Update:  see also Hunter’s thoughts here.

Hunter Baker’s new book, The End of Secularism, is a breath of fresh air in the ongoing debate over how Christians ought not act in the public square. Baker systematically treats the historical, sociological, political, and epistemological dimensions of the most prevalent–and problematic–formulation of the relationship between religion and society. The End of Secularism is both helpful clarification and instructive critique of the de facto rules of political discourse: that God ought stay out, and that it ought proceed strictly on secular grounds.

Baker’s argument proceeds, it seems, along three general lines of thought that are woven together.

First, Baker examines the history of church-state relations and scrutinizes the emergence of secularism–which comes by way of deism–in late modernity. Baker’s historical analysis culminates in a brief examination of the role of Christianity within the American experiment. Baker is at his best navigating the perils of interpreting America’s founding documents, simultaneously arguing against the “Christian nation” and the “secularist” interpretations of America’s birth. Baker argues forcefully that the Constitution provides no substantive guidance on questions of religion and politics, but instead is designed to give jurisdictional guidance. The question of religion, in other words, was to be left to the States. Baker’s treatment of this question and of the Fourteenth Amendment are worth the price of the book by themselves.

Additionally, Baker examines the sociological component of secularism. While secularization has been identified with progress by thinkers like Rodney Stark and Peter Berger, the facts have, in fact, proved the opposite. But Baker goes one step further, pointing out that the social forces that have promoted secularism have failed in their attempts to create a neutral public square, as they claimed. Instead, a social elite has acted inhospitably to religious people who wanted to contribute their voices to civil discourse. Writes Baker:

“The early stalemate among religions in the immediate wake of secularization might seem refreshing, but it could also create resentment and a sense of unfair censorship over the nature of public and institutional expression and the types of education that have gained favor versus those that have lost favor. This is in fact what has happened.”

The sociological character and ascendancy of secularism depends upon its philosophical foundations, which is why Baker goes to pains to demonstrate the falsity of the warefare analogy for the relationship between religion and science. Secularism is often aligned with an empirically bound notion of public reason wherein truth claims are determined strictly by their scientific verifiability (one thinks of the debate over stem cells). Baker argues in favor of science, but a science that is appropriately bounded.

But the heart of the book is the critique of the purported neutrality of the secular public square. In making his critique, Baker makes friends with a surprising thinker, the renowned post-modern theorist Stanley Fish. Fish argues that the political arena is fundamentally constituted around the exercise of power, and hence inevitably excludes those whom we are exercising power over. In such a system, there is no “neutral process for adjudicating claims between groups, institutions, and persons based on common ground.” The secularist thesis is, in this way, nothing more than a shell game. Baker doesn’t adopt Fish’s anti-foundationalism, of course. At points he suggests that a natural law theory would be his preferred method of making political decisions. But Baker’s use of Fish as an ally against secularism highlights, I think, the potential usefulness of (broadly) post-modern thought for Christians who are worried about the totalizing impulse behind secularism.

Baker doesn’t stop with Fish, but moves on to address the work of John Rawls. Rawls, perhaps the foremost proponent of the purported neutrality of secular civic discourse, argued that public discourse should be kept free of comprehensive doctrines, including religion, about which there could be reasonable disagreement. Baker points out that Rawls’ notion of public reason is too thin to actually be practical, and that it ignores the holistic approach of people’s interaction in the public square. Writes Baker:

“[The comprehensive doctrines] are intertwined with the political system in such a way as to be at least partially inseverable. The reason persons bring their comprehensive views to bear upon the political process is that they have integrity. They are undivided persons. They agree to be bound by democratic outcomes but not by a system which would bind their participation in the way Rawls proposes.”

Yet while Baker’s use of Stanley Fish occupies a central role in his argument, I am worried that it give up too much. While I am sensitive to critiques of what people do not say, Baker is unclear about precisely how we can deploy Fish’s criticism of public discourse as being fundamentally oriented around the pursuit of power without adopting his anti-foundationalism. Baker rejects theocracy and monism repeatedly, which are (ostensibly) grounded in the sort of foundationalism that Fish rejects. But he does not specify an alternative mode of discourse. He hints that he likes Robert George’s notion of public reason, but does not say whether this too will be subject to Fish’s critique, or how it would provide a better means of public discourse than the false neutrality of secularism.

But this may well be a critique of Baker’s particularist approach to the relationship between Church and society. Writes Baker, “No elegant political philosophies or legal rules are needed to police the boundaries of religious and secular argumentation. The focus should be on the wisdom and justice of particular policies, not on the motives for the policies. An endless fascination with perfecting the way we form our reasons for policies, religious or otherwise, leads to absurdity and arbitrary decisions.”

Baker’s point happens in the context of legislation, and on this he might be right. But the particularities, for instance, of the Republican Presidential primaries raised a host of theoretical questions that were absolutely crucial to navigating a number of difficult political decisions for evangelical Christians. I wonder whether a strictly particularist approach to political reasoning can account for the election of officials to represent us, where representation demands some sort of identification between the people and the governor. Additionally, argumentation about the boundaries of religion and politics frequently happens in pre-political settings–society–on issues that are not necessarily tied to specific policy discussions, but rather are about the philosophical presuppositions that drive policy. Here it seems some criterion is needed for what is acceptable and not acceptable, unless the only goal is persuasion, wherein the only canon for public discourse would be what moves your audience to agree with you–a mildly depressing thought.

All this to say, if there is one thing about Hunter Baker’s The End of Secularism that makes me sad, it is that it is (for now) incomplete–and consciously so. Baker is well aware of the limitations of his deconstructive project, even if he hints occasionally at a positive alternative. But I sincerely hope that now he has told us what we ought not think, he will at some point expand this positive viewpoint. Baker has no interest in a naked public square, but I am left wondering how it ought be clothed.

This should not, however, dissuade you from buying and reading Baker’s vitally important book, and then buying a copy for your friends and pastors.  Secularism as a mode of discourse has been given a free pass for far too long, and there is no better nor more comprehensive treatment of its history or troubles than The End of Secularism. It is necessary reading for Christians who wish to speak in public about their faith–which, I presume, is all of them.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

6 Comments

  1. In which I finally review @Hunterbaker’s The End of Secularism. Buy it, read it. http://bit.ly/3odCKl

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  2. Deep politics/religion thoughts http://bit.ly/3ahLg0
    stay up on politics/religion/Romney Article VI Blog http://bit.ly/4j9Ayh #hhrs #romney

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  3. […] by the way, the talented Matt Lee Anderson has reviewed the book.  I really respect his work and have enjoyed much of what he has written.  You can see it here. […]

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  4. Making Friends with Stanley Fish: Hunter Baker’s The End of Secularism http://ow.ly/vi8K

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  5. […] Making Friends with Stanley Fish:  Hunter Baker’s The End of Secularism […]

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  6. I am anti gun. But I have stopped really thinking a legal limit to guns will do any good because of the cultural affection for guns among a significant group of Americans. There are just too many guns in the US to really regulate at this point. So any future regulation will likely do little good.

    But it just seems like an indisputable basic fact that if you have a gun you will possibly use it. And and given the reality of the world where we make mistakes, you will use it wrongly. So I would rather not be responsible for a mistaken uSe on the very small chance that I could use it rightly.

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