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The Trojan Horse of “Separation of Church and State”

If I were to nominate an idea that belongs in the trash heap of history it would be the notion that religion is somehow different from ideology or morality. This idea represents a profound misconception of fundamental human nature, and yet it forms the basis of so much of what we do. As such it has done, and continues to do, immeasurable harm.  For example…..  

The “separation of church and state” is a Trojan Horse by which America’s founding “religion” is being replaced by the religion of progressivism.

“Religion,” “morality,” and “ideology” are different words that denote a single aspect of fundamental human nature: tribalism.  

Humans evolved to form into groups of individuals who share similar values.  Groups, or tribes, then compete with other tribes for political power.  The words “religion,” “morality,” and “ideology” are different names for the value sets around which tribes form.  If there is a difference between ideology and religion it is merely a matter of degree.  

In What Explains the Vicious Left? David Gelertner explains how liberalism is a religion.  In “The Church of Progressivism” Brian Goff and Brian Strow expand on the idea, and show how the “separation of church and state” is a Trojan Horse by which progressive liberals seek to replace – or “fundamentally transform” – America’s founding “religion” into their own, and in so doing become that which they despise and that which they seek to prevent.

From What Explains the Vicious Left? (emphasis added):

Almost all human beings need religion, as subway-riders need overhead grab bars. The religious impulse strikes conservatives and liberals alike. But conservatives usually practice the religion of their parents and ancestors; liberals have mostly shed their Judaism or Christianity, and politics fills the obvious spiritual gap. You might make football, rock music, or hard science your chosen faith. Some people do. But politics, with its underlying principles and striking public ceremonies, is the obvious religion substitute.

Hence the gross asymmetry of modern politics. For most conservatives, politics is just politics. For most liberals, politics is their faith, in default of any other; it is the basis of their moral life.

Traditional religion used to be the iron grate that kept worldly beliefs from falling into the flames and turning into red-hot religious convictions in their own right. Among most conservatives it still is.

But for modern liberals it is only natural to be upset, defensive, dogmatic, and immovable when you are challenged on your political views. Few of us are prepared to defend our deepest spiritual beliefs. Most of us rarely think about them. Many of us have never had reason to believe them; we simply believe what our parents did. That is perfectly fair and suitable—except when rational, worldly politics is forced to confront politics-as-religion head-to-head.

Why should this new and dangerous virus have broken out now, in our generation? Judeo-Christian religion has been in decline for centuries. But important milestones have passed in our own lifetimes. Baby boomers were educated, in the ’50s and ’60s, in public schools that were still informally Christian—in a nation that (moreover) had been created by devout Christians guided by biblical ideas, and refounded during the Civil War by another Christian generation led by the most deeply religious of all our presidents. By the generation following the Second World War, it’s likely that the U.S. cultural leadership was already mostly atheist. But it was reticent about saying so; in that era, many Americans still hesitated to go all the way. And the centrality of biblical religion to America’s best self was reaffirmed during these same years by the pastors, priests, and rabbis of the civil rights movement. Today all these hugely important facts have been suppressed. My impression, as a college teacher, is that most young Americans have simply never heard them.

So here we are today with a mainstream press, cultural leadership, and intellectuals who laugh off the idea that a presidential candidate’s religion matters. Yet it matters intensely. Its real, practical importance is large. Unless you are a Jew or Christian, you are likely—as a modern American—to make a religion of your politics. And that will shape, in turn, your relation to the opposition and to the American people.

From “The Church of Progressivism” in the Winter 2016 issue of National Affairs, again with emphasis added:

In the middle of the 17TH century, philosopher Baruch Spinoza wrote, “I do not know how to teach philosophy without becoming a disturber of established religion.”

Spinoza’s moral philosophy defied the church’s control over ethics. [Spinoza] shifted the basis for morality away from religion, and in doing so shifted the foundation of politics away from revealed religion, as well. His motivation for undermining the church’s power is easy to understand … Experience had proven to Spinoza that “the most tyrannical governments are those which make crimes of opinions, for everyone has an inalienable right over his thoughts.”

Spinoza’s project has been overwhelmingly successful — so much so, in fact, that it threatens to undermine its own victory. In one of the most ironic but underappreciated intellectual twists in the history of the West, rather than disturbing and ultimately burying established religion, Spinoza begat a new one. Today, it is the philosophical descendants of Spinoza who dogmatically strive to limit freedom of thought. By the early 20th century, religion-free ethics had become a kind of mature, established religion of its own: the Church of Progressivism. Instead of moral and political philosophy being dominated by religious writers, the opposite has become true. Purely secular political thought has surpassed religious thought and now sets the boundaries for acceptable morals and actions in society.

Like traditional religions, progressivism establishes the sources and objects of meaning, action, and judgment, and constructs dogmas around them.

Based on these dogmas, progressivism identifies heresies — substantial departures from core beliefs and standards in ways perceived to be significant and damaging to the faith or society and deserving of open condemnation. For progressives, skepticism about human-centered global warming (which is proven by rational science and requires significant government intervention), the morality of homosexuality, purely naturalistic biological evolution, or the benefits of expanding the welfare state are heresies. It also identifies blasphemies — forbidden words or phrases related to the value system. Progressives’ blasphemies involve politically or socially incorrect speech rather than profane uses of a deity’s name. Progressivism, in other words, provides a comprehensive way to view the world and act within it, just as a traditional religion does.

Political adherents of all sorts — libertarian, conservative, liberal — can be given to turning political struggles into the core of their religion, but progressives are especially susceptible to this. Progressive president Woodrow Wilson, a devout Presbyterian in his own right, explicitly expressed this elevation of the political to the moral, religious level: “There is no higher religion than human service. To work for the common good is the greatest creed.” As a result of this tendency, the loudest and most influential voices in secular religion in our day emanate from the Church of Progressivism, whose doctrines provide infallible teachings on social justice, income equality, gender equality, sexuality, transgender politics, and the environment. Among progressives, the political agenda is the moral agenda.

Secular religionists have been doing the same thing for centuries. While endorsing Thomas Paine’s attack on critics of the excesses of the French Revolution, Thomas Jefferson spoke of “political heresies,” in veiled reference to John Adams. Under the pseudonym Publicola, John Quincy Adams defended his father and called out the religiosity inherent in Jefferson’s comment:

Does [Jefferson] consider this pamphlet of Mr. Paine’s a canonical book of political scripture? As contains the true doctrine of popular infallibility, from which it would be heretical to depart in one single point? . . . I have always understood, sir, that the citizens of these States were possessed of a full and entire freedom of opinion upon all subjects civil as well as religious; they have not established any infallible criterion of orthodoxy either in church or state.

Current progressivism has taken this approach to public argument to levels far beyond Jefferson’s, and its adherents have attempted to bully their way into near-total domination of the public square. In fact, progressivism has come to mirror the most unyielding, intolerant, and coercive versions of traditional religion that progressives vehemently despise. The 17th-century order, which Spinoza so opposed, has returned with a vengeance.

Initially, secular religionists pitched these attempts to remove religious symbols as a way of providing a neutral public sphere — a level playing field, if you will, for those with secular views. This argument for neutrality was appealing, and many devout religious followers bought into it. But what has emerged is not neutral and never could be, because a moral-philosophical vacuum cannot exist. There is always a moral philosophy, a religion, at work in any situation. Instead, the push against traditional religion has yielded a non-neutral, asymmetric set of circumstances in which traditional religious values cannot be promoted in public institutions, spaces, or documents, but secular religious values can. Secularists, and progressives most loudly, push not just to have their beliefs tolerated in the public square; they want their beliefs to be the only beliefs in the public square.

We, as professors at public universities, have felt this asymmetry acutely. We would of course be met with disapproval, and possible sanction, if we evangelized in class. We may analyze or criticize religious views, but we may not present them as normative standards. In contrast, the professor of sustainability or the assistant dean for social responsibility may openly advocate social justice through forced income redistribution, environmental protection, or other secular causes. If a professor promotes care for the poor because the Jewish or Christian God instructs it, that’s out of bounds. If he promotes it as an outgrowth of our secular moral or political philosophy, however, that’s not only permitted but lauded.

We saw this firsthand when a student of ours expressed an interest in attending, with the help of school funds, a conference sponsored by a religious inter-denominational public-policy think tank. In prior cases, no administrator raised any objections when students used school funds to attend conferences hosted by secular policy think tanks or devoted to the teachings of avowed atheists such as Ayn Rand. But the grant administrators immediately raised questions about this particular conference.

Controlling The State

Progressivism is not content merely to be the only religion allowed a voice in the public square, however. It goes further in an effort to force everyone to follow its dictates, using the levers of power to legally enact these beliefs. Progressives’ control over the public sphere means that only some ideas are considered and enacted into law. Those who follow a traditional religion would, of course, be pilloried for proposing universal, mandatory baptism into the Christian faith, backed by police enforcement and civil punishment. Progressive evangelists, by contrast, not only push for coercive policy mandates that canonize their beliefs and practices; they often bully those who would question the use of the power of the state for such purposes.

Paradoxically, many (like President Woodrow Wilson) who have a more traditional religious faith and also hold progressive political views would never dream of advocating coercive means to advance “religious” conversion, but they have been more than willing to accept and support a “social justice” political agenda through the power of the state.

Such tactics recall the unforgiving religious regimes from which the American founders liberated themselves.


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