What challenges does secularism pose to people of faith? This was the topic of the inaugural event of Baylor University’s Robert P. George initiative, supported by the Witherspoon Institute and the American Enterprise Institute’s Values & Capitalism initiative.
Professor George brought together the eminent scholars Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, President of Zaytuna College, to discuss not only the future of religious liberty in America but what the presence of faith brings to society at large.
Professor George opened with the story of the profoundly disturbing ruling in 2012 by the District Court of the Federal State of Cologne in Germany deciding that circumcision was a form of child abuse and that parents who have their children circumcised will be punished as child abusers. A ruling that, effectively, bans the rights of Jews (and Muslims) to exist, all in the name of public safety. In Germany, of all places, where the shadow of recent history ought to make the state doubly wary of where constraints on religious expression lead.
At the time, George responded with an op-ed decrying the ruling, thinking it was a given that he’d get immediate and widespread support, only to be deluged with hate mail, angry phone calls from outraged Americans who not only supported the German position but accused him of supporting child abuse.
Rabbi Sacks drew on the research of Robert Putnam, which demonstrates that the single greatest predictor of increased social capital — by every measure, including increased altruism with both religious and secular charities, civic involvement, and helping strangers — is regular attendance at a house of worship. He noted, “When America loses its religion, it’s going to lose a whole let else besides, and those things are what make America a gracious society.”
“Secular is from a Latin word which meant the ‘here and now,’ and so [there’s] this idea that the past doesn’t have anything to tell us,” said Shaykh Hamza. The observation recalls G. K. Chesterton’s comment, “Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”
“One of the most fundamental things about religion is it creates community,” Yusuf continued. “You need a minyan in Judaism — you have to have at least 10 people to do certain prayers — in Islam, you need 12 people to jama’a. The ecclesia in traditional Christianity, the sangha in Buddhism. The idea of community is at the essence of religion and at the essence of community is family and then family extends out to the community, so the breakdown of these things are directly related to the breakdown in religion. And this is what I think is really being lost on a lot of people.”
You don’t have to be a religious person to appreciate that religions, as bodies of doctrine, culture, and community ties, are tradition, in the sense of Hayek, Burke, and Ferguson. They communicate and transmit norms and culture organically. People will never be blank slates, no matter how many times Rousseauistes try to make them so.
The scholars here are not bemoaning the existence of secular people or the necessity of a secular space in civic life (emphasized by the banning of religious tests in the Constitution even before the First Amendment came along), but they are troubled by a “militant, evangelizing, missionizing secularism that has no intention of leaving Jews and Muslims and Christians alone,” as Professor George puts it.
In other words, the United States is shifting from its historic freedom for religion to a French model of laicism whereby a certain form of secularism takes on the form of an official religion, which has its own absolutism and a take-no-prisoners approach to alternate worldviews.
Worldviews that John Adams considered essential to the preservation of this Republic.
Watch the event here.