Governments have often minimized religious conflict by establishing one religion and granting it privileges even where others are tolerated. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution left such power to the states, saying only that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion….” Following the enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment, however, the United States Supreme Court interpreted the First Amendment to prohibit an establishment of religion at any level. How can government now minimize religious conflict?
Many who defend the current interpretation of the First Amendment offer liberalism as the answer. Liberalism proposes to minimize religious conflict by granting individuals liberty in the matter. Individuals must remain within the bounds of public order, but public order is similarly arranged to permit the maximum exercise of individual will.
Liberalism meets the challenge only if it does not thereby function as a religion. If it does, we have a bait and switch. The First Amendment will have been used to disestablish traditional religion in preference for another, albeit nontraditional, religion.
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To know whether liberalism functions as a religion, we have to define the term. It is very difficult to define religion based on belief. Religions teach all sorts of things, many of which are inconsistent with religion as known in the West.
It is easier to define religion based on practice. The fundamental practice of religion is worship, and worship is a response to reason. Some are probably amused at the suggestion of worship as a response to reason, but it is so. Non-rational animals do not worship, and rational animals do.
Human reason is both limitless in its range and limited in its power. We can see the immense universe and even discern from it the existence of God, but we cannot comprehend either, i.e., we cannot fully understand what we apprehend. This disparity between apprehension and comprehension compels us to search for something beyond our own consciousness, something often called “meaning.” Realizing at some level that we are creatures, we cast about for the Creator. Our compulsion to worship distinguishes us from other animals, who untroubled by reason remain at the level of pure instinct. No rational human can do so.
The necessity of worship is obscured by the partial definition of it liberals (and other moderns) tend to use. For example, liberals might only adopt the Webster’s College Dictionary definition that defines worship as, “reverence offered a divine being or supernatural power.” Yet these same liberals would ignore the equally valid definition of worship as, “extravagant respect or admiration for or devotion to an object of esteem.” Experience shows humans worship in both ways, but Scripture warns they conflict: “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matt. 6:24).
Liberals might object at this point that while religion is a broad category, it does not include all objects for which people have an extravagant respect, admiration, or devotion. So although one can loosely say a person worships sports, one cannot compare such an interest with religion as typically understood. To do so, liberals might argue, would either render the First Amendment meaningless or prohibit government from enacting laws governing ordinary things like sports.
Such an objection would be clever, but it would also change the subject. The subject is whether liberalism can minimize religious conflict without functioning as a religion. Wherever the line might be drawn between worshipful and non-worshipful interest, can liberalism diffuse conflicts on the worshipful side without invoking worship?
Assume a society where some people believe God has set Sunday apart for church and rest. These people would prohibit sports on Sunday if they could. Other people believe Sunday is precisely for sports. These people would not hesitate to interfere with church and rest through event scheduling, traffic flows, land use, etc. A genuine religious conflict could occur.
It is here that liberalism offers a supposedly non-religious way out. Although the groups express the human search for meaning in contradictory ways, liberalism would not decide which is true. Liberalism would instead decide that each person has a right to exercise his or her individual will regarding Sunday activities.
Liberalism thus proposes a new object of esteem—the individual will. This new object can logically suffice in cases of religious conflict only by raising it to that level. People must accept, either through their own embrace of liberalism or through the force of law, that individual will supersedes whatever else they would worship. Hence in our example neither group fully gets what it wants. The churchgoers cannot prohibit sports, and sports enthusiasts must bear with church. But each individual gets what he or she wants consistent with the will of others. Individual will now controls, and one’s respect or admiration for or devotion to it must be extravagant for it to do its job.
Liberals therefore worship individual will. Their complimentary belief is in voluntarism, a moral theory that elevates will over reason. Voluntarism has little regard for the objective order of truth perceivable by reason. Traditional believers who expect to conform to the objective order, for example by not insuring abortion or by not honoring same-sex intimacies, are ironically stigmatized by liberals as bearers of irrational animus.
Those stigmatized are often bewildered by the progressive nature of liberal demands. There is apparently no limit to the respect, admiration, and devotion advanced liberals have for the individual will. A recent example is the will to use bathrooms designated for the opposite sex. Liberals applaud this new willfulness and distain any objections based on reason.
The fact is that despite their claims of liberty, liberals have only one path forward. Since they are human, they possess reason, but given their belief, they refuse its light. Because liberals insist on choosing in the dark, will alone must accomplish the worship intrinsic to their nature. Liberals find meaning in changing things, either from the way they were or, after the change, from the way they would be if left alone. Liberals disregard warnings or complaints about bad effects because the object of their choice is the will itself. If reason has any role to play, it is to hunt for willful choices, devise the means to accomplish them, and then perhaps to shield liberals from bad effects.
Liberalism functions as a religion in this country, and under current First Amendment jurisprudence, it is the established religion. Liberalism’s establishment has serious implications for traditional believers. These will be considered in a future essay.
Editor’s note: The image above, titled “The Conquerors of the Bastille Before the Hôtel de Ville in 1789,” was painted by Paul Delaroche in 1839.