Each December in our Winston-Salem, North Carolina, neighborhood we anticipate seasonal decors including the stately nativity scene on the grounds of the nearby Crossnore School and Children’s Home with its massive statues depicting the Holy Family, assorted shepherds guiding a mini-flock of sheep, and Magi accompanied by a life-size camel; front doors decked out with wreaths and lights; front yards welcoming the occasional inflatable Santa; and our street lined with Ronald-McDonald-House “Light a Luminary” candles flickering from paper bags on the Sunday before Christmas. So far, no sign of Walmart’s 6.5-foot “inflatable nativity scene” ($99).
The Washington Post reported that this Advent season a United Methodist Church in Clairmont, California, opted to display a churchyard nativity scene with Mary, Joseph and the babe locked in separate cages, a contemporary protest that gives “away in a manger” a whole other meaning. Here in North Carolina several towns cancelled their annual Christmas parades, fearing public confrontations if Confederate-heritage groups sponsored floats. Herod turned to dust eons ago, but Jesus’ birth remains bathed in controversy.
The Independent reported President Trump’s boast that his administration “saved ‘Merry Christmas’” as a shopping mall confession of faith, preserving it from annihilation by “the secular and more inclusive salutation of ‘happy holidays,’ which takes account of the non-Christian holidays and celebrations.” Problem is, Advent and its expectant incarnational witness doesn’t belong to shopping malls, town councils, Congress or even the U.S. presidency. It abides with the church of Jesus Christ.
Coercing Christmas joy, even implicitly, by presidential mandate from bone-tired clerks on Black Friday or Cyber Monday or at midnight toy sales readily transforms the gospel declaration that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” into a secularized-bargain-basement sales pitch. Does anybody remember Paul Newman’s “Cool Hand Luke” movie-character chant: “I don’t care if it rains or freezes, as long as I have my plastic Jesus, sitting on the dashboard of my car”? What if, in “saving Christmas” in the public square, we trivialize its significance in the church?
“Churches across the theological spectrum have frequently accommodated the secular while arguing against it.”
Which brings us to the ceaseless debate over “secularism” in American life, an ideology recently denounced by Attorney General William Barr as a “social pathology,” destructive to “social order,” that undermines “God’s instruction manual.” Such secularism, Southern Baptist leader Albert Mohler warns, is “fueled” by humanistic assertions of “personal freedom,” meaning “you’re free to choose whether to believe or not,” and by rampant “pluralism,” meaning “a welcoming attitude to diversity,” all dangerous threats to the concept of “objective truth.”
In a defense of “secularism, properly understood,” Brent Walker, former executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, cited Noah Feldman’s study, Divided by God. Feldman distinguished “strong secularism” – “atheistic, anti-religious, and almost always intolerant” – from “legal secularism” – “a friendly form of secularism embraced by many people of faith who simply believe . . . that government and our legal institutions should be secular in the sense of being non-religious or religiously neutral.”
Clearly, secularism in multiple forms is alive and well in the land of the free and the home of the materialistic, but before we turn it into an all-out war between righteousness and unrighteousness, ignorance and reason, faith and unfaith, even Republicans and Democrats, we’d best try to understand what secularism means in its broader history and context. With that in mind, I returned to two earlier studies of religion and secularism in America, Harvey Cox’s The Secular City (1965), and Martin Marty’s The Modern Schism (1969). Although these studies are “dated,” having been written a half-century ago, I am struck by the way in which both authors responded to 20th-century secularism and secularization with insights worth considering amid our present national and ecclesiastical dilemmas and divisions.
Harvard’s Cox distinguished secularization – “a historical process, almost certainly irreversible, in which society and culture are delivered from tutelage to religious control and closed metaphysical world views” from secularism – a concept rooted “in the biblical faith itself and is to some extent an authentic outcome of the impact of biblical faith on Western history.” Secularism, he insisted, “menaces the openness and freedom secularization has produced.”
Cox wrote that “far from being something Christians should be against, secularization represents an authentic consequence of biblical faith.” He insisted that the Exodus-event represented “the desacralization of politics,” “an act of insurrection against a duly constituted monarch, a pharaoh whose relationship to the sun-god Re constituted his claim to political sovereignty.” Cox added, “The Exodus made it forever impossible to accept without reservation the sanctions of any monarch. Yahweh could always stage a new Exodus, or work through history to bring down a monarch with delusions of grandeur.”
“What if, in ‘saving Christmas’ in the public square, we trivialize its significance in the church?”
Autocratic threats didn’t end with the Hebrew conquest of Canaan or the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
Applying that concept to modern democracies, Cox noted: “When a political leader makes religious or totalitarian claims” free individuals “recognize this as an affront to their deepest convictions about politics. Our political consciences have all been secularized.” He reminded readers that the early Christians “were willing to pray for the [Roman] emperor but not to burn incense on his altar.” Rejecting that state-mandated ritual was “to deny him any sacral-religious authority.” Cox then quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s assertion that the first Christians reflected a type of “holy-worldliness,” repudiating in Jesus’ name emperor-worship and the cults associated with it.
Marty, longtime University of Chicago professor and Lutheran clergyman, surveyed modern religion/secular developments and “schism” as evident in three western democracies – France, England and the United States – as it took shape from the Enlightenment into the mid-20th century. In addressing the U.S., Marty defined secularism as “of or pertaining to the world” and “belonging to the world and its affairs as distinguished from the church and religion.” Yet he was careful to note the complexity of the term and the way in which American religious communions, particularly Christians, separated themselves from and engaged with, avoided and appropriated “the world” from the beginning of the Republic.
Truth is, churches across the theological spectrum have frequently accommodated the secular while arguing against it. Conservative Christians often denounce liberal Christians for “caving in” to secular culture on a variety of worldly issues. Signers of the 2018 Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel expressed their deep concern that “values borrowed from secular culture are currently undermining scripture in areas of race and ethnicity, manhood and womanhood, and human sexuality.” Liberal Christians warn that obsession with political power and privilege has led many conservatives to become “disconnected from Jesus,” as Jim Wallis observes in his new book, Christ in Crisis, a study in which he notes that “the loudest voices of some religious leaders” show “direct support of some of the most disconcerting things” said and done by “the new regime in power” in the White House.
“The word became flesh and dwelt among us,” John’s gospel says. God’s own “holy-worldliness,” we (and Bonhoeffer) may ask? One can only hope.