247 How Liberalism Became Our State Religion

Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and election clearly appealed to and elicited a strongly religious fervor.  Devotees fainted at his rallies, messianic claims were attached to his agenda, and Obama promised a fundamental “transformation” of America.  Celebrating his election, he grandiosely declared that peoples henceforth would see that “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and the planet began to heal.”  Consequently, actor Jamie Foxx urged fans to “give an honor to God and our lord and savor Barack Obama.”  MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews enthused:  “This is the New Testament” and “I feel this thrill going up my leg.”  Louis Farrakhan, closely aligned with Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s Chicago pastor, told his Nation of Islam disciples:  “When the Messiah speaks, the youth will hear, and the Messiah is absolutely speaking.”  And there’s even The Gospel According to Apostle Barack by Barbara Thompson.  Though previous presidents—notably John F. Kennedy—elicited something of the same enthusiasm, Obama is somewhat unique in America.  But he is not at all unusual when placed against the backdrop of human history, when again and again “charismatic” leaders have claimed and been endowed with supernatural powers.  

Thus there is good reason to seriously ponder Benjamin Wiker’s Worshipping the State:  How Liberalism Became Our State Religion (Washington:  Regnery Publishing, Inc., c. 2013).  He prefaces his treatise with a typically prescient statement by G. K. Chesterton:  “‘It is only by believing in God that we can ever criticize the Government.  Once abolish . . . God, and the Government becomes the God.  That fact is written all across human history . . . .  The truth is that Irreligion is the opium of the people.  Wherever the people do not believe in something beyond the world, they will worship the world.  But, above all, they will worship the strongest thing in the world’” (p. 1).   And inasmuch as the State has (during the past five centuries) gradually expanded its powers, there is a natural tendency to worship it.    

Though secular liberals have frequently touted their “tolerance” and commitment to “diversity,” there is a totalitarian shadow—an irreligious dogmatism—evident in their many current anti-Christian endeavors:  the “war on Christmas” with efforts to enshrine alternatives such as “Winter Solstice;” the cleansing of any Christian content from public school curricula (while simultaneously promoting Islam); the dogmatic support of naturalistic evolution rather than any form of intelligent design in the universities; the removal of crosses or nativity scenes on public lands; the desecration of Christian symbols by “artists” of various sorts; the assault on Christian ethics through court decisions (e.g. Roe v. Wade) and programs such as the abortificient provisions in Obamacare.  Systematically imposed by the federal courts (following the crucial 1947 Everson v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision), “the federal government has acted as an instrument of secularization, that is, of disestablishing Christianity from American culture, and establishing in its place a different worldview” (p. 11).  

Lest we restrict this process to America, however, we must chart some powerful historical developments in Western Civilization that have been unfolding for half-a-millennium.  To Wiker, the triumph of Liberalism in these centuries enabled growing numbers of folks to liberate themselves from the “curse” of Christianity and replace the Church with an enlightened and nurturing State.  “The founders of liberalism believed that Christianity was a huge historical mistake, and therefore they reached back again to the pagans for help in loosening the Christian hold on the world, and quite often adopted precisely those things in paganism that Christianity had rejected” (p. 22).  Consequently, “Christians today find themselves in a largely secularized society” quite akin to the ancient world with an easy-going sexual ethos; “it is as if Christianity is being erased from history, and things were being turned back to the cultural status quo of two thousand years ago” (p. 37).  

Christianity, of course, emerged within a pagan world wherein the state (Egyptian pharaohs, the Athenian polis, Imperial Rome) had been routinely idolized.  Following Christ’s wonderful prescription—“render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s”—his followers established the “two cities” approach definitively set forth by St Augustine.  Priests and kings are to preside over different, though not totally isolated realms.  Clearly delineated in the Bible, “The distinction between church and state, religious and political power, is peculiar to Christianity, and the church invented it” (p. 44).  Of ultimate importance to early Christians was doctrinal Truth, an uncompromising insistence on the singular claims of Christ Jesus, the LORD of His heavenly kingdom.  Christians should not deify the state, and no king should defy God’s Law!  Though routinely blurred in practice and often resembling a wrestling match requiring energetic corrections (such as the Cluniac reforms in the 10th and 11th centuries), the separation of church and state provided the key to much that’s distinctive in Western Civilization by preventing the “Church from becoming a department of the state.”  Prescriptively, in 494 A.D. Pope Gelasius wrote a famously important letter to the Eastern Emperor Anastasius, insisting on a clear separation between “the sacred authority of the priesthood and the royal power.”  (In the East, by contrast, a “Caesaropapism” developed reducing the Church to an arm of the Byzantine Empire).  Thenceforth, uniquely in the West, two realms were established with neither dominating the other.  

During the past 500 years, however, this balance slowly shifted and secular powers have imposed their way on the churches.  Wiker describes it as “the rise of liberalism and the re-paganization of the state.”  Fundamental to this progression was Niccolo Machiavelli, who published The Prince in 1512 A.D. and “invented the absolute separation of church and state that is the hallmark of liberalism.”  The Church had drawn lines between religious and political powers, “but Machiavelli built the first wall between them.  In fact, his primary purpose in inventing the state was to exclude the church from any cultural, moral, or political power or influence—to render it an entirely harmless subordinate instrument of the political sovereign” (p. 104).  An effective ruler—the strong-armed prince—must ignore religious and moral prescriptions, following a “might-makes-right” formula.  Machiavellian secularism now appears in both the “soft “liberalism” designed to satisfy our physical needs and the “hard liberalism” of fascist states.  To Machiavelli, the prince should appease the ignorant masses and “‘appear all mercy, all faith, all honesty, all humanity, all religion’” (p. 110).  Working surreptitiously, however, he should promote a “re-paganized” religion and state-controlled educational system.  “The current belief that the church must be separated from the state and walled off in private impotence—leaving, by its subtraction from the public square, the liberal secular state—all that is Machiavelli’s invention.  The playing out of this principle in our courts today is in keeping with his goal of creating a state liberated from the Christian worldview” (p. 119).  Machiavelli’s moral nihilism also fit nicely with newly-empowered nation-states which followed the cuius regio, eius religio (“whose realm, his religion”) compromise negotiated in 1555 at the Peace of Augsberg and quickly moved to control the churches.  

England’s King Henry VIII—guided by Thomas Cromwell, who had studied Machiavelli’s teachings at the University of Padua—brutally illustrated this trend by establishing the Church of England.  He and his successors placed themselves directly under God, controlling both church and state.  Henry supervised the publication of the 1539 Great Bible, featuring an engraving of himself handing copies of it to both the Archbishop of Canterbury (Thomas Cranmer) and his Lord Chancellor (Cromwell).  A century later, “England gave the world the immensely influential political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, author of the Leviathan, who constructed an entirely secular foundation for Henry’s church, and therefore gave us the first truly secular established church in a major modern state—more exactly, an absolutist, autocratic version” (p. 122).  To accomplish this, he first reduced all reality to the material realm, subtly denying the non-materiality of both God and the soul and eliminating any objective, absolute moral standard.  In Hobbes’ world, lacking both Natural and Divine Law, good and evil are mere labels attached to feelings that either please or displease us.  Thus, Hobbes famously said, in our natural state we are at war with everyone and, consequently our lives are “‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’” (p. 130).  To corral our nastiness, a Leviathan—an all-powerful Government—must rule.  We need an absolute Sovereign to protect grant and protect our “rights.”  As with Machiavelli, Hobbes knew the masses needed religion, and he simply insisted the Sovereign had the right to prescribe and enforce it through the Church of England.  His “church is entirely a state church, completely under the king’s power” (p. 134).  

Liberalism, similarly, insists the Church must accommodate the state, and “Liberal Christianity is the form that the established religion of the state takes—perhaps not its final form, but its most visible, obvious form” (p. 120).  To accomplish this, liberal thinkers during the Age of Reason determined to destroy the authority of Scripture, and the “demotion of the Bible from revealed truth to mere myth is the result” (p. 58).  To attain this end Benedict Spinoza marshaled his formidable intellect, garnering credit for being both the “father” of both “modern liberal democracy” and “modern Scripture scholarship.”  More blatantly materialistic than either Machiavelli or Hobbes (declaring God is Nature), he adumbrated a might-makes-right political philosophy that flowered in Hegel, “who declared that the Prussian state was the fullest manifestation of the immanentized ‘spirit’ of God” (p. 145).  In a state thus deified, of course, Scripture must be displaced, so Spinoza simply denied any supernatural dimension to the written Word.  By definition, miracles—especially miracles such as the Incarnation and Resurrection—cannot occur, so “higher critics” cavalierly dismissed all such accounts.  To the extent the Bible has merit, its message was reduced “to one simple platitude:  ‘obedience toward God consists only in love of neighbor’” (p. 154).  

Within the next two centuries this same secularizing process wormed its way into the churches.  As a result of the “higher criticism” launched by Spinoza, a “secularizing approach to Scripture was deeply entrenched among the intelligentsia [such as David Friedrich Strauss, a disciple of Hegel, who wrote The Life of Jesus Critically Examined] and had made great headway in European universities.  The aim was ‘de-mythologizing,’ removing from the Biblical text (just as Spinoza had dictated) all of the miracles, and hence undermining all the doctrinal claims related to Christ’s divinity, so that readers were left with, at best, Jesus the very admirable moral man who was misunderstood to be divine by his wishful disciples.  Christianity—so the Scripture scholarship seemed to establish—was built upon a case of mistaken identity.  But the moral core could be salvaged” (p. 240).  Still more:  through the evolutionary processes (both natural and societal) we humans can deify ourselves!  We should worship Man rather than God, the creature rather than the Creator!  

Sharing Spinoza’s intolerance for intolerance, John Locke proposed a softer (“classic”) form of liberalism, though he fully supported its secular essence and proposed a “reasonable” rather than traditionally orthodox form of Christianity.  Eschewing doctrine to emphasize morality, Locke promoted a “mild Deism” that proved quite influential in 18th century England and America.  Personally pious—and the author of many biblical commentaries especially popular in America—Locke was (many thought) sufficiently “Christian” to embrace philosophically.  Concerned to preserve permanent moral standards, he espoused a version of the Natural Law, but he displaced the Church as a mediating institution and left the individual “facing the state alone” (p. 228).  A privatized religious faith is fine, he thought, so long as it makes no claims to shape public policies.   And his “classical” liberalism was (notably in post-WWII America) progressively folded into the more radical forms attuned to Hobbes and Spinoza. 

In today’s churches, Wiker laments, Spinoza’s “materialistic mindset has increasingly taken hold, and the church has become correspondingly anemic.  The church thus weakened by unbelief in the supernatural is what we call the mainline or liberal Christian church.  That church has total faith in materialist science, fully embraces the ‘scientific’ study of Scripture fathered by Spinoza, and professes a completely de-supernaturalized form of Christianity that is entirely at home in this world and only vaguely and non-threateningly associated with the next” (p. 153).  Thus we are confronted, as H. Richard Niebuhr famously said, with theologians teaching that:  “‘A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross’” (p. 153).  With this Spinoza would be pleased!  “To sum up Spinoza’s kind of Christianity:  You don’t need the Nicene Creed if you’re nice.  People who fight over inconsequential dogmas are not nice.  They’re intolerant” (p.155).  

Furthering the “liberal” agenda of the European Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau envisioned a secular “civil religion” (outlined in his Social Contract) replacing Christianity.  His agenda was implemented by men such as Robespierre (“radical liberals”) in the French Revolution and still exerts enormous influence in our world.  Rousseau propounded his own purely naturalistic version of Genesis, imagining how things were in a pure “state of nature.”  Noble savages, free from the constraints of Judeo-Christian morality, followed their passions and enjoyed the good life.  All were equal and none permanently possessed anything.  To regain that lost estate, a “liberal state” is needed—one that “does not define law in terms of the promotion of virtue and the prohibition of vice, but in terms of the protection and promotion of individuals’ private pleasures—since all such pleasures are natural—are declared to be rights.  Any limitation of these ‘rights’ is considered unjust; that is, justice is redefined to mean everyone getting as much of whatever he or she wants as long as he or she doesn’t infringe on anyone else’s pursuit of pleasure” (p. 172).  

Having carefully explained the views of secular liberalism’s architects, Wiker shows how Leftists of various sorts implemented it in the centuries following the French Revolution, for “as the first attempt to incarnate the new liberal political order in a great state, the French Revolution is iconic for liberalism” (p. 200).  Importantly, a purely naturalistic worldview must be crafted and imposed.  We must be persuaded that “we live in a purposeless universe, so that each person has just as much right as anyone else to pursue his or her arbitrarily defined goals or ends” (p. 187).  Liberals triumphantly cite the Darwinian doctrine of biological evolution to prove “that the development of life is driven by entirely random, material processes,” that man “is an accident,” and that we are not made in God’s image but the product of a “meandering and mindless” natural process (p. 194).  Each person freely fabricates and follows whatever moral standards he desires, relaxing into a hedonistic utilitarianism calculated to enjoy the greatest good for the greatest number.  In effect, this has led to a resurgence of a pagan ethos at ease with abortion, euthanasia, promiscuity, sodomy and pedophilia.  

To accomplish this, liberals determined to deprive the Christian religion of any real power.  In late 19th century France this became clear as officials swept away crucifixes and saints’ statues in public places, outlawed religious processions, closed religious schools, and renamed city streets after Enlightenment heroes rather than saints.  More importantly, they seized control of the educational system, making it an agency of the state.  Secularists in America sought the same ends.  To Wiker:  “One cannot overestimate how significant it was in France (and is in America) for liberals to have gained complete state control of education, and for that education to be mandatory.”  This precipitated “a top-down revolution wherein a relatively small minority may impose its worldview upon the entire population using state power.  And the education establishment in our own country, as was the case in France, is dominated by radicals and socialists from the Left, from the universities right down to the elementary schools” (p. 216).  

Thus Liberalism came to America’s shores, first in the form of Locke and later under the auspices of “higher critics” and socialists of various hues.  In a sense, Wiker argues:  “America had a kind of Jacobin class bubbling away underneath tits Protestant surface, plotting its own version of a radical cultural revolution” (p. 263).  Thomas Paine, one of the more influential publicists during the American Revolution, represents this phenomenon.  The author of Common Sense, promoting independence from England, he also wrote The Age of Reason, promoting Deism and anti-Christian prejudices.  Thomas Jefferson avidly embraced both Locke (e.g. The Declaration of Independence) and Paine (e.g. The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth), laying the groundwork for the famous “wall of separation between church and state” in a letter he sent to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802.  Not until after WWII, however, did the Supreme Court enshrine this Jeffersonian comment as a reason to exclude religion from the public square.  Though Jefferson represented only a small minority of America’s Founders, his anti-Christian secularism slowly spread through the body politic as the decades passed.    

To a degree this Jeffersonian secularism prevailed in America, Alexis de Tocqueville said, because on a practical level 19th century Americans were notably materialistic—seeking comfort and prosperity without compunction.  They were thus quite “inclined to follow Locke, both in theory and in practice, and hence already well on our way to allowing the soul and heaven to fade away.  Christianity was often quite fervent America, but it was subtly reconstructed to be compatible with passionately this-worldly material pursuits.  It was not a Christianity that could produce martyrs or even severe judges of the fallen secular order” (p. 268).  By the end of the century, then, the nation was unfortunately vulnerable to the radicals at the universities who determined to transform the nation.  Scores of young scholars, following the Civil War, sailed to Europe (especially German universities) and returned with Spinoza and Rousseau, Darwin and Spencer, Strauss and Marx, entrenched in their minds.  They then either established or  controlled the nation’s preeminent universities which (given the largess of state and federal governments)  began to shape the cultural life of America.  New academic disciplines—including sociology and psychology—insisted that trained “experts” do for the people what they could not do on their own.  And the newly-minted law schools, personified by Oliver Wendell Holmes, systematically sought to impose a secular agenda on the land.  Progressive politicians, including Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt, heeded their admonitions and implemented their goals.  

The time has come, Wiker argues, to disestablish the secular humanism now ruling America under the guise of “progressivism.”  Like scores of other political ideologies, it’s as clearly a religion (ironically, an unbelief established as a belief) with its own dogmas regarding creation, man’s nature and purpose in life, sin and salvation, good and evil, right and wrong, church and state, death, immortality and life everlasting.  “Liberalism once appeared to be about freeing everyone, believers and non-believers alike, from government-imposed religion and morality, but it has shown that that was just a ruse for establishing its own particular worldview, one that is fundamentally antagonistic to Christianity” (p. 312).  To mount the counterrevolution, believers must first target the nation’s universities—primarily by teaching truthful history—first stemming and then reversing the currents of liberal orthodoxy.  

# # #