BOOK REVIEW: ‘Pluralism is better than secularism’

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By Hunter Baker

Crossway Books, $17, 224 pages

Reviewed by W. James Antle III

Early in “The End of Secularism,” Hunter Baker of Houston Baptist University talks about his religious awakening. He came to believe that if the God of the Bible existed and was active in human affairs, that had implications for his life. It made no sense, Mr. Baker concluded, to have faith in God and Christianity in the abstract but to live as if there were no God in practice.

In this slim but compelling volume, Mr. Baker argues that this is precisely what secularism asks of us: to hold our abstract religious beliefs in private but live as if there is no God in our public lives together. Religion then becomes like sex in the Victorian era: something best done in private but seldom discussed, much less seen, in public lest someone scare the horses.

The argument for secularism is that it represents a kind of neutrality. Because none of us possesses absolute certainty in religious matters, a secular public culture restricts our political and moral debates to that which is universally accessible. The end result, according to this logic, is that no one’s religion is privileged above anyone else’s and every religion is treated fairly.

Mr. Baker counters that this argument is false - that secularism, in fact, privileges one very specific understanding of God and religion above everyone else’s. It forces people who believe in an active God to pretend He does not exist when discussing matters of public import, and it rests on assumptions no more “neutral” or scientifically rigorous than most religious claims.

Along the way, Mr. Baker takes the reader through an interesting history of the early Christian church, weaves through the Enlightenment and the beginnings of what he defines as secularism, and he talks about how erroneous interpretations of the First Amendment’s establishment clause have helped bring secularism to the United States.

What Mr. Baker does not do in “The End of Secularism,” however, is engage in appeals to a “Christian nation” that rejects church-state separation out of hand. “Though Christians often bemoan the separation of church and state and claim angrily that the separation of church and state is not in the Constitution,” he writes, “they are actually expressing their frustration with secularism as the preferred ideology of many elites in politics, media, and education.

“Christians should absolutely bring their faith to bear in the public square,” Mr. Baker continues. “They should reject the influence of secularism urging them to keep their faith private and not to argue for a Christian perspective in areas like politics and education.” Yet he also contends: “What they must not do is to repeat the mistake of mingling the church’s future with that of the state.”

Not only is there no objective judge impartially refereeing disputes among different religious faiths, but the secularists also often appeal to values borrowed from Jewish and Christian morality. Mr. Baker, in effect, asks: Are liberty and equality or even charity and mercy more scientifically verifiable than the Virgin birth or Jonah being swallowed by a whale?

“If we are equal,” Mr. Baker writes, “it is almost surely in the sense of being equal before God, because we are in fact equal in virtually no other way.” But equality is an important part of our country’s secular creed, running through the Declaration of Independence all the way through the most contentious political debates of today.

In place of secularism, Mr. Baker does not propose theocracy. Instead, he wants to rely on the marketplace of ideas. “Pluralism is better than secularism because it is not artificial,” he maintains. “In a pluralistic environment, we simply enter the public square and say who we are and what we believe.” We therefore can make arguments derived from religion, leaving our countrymen free to accept or reject them as they would purely secular arguments.

Of course, the American civil religion may not be secularism as much as what has been called “therapeutic moral deism” - the abstract faith in a mostly impersonal God who wants us to think nice thoughts, much like the concept Mr. Baker rejected when he became a serious Christian. “The End of Secularism” doesn’t much address this.

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