The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
Published on April 10, 2013
Militant Secularism or the Flypaper Syndrome?

fliesThe classical German sociologist Max Weber (who has been an icon in my professional ideology) distinguished various types of authority in his theory of politics. The modern world, he proposed, is dominated by what he called “legal-rational authority”. Its typical institutional expression is bureaucracy. Those who exercise power must be able to justify why their commands are legitimate. In a legal-rational order the justification is given in terms of this or that specific law or regulation. Lawyers are in the business of deciding, in cases of conflict, which law or regulation is to be followed in the particular case. Lawyers are trained to think in highly abstract categories, which often make little sense to ordinary people.

The newsletter Law and Religion Headlines carried a story on March 24, 2013, about a public hearing by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights about a matter that has for several years caused First Amendment litigation and attracted special attention in Christian media (the Headlines story first appeared in the Christian Post, an Evangelical publication). The matter at issue is the tension between the free exercise of religion and the principle of nondiscrimination. The most explosive case in point was the original intention (or so it seems) of the Obama administration to force nuns to distribute condoms to employees of Catholic schools or hospitals. The question that led to the hearing by the Commission is a little different: Do campus religious groups violate nondiscrimination laws or regulations if they insist that their members subscribe to certain religious beliefs or codes of behavior? To the non-legal mind the answer is clearly no. By the time the legal mind has started chewing over the question, the matter becomes less clear.

The issue is not whether any religious group on campus must “accept all comers” (to use the legalese phrase). Thus, as far as I know, the First Amendment allows a group to hold meetings on campus to promote the view that the Pope is the Antichrist (a doctrine held by the Lutheran Wisconsin Synod)—a group which, logically enough, will exclude Roman Catholics from membership. If this anti-Pope group were forced to accept Catholics as members, the latter could take over by a majority vote and send a letter of allegiance to Rome. The issue is not what any group may do, but what group is officially recognized by the university—a recognition which not only has symbolic value (letterheads with the university logo), but very often bestows hard material benefits (notably access to funds from student fees).

In 2010 the Supreme Court did decide one such case, in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. The University of California Hastings College of Law (Martinez was the unlucky dean) had required the Society to admit individuals of any of the (by now) officially recognized sexual orientations—“Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transsexual”, or “GLBT”. (Those of us with a cross-cultural orientation are reminded of the term “scheduled castes”, which the British coined in India to refer to groups at the bottom of or outside the Hindu caste system). The Society, an Evangelical organization, had previously barred such individuals from membership, on the grounds that its faith condemned homosexuality. The Christian Legal Society sued the College on First Amendment grounds. The Supreme Court, by a 5-to-4 ruling, upheld the College’s position. The majority opinion was written by Justice Ginsburg, who rejected the distinction between “status” and “conduct” made by the plaintiff (homosexuals may not be able to change their nature, but they can choose how to behave), and charged that the Society had “cloaked prohibited exclusion in belief-based garb”. The dissenting conservative judges protested the “forced inclusion of unwanted members”. If one grants that homosexuality is an inextricable combination of nature and behavior, Ginsburg’s ruling makes sense—in this, she reflects what has become liberal orthodoxy, a paradoxical application of Sigmund Freud’s view that “biology is destiny” (the old Viennese conservative would have been shocked by this twist). Be this as it may, the 2010 decision was made with the  assumption that homosexuality is a “status” similar to that of being African-American. This leaves wide open the possibility of devoted Catholics joining that Lutheran group and taking it off on a pilgrimage to Rome. Not to mention a take-over by an orgy association of one of these “chastity clubs” flourishing among young women on Evangelical campuses. I cannot claim to have researched the great variety of cases in this area. A particularly intriguing case is that of Vanderbilt University, whose nondiscrimination policy insists that recognized student groups must “accept all comers”—specifying that Republicans must be eligible to join College Democrats and even to run for leadership positions in that group. The possible scenarios are delicious to imagine. Of course religious freedom does not directly enter here.

I have previously written about a militant secularism having become a noisy presence in America. I have called it (only half tongue-in-cheek) Kemalist—after Kemal Ataturk’s view of religion as a backward superstition to keep out of public space.  It is the ideology of a quite small group that would not get anywhere through the democratic process and can only work through the courts, the least democratic branch of government. I can’t see Justice Ginsburg as a secularist ideologue. More likely, she reflects the views of church/state relations that have come to be taken for granted in the liberal subculture.

The legal mind, and the bureaucratic mind which is its lowbrow offspring, likes to squeeze the immense vitality of human life into abstract categories. Once these categories have been established, they must be imposed on everyone. I recall an episode I came across during my stint in the US Army. I knew a company clerk in Fort Benning, Georgia, where I spent most of my time in the military. He was enormously bored on his job. This was just before the two revolutions which transformed the American South: desegregation and air-conditioning (making the region more humane, more tolerable in the summer, and because of these two developments more dynamic economically). My acquaintance spent his days sitting at his desk, with little to do, sweating and swatting away the flies. He acquired a flypaper, which did indeed attract and kill a good many flies. He counted the number of flies caught on the flypaper and began to send weekly reports with this information to base headquarters. After three weeks of this exercise every unit in Fort Benning received a memorandum from headquarters, demanding to know why no flypaper reports had been submitted.

[Flies courtesy Shutterstock]

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Let’s address the most important issue from Dr. Berger’s comments first: Having similarly been stationed at Fort Benning in the same era as Dr. Berger, I can attest to the fly paper mentality.

    Part of the problem that Berger addresses is the tendency of the political Left to want to reduce or eliminate the separation of the public and private spheres of society and thus reduce alienation. Berger has aptly discussed this in his book The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness. What makes society modern is this separation. If Americans lived in, say, Saudi Arabia everything would be public including arranged marriages, non-choice of religion, and whether women could drive cars.

    What the demodernists seem to want is to turn every private sector institution into some sort of public utility. So even a Black ethnic church could end up white? It is sort of a rational-legalists “Non-Categorical Imperative,”

    Since this is a webpage dealing with religion, this sort of rational-legal “consciousness” could be legitimated by what might be called the Pauline Separation: there should be no religious (Jew or Gentile), political (slave or free), or biological (male or female) categories.

    But then we end up with the ultimate question: how do we exclude the flies?

  • Anthony

    “The legal mind, and the bureaucratic mind which is its lowbrow offspring, likes to squeeze the immense vitality of human life into abstract categories.” Categories come to mind such as status and conduct (behavior).
    Modernity and plural America contend with customs, predilections, ecumenics, civil/legal/plural definitions, and law and order prerequisites while straining purview of the private as understood by average citizen. Conundrum as inferred by Peter Berger’s essay is where does it all lead in country operating for most part sans abstractions (in a particular or directed manner premised on condition of a thing in eyes of another).

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  • Gary Novak

    I’ll skip Anthony’s flypaper report and comment on Lusvardi’s analysis of the left’s attempt to eliminate the separation between the public and private spheres by turning every private institution into some sort of public utility. The problem with the private sphere is that it actually cultivates the diversity the left loves to celebrate but really hates because it escapes its hegemony. Lusvardi emphasizes the demodernists’ attempt to escape modern freedom
    and alienation. But I think one could go further and say that the left views the private sphere as the breeding ground of bigotry. The private sphere isn’t
    just a place where we are confronted with the heretical imperative; it’s a place where people without the guidance of their government betters tend to
    make bad choices. So the left wants to “drain the swamp” of privacy.

    We see that in Justice Ginsburg’s outrageous claim that the Christian Legal Society’s prohibited exclusion of homosexuals was “cloaked in belief-based garb.” She apparently believes that Berkeley law students
    are too intelligent to take seriously the Pauline view of homosexuality, and she was not about to let them hide their homophobia behind religion. Yahoos are sincerely religious bigots; law students are insincerely religious bigots.
    The Kemalist response is uniform: politically correct nondiscrimination trumps the free expression of religion. (I differ from Berger here only in not putting my tongue even half-way into my cheek.)

    Because the left sees the Bible as a repository of hate speech, I doubt that it would invoke “the Pauline [non-] Separation” to legitimate what Jonah Goldberg
    appropriately terms “liberal fascism.” Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Lusvardi’s citation is an effective reminder that Christian unity (in Christ, not Washington D.C.) is not bureaucratic.

    • Wayne Lusvardi

      In California, the State Assembly has passed a bill – Senate Bill 323 – that will eliminate the tax exempt status of ANY organization that excludes members on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The Bill now goes to the State Senate and Governor but the Legislature has a two-thirds supermajority and can pass the bill without the governor’s signature. So this looks like a slam dunk.

      The bill is targeted at the Boy Scouts but will also make such groups as 4-H, Young Life, and Youth for Christ go bankrupt and out of existence. This may also put any religious camping facility out of business, including Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish camps. Even if the camps find a way to maintain their tax exempt status they would only be marking time until they would be targeted with lawsuits for turning away some gay group or openly gay person.

      So in California we may be seeing the start of the end of what Alexis de Tocqueville termed America’s unique democratic experiment that emanated from religious denominationalism. De Tocqueville wrote: “Democracy extends the sphere of individual freedom, socialism rejects it. Democracy attaches all possible value to each man; socialism makes each man a mere agent, a mere number. Democracy and socialism have nothing in command but one word: equality. But note the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.”

      Surely this law will pass given the current hegemonic Zeitgeist in California, but will be challenged in the courts.

      This is why in California same sex marriage and gay rights is a political football and not just a legal or cultural issue. Gays are used as a battering ram and discrimination the legal-rational legitimacy for extinguishing religious freedom and free associations. Surely, if this case winds its way to the State Supreme Court even its “conservative” justices will uphold the law.

      Maybe Berger’s parable of the flies is a non-transcendent signal of the legal-rational bureaucratic legitimation of William Goldings’ “Lord of the Flies?”

      • Gary Novak

        I think you’re right that there may be some bait-and-switch going on in the pending California legislation. Ostensibly it seeks fairness for gays. But it also seeks to extinguish the religious freedom of Boy Scouts. In the current post, Berger is correct in saying that militant secularism “is the ideology of a quite small group that would not get anywhere through the democratic process and can only work through the courts, the least democratic branch of government.” But if legislatures are more democratic than courts, they, too, can “get somewhere” in opposition to the “general will” or the “collective consciousness.”

        Politicians on both the left and right claim to speak in the name of “the American people,” but the general will remains a shadowy concept, not least because, in the absence of intelligent political debate, that will is hard to measure because it is, itself, indeterminate. Does Proposition 8 reflect the will of the people in California? Or Senate Bill 323? A lot depends on how the issues are framed and how plausibly the unintended consequences of legislation are articulated. The current Zeitgeist in California (and not only there) seems to be that, since we are the
        people we have been waiting for, all we have to do is be ourselves, and we can do no wrong. We don’t need to think through what we are contemplating; all we need to do is decide whose side we are on—greedy insurance companies or Obamacare; gay marriage or hate; racial preferences or racism; social justice or religious superstition. (Shucks, this is easy– I’m really good on multiple-choice and true-and-false tests!)

        The problem is not primarily that, by taking control of the “commanding heights,” a small group of ideologues can imprison the rest of us forever in their reconstructed reality. Way back in “The Precarious Vision,” Berger spoke of God’s attitude toward man’s codes of law, constitutions, and statutes. “We would suggest that, regrettably, God has not read any of them” (p. 193). The primary problem is that it sometimes takes a while for socially constructed stuff to hit the fan. How many lives were ruined by Communism, or by the sexual revolution? So, there is good reason to be worried about unelected judges or SB 323 even if, in the last analysis, our hearts were made only to find rest in Him.

      • Jim Luebke

        The power to tax is the power to destroy. This isn’t about freedom from some imagined persecution; this is about their freedom to persecute.

  • Jim Luebke

    “I can’t see Justice Ginsburg as a secularist ideologue. More likely, she
    reflects the views of church/state relations that have come to be taken
    for granted in the liberal subculture.”

    Please explain to us the difference between “liberal subculture” and “secularist ideologue”… I’m not sure there is one.

    • Gary Novak

      I wondered about this, too. Perhaps we could use the old Marxist distinction between subjective and objective reality. Ginsburg doesn’t think of herself as a secularist ideologue but only as someone trying to maintain the wall between church and state. She doesn’t notice that every time religion expresses itself, it is held to be in violation of the separation. “Objectively,” she functions as a secularist ideologue.

  • Anthony

    Peter Berger’s reference to Max Weber brings to mind what could be distinction between legal-rational and “ordinary people” in modernity. That is, modernity reflects consequence of systemic accumulation via testing, technology, sharing knowledge, etc. – in other words science; while for the other side, adherence to ribbed rock beliefs that are unchanging and stretch back thousands of years takes precedence – in other words tradition. Neither Kemalist nor Religionist aptly describes this process as it may reduce down to tempermental inclination.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    The current discussion is an offspring of Berger’s prior post on April 3 – “How to End the Wars of Religion and Why This Probably Won’t Work with the War Over the Family” wherein Berger suggested issuing Civil Union licenses to all who want to cohabit (and presumably claim tax deductions for a dependent spouse); and allowing churches to be free to legitimate “marriage” as they see fit as a path to “peace” in the culture wars.

    The reason that Berger alludes to why this won’t work is same sex marriage is being used as a wedge by the “cognitive minority” of the Left to gain political power over religion as the superordinate institution of legitimation over religion. As I have stated in a prior post, same sex marriage is a political football — defined as a problem that never gets solved because of the power politics involved.

    There are some profound sociological and theological problems with this movement as Berger points out in prior postings. Families of children massacred in Newtown, Connecticut, found solace in traditional mainline churches not in atheist intellectual institutions in academic ghettos. And soldiers cannot be easily asked to lose their lives even for necessary wars based on a non-transcendent secular political ideology. Sure Marxism was the legitimation of revolution to fight for a classless society – but look where that ended up.

    As Berger also points out, citing Max Weber, legal-rational legitimation by a cognitive elite produces weak legitimations despite the monopoly of government over force. Even if Prop. 8 — limiting marriage to one man and one woman — in California were overturned by the voters (an eventual likelihood) the dominant majority of voters in California still reflect a cognitive minority of the bulk of the people who live and work in the political middle. If there is one BIG political trend in California it is the rise of the “decline to state” voter. One can only speculate whether the rise of such voters is a consequence of alienation from the dominant political ideology as well as culturally conservative voters who work for government who are fearful of retaliation for openly declaring their political affiliation. Berger’s “Middletowners” of cognitive deviants can perhaps be found in centrist California.

  • Anthony

    “The elevation of parochial values to the realm of the sacred is a license to dismiss other people’s interest and an imperative to reject the possibility of compromise.” And, it is there where Peter Berger, I think, reveals thrust of militant secularism. He highlights it well when he writes: the matter at issue is tension between the free excercise of religion and the principle of nondiscrimination.