White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

Who's Afraid of Secular Politics?

Published Thursday, May 3, 2007 By D. G. Hart

One sure way to generate Christian opposition to an idea, person, or organization is to attach the adjective secular to the institution, item, or person under scrutiny. Think of how much more harmful humanism sounds merely by adding secular. After all, humanism in the early sixteenth century stood for a literary reawakening that the Protestant reformers supported, thus prompting some historians to refer to it as Christian humanism. But secular humanism is clearly a different breed of literary study where the adjective modifies an otherwise important activity-the study of texts-and connotes an enterprise without reference to God or revealed truth.

The perils of the word secular are no less apparent in the world of American politics. Many well-intentioned Christians employ the word to refer to a way of pursuing the public good or determining public policy in a manner divorced from religious or moral considerations. For instance, in a column on recent efforts to remove the phrase “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance, Chuck Colson argued that if the deletion is made, the change to the Pledge would be “one more step toward the official establishment of secularism as American religion.” For Colson, secularism is the equivalent of man declaring his independence from God. “We declare ourselves free from any moral law or governor higher than the imperial self, and so we become gods,” Colson wrote. “I cannot imagine a more frightening prospect.” Whether or not the Pledge of Allegiance’s revision signifies such a damaging outcome, Colson’s rendering of secularism conforms to the common usage among most American Christians, if not many Americans.

Yet, this way of looking at secularity or the secular is unfortunate because the word itself has a much more complicated history. The term also stands for some valuable contributions that Protestantism introduced into the history of the West and the political systems that emerged over the past three centuries. So before you run off denouncing the secularism of American politics-or throw this article across the room in disgust-consider how different (and perhaps worse) the world would be without secularity rightly understood.

Lowering the Stakes

The word secular comes from the Latin saeculum. If you take out a dollar bill from your purse or wallet and turn it over to the back you will notice on the left a somewhat strange picture for North America-a pyramid-with the Latin phrase underneath, Novus Ordo Seclorum (seclorum is the plural of saeculum). The phrase means “new order for the ages,” and it testifies to the millennial optimism that inspired the American founding. The United States was supposed to represent a new political order in human history, one that would redirect the future course of human affairs. Of course, this may not be the best foot forward for lowering the stakes of secularity. Indeed, the very notion of creating something new and that would last for millennia appears to be indicative of the kind of pride that many associate with secularity’s understanding of human autonomy.

Still, the word saeculum itself need not follow from novus ordo. In Latin the word typically meant merely an age or generation, like the way we might use era or period to speak of a space of time – for example “the era before Christ” or “the antebellum period.” As such saeculum rightly signifies a period of time and especially its provisionalness. In this case, a period or era need not be a permanent one that lasts for all time. Seculum can also refer to a stage in history that is passing or fleeting. This meaning of secular is actually one that Christians should try to appropriate.

In Latin, saeculum could also take on negative connotations, such as in the Vulgate, the authoritative Latin translation of the Bible used by the Roman Catholic Church. For instance, in 2 Timothy 4:10 Paul writes of Demas’ desertion of the apostle’s ministry because of his love for “this world,” which in the Latin is rendered hoc saeculum. Or again in Ephesians 2:2 Paul reminds Christians of their former unregenerate way of life when they “followed the ways of this world,” which the Vulgate again employs saeculum mundi to capture the apostle’s idea of worldliness. Even though the use of saeculum here is negative, it also signifies the provisional character of worldly affairs, in the sense that these things are passing and not of eternal significance. Someone with a strong otherworldly perspective might be tempted to regard the Vulgate’s use of saeculum as signifying wickedness or evil. But just as important is the original idea of temporariness. Here we need to keep in mind that even good things, like marriage, are products of this age, institutions that will not carry over into the age to come. This is even true of human politics or government, which has been instituted as a provisional means for restraining evil in between the Fall and consummation. For this reason, simply because something is of this world, this age, or saeculum does not inherently make it godless or sinful. In fact, a truly secular politics might actually be a form of governing and policy-making that recognizes what rulers do here and now is temporary and fades like the grass. If that were the case then Christians could legitimately be at the forefront of advocating secular politics.

Secularization and Christendom

Of course, most American Christians do not use secular with its Latin derivation in mind. In addition to associating the word with antireligious motives and policies, many employ secular to describe the process by which a cultural or political endeavor passes from an explicitly religious sphere over to a neutral or irreligious one. Perhaps the greatest example of this development in modern history comes from the sphere of politics. As opposed to the Middle Ages when the pope and king worked in tandem to govern a Christian society, with the pope asserting his supreme authority as the representative appointed by Christ to govern on earth, modern politics since the revolutions of the late eighteenth centuries in France and America have segregated religion and politics. This separation has not meant automatically that the magistrate is supreme to rule in the church (though the English monarch is still head of the Church of England). But in countries like France and the United States the division of power has left the church with a very small sphere while the state’s power has increased to regulate more and more arenas of society. And in doing so without reference to religious standards, modern politics have become secular, that is, free from entanglement with the church or independent from religious standards.

As discouraging as these developments may be to believers, Protestants need to remember that the Reformation implicitly endorsed this kind of secularization. On one front the reformers insisted upon the doctrine of vocation, which taught that all legitimate work had religious significance; in other words, one did not have to be employed by or under the authority of the church in one’s work to be performing meaningful labor. (That is, secular employment became as worthwhile as full-time Christian service.) Another variation on this reduction of church authority over all spheres (and hence a form of secularization) was the notion of the priesthood of all believers. Because all Christians were called upon to render acts of service in their daily lives, and because such work actually sanctified the laborer and even work in so-called secular occupations, the Reformation liberated some spheres of activity from the control of the church, again contributing to a form of secularization.

The secular nature of the Reformation was no less true for the arena of politics. Lutherans embraced the doctrine of the two kingdoms, which teaches that the spiritual affairs of the church and the earthly matters of the state are matters distinct and not to be confused. In turn, the doctrine of the two kingdoms reduced the authority of the church, taking away from it the political or secular sphere. Calvinists also understood a fundamental difference between the spiritual and heavenly matters administered by the church and the earthly and temporal affairs of the state. Calvin even argued that after the coming of Christ, to confuse the two, to mix religion and politics, was to commit a Jewish folly. This was Calvin’s clear contention that Israel’s theocratic pattern where religion and politics were mingled under one nation no longer applied for the church whose boundaries knew no national limits and whose power was spiritual and eternal, not physical and temporal.

Protestants who dislike the secular label might like to nuance the interpretation of the Reformation offered here. Unfortunately, the limitations of space do not permit a fuller exploration of Protestantism’s understanding of politics. Still, the point remains. Protestants broke up Christendom and they did so not necessarily reluctantly because they recognized that the church is not called to regulate or oversee the same set of human affairs Israel did in the Old Testament. In effect, the Reformation was an effort to restore the church to its proper sphere of operation-what Paul called the invisible and eternal things-and this inevitably involved a curtailment of religious restrictions upon public or common life. As such, the Reformation was a preliminary stage in the secularization of the West. Depending on how one thinks of the church’s proper sphere of authority will determine whether one regards secularization in this sense as either a blessing or a curse.

The Lordship of Christ

Some may still be wondering whether a favorable view of secularity properly understood is at odds with the Lordship of Christ. In fact, on the surface Christ’s rule and a secular realm appear to be at odds because the former is comprehensive and includes all things whereas a secular sphere is independent of religious authority and implies an arena free from Christ’s lordship.

What may be helpful to remember at this point is that Christ’s Lordship is not a zero-sum game, as if Christ’s rule vanishes if not explicitly evident through a ruler’s overt appeal to Scripture or by means of church authority. After all, when Christ said “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” he was not suggesting that some things belonged to the emperor independent of his own authority as the eternal Son of God. Instead, Christ was implicitly establishing the point that he delegates his authority to different lesser authorities. Reformed Christians have traditionally limited these lesser authorities to three spheres: the church, the state, and the family. Each institution in its own sphere has legitimate authority that comes from Christ’s ultimate authority. Simply because these authorities are not Christian (a notion that ideally does not apply to the church) does not mean their authority is illegitimate. Non-Christian parents are to be respected and submitted to as much as Christian parents, just as Paul instructed Roman Christians to submit to governmental authorities who were notoriously anti-Christian (Rom. 13). Likewise, the Christian identity of one of these authorities does not give a family, a magistrate, or a church official the power to intervene in the affairs of other legitimate authorities. All authority on earth has been given unto Christ and he has delegated it to human authorities whom Christians are to respect no matter what the ruler’s religious identity may be.

Yet, equally important to keep in mind about the lesser authorities of the state, the family, and even the church, is their secular character. That is, these institutions to which Christ has delegated his own rule are passing and temporary. They are secular in the sense that their function is limited to this age or generation. In the new heavens and new earth, a truly novus ordo seclorum, we will have no need for the authority of parents, clergy, or politicians because Christ’s authority will be direct and comprehensive.

The problem, then, with pitting secular against Christian politics is that such a conception misconstrues the nature and contingency of politics. The state by its very nature is an institution that is secular in the right sense of the word because it is not a permanent arrangement. Conversely, to invest politics with Christian significance, to make them Christian, is in effect to attempt to give permanence (spiritual and eternal truth) to human endeavors inherently temporary, or of this age. For this reason, Christians have a real stake in recovering a truly secular politics, one that avoids identifying the legitimate and proximate ways and rule of Caesar with the necessary and ultimate rule of Christ. If it is possible to recognize the secularity or impermanence of marriage and the family (areas of life that ironically have inspired Christians to oppose secular politics), surely it is also possible to acknowledge similar qualities in the very murky but equally significant sphere of politics and government.

  • D. G. Hart


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