The Changing of the Gods: Religion and Modern Liberals

Posted on April 20, 2014 by


It isn’t widely reported, though religious liberties organizations are well aware, but religious liberties are under attack from a significant portion of the modern liberal political class.  More than that however, religion in general, specifically the Christian religion is being mocked by that same element.  Snickers could almost be audible when some public figure or individual in the news professes faith in Jesus Christ—and appears to mean what they say, and to live it out.  A recent news story reported that the vast proportion of Easter reports mention nothing at all about Christ, the resurrection, the atonement, or Christianity itself, but rather bunnies, eggs, and candy.  Is this just a symptom of a secularizing culture?  Or is it the “elite” who are by far the most irreligious, not to mention woefully ignorant?  I am inclined to argue that society as a whole is not nearly as secularized as the media and political elite, though I often see a certain syncretistic mixture of Christian celebration and practices having no grounding in the faith (eggs, bunnies, etc.).  This probably shouldn’t be surprising.  The intelligentsia and upper status groups of Europe and America have generally (with notable exceptions) not cared much for genuine religion for some time now.  But how did we get to this situation?

The answer I think goes back to the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century.  Two elements combined to cause people “at the top” to shift their ideas about Christianity.  One was the new-found emphasis on reason as a judge of all knowledge, and not any kind of reason but especially empirical reason—a kind of beginning of what we popularly call the “scientific method.”  The other was the associated challenge to authority, both political and religious, the latter including a challenge to the foundation of that authority, the Bible itself.  Reason on one front and biblical criticism on the other worked together to undermine Christianity as a central force, though it was not destroyed.  Nor did most Enlighteners seek to destroy it.  They did however seek to re-interpret it along rational lines as reason had become the judge of Scripture and thus of the Christian faith.

On the political front those of an Enlightenment bent sought to bring about an institutional separation of church and state—a disestablishment—which was only marginally successful at first(the United States and the French “Republic”), but attained greater success as the nineteenth century continued.  But even where formal disestablishment did not occur, Christianity was being transformed into a different kind of religion (Paul would have said, “a different Gospel”), at the same time more rational but also now more sensitive to the emotive or romantic element which allowed many to keep their religion (in their own minds at least) while denying its factual basis.  At first the “new god” was found generally among theologians, philosophers and a few political radicals.  But as you might guess, these had a fair degree of influence.  Their presence in the universities, the churches and the halls of power worked as a kind of solvent on traditional Christianity and also inculcated the new ideas into the heads of many students, churchgoers and even some of the “masses.”

In the United States, the process was little different, just a bit slower.  But by the end of the nineteenth century, universities in America were dropping their commitment to Christianity, if they had any before, and aiming for different goals in training students, namely to pursue truth wherever it might lead, unencumbered by the strictures of a formal body of faith.  Future leaders were produced by such institutions and moved easily in and out of university, church and political circles.  The news media were not yet the force they would become, but they too were jettisoning Christian ideals for a different kind of faith.  I should add that a large part of these shifts in ideas in this time was due to the bombshell book On the Origin of the Species, by Charles Darwin, published in 1859.  It was a sensation not just in England but in the United States and seemed to confirm the faith in science as a savior to many.

Now enter Modern Liberals—in religion, politics and the media.  The Modern Liberal ideology grew out of the older Enlightenment-based liberalism of the early nineteenth century.  The latter had emphasized both challenge to all authority and the “negative rights” of individuals (equivalent roughly to Lockean natural rights).  This left the individual free within broad limits to pursue his or her own destiny, unencumbered by the state.  Modern Liberalism kept the negative liberty idea but added a “positive liberty” concept” which made the state the primary agent for creating the conditions for fulfillment for every person.  Government was now an agent essentially of happiness through redistribution.  Liberals also developed an irritating habit of seeing themselves as the guardians of all truth, beauty and goodness, and so took quite well to the role of self-appointed experts for everyone else—a bit like playing God, not coincidentally in some cases.  Of course in the twentieth century there were other ideologies vying for a god-like status, for example National Socialism. Fascism and Communism.  I have singled out Modern Liberalism because of its importance in America, where, by the way, it has gone by a different name from time to time—Progressivism.  “A rose by any other name.” 

This Liberalism seeped into academia, into government, even into churches (the Social Gospel and the Christian Left).  Unfortunately, it seems not to be a very nice guest, as it demands more and more of life.  Some might argue that it all-consuming.  And in the hands of non-Christians and misguided believers, it is in reality a substitute for God.  Many politicians, many academics and many in the media (now that it too has gained a central role in society) know no other god except the state.  Perhaps we must give a little grace, as many may never have been exposed to any other god.  When they dismiss Christianity or mock those who sincerely believe, it might actually be because they are completely ignorant.  That of course does not lessen the harm they do, and they ought to be called to account on their ignorance.  They have arguably helped accelerate the secularizing process, though I fully realize the difficulty of even positing a secularization process in America, given the measurement problems.  But if frequent anecdotal evidence is any judge at all, the United States is traveling the oft-tread road to a godless culture, much like Europe has been doing for some time now. 

My hope is that the process can be reversed or, if one believes we have been on this road since the Founding itself, or transformed.  My belief is that only God can bring about the miracle of creating a culture that fears Him, not that everyone will ever be a Christian (or even very many).  But it would be refreshing to turn on the radio or television, or to read the news and see that someone among the “intelligent class” actually understands the Christian faith and sympathizes with it.  I would take sympathy and understanding as a good start.

He is risen!