Good Secularism vs. Bad Secularism

Good Secularism vs. Bad Secularism March 16, 2023

One kind of secularism takes no position on religion to make a place for religious pluralism and thus for religious liberty.  The other kind of secularism tries to stamp out religion altogether.

So observes Jordan Ballor in Christian Pluralism as a Way of Loving.  This is a review in Religion & Liberty of Michael Bird’s book Religious Freedom in a Secular Age: A Christian Case for Liberty, Equality, and Secular Government.

Ballor writes,

There are better and worse forms of secularism, or better yet true and false versions. Bird favors what might be called classic or even Christian secularism. This is a kind of secularism arising out of firm and even traditional convictions about the human person—inspired if not informed by Christian anthropology. This variety of secularism is conducive to pluralism and civil peace. Thus, Bird contends, “secularism establishes appropriate spaces for religion to be pursued and performed,” even as it “establishes spaces that are deliberately desacralized to make them common to all, irrespective of someone’s faith or lack of faith.”

This kind of “benign” secularism “is not against religion, but about common spaces that are neutral, nonsectarian, and free of religious affiliation.” We might be reminded here of Michael Novak’s metaphor of the empty shrine, which he used 40 years ago to describe “a genuinely pluralistic society” in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. “Its emptiness. . . represents the transcendence which is approached by free consciences from a virtually infinite number of directions.”

To extend Novak’s metaphor, what Bird describes as “militant secularism” is not an “empty shrine.” It is, rather, a society with no shrine at all, because anything evocative of transcendence is opposed and overthrown with totalitarian force. “Secularism as manifested in the separation of church and state is good for a tolerant, pluralistic, and democratic state,” writes Bird. But “militant models of secularism require a state to intervene in people’s religion precisely to keep it a private matter and publicly invisible.”

This presents the point of view of the state.  But from the point of view of the Christian, the good kind of secularism is also valuable, though it perhaps requires the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms to fully appreciate this.  That the state has no religious identity prevents us from turning it into an idol.

On that basis, some Christians repudiate the state and the secular culture, attempting to live for the church alone.  But the Two Kingdoms rejects this kind of dualism.

Though the state and the secular realm do not claim a religion, the Christian can still value them because God governs and is at work in them too, though in a hidden way.  And the mundane activities of making a living, raising a family, and exercising one’s citizenship are the arenas of vocation, in which God works through human beings–whether they are aware of it or not–to bestow His gifts and to care for His creation.



Illustration:  “Freedom of Worship” by Norman Rockwell – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain,

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