Secularism is naturally coercive. That stands to reason: As the worldview of secularism has it, human fulfillment must happen in this life, or it won’t happen at all –since, practically speaking, it’s the only life there is. An advertising slogan of a few years back neatly captured the spirit: “You only go round once.”
Coercion enters the picture because whoever fails to conform to secularism’s prescriptions for fulfillment is the enemy and, considering what’s at stake, must be eliminated, either metaphorically or in cold fact. Secularists wield the rhetoric of human rights and liberation in order to whip people into line and keep them there.
Yes, certainly — mild and tolerant secularists do exist. Moreover, history’s pages are littered with instances of religious coercion (fundamentalist Islam today follows that script). But the general rule holds true: Despite the many failings of religionists, transcendent, eschatological religion isn’t innately coercive because it locates ultimate fulfillment beyond this life; whereas secularism’s dream of immanent fulfillment carries a built-in tendency to coercion like a bad gene. Utopia now — and those who won’t cooperate had better watch out.
The French and Bolshevik revolutions provide many instructive illustrations of these truisms, though hardly the only ones. Now coercive secularism is flexing its muscles in the United States. America’s churches have generally responded in two different ways: surrender (mainstream Protestantism) and resistance (evangelicals and other conservative groups). American Catholicism, internally divided during the last several decades, has waffled.
Four stages have marked the progress of the secular assault on Catholicism in this time. In the first two, Catholics themselves were the active parties in the undermining of their Church’s public posture; in the second two, aggressive secularism has directly taken advantage of self-inflicted Catholic weakness.
First stage: Houston, September 12, 1960. John F. Kennedy is addressing the Houston Ministerial Association. Kennedy, the Democratic candidate for the presidency, has been buffeted for months by nativist anti-Catholicism. He and his advisors have concluded that he must address the problem head-on.
JFK’s address to the ministers in Houston was the result. It’s said to have been the work of John Cogley, Commonweal editor and later religion writer for the New York Times, who eventually quit the Catholic Church, became an Episcopalian, and was an Episcopal deacon when he died.
Although the speech’s reasoning doesn’t stand up under close examination, Kennedy’s Houston text is a superficially skillful piece of work. There’s hardly a statement in it to which, taken in isolation, a reasonable person could object. But the speech as a whole is a sustained exercise in privatizing religion. Declaring his faith to be his business and no one else’s, Kennedy puts daylight between himself and his Church and pledges that, if he’s elected, religion won’t influence his performance. The Houston speech did the trick: Kennedy was elected. But the text stands as a landmark in the process of excluding religion from the public square that’s still underway.
Stage number two finds Mario Cuomo, Catholic governor of New York, speaking at Notre Dame on September 13, 1984. That’s some eleven years after the Supreme Court legalized abortion, and the question is how a Catholic politician should respond to the post-Roe state of affairs. It’s been raised in an acute form by the performance of Geraldine Ferraro, Catholic congresswoman from New York and Walter Mondale’s vice-presidential running mate, who insists that to be pro-choice is a legitimate option.
Cuomo’s contribution is an elaborate rationale developed with help from liberal theologians, which holds that, in a pluralistic democracy, a Catholic like himself, though “personally opposed” to abortion, needn’t and indeed shouldn’t work for laws forbidding or restricting it. Needless to say, this has proved to be a big help to “personally opposed” Catholic politicians ever since.
It’s impossible to assign a precise date and place to the third stage, but the message — now, clearly, secularism’s message — is stark. Going way beyond Kennedy and Cuomo, it asserts the primacy of a right of choice, superior to all other rights and duties and empowering individuals to choose very nearly anything in the line of personal behavior (abortion, same-sex marriage, or whatever it may be), no matter what anyone else thinks. At this point we are facing the “dictatorship of relativism” that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger decried in his address to the cardinals before his election as pope.
But today we’ve moved on to a fourth stage. Beyond the privatizing of religion and the absolutizing of individual choice lies coercion. According to the logic of secularism, even people who have conscientious objections can be forced to facilitate others’ choices (abortion, same-sex marriage, etc.) under threat of being penalized and stigmatized if they don’t. As Pope Benedict XVI remarks in his social encyclical Caritas in Veritate, where religion is excluded from the public square, “politics takes on a domineering and aggressive character.”
Indeed it does. Currently, the United States Senate, under the rubric of health-care reform, is moving to force people who reject abortion on conscience grounds to help pay for the elective abortions of people who don’t. And in Washington, D.C., the local archdiocese may have to scale back social-service programs — a significant loss to the entire community — because it can’t accept the implications of a same-sex marriage law recently passed by the city council. (The city election board did its own coercive bit by refusing to allow D.C. voters a referendum on gay marriage.)
These things are neither accidental nor unrelated. Says Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver, “Today’s growing harassment of religious charities flows out of a crisis in America’s governing philosophy.” Its name is coercive secularism.
For years, Catholic leadership in the United States has been largely passive in the face of trends like these. Now there are signs of fighting back. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has worked actively and, up to this time, with notable success to amend the health reform legislation before Congress to eliminate government funding of elective abortion. And in Maine, the Catholic diocese received financial help from nearly 60 bishops and dioceses — including $50,000 each from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Diocese of Phoenix — for costs of a successful campaign to prevent the legalization of gay marriage in that state.
But the hour is late. Secularist coercion on behalf of things like abortion and gay marriage is a powerful force in the media and politics in today’s United States. There’s much that needs doing and little time left.