I have blogged a number of times already about the various threats to religious liberty that have come along. This is becoming such a serious matter that I want to make sure that the larger picture is not overlooked.
At the core of many of these conflicts is not a struggle against particular bills or court decision, but a much larger clash of philosophical and theological principles, which has profound effects on law and society.
The fundamental dispute is between a worldview that is based in Secularism and one that is founded on the Incarnation of Christ. This is a conflict over a fundamental understanding of what it is to be a human person, and what that means about how we are to live together in society.
Secularism is a significant factor the modern West. It has its roots in the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and Marxism. It views the human person in strictly materialistic terms, and considers religious belief to be (at best) an irrelevant, private matter or (at worst) a threat to social stability. In a secularist world, there is a strict separation of religion from public life, religious arguments are not tolerated in the public square, religious practice is treated like a hobby and is restricted in public (e.g., by laws outlawing the wearing of religious clothing, public prayer or the wearing of religious symbols by public officials). In this kind of world, if you want to participate in public life, you have to leave your religious values behind and argue as if religion didn’t exist — in other words, like a secularist. You cannot appeal to absolute moral norms, and you have to act as if there is no spiritual aspect to human nature, and discuss matters in purely pragmatic, materialistic terms.
You see secularism in Europe very strongly, particularly in France, but it is becoming more and more significant in American life, particularly but not exclusively on the left of the political spectrum.
An Incarnational world view, on the other hand, begins with an understanding of the spiritual, sacred aspect of the human person. It begins with the premise that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God. It follows with the insight that every human person — and human society as a whole — was sanctified and redeemed when Jesus became a true man and gave His life for us.
By understanding the human person in relation to the divine, the Incarnational view accepts the notion of universal moral norms that are binding upon everyone and that are accessible to all either through divine revelation or through an understanding of the natural moral law. It views all human persons as both spiritual and material, and in striving for authentic human development, it requires attention to both aspects of human nature. It accepts religious belief and practice as essential to true development, and is respectful of the freedom of religious conscience.
This understanding of human nature welcomes an open debate about public matters from all perspectives — including those based explicitly on religious points of view. It is very favorable to science, since it is confident that there is no contradiction between science and faith. It excludes nobody from the public discussion, and requires nobody to leave their beliefs — even secularist beliefs — at the door of the debate hall. It truly respects human freedom, and vigorously engages in the marketplace of ideas.
This world view is the one set out in Catholic Social Teaching, the most recent expression of which can be found in Pope Benedict’s encyclical letter, Caritas in Veritate.
The contest between Secularism and an Incarnational view bears very high stakes.
Secularism is a grave threat to human freedom. Its ethics are utilitarian and morally relativistic, and it recognizes no objective truth. Moral issues are merely a question of what works or what benefits a person the most, according to their own subjective cost/benefit analysis. Yet without any sense of objective moral norms, or transcendent truth, there is no coherent basis for any kind of fundamental human rights. It is deeply intolerant of religious expression, and seeks to restrict it whenever possible. As a result, secularism is the mindset against which Pope Benedict has warned in his famous phrase, “a dictatorship of relativism”. Pope John Paul also identified it in his own warning in Evangelium Vitae against the totalitarian trends of democracies that have lost their mooring in objective moral norms.
If left to run its course, secularism tends to develop into either of two traps that deny human freedom and stifle true development. The first is collectivism, in which individual human beings are dehumanized by being treated as merely units in the machine of society. The second is a sense of radical individualism, which denies the solidarity of the human family and ultimately descends into libertinism or radical libertarianism.
The only sure guarantee of authentic human freedom and development is the Incarnational point of view. Only there is to be found a sense of true human dignity, a basis for human rights, peaceful relations between individuals and nations, and a path to real social justice.
Here in the United States, we are seeing this conflict play out in a number of specific policy areas. That will be the subject of my next post.