The myth of the secular state

Over the past several weeks I’ve been listening to David Cayley’s excellent seven-part CBC radio documentary The Myth of the Secular. The series challenges the notion promoted by people like Richard Dawkins that, as societies modernize, the public role of religion will inevitably decline. Instead, the reverse has happened, with various forms of religion growing stronger than ever, even in the face of rapid modernization. Through a series of interviews with theologians, anthropologists, sociologists and political philosophers, Cayley seeks to understand why this is the case and what it means for our future.

Of particular interest to me is episode five, which unpacks the following quote by German legal theorist Carl Schmitt in his book Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty:

All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.

In a nutshell, Schmitt is arguing that simplistic notions of the separation of Church and State fail to account for the inherently religious role that the State actually plays in our lives. And Schmitt should know, seeing as he wrote his book during the ascent of national socialism in Germany. However, you don’t need a Third Reich with a megalomaniac at the helm to see the truth of Schmitt’s words. As Yale law professor Paul Kahn says in his book Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, despite protests to the contrary, the foundations of the American state are also rooted in faith rather than reason:

When the President of the United States is away from the White House he’s accompanied by a military aide carrying a black briefcase, nicknamed “the football.”  It contains codes that enable the launch of nuclear weapons. Should the President consider that the national interest of the United States required it, he could, on the spot, give orders that would destroy or poison much of the world. At that moment no assembly would vote, no court would review the case, no precedent would apply–the fate of the world would hang on his or her sovereign decision… What else but a religious commitment could make the destruction of the world even thinkable? What else could justify the sacrifice of soldiers in war?

Kahn argues that when an institution is deemed to be more valuable than the individual, and when we would willingly sacrifice our lives for the sake of that institution, we have automatically passed from the secular to the sacred. Therefore, allegiance to the State represents not the end of religious commitment but rather a secularization of religious commitment. So even in the most modern of secular nations, the impulse toward transcendence has not gone away, it has merely been transformed. This insight raises a few questions that I’d like to explore further.

First, it seems as if it’s impossible for humans to form an identity that is not attached to something transcendent, whether it be religion, family, a political institution or a value, such as freedom. This holds true for people who consider themselves to be religious as well as those who have made it their mission to eradicate religious ways of thinking. The question is, why? In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker argues that “human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality.” So perhaps death anxiety plays a role. On the other hand, my other favorite thinker of late, Rene Girard, argues that human civilization originates in our efforts to control runaway violence. So maybe our impulse toward transcendence is rooted in a fundamental drive to survive. I happen to think it’s a combination of the two, an idea I’d like to explore if and when I ever do a PhD.

Second, Kahn’s insights lead us automatically to reconsider what we mean by the separation of Church and State. This concept first appeared in a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptists to assure them that no Christian denomination would gain an upper hand in America as they had in European nations, many of which had state churches. Later, it became more about about preventing any one religion, such as Christianity, from enjoying a privileged position in society. Today, many people, such as Sam Harris, PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins and others tend to think that separation of Church and State means banishing religion entirely from the public square.

Christian apologists tend to portray this progressive annulment of public religious discourse as yet another example of our long, slow slide into secularism–and oblivion–as if secularism is a force that runs counter to Christianity. What they fail to realize is that the notion of the secular doesn’t stand in opposition to religion; it is actually a product of religion. More specifically, it is a product of Christian thinking within the context of British colonialism, which created the need for a space to referee inter-religious conflicts within the burgeoning British Empire. This being the case, if I’m reading Kahn correctly, the banishment of religion from the public square may be better told as a story of the chickens coming home to roost. Or of Dr. Frankenstein creating a monster.

This becomes clear when we consider Christ’s famous admonition to “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” The problem is, if God and Caesar are demanding the same thing–religious commitment unto death–how (and what?) do we render unto each? Christians tend to perceive themselves as under attack by religious pluralism, atheists and other groups seeking to usurp the privileged position they have enjoyed for so many centuries in the West. However, the way I see it, other religions aren’t the problem. The problem is the State, which will brook no rivals. To the State, religion is only useful insofar as it furthers the purposes of the State. When religion gets in the way, look out! Ironically, this particular version of the State is itself a product of Christianity.

In light of this, the positive correlation between religious commitment and modernization should come as no surprise. With modernization comes increased demands for fidelity and sacrifice on behalf of the State. Consciously or not, people of faith perceive these demands as a threat and respond by deepening their religious commitment and becoming more demonstrative. Either that or they attempt to seize control of the State through political action–to reestablish control over the monster they have created. Not only does this way of framing things help us understand movements like the Religious Right in America, it also explains why Pentecostalism and radical versions of Islam, for example, are on the rise even as mainline versions of these same faiths are on the decline. Radical demands for fidelity to the State demand an equally radical response–and the concomitant schizophrenia that results from trying to serve two equally unyielding masters.

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About Kevin Miller

Kevin Miller is an award-winning screenwriter, director and producer who has applied his craft to numerous documentaries, feature films and shorts. Recent projects include "The Chicken Manure Incident," "Hellbound?," "Drop Gun," "No Saints for Sinners," "spOILed," "Sex+Money," "With God On Our Side," "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," "After..." and the upcoming biopic "The Divine Comedy of Thomas Merton." In addition to his work in film, Kevin has written, co-written and edited over 45 books. He lives in Kimberley, BC, Canada with his wife and four children.

  • Greg Wright

    Good analysis, and the explanation is plausible.

    One note. You say, “First, it seems as if it’s impossible for humans to form an identity that is not attached to something transcendent, whether it be religion, family, a political institution or a value, such as freedom.” I’d say it’s quite possible — but such persons in isolation remain virtually invisible in society, which is so much invested in collectivism to accomplish anything. And it’s a self-perpetuating conundrum. If you really believe in the uselessness of transcendence, you’d be perfectly content to be the only person to believe that — and would never evangelize, because to evangelize would be antithetical to your beliefs.

  • Greg Wright

    BTW: is Patheos the Borg?

  • David S.

    Who thinks that the “separation of Church and State means banishing religion entirely from the public square”? Religion in the US is solidly squarely in the public square, on TV, on billboards, on bumper stickers. What people who want separation of Church and State mean is that they don’t want the government pushing it at schools and at courtrooms.

    • Kevin Miller

      Many people think religion has no place in the public square, especially politics. Some notable cases in point are Sam Harris, PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.

  • Flying Squid with Goggles

    But modern, industrialized nation-states with free speech don’t demand religious commitment unto death. The United States, UK, France, New Zealand, Germany, and pretty much every other modern developed democracy (even those with fewer speech protections than the U.S. 1st amendment provides for) tolerate vast amounts of split loyalty and pretty much no commitment unto death. Even horrific neo-Nazi groups like the American Front in the United States or the British People’s Party in the UK, as well as outrage-theater groups like the Westboro Baptist Church are tolerated (members, are of course arrested when they break laws like shooting into occupied houses, but the group/organization continues to exist.)

    The example Kahn gives of nuclear warfare is as distant from real day-to-day life in a modern industrialized democracy as it is possible to be. On the face of such a flimsy supporting statement, how can anyone believe that’s what the state demands?

    Can any American here point to a place in their life, outside of military service, where the U.S. government has demanded “religious commitment unto death” from them?

    Can anyone point to a place in their life where they could have denounced the U.S. government and, in the analogy of “religious commitment,” blasphemed?

    I think few outside the military could answer the former in the affirmative, while most of us could answer the latter in the affirmative.

    • Kevin Miller

      It’s not a matter of being forced to die for your country, although that may be required under certain circumstances, such as serving in the military. It’s a matter of being willing to die for your country–or at least what your country represents. It’s also about being willing to kill for those same ideals. I heard Prince Harry on the radio yesterday talking about how their motto in the field in Afghanistan is “Take a life to save a life.” What could justify taking a life–or surrendering your life–other than something that transcends death? It won’t be a rational argument; it’ll be a religious or at least quasi-religious argument. This is what Kahn is getting at. I highly recommend you listen to the entire episode so you can appreciate his argument in full.