"If the church fails to apply the central truth of Christianity to social problems correctly, someone else will do so incorrectly.” Carl F.H. Henry

“Secular Religion” and the Impossibility of Religious Liberty

Over the weekend, Andrew Sullivan wrote an essay comparing the progressive intellectual movement known as “Intersectionalism” to a type of secularized religion. That’s curious, because Sullivan defines the movement not only by its ritual and liturgical practices, but, in my own summary, in its willingness to function as an agent of absolute judgment against dissent in the present. I recommend you read the entire essay, which is excellent.

His essay comes as a result of recent mob violence at Middlebury College where students protested the presence of Charles Murray, whose research has resulted in controversial findings and interpretations.

Here’s Sullivan’s description of Intersectionality:

“Intersectionality” is the latest academic craze sweeping the American academy. On the surface, it’s a recent neo-Marxist theory that argues that social oppression does not simply apply to single categories of identity — such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc. — but to all of them in an interlocking system of hierarchy and power.

And here is how he elevates Intersectionality to the level of religion:

It is operating, in Orwell’s words, as a “smelly little orthodoxy,” and it manifests itself, it seems to me, almost as a religion. It posits a classic orthodoxy through which all of human experience is explained — and through which all speech must be filtered. Its version of original sin is the power of some identity groups over others. To overcome this sin, you need first to confess, i.e., “check your privilege,” and subsequently live your life and order your thoughts in a way that keeps this sin at bay. The sin goes so deep into your psyche, especially if you are white or male or straight, that a profound conversion is required.

Like the Puritanism once familiar in New England, intersectionality controls language and the very terms of discourse. It enforces manners. It has an idea of virtue — and is obsessed with upholding it. The saints are the most oppressed who nonetheless resist. The sinners are categorized in various ascending categories of demographic damnation, like something out of Dante. The only thing this religion lacks, of course, is salvation. Life is simply an interlocking drama of oppression and power and resistance, ending only in death. It’s Marx without the final total liberation.

It operates as a religion in one other critical dimension: If you happen to see the world in a different way, if you’re a liberal or libertarian or even, gasp, a conservative, if you believe that a university is a place where any idea, however loathsome, can be debated and refuted, you are not just wrong, you are immoral. If you think that arguments and ideas can have a life independent of “white supremacy,” you are complicit in evil. And you are not just complicit, your heresy is a direct threat to others, and therefore needs to be extinguished. You can’t reason with heresy. You have to ban it. It will contaminate others’ souls, and wound them irreparably.

[…]

And what I saw on the video struck me most as a form of religious ritual — a secular exorcism, if you will — that reaches a frenzied, disturbing catharsis. When Murray starts to speak, the students stand and ritually turn their backs on him in silence. The heretic must not be looked at, let alone engaged.

[…]

He ends with this indictment:

This matters, it seems to me, because reason and empirical debate are essential to the functioning of a liberal democracy. We need a common discourse to deliberate. We need facts independent of anyone’s ideology or political side, if we are to survive as a free and democratic society.

This is all very fascinating to me, especially as I do research for my dissertation making a comprehensive account for religious liberty in Christian social ethics — and Sullivan’s explanation squares exactly with my own thoughts on how incompatible liberty, and religious liberty are, in secularizing and progressive contexts.

Sullivan’s analysis reveals something I’ll argue in my dissertation and, briefly, here: Without an account of transcendence and eternal judgment, a lasting ecosystem of religious liberty is impossible to maintain. Or, as my colleague Samuel James tweeted to me after I shared Sullivan’s article, “It’s almost like there’s something in the human soul that yearns for objective, transcendent truth claims.” That’s exactly right. The Intersectionalists at Middlebury are attempting to place objective, transcendent truth claims within their own reason.

What we observe at Middlebury is what theologians have called “immanentizing the eschaton.” What I mean by this phrase in this context is this: The adherents of Intersectionality cannot countenance viewpoints differing from their own — there is no debate, and there is no reason to give space to dissenting viewpoints because intersectionality offers a cosmogony of sorts (a theory of everything). It explains the world and supplies progressives with a comprehensive account of justice devoid of any transcendent account. Further, and importantly, according to Intersectionalists, the here and now are both necessary and sufficient conditions for approximating perfect justice and redressing all social ills. So Intersectionality functions in the role of Divine Judge and Divine Mediator, but displacing divine judgment and mediation altogether and placing it in the hands of non-divine beings attempting to execute judgment and mediation for the sake of justice in the present.

And as Sullivan makes overtures toward, if your account of the world disagrees with this cosmogony, why countenance it? If you can take steps to eradicate the perceived social pathology in the present, why not take steps — perhaps even through the use of violence — to quash such dissent? If here and now is all there is, and if the closest approximation to justice that can be known is mediated through a progressive eschatology of the present, why give an iota of freedom at all? And that is what we saw happen at Middlebury College.

And this is, ultimately, why a society built upon — using the words of Sullivan — “reason” will not persist with maximal liberty in the long run with these types of philosophical social movements at the helm. Reasoning beings require debate and inquiry, which progressive social canons cannot countenance if ultimate redress to social wrongs can be achieved. In essence, progressives fall prey to what they always fall prey to: Confusing the penultimate for the ultimate.

On these grounds, a Christian doctrine of religious liberty emerges. By putting absolute judgment within the realm of the ultimate — not the penultimate — Christians can make room for dissenting belief. Not because we think such dissenting belief shares equal merit, but because we believe that judging, ending, and redressing all wrong belief cannot be achieved fully either in present form or in human hands. That is reserved exclusively for God’s Son, Jesus Christ, and the Kingdom He’s inaugurated, but that awaits consummation: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). By looking to the Kingdom, Christians know where the arc of history bends and where erring ideologies will be sorted. Christians can allow the erring ideologies of the present to contend with and contest the claims of Christ because Christianity’s patience is based upon its Christ’s promise of perfect justice.

Which brings me to the superiority of the Christian account of religious liberty and its feasibility for fostering an ecology of liberty. These are the prongs to my theory: 1) Absolute judgment is real; 2) Absolute judgment does not belong to present human affairs (i.e., government); 3) Absolute judgment belongs to God; 4) Absolute judgment occurs at the end of history, and cannot be achieved in the present.

John Piper sums this up nicely in a 2002 essay:

Jesus Christ, the source and ground of all truth, will himself one day bring an end to all tolerance, and he alone will be exalted as the one and only Lord and Savior and Judge of the universe. Therefore, since Jesus Christ alone, the Creator and Lord of history, has the right to wield the tolerance-ending sword, we dare not.

By not immanentizing the eschaton and attempting to bring history’s future judgment into the present, Christians can extend a maximal account of liberty to their unbelieving neighbors with whom they disagree about very serious matters. As a post-Christian progressivism continues to grow, however, the understanding of liberty presented here will atrophy. It will have to. There is no principle contained within progressivism itself that explains why dissenting belief ought to be given liberty. For progressives, illiberalism is baked into the system. Said differently: Consistent progressivism is intolerant. Consistent Christianity is tolerant.