Benjamin Wiker is a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, a contributor to Catholic World Report, and the author of several books, including the recently published Worshipping the State: How Liberalism Became Our State Religion (Regnery, 2013). He spoke with CWR about his book.
CWR: Isn’t the title of your book hyperbolic and simply meant to stir up interest? Can it really be argued that anyone, at least in the United States, really worships the state? Whatever do you mean by that?
Wiker: Well, it’s certainly meant to stir up interest! Do people in the US, especially from the Left, physically get down and bow before, say, the steps of the Supreme Court? No! But do they treat the state as a kind of substitute for God? Yes, very much so. Is there precedent in the history of liberalism for an actual worshipping of the state? Again, yes.
We first have to stand back and look at our current situation within a larger historical framework. Over the last two hundred years, self-consciously secular states have, quite literally, transferred worship from God to humanity itself, or more precisely, to the greatest concentration of human power, the state.
The French Revolution’s Religion of Reason was actually a worship of man himself, and the secular revolutionary state made up its own religion, so that the revolution itself and the revolutionary state became the object of actual religious devotion.
This same kind of movement—rejecting Christianity, only to idolize the secular state—occurred with various other political movements in the 19th and early 20th centuries: nationalism, communism, Fascism, and Nazism are the most obvious examples. For good reason, scholars have called these “political religions.”
Socialism was one more political religion, which quite literally understood itself as transferring the worship from God to humanity itself, or more exactly, to the socialist state that promised to give citizens in this life what Christianity had promised only in the next—a this-worldly utopia. Socialism was, therefore, essentially religious in its original conception, and it became the historical foundation of liberal progressivism in the United States.
So, yes, we are talking about actual worship of the state! But we can also see, even aside from this historical background, that the liberal state has taken upon itself the role of God, even while it busily evicts Christianity from the public square.
Let me offer one important example, President Obama’s HHS mandate, compelling all institutions, including Catholic institutions, to pay for contraception, abortifacients, and sterilization. That’s the liberal state saying, “Thou shalt participate in the liberal sexual revolution.” That’s the state defining good and evil.
The same thing is occurring with the Left’s use of the courts to impose the acceptance of gay marriage, or the state, with abortion and euthanasia, taking upon itself the authority to define what marriage is, what life is, and when death should be dealt.
CWR: There are, as you note, many types of “liberalism.” What form of liberalism is your book about? And why do you write that “we cannot even understand liberalism until we understand some important things about Christianity”? What things?
Wiker: I begin with the most obvious and familiar form of liberalism, with liberalism as it is understood on the popular level. What are the typical liberal views? Liberals tend to be atheistic, agnostic, or at best affirmative of a “progressive” form of Christianity with little or no doctrine and a liberal view of morality. Liberals support abortion, the gay agenda, the sexual revolution, multiculturalism, a kind of moral relativism, euthanasia. And finally, liberals tend to support big government.
That’s the popular conception of liberalism, and it’s a reasonable place to begin to understand it more deeply. While relying on this, I take the reader more deeply into the historical origins of liberalism, going all the way back to Machiavelli in the early 1500s. Here, with Machiavelli, we can most clearly see what liberalism, in its origin and essence, really was and is. It begins with a kind of double movement, a self-conscious rejection of Christianity by Machiavelli, and an affirmation of our bodily existence in this world as our highest good.
Thus, liberalism, at its heart, is secular, defined by the rejection of Christianity and its simultaneous affirmation of the world. In this, it represents a kind of return to paganism. That’s why, historically, the advance of secular liberalism has meant both de-Christianization, and a return to a pagan worldview.
CWR: What sort of “cosmological support,” to quote from the book, does “liberalism demand”?
Wiker: When we understand liberalism as a self-conscious affirmation of life in this world as the only defining good for human beings, we have the key to understanding what kind of cosmos liberalism needed to support it—and that is a materialist view of the cosmos.
It’s no accident at all that with the rise of liberal secularism we also have the rise of the materialist worldview. What’s the best way to rid the world of Christianity? Simply make a world into which Christianity won’t fit: a world made entirely of matter, a world without souls, spirits, or God.
That’s why secular liberals always push, as part of their agenda, an entirely materialist worldview. It’s a view of reality that disallows the central truths of Christianity any foothold. If human beings are just elaborate chemical creatures, with no soul, and there’s no God, then all Christian doctrines are entirely without any foundation.
This worldview also supports—really, defines—every aspect of the liberal view of morality. If we are only bodies, then good and evil must be defined entirely by body, that is to say, entirely by physical pleasure and pain. And so, anything that anyone finds physically pleasurable, must be, for that person, good. Good and evil are entirely relative, entirely defined by our private, individual physical desires. Of course, in a materialist world, God, who is pure spirit, cannot exist, so we are left free to make up our own morality.
CWR: How did the early Christians go about dealing with what you call “the degraded pagan state”? Didn’t the Church simply become degraded and corrupted as well after Constantine legalized Christianity in the fourth century?
Wiker: Why is this question important? We realize why when we learn that the pagan Romans heartily affirmed contraception, abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, easy divorce, easy sex, pornography, pedophilia homosexuality, and yes, even homosexual marriage! In other words, the first Christians were born into a pagan state, a pagan culture, that looks suspiciously like ours! Or to put it the other way around, secular liberalism has brought us right back to paganism, and contemporary Christians should have an unpleasant feeling of déjÀ vu.
But that realization also brings with it an important lesson. The first Christians didn’t crawl into the catacombs in order to avoid the degraded pagan culture; instead they marched forth and evangelized it. That’s how the pagan Roman Empire, and hence the West, became Christianized.
And that includes the evangelization of pagan Roman emperors, the first one to convert being Constantine. Jesus said to convert everyone, even the people at the top!
While many, looking back, have viewed the conversion of Constantine as a kind of “fall” from pure Christianity, the Christians of the time didn’t think so. Just before this conversion, Christians were being burned alive, flayed, torn apart by animals, beheaded, beaten, jailed, and so on—by the pagan state. They rejoiced at the news that, quite suddenly, the pagan Emperor had converted, and rightly saw it as a fulfillment of Christ’s power of transforming everything. Constantine’s conversion was seen as a great act of Divine Providence.
I suspect those who, looking back, yearn for the good old days of Christianity before Constantine where Christians were being massacred in the cruelest possible ways, have a merely romantic idea of what it might mean to be hunted down by the state. They should ask Christians who have lived under communism how romantic it is!
Did the conversion of Constantine cause problems? Yes, but not nearly as many as is often reported. What Christians did learn was that the emperor could not be the head of the church—even with the best of intentions, his political aims will, sooner or later, corrupt the church. So, the Church did self-consciously create distance between itself and the state. Instead of being absorbed by the state—as pagan religion was, and to a great extent, as the Church in the East was—the Church in the West asserted that there must be a true distinction between church and state; that they must each act under their own governance, and for their own respective aims. In short, it was the Church that invented the distinction between Church and state.
CWR: In what ways did the Church invent and develop the distinction between Church and state? And if that is so, why do so many Christians seem to dislike or even attack the “separation of Church and State”?
Wiker: Let’s quickly view the words of the late-fifth century pope Gelasius:
For Christ, mindful of human frailty, regulated with an excellent disposition what pertained to the salvation of his people. Thus he distinguished between the offices of both powers according to their own proper activities and separate dignities, wanting his people to be saved by healthful humility and not carried away again by human pride, so that Christian emperors would need priests for attaining eternal life and priests would avail themselves of imperial regulations in the conduct of temporal affairs. In this fashion spiritual activity would be set apart from worldly encroachments and the “soldier of God” (2 Timothy 2:4) would not be involved in secular affairs, while on the other hand he who was involved in secular affairs would not seem to presided over divine matters. Thus the humility of each order would be preserved, neither being exalted by the subservience of the other, and each profession would be especially fitted for its appropriate functions.
Note the main reason to keep the Church and state separate: to avoid pride and corruption. The political ruler must always remember that he needs the priest, he needs the Church, for the sake of his ultimate salvation. He’s not a God on earth. He’s not above God’s law and the need for God’s grace. On the other hand, the leaders of the Church must not usurp the place of political rulers or they will become worldly, and hence corrupt the church.
So each has its appropriate function and domain: the Church, caring for the good of the soul in regard to the next life, and the state caring for those things largely pertaining to caring for bodily things and administering justice in this world.
But note: the Church invented the distinction between the Church and the state. It was not understood as a separation defined by antagonism, as if it were the state against the Church. The kind of antagonism where we have a secular state trying to erase any and all influence of the Church—that’s the invention of modern secular liberalism. Unfortunately, we’ve lost the original meaning of the distinction between Church and state, and that is due to the rise of modern liberalism. Christians need to understand where the distinction really came from, and what it originally meant, as well as why and how it was corrupted by secular liberalism—and of course, I spend quite a lot of time on that in Worshipping the State.
CWR: Why was Machiavelli so important in the development of our modern understanding of “state”? And what were some of the key consequences of that development?
Wiker: It was, in fact, Machiavelli who invented the modern secular state, the state defined by its essential rejection of Christianity, and its embrace of an entirely this-worldly, materialistic view of politics. Our contemporary notion of “erecting a wall of separation between the church and state,” of the state as an active, secularizing institution bent on removing Christianity from the public square, is indebted to Machiavelli.
The obvious consequence of accepting Machiavelli’s view is that the Church is driven into extinction or, somewhat more generously, impotence and irrelevance. Secularization means de-Christianization, and that’s what Christians are experiencing today.
CWR: You argue that Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677) was crucial as both the “father of modern liberal democracy” and “the father of modern Scripture scholarship”? How can that can be so when there hasn’t been a movie made about his life?
More seriously, how did Spinoza’s pantheistic views affect the Western understanding of the state? And what did Spinoza think of Christianity in general and the Catholic Church specifically?
Wiker: I think there should be a movie, because the intrigue in regard to the strategy of secularists like Spinoza in ridding the world of orthodox Christianity is every bit as interesting, even more so, than the ever-lamentable novel The Da Vinci Code, which painted orthodox Christianity as itself a kind of conspiracy!
Spinoza was a key radical Enlightenment thinker, certainly one of the most influential. As with all the other secular thinkers of the Enlightenment, Spinoza thought Christianity was a great big historical mistake, and Catholicism was the worst form of it. He therefore sought for a way, or ways, to undermine it. He was a brilliant strategist.
For example, rather than attack the Bible directly, he undermined it by introducing an approach to the study of Scripture that results in turning the Bible into a morality tale for the masses. To take a related example, rather than attack Christian doctrine directly, he argued that all that mattered, to be Christian, was that you loved your neighbor—all the other beliefs, all the other dogmas and doctrines were merely window-dressing. What he meant by loving your neighbor was tolerating whatever beliefs your neighbor had as long as he was generally law-abiding, because religious beliefs were entirely subjective. That view helped to define modern liberal democracy, where everyone’s beliefs about God are equally viable and equally true because they are equally without foundation.
But Spinoza did have a kind of philosophic religion. He was a pantheist, famously declaring that God is nature and nature is God. The result, once the belief caught hold with the Romantics, was that nature was worshipped as divine. But since we are part of nature, then we are divine as well. And since the state is something that we divine human beings make, then the state must be divine! So, Spinoza’s pantheism contributed directly to the efforts of those who, in the 19th and 20th centuries, considered the state itself to be a god worthy of our highest worship.
CWR: What is relationship between liberalism (as you’ve described above) and democracy? What are some of the essential factors that must be considered in assessing that relationship?
Wiker: This is a tricky question, one that must be handled delicately because of the reigning confusions, both about democracy and about liberalism. To be all too quick about it, secular liberalism was historically defined by its essential antagonism to Christianity. It wanted to remove Christianity from culture, root and branch. It met the Christian understanding that there is real truth, with a new form of intellectual and moral relativism—the intellectual and moral relativism which so dominates our academic and intellectual circles today was devised by these first secular thinkers like Machiavelli, and we may add, Thomas Hobbes.
What does that have to do with liberal democracy? Liberalism so dislikes the Christian claim to have the truth, that it embraces the notion that there is no truth, and that anybody’s view is as good as anyone else’s. It undermines Christianity by undermining any claim to the truth.
That relativism undergirds the liberal view of democracy, where no one’s view is any better or worse than anyone else’s, so everyone’s view must count equally. Since there is no truth, the goal of liberal democracy becomes affirming everyone’s right to do and say whatever he or she pleases.
That is liberal democracy. Suffice it to say that democracy could be built on other foundations, such as the notion that all are created in the image of God, that we all are sinners, that we are all loved by God, that we are all in need of moral regeneration, and that we all have moral obligations to fulfill in society.
CWR: What are the “two faces of liberalism”? What face are we staring at today, in 2013, in the United States? What are some of the unique features of secularism in the US?
Wiker: This is a rather complex point, but to boil it down, there are two main streams in the historical development of liberalism, what we might call conservative or classical liberalism, and radical liberalism. Both share in the fundamental liberal aim to entirely secularize (i.e., de-Christianize) the state.
The father of classical or conservative liberalism is John Locke, a very ambiguous figure, to say the least. Locke’s aim was to secularize the state, make it entirely defined by this worldly bodily welfare. In his words, the sole aim of government is the protection of property—not the encouragement of virtue, not the care of the souls of the citizens, not a preparation for the next life, but merely to see to it that its citizens could make money, and those who made it could keep it. Locke wanted to liberate the state from the Christian concern for the fate of the soul in the next world; or to be more blunt, he wanted to liberate the citizens from the Christian worry about the sin of avarice, so that they can pursue this-worldly economic gain with a clear conscience.
Yet, Locke believed that religion was necessary as a kind of moral prop for this essentially economic endeavor—religion is necessary to control the unpropertied masses!—so he didn’t want Christianity thrown out. He just wanted it transformed into a moral helpmate for the secular, economically-defined state. That makes him “conservative” in his liberalism.
The other face of liberalism is radical. It wants the message of liberation from the Christianity preached to everyone. Here, the father is Rousseau, and then, after him, Marx. Here we find the seeds of full-bore anti-Christian secular liberalism that we are familiar with today.
Radical liberalism arose as a reaction to conservative or classical liberalism. The radicals argued that religion was merely a prop protecting the propertied classes in society, the so-called capitalists (which, of course, was true, given Locke’s assumptions). So, out with religion! Let the property of the few be distributed to the many, and let us have a secular state governed by everyone and serving everyone with every this-worldly good.
That’s where socialism, communism, and the modern welfare state come from. Or, to bring it down to our contemporary political level, Republicans tend to be classical liberals supporting a government that protects economic interests, and Democrats tend to be radical liberals touting a government that dispenses economic benefits to everyone.
Unfortunately, in the contemporary US, Christians are made to believe that the entire choice they have is between two kinds of liberals, rather than digging more deeply into history, and into the Church’s own teaching, for a more profound understanding of politics that transcends our current situation.
CWR: Your final chapter is titled “Disestablishing Secular Liberalism.” What must be done? What is, realistically, the alternative to secular, democratic state?
Wiker: I offer several strategies for disestablishing secular liberalism as our defining cultural worldview, as the religion adopted and pushed by the secular state.
First, we need to understand that secular liberalism isn’t a neutral view—the view that you get when you subtract all the various religious views from the public square. Rather, liberalism is a very particular worldview, with its own assumptions about the universe, about human nature, good and evil, what should be done by the state, and so on. Indeed, liberalism qualifies as a religion: it is as extensive in its claims as any religion, and it historically was understood, in its various forms, as a religion meant to displace Christianity.
So, if liberalism is a religion, then it should be, according to our First Amendment, disestablished as the official government-sponsored worldview. That doesn’t mean liberalism is outlawed. It must simply step down from its privileged position, and take its place among the other religions in the public square, so that it can make its case by argument rather than imposing itself through state power.
Second, we need to become educated about what really happened historically, both in regard to the history of Christianity and the history of modern secular liberalism. Ignorance of what actually happened historically is a great obstacle to re-evangelizing our de-Christianized culture.
We need to understand that it was the Church that invented the distinction between the church and the state, and we need to be very clear about what the difference is between what the Church intended and what liberalism now puts forth as the separation of church and state.
We need to understand that it was Christianity that invented the university. Why? Consider what effect it might have to teach, in our universities today, that the university wouldn’t exist if Christianity hadn’t invented it. The next obvious question is, or should be: What is it about Christianity, about its doctrines, about the structure of the Church, that brought about the invention of the university within Christendom and nowhere else? To understand why there is a university at all, we must carefully and sympathetically study the history of the Church. That, one hopes, would lead to a kind of openness in the universities to Christianity, rather than what we generally find today—complete animosity.
There are other examples in Worshipping the State of teaching “what really happened” that would go a long way in undermining the smug hold on culture enjoyed by secular liberals. Liberals make the case for secularization by presenting Christianity, historically, as the cause of all kinds of evil. We need to counteract that. We need to study what actually happened in the Crusades, rather than the various myths that support the liberal view of Christianity’s “dark” history. Study the history of science, and discover that modern science was born in the Middle Ages, in the Church, and that the first scientists were monks, priests, and bishops. Study the actual history of warfare, and discover that, contrary to popular liberal opinion, the Church isn’t the cause of the greatest and bloodiest wars, and that the number slaughtered in the name of secularism dwarfs the numbers killed in the name of faith.
But above all, we can’t just look to the past. We must attend to the future. The Church must evangelize the culture, just as it did the declining pagan culture of the Roman Empire—and this is not a mere analogy, since secular liberalism has created a culture that differs very little from that of ancient pagan Rome.
What is the alternative to a secular, democratic state? Well, to be a bit startling, one alternative is occurring in Europe. The secular liberal democracies of Europe are imploding. The sexual revolution has reduced them to a birthrate far below replacement, and family life has been all but destroyed. The population vacuum is being filled by Muslim immigration and a birthrate far above replacement. The imminent alternative to a secular, democratic state in Europe is a Muslim state, where a determined minority fast becoming a majority uses democracy to transform the state from a secular, democratic state into a theocracy governed by sharia law.
Let’s look at another alternative, an understanding of politics built upon the natural law. The natural law is not explicitly Christian, that is, it is not based upon Christian revelation, but is rooted in the nature of human beings as such, and hence available to everyone.
This would be democratic, in the sense that all human beings are equally human, and must therefore be treated as having equal moral worth. But it wouldn’t be based upon a false equality of relativism where all opinions are equal—i.e., the liberal notion that there is no truth, and so anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s. Needful to say, the liberal notion that there is no truth undermines itself! Why should we hold to liberal views if no view is any better or worse?
Nor would it be based upon the liberal notion that human beings are merely soulless chemical aggregates who have nothing more to hope for in life than physical pleasure, but rather, upon the full reality of the human good as defined by our being a unity of soul and body.
This is only a sketch, and it would take an entire book to fill in the details—a task which I might very soon take up as a sequel to Worshipping the State.