The Myth of Secular Neutrality

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by Scott R. Murray

So-called “secularity” is now being imposed on Christians. This is beginning to be seen in laws such as the California law (SB1146) that would forbid Christian universities from using religious criteria in hiring professors. We cannot let our schools and churches have “secular” hiring practices imposed on them. They would cease to be Christian in any recognizable way. Why are secularists attempting to impose this on us?

Progressives in our culture presume that “secularity” is the default non-religious position. However, we Christians must argue that secularity is itself a religious presupposition. It is a presupposition as easily defended as a traditional religious position. Secular materialism is no less religious than a spiritualist position. By spiritualism, I mean a theistic view of the world in which there is presumed to be something beyond the measurable world, whatever that something might be. Materialism is the philosophy that there is nothing beyond this visible, measureable world. The materialist believes that we live in a closed system. Materialism denies there is anything beyond what can be seen, measured or quantified. Most moderns are implicit materialists. They believe that materialistic secularity is the intellectual default position. They won’t believe anything they can’t see. This way, religion is ruled out of bounds tout court. J. Budziszewski, however, points out that that which is religious is not merely a prejudice for the existence of God, but rather a religion is that which is of ultimate concern to the believer.

If religion is the practice of ultimate concern, then we have another problem. In the first place, even secularism may be the place of an ultimate concern. We acknowledge this, for instance, by calling Leninism a religion; simply we say of the greedy man that ‘his God is money’ and call this misplaced devotion ‘idolatry.’ In the second place, even among those secularisms that do not go so far as to identify ultimate concerns, none is without implications as to what could, or could not, count is an ultimate concern. John Stuart Mill could never decide which, if any, of the ‘permanent interests of man as a progressive being’ was deserving of unconditional loyalty. But one thing he was sure of, that the Messiah was not among them.[1]

What makes this position religious is that it is held against all other evidence. Ask a materialist if there is any evidence that could be offered to them that would lead them to reject their materialism, they will likely answer, “No, there can be none.” We would answer the same about giving up faith in Christ. Both are religious positions.

It is both increasingly clear and increasingly opaque that progressives in our culture are claiming that their position is both secular and rational, when in fact it represents a belief of ultimate concern and is therefore as much religious commitment as one centered on the Messiah. It is increasingly clear, in that we can see how progressivism will not tolerate any views divergent from its own. It is increasingly opaque to the average person, because of the brainwashing to which the media industrial complex is committed. “What all this tells us is that ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ constitutes a false dichotomy.”[2]

This runs completely counter to the claims of the Christian revelation of God’s constant intervention into the world and especially in His incarnate Son. Many Christians in America are “implicit” materialists. They reflexively accept the presupposition of materialism that they have not examined but which is fed to them from their mother’s breast.

Government is susceptible to being influenced by both secularity and religiosity, because neither position is defensible in a rationalistic way. If this is true, how would the constitutional government of the United States be kept from being taken hostage to a particular sectarian religious view, if there is no barrier to keep religion from influencing government? This pivots on the way Christianity views the specific religious teachings of the Bible. Christians believe that the sum and essence of the Christian religion is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. These acts of Jesus are the way in which God, through the preaching of His Word in the world, converts, saves, forgives sins and brings to heaven those who believe in Jesus Christ. None of these things are susceptible to worldly wisdom. They are, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1, foolishness to human reason by itself.

For Christians the government can never have the competence to establish a religion of any kind or to offer religious instruction to the people. In other words, the Gospel is the Church’s difference from every other institution, including, and especially, government. The Gospel is not the government’s bailiwick. Law is. That competence God has given to the government, even if we might doubt the rationality of the present Congress’s particular actions.

God has given government power over right and wrong. Moral authority is precisely the government’s gift from God. I am amazed by the number of people who say that government must not impose morals on people! What else is the authority to punish evil doers? When a murderer is sent to prison for life, how else could this be done, but by moral authority? If it is not a moral authority that permits this, then we ought to open all the prisons and let out those poor souls upon whom the government has imposed its moral view. Government is God’s creature to punish and keep external order. But government may not tell you what you are to believe about Christ, forgiveness and eternal life. The government’s competence is only in law, reason, right and wrong, do and don’t do. This is the competence of moral law or what we might call natural law.

As we fight for our right to exist and to exercise our religion within our country, I believe we need to make more forcefully the point that secularism is not a religiously neutral point of view, but rather an ultimate concern demanding faith on the part of its adherents. Secularists must be treated just as the churches are treated by government. Unfortunately, there will be a great deal of brainwashing to overcome as we try to make this point with our secularist/materialist friends. If we are to recover an understanding of the first amendment that gets Christians and Christian institutions equal protection under the law, this is a case that we will have to make. If we don’t, we may soon lose our schools.

The Rev. Dr. Scott R. Murray is pastor of Memorial Lutheran Church, Houston Texas, and Fourth Vice President of the LCMS. 

[1] J. Budziszewski, “The Illusion of Moral Neutrality,” First Things (August 1993).

[2] Ibid.

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7 Responses to The Myth of Secular Neutrality

  1. Thom Styrbjorn June 30, 2016 at 5:16 am #

    Christian schools must avoid the “baited hook” of tax dollars, as that results in crossing the barrier of separation of church and state. Christians must be committed as much as ISIS is committed. We must enthusiastically carry our kids to Sunday School to learn the love and compassion of Jesus Christ and teach them to put on the “full armor of God”.

    • John J Flanagan July 28, 2016 at 10:54 am #

      The reality today is that progressives are many in number, and they inhabit academia, politics, media, and even mainstream liberal denominations. They have an anti-Christian, anti-Orthodoxy message, and I include liberal churches because they have abandoned Biblical Christianity for a contemporary socially acceptable philosophy which promotes and affirms homosexuality. They twist the word of God to assert He favors and blesses gay marriage and gay clergy, and they often promote political issues like global warming and unrestricted open borders. They have little time left to spread the Gospel, and probably have great difficulty in explaining their difference of opinion with what the Bible clearly teaches on marriage being restricted to a man and a woman only. On the political and academic frontlines, orthodox Christian teachings will be violated along with the first Amendment to legally suppress Christian education, and ultimately treat Christian schools as second class citizens. We must remember that even our own land has become hostile to our religion, and hence we must think of ourselves as pilgrims and strangers. But we cannot be pessimists, because we walk by faith and know our destination is with Jesus and the saints in glory..

  2. June 30, 2016 at 7:25 am #

    Your argument here brings to mind the concept of “American civil religion” (advanced by Robert Bellah and others), which involves its own sacred symbols, beliefs, values, and texts (e.g., Constitution; Bill of Rights). I recall reading a few public address articles that examined the concept and thinking, “Wow. We really do have a national ‘religion.'” The concept might be useful as you make the case for the non-neutrality of secularism.

  3. July 6, 2016 at 2:34 pm #

    Sorry, Thom, but Christians pay taxes and should be treated equally in the public arena. We should not have to give up the First Amendment right to practice religion free from government interference while also practicing our right to establish schools. If tax money is provided to students in the form of loans and grants, then it should be equally available to Christian schools without religious strings. Also, there is no “separation of church and state”, but rather the restriction placed upon government not to establish a religion nor prohibit the free exercise thereof.
    BTW–well written article.

  4. Jordan July 11, 2016 at 9:25 pm #

    All secularists are materialists? Seems like a bit of a leap.

  5. July 12, 2016 at 11:20 am #

    I mostly liked this article, except for here: “For Christians the government can never have the competence to establish a religion of any kind or to offer religious instruction to the people”

    Which contradicts the other statements that it’s a ‘myth’ (oh how I hate the use of this word as if myth meant commonly held lie, myth is so much more than that, and definitely not a lie, but I digress…) that there is such thing as neutrality.

    It is unavoidable that there will be a religion foisted on the people by a state. It used to be that a ‘mere christianity’ was what informed our people, but now it is secular liberalism.

    Whether or not the government has “the competence to establish a religion… or … offer religious instruction to the people” it always, all the time, and forever does. For the government not to do this would mean anarchy. Even the statement “people should be protected from being killed and stolen from” is a religious view that could be otherwise.

    The question is not whether the government imposes religion on its people, it’s only which religion. Right now it’s secular liberalism. Perhaps it will be Islam one day. If Christians aren’t out to win, then they will lose, because others are out to win.

  6. Dan July 15, 2016 at 10:22 am #

    God has given government power over right and wrong. Moral authority is precisely the government’s gift from God.

    Do you include all governments in the Christian world in this generic statement? It is reprehensible to include Nazi Germany unless, of course, you are in favor of a government that wants to exterminate the Jews.

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