when a more contractual view of marriage began to come to the fore.

There is a huge push by the secular elite to make marriage whatever consenting adults make of it. Trouble is, such a thinned-out notion makes people wonder whether they should enter into a formal contract at all, so the practice of cohabitation increasingly replaces any sort of formal agreement. This deregulation of sex and marriage has led to disastrous consequences, especially for the poor.

A similar process is happening to the church-related organizations that also bear substantive notions of human flourishing — hospitals, colleges, schools, social service agencies. If they get even a smidgen of federal aid, the naked secular rationality I outlined above is applied to them. This threat is what Catholic agencies are facing as the principles of Obamacare are applied to them. The free exercise of religion engages secular rationality, and it looks like the former is losing.

All church-related institutions are in similar boats. Unless colleges are "pervasively religious," i.e. hire only members of their religious tradition, they are subject to the same sorts of invasion. My college, Roanoke College, invites many different persuasions into its faculty, but tries to maintain some Christian presence in crucial positions. But we have found out that federal rules dictate that we cannot require that a Lutheran scholar inhabit a chair endowed for Lutheran studies. The principles of individual freedom and rights trump any "thicker" notion that our college may carry in its education mission.

Given that many of these coercive and tyrannical pressures come from the government and the courts, why did I entitle this essay: Thank God for politics? Simple.

In a constitutional democracy, political officeholders are beholden to their constituents. Politics is still a way for the Indians to affect the Swedes, even toss them out of office and replace them with others who may be more responsive to the values of the Indians and less likely to press secular rationality into social institutions and free associations.

Moreover, the political process affects the character of the judiciary, which has allowed the Boy Scouts the right to choose its own leaders according to its own standards of membership. So politics matter deeply; They provide a way for the general run of religious Americans to protect themselves and our common life from the secular elite.

E-mail Robert Benne at robertdbenne@hotmail.com.

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