The following op-ed is from Volume 26, Issue 1 of Free Inquiry
In this editorial, I would like to
share some good news in the midst of what looks like a dark time for
secularism. Each day, the Bush administration’s faith-based
initiative seems to extend further in its overreaching, entangling
church and state in a Velcro embrace. When will it end?
I don’t know, but I feel confident
that it will end. Here’s why.
When someone starts droning about the
inevitable march of history, it’s often time to head for the exits.
But let’s examine one remarkable trend that has been moving pretty
reliably in the same direction since, oh, the fall of Rome.
Around 500 c.e., the West resembled a
big failed state. Civil society lay in ruins. Because no other
institutions could, the church did everything. From education to
diplomacy, banking to architecture, all that needed doing got stuffed
into organized religion’s “job jar.” Bottlenecks seldom endure,
and over the past 1,500-odd years, “monopoly assignments” have
been plucked out of religion’s virtual job jar, one after another.
They’ve been taken over by new and more secular institutions, by
civil society itself, or by individuals.
We can get a feel for the process by
considering the monopoly the churches lost first—their monopoly on
written communication. In 500 c.e., if Warlord A wanted to send a
letter, he had to call in a cleric to write it down: few others were
literate. When the letter reached Warlord B, he had to call in
another cleric to read it to him. This monopoly ended early, and
conclusively; today literacy is almost universal. The thought of
summoning a cleric to encode or decode a message seems not only
antiquated but absurd.
Art may be the next monopoly that
religion lost. This process began later—Michaelangelo and Bach
still depended on church patronage—but by the Renaissance, religion
had gone from being the sole arts patron to being merely the largest
one. And think of the kinds of institutions that emerged to support
the arts: a new class of wealthy merchants, universities, art
museums, corporations—institutions never imagined in the Dark Ages.
(As for the universities, their rise eventually shattered religion’s
monopoly on higher education.)
Consider diplomacy. As recently as the
1490s, only the papacy could negotiate and enforce the division of
South America between Spain and Portugal. But diplomacy has been
secularized for centuries; when figures like John Paul II or the
Dalai Lama appear on the diplomatic stage in our time, they are
recognized as special cases and already carry a whiff of the archaic.
Enough groundwork. Let’s focus on a monopoly that began to slip from religion’s grasp only about two hundred years ago: charity and social service.
In the early 1800s, religion was still the monopoly provider. The system was
failing—remember Dickens?—and the response came swiftly. Think of
Florence Nightingale and the Red Cross, Jane Addams and Hull House.
New kinds of private, nonprofit organizations sprang up, as did
unprecedented forms of government activity. It’s worth
noting that most of the replacement institutions were not
“lifestance organizations.” They weren’t other churches or
fraternal groups. Indeed, they tended not to be the kind of
organizations that sorted their members by lifestance at all. In a
word, they were secular.
I’ve sketched a far-reaching
secularizing trend. And it’s worth noting that we in the humanist
movement—we proud children of the Enlightenment—had precious
little to do with it. This purging of religion’s job jar began
centuries before any of our precursors were around.
When we view the Bush administration’s
faith-based initiative in light of this trend, we can more easily
recognize it for what it is: a profoundly reactionary movement—no
mere Buckleyan effort to stand athwart history and yell “Stop!”
but a stab at making history run backwards. That’s why I feel
confident that it won’t—can’t—work. For one thing,
proponents’ claims that religious charities do the job better are
already being disproven by experience. But more important is this
vast historical suction that’s been separating organized religion
from its temporal mandates for more than 1,500 years. In the long
run, I suggest that religious conservatives will no more restore
religion’s monopoly over charity and social services than the monks
of a thousand years ago could preserve their monopoly over written
The faith-based initiative is best
understood, I think, as a “ghost-dance” phenomenon. Like that
sad, doomed Native American messianic movement that sought to return
fallen tribespeople from the dead, expel the whites, and restore
traditional lifeways, today’s faith-based initiative is the
desperate stratagem of another group that recognizes that its way of
life is vanishing and has resolved to meet the inevitable with
vigorous denial and the willful restoration of archaic practices. The
matrix out of which the original ghost-dance movement arose—the
brutal dislocation of native peoples by European colonists—is one
of our nation’s great tragedies. In our own day, the prospect of
conventional “civic Christianity” being supplanted by secularism
isn’t tragic at all—it’s a positive development, indeed one
long overdue given America’s expanding religious diversity. But for
the conservative Christians who must live through the change—as
Frederick Crews termed them in our last issue, the “fearful and
bewildered reactionaries who see their world evaporating”—the
sense of tragedy is real.
By definition, ghost-dance movements
embrace unattainable objectives. The original ghost dance couldn’t
restore Native Americans to their land, and so it didn’t. Likewise,
I submit, today’s faith-based initiative cannot successfully resist
the powerful historical currents secularizing our society—one of
which, as I’ve noted, has more than 1,500 years of momentum behind
Forty years hence, I predict, few will recall the faith-based initiative. It will be a quaint historical curiosity, rather like the free silver movement. You don’t recall the free silver movement? That’s my point. Today’s evangelical Christian ghost-dance movement cannot succeed, and so it will not—in the long run.
Does that mean we shouldn’t organize
and fight against the faith-based initiative? Not at all! Our dogged
resistance is one of the mechanisms by which I expect society will
overcome this ill-considered scheme. It’s a vital cause for today’s
In the next issue of Free Inquiry, I’ll discuss some parallel trends that are rooted in the secular humanist tradition and its historical predecessors—and I’ll draw one surprising conclusion.
Tom Flynn is the editor of Free Inquiry.