Secularism Can't Sustain a Moral Order

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We live in interesting days, do we not? With hostile adversaries overseas and serious divisions at home, most of us are looking for a more reasonable and peaceful civility that seems to have escaped us. Cultural unity eludes us.

The public square is now naked, as Father Richard John Neuhaus pointed out in 1984, laid bare by intolerance.

The public square is the sphere in any given community where differing ideas are shared and debated. For decades, religious, political, educational, and business leaders discussed and decided community standards, goals, and ideas. There was an assumed moral order that guided these discussions.

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This moral order was informed by a decidedly Judeo-Christian ethic. This is an undeniable fact of American history, though our "framers and founders" never called for America to be a Christian nation.

They were rightly not interested in creating a theocracy, but a democratic republic, albeit informed and sustained by a proven moral structure. This is why many of them asserted that democracy could only be sustained by a moral people.

While many of the "framers and founders," were not explicitly Christian, they did decide to hang their moral hat on an intellectual structure that was not only rooted in natural and common law, but in a spiritual and moral order that allowed for human flourishing.

This moral order sometimes got things wrong, especially when it came to slavery, racism, women's suffrage, and Indian genocide. Yet, the genius of this moral order was that given enough time it could and would correct its own faults and do it in a civil, yet sometimes excruciatingly slow manner.

Because of this moral process America demonstrated itself to be the most productive, free, and prosperous nation in recent, historical memory.

However, we are now in the throes of the re-ordering of this moral order. It is a revolution on par with the initial American revolution. Secularism is now making every attempt to overthrow the moral order that has guided this nation for some 200 plus years. Rather than being guided by a set of objective moral claims, we are now being guided by a plethora of personal feelings and whims. Unity is impossible because of the diversity of individual feelings.

The essential doctrine of secularism is the ill-defined notion of tolerance. In other words, what is morally beautiful is tolerance unless, of course, your views are intolerable to the tolerant. Even when secularism makes a moral claim it must do so by a smuggled in morality borrowed from the Judeo-Christian worldview. It must borrow from what it cannot tolerate. Ironically, secularism secretly assumes what it cannot publicly tolerate in order to make a moral claim.

If ethics are determined by personal feelings and whims, who or what arbitrates between what is right and wrong? Certainly not the Judeo-Christian worldview, right? Good riddance.
Consequently, those who hold to a Judeo-Christian worldview are slowly being ushered out of the public square in the spheres of business, education, and politics. So long as we keep our beliefs private, we're OK. But not even private conscience is safe any longer. People who embrace a robust Judeo-Christian worldview are the new racists and bigots, those that cannot be tolerated. So much for secularism's doctrine of tolerance, right?

The questions this reordering raises are massive. Can secularism deliver what it promises? I doubt it. Any system that is based on personal feelings and whims, even if dressed up with sophisticated terms and concepts, may find those who embrace such a view with their feet firmly planted in mid-air. Not a very comforting notion of stability.

Further, what role will personal conviction and conscience play in the future, especially if it disagrees with this new secularism? What will become of the concerns that center around the time-honored, constitutional principle of religious liberty? Will there be room in the public square for people who believe there is a God who informs this moral order; that humans are unique, yet limited and flawed, in need of redemption; that biology determines sexuality; that marriage is between a man and a woman; that parents are the main caretakers and educators of children and not the state; and that freedom means that we are free to do what is right but not always what we want to do; that science is important, but not always determinative; and, will free speech disappear from the academy?

Will there be room for people who believe that humans all share a common ancestry so that there is no room for racism or classicism, and that we are bound together as a common humanity endowed by our Creator with certain rights not granted by the state but by God?

As our own Declaration of Independence notes, "We hold these truths as self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

If my hunch proves right, a public square stripped of this kind of moral order will prove divisive and detrimental to our flourishing. All we will be left with are identity politics and a series of cultural enclaves, yet without a moral order to guide the ship.

What secularism promises it cannot deliver because it offers no sustained moral ordering, leaving us with a naked public square where little consensus or unity can be shaped and formed.

Dr. Kevin Shrum is pastor of Inglewood Baptist Church and Assistant Part-time Professor of Religious Studies at Union University, Hendersonville Campus

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