Monday, February 18, 2008

The Secularization of the American Religious Right

In a recent essay, Rules of War and Victory in the War on Terror, I pointed out that because Mitt Romney argues that the right to exist is the primary political right, he is essentially a Hobbesian thinker. More recently, I was wondering if perhaps his Mormonism informed his position. Not that I would ever argue that Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints holds to Hobbesian political philosophy as an official doctrine. But rather I'm wondering if the Mormon experience of being driven out of one state after the other during its early history and the subsequent need to adopt a `kill or be killed' strategy for several decades hasn't significantly shaped Romney's thinking with regards to the duties of the state. Perhaps the experience of his particular faith community with regards to persecution and being persecuted has led Romney down the path of thinking that the state, above all, must warrant the self-preservation of its citizens.

But this mode of thinking hasn't been limited to Mormonism in the present US political arena. Many different conservative groups and politicians (and some liberal ones!) within the US political sphere have advocated this Hobbesian view. Surprisingly, to me, many of the conservative groups advocating this position are groups that are usually considered to be part of the religious right. While it is true that many of these groups, like the Latter Day Saints, have been persecuted early in their history, that portion of the history of many of these groups is, more often than not, hundreds of years removed from the present day. This leads me to suspect that if Mormonism shares the cause for the adoption of a Hobbesian political philosophy, that this shared cause must lie at least somewhat outside a common experience of persecution.

It isn't so obvious, at first, just what a Hobbesian political philosophy has to do with secularization. But we must bear in mind that one of the key premises of Hobbes is that strict materialism is the case and the notion that preservation of the body is the primary right of the individual comes follows from this supposition. If it is the case that the human soul survives the death of the body, as Christianity and many other faith communities argue, then there is no longer a good case for Hobbes' assertion that the primary civil right is the right to self-preservation with regards to the body. In fact, if the single most important question to the individual is the question of where the soul will spend eternity, it seems fairly clear that preservation of the body becomes a secondary issue. To those who believe in heaven and hell, then, freedom of the conscience must always triumph over the right to self-preservation if for no other reason that freedom of the conscience is actually a higher form of self-preservation. Religious conservatism, then, by nature stands in opposition to the Hobbesian materialism and the primacy of the right to self-preservation over all other rights.

So from whence does this implicit materialism come? While I'm not about to argue against the contention that it may very well be the case that this implicit materialism comes from a multitude of sources just as it exists in a multitude of the factions of the religious right, I do think that an argument can be made that with regards to the religious right much of the implicit materialism can be traced to the secularization of various faith communities. By this I mean that various faith communities have adopted the positions, culture and mores of the larger society in which those faith communities exist in ways that favor the positions, culture and mores of that larger society where those positions, culture and mores being adopted by the faith community contradict at some of the beliefs of that faith community. In other words, I'm saying that the secularization of a faith community is the process by which that particular faith community begins to lose that which makes it different from the larger society in which it exists.

(Do note that I'm not speaking here of those situations where a faith community effects a change upon the society in which the faith community exists. Rather than being the process of secularization of the faith community, that would be the process of the evangelization of the larger community.)

This process of secularization can be seen at work in a large number of Christian movements within North America. Aside from adoption of the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, this secularization plays out in the field of doctrine in other areas. The most obvious example would be the movement labeled liberation theology that came out of Mexican and Central American Catholicism. Another example would be the ideological Biblical criticism being taught at the universities of various Christian denominations. But it also plays out at a practical level. The most obvious matter of practice, perhaps, is the so called `mega-church' phenomenon ongoing in some Evangelical Christian circles where the Church has become a combination shopping mall, community center, and concert hall. Another example is the direction of the Roman Catholic mass in North America since the second Vatican Council. Both of these latter examples make the same categorical error. The reasoning seems to be that `if X is good, then it follows that X should be brought into the liturgy.' Rather than taking elements of the liturgy out into the world, these faith communities are bringing the world into the liturgy.

I would be amiss if I didn't concede that, at least in some cases, this secularization has brought about needed reform. A great example of this would be the change in doctrine by the Latter Day Saints in the seventies that they were wrong about black people having no chance of salvation due to bearing the mark of Cain. Another example would be the move by the Roman Catholic Church to reverse itself on its policy that the liturgy can only be said in one of three languages (Latin, Greek or Hebrew). Admittedly, there were other languages for the liturgies of `eastern rite' Catholics in communion with Rome, but these groups were exceptions. The Vatican made the explicit decision to `condescend' to `human weakness' in order to promote unity. In contrast, when many Eastern Orthodox Churches within the US decided to begin holding the greater part of their liturgies in English rather than in the native tongue of the first generation immigrants who founded the parishes in question, this was not an example of secularization because these groups never had a doctrine against this practice.

Some positive results aside, I would contend that in most cases this secularization is a destructive process. While it may increase the number of converts into various religious communities as the barrier to entry is no longer so high, it does so at the price of destroying those things essential to the identity of that community. While in a few cases this process does reform the communities in question to the better, more often it changes the faith community for the worst by depriving it of that which makes it a distinct community within the larger society. Only those who are adamantly opposed to the very existence of faith communities at all will see this secularization as a good thing. For given enough time, if this secularization is unchecked, the faith community being secularized will become entirely indistinguishable in both belief and practice from the rest of society.


Gedvondur said...


First, good piece. It made me think and is well done.

I have a question, however. I clearly see examples of how secularization brought forth needed reform, and you list several examples that show it. You then go on to posit that the same secularization causes a loss of identity of the religion and/congregation in question. What you do not show is specific practical examples of how the secularization causes harm. I'm not arguing that it doesn't, but as someone who has little or no contact with religion and little or no training in the subject, I find myself at a disconnect.

Is the loss of identity an ephemeral but real notion such as a certain “je ne sais quoi”? Or can you list specific examples as you did for the benefits of secularization?


Lee Malatesta said...


You raise a very good point. Coming from a religious background, I had just assumed that the value of religious groups retaining their own identity would be obvious. The argument is easy to make on a theological basis, at least from a Christian perspective from such passages as is found in the book of Jude that pure religion is no more than helping those in need and keeping oneself untainted by the world. The assumption being made is that where the world and the faith community differ, the faith community has it right.

I think the example I would put out is that of Operation Rescue which, in my view, is a good example of the adoption of a secular approach to the abortion question by a coalition of faith movements. We have records going back to the earliest days of Christianity that demonstrate that Christians were active in recovering foundlings, starting orphanages for those without parents, and offering aid to mothers who might otherwise either abort or leave their child to die from exposure. It seems to me that shift from personal, direct action that saved the lives of children to corporate, political action has left both the faith communities involved and the society which those faith communities exist in worse off.

Adam said...

Having not had the pleasure of attending a megachurch, merely quite large churches, I had imagined them more as revivals of the medieval cathedral village for our consumer age. So more of a socialisation of the faith community than a secularization, in that it is the act of a large or majority faith community confidently working within the city. Kind of religion in a gregarious mode rather than religion in a monastic mode. Are you saying the mall dominates the church in most of these? (They aren't really my thing, but they did seem like strong faith communities.)

Lee Malatesta said...


On the one hand, I'd gladly concede that a church serving as the center of socialization is a very traditional thing to do. Mega-churches do this. But on the other hand, with rock bands, espresso machines, Superbowl parties and the like, I think there is quite a bit in form and function that mega-churches have adopted from secular society from manipulative mood music during altar calls (although it isn't only mega-churches that do that) intentionally designed to place people in a highly emotive state to bookstores that sell not only books on faith and dogma but also games, puzzles, plush animals and a whole host of other things that don't have anything to do with the faith.