After Church: Thinking Some More About Secularism

I’ve got to say, I agree with this.

Having taken a class on medieval witchcraft, the occult, and all those sorts of things from a historical perspective, it isn’t surprising that Christianity was the basis for much of modern law.

To explain: Reformation theology’s had a huge impact on law that has emerged in the modern age several times. If anyone remembers, there was a time in the 1980s and 90s where Western culture lived in fright of a supposed “satanic” cult that was sacrificing children to the Devil; at the very least, the claim was child abuse of the highest order, making children do heinous acts. It’s interesting that a secular society would even perceive such a thing as existing based on such little evidence. It originated from a book, called Michelle Remember, which depicted the memory of a woman’s regressive memories of being abused by a Satanic cult.

Satanic ritual abuse, in this sense, is the modern form of “witchcraft”. The SRA scandal caused an uproar in America, the United Kingdom, and other countries around the world. not only due to the heinous natures of the crimes, but also its association with Satanism and, by association witchcraft. Though examined by nearly every department of the humanities, the SRA scandal appears far too similar to earlier accounts of witchcraft and magic to simply arise out of psychological disorders and sociological explanations. Witchcraft was considered horrible, frightful, and an ever-present reality for centuries in the same fashion. Religious crimes were prosecuted in the exact same fashion as the physical crimes, yet both were seen as detriments to society. Why were these beliefs held in a post-Enlightenment rationalist framework, even among secular authorities? This, to me, was such a grand mystery that I had to investigate this.

Reformation theology, in this respect, provides a possible answer. Martin Luther and John Calvin, perceiving the threat of evil spiritual forces, both established legal systems promoting a civil inquisition to purge society of this influence under God’s command. This theological and legal world view, in time, evolved past its religious trappings, yet they adapted into secular formulations which still evoked that same “God-given” right to secular authorities, albeit without the religious symbolism originally attached by Protestant thinkers. Exacerbated by the trappings of evangelical Christians arising out of the 1980s and 1990s, this theologically-based legal ideology, along with ideas of witchcraft inherited from the earlier centuries, crafted a perfect environment for the Satanic moral panic and Satanic ritual abuse.

Any person of the modern age would think such claims preposterous, even wrong headed, but it completely exemplifies Pannenberg’s point: the prejudice exists against Christianity’s role precisely because it is believed to be the primitive in the equation, while “modernity” evolved from the past. Who would want to regress to such a basis for belief? Why would we ever want to attribute an absolute authority to much of anything? We can, furthermore, say that the structure of modern government is completely arbitrary; it rests on humans acting under a social contract or common self-interest, take your pick.

But, since I live in America specifically, we’ve tried to avoid that same problem. The Declaration of Independance, for example, said so in its famous first lines:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Creator is ambiguous, sure, but it refers to the multitude of Christian denominations at the time, as did Jefferson’s infamous “separation of church and state” line. Benjamin Franklin was a Deist, yet he still believed in the idea of human sinfulness; government existed to keep that under control.

In fact, the primary Deist preoccupation was the development of moral perfection in accordance with God’s nature, and subsequently in human nature. This, in turn, explains many of the Deist Founders’ contributions to legal theory.  Certainly, it is well known that much of the Constitution’s ideas were based on the social  contract theories of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke; however, they do not prescribe divine morality. The American Deists, on the other hand, affirmed the moralizing and stabilizing influence of religion upon a culture.

George Washington believed that every person had freedom of conscience, and thus encouraged the Constitutional Congress to ensconce religious liberty and toleration as essential principles of the new government – as this fostered morality, order, and stability, this was most useful towards a right and proper society. Jeff erson, under the same vision, continued to give money to the building funds of Episcopal, Baptist, and Presbyterian congregations even with his denial of Jesus’ divinity. James Madison, James Monroe, and many of the signers were Deists, although they identified themselves under various Christian denominations. Their similarity of belief ensure that the stabilizing and moralizing role of government would continue even without the binding of religious authority.

I deny the idea that Christianity isn’t the basis for government for this and many other reasons. That’s why, perhaps, I’m not much of a revolutionary! I like stability and order, and if humankind and its arbitrary whims become the foundation as such, we’re all headed to disaster. God places and tears down governments, not humans. The narrative of human progress doesn’t usurp the narrative of eschatological hope provided by Christianity. Perhaps I take Romans 13 a bit literally:

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.

In that perspective, everything makes sense to me. How about you?

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.