David Gibson: Defining Secularism

In the cloud of dust that passes for public rhetoric these days, few epithets can stir up passions as quickly as accusing an opponent of being a “secularist,” or some variant of the term. To middle-of-the- road folks, to embrace secularization is to be vaguely un-American, or at best irreverent. For religious conservatives, of course, it is the red flag that can send them stam peding to the ballot box, and thus it has become a favorite flourish for campaigners.

A prime example was Mitt Romney’s highly touted speech on religion in December, in which the Republican candidate sought to allay suspicions about his own Mormonism by projecting himself as a defender of faith — any faith at all, as long as it was not what he derided as “the religion of secularism.”

Romney’s blast was loud, but hardly unusual. In a commence ment address at Liberty University last May, Newt Gingrich eulogized the university’s founder, the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, by lamenting “a growing culture of radical secularism” that Falwell battled to the end. “In hostility to American history,” Gingrich said, “the radical secularist insists that religious be lief is inherently divisive and that public debate can only proceed on secular terms when religious belief is excluded.”

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Posted in * Culture-Watch, * Economics, Politics, * Religion News & Commentary, Other Faiths, Politics in General, Religion & Culture, Secularism

2 comments on “David Gibson: Defining Secularism

  1. mig+ says:

    Words have a history. Mr Gibson is equivocating when he says, “the term ‘secular’ originated in medieval Christian theology as a way to distinguish priests ‘living in the world’ from ‘religious’ priests.” He would have us believe that people have always conceived of ‘living in the world’ the way moderns do now: That this is the real, permanent, world – anything else is wishful thinking, or part of various religious views, which are alright in their place – as long as they remain private sentiments and do not pretend to say anything about reality.

    Actually, the saeculum was considered ‘this age’ before ‘the age to come’. It was the provisional context in which the Body of Christ (the Church), working in the power of the Holy Spirit, would do the redeeming work of Christ (making all things new).

    John Milbank, in Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Blackwell, 1990), has made a convincing argument that the promotion of the secular as a “place” or (vantage point), from which to make judgments, was part of an anti-theological move on the part of proponents of the Enlightenment.

    I like a good argument. But defining secularism through the means of medieval ‘secular’ priests is anachronistic, and quite misleading.

  2. Hursley says:

    The best definition I have every read of secularism comes from Alexander Schmemann, especially in “For the Life of the World,” and in some of his other work (his essay on preparation for communion and frequent reception bound in with the latest edition of “Great Lent”). I suggest this as a great place to go for discussions of the subject.