As many social commentators have recently argued, the secularism that has come to dominate Western culture is composed of not an absence of spirituality, but is itself a type of religious belief—or at least the parody of one. Charles Taylor famously defines secularism as the concerted effort to live within an exclusively immanent frame. Such an immanentist take on life is in reality a form of religiosity, and it has come to dominate the moral trajectory of our society today.
How we got here, the ironic age of regnant secularism that is merely cloaked and self-deluded religious belief, is not evident in the history of ideas popularly taught. Steven D. Smith’s aim in Pagans and Christians in the City is to connect the dots for us, beginning with the clash between ancient Christianity and Roman culture. He sees a direct line between the persecution of Christians by the Romans, which by even the Roman accounts made little political sense on the face of it, and the contemporary secularist scream to “bake the cake, bigot!” As he sees it, the present culture wars are but the latest clash in a primeval battle between ancient paganism and systems of belief that embrace the reality of the transcendent.
The defining characteristic of paganism for Smith is not the belief in many gods, but rather the locating of the source of the sacred in this-worldly realities. For the pagan, the gods certainly exist above us, but they are not really beyond us. And the sacred does not receive its holy qualities from anything fixed and eternal. All morality is merely conventional based on a given society’s values and political interests.
Christianity broke like a storm upon the Roman world, raining out the “merry dance of paganism” in what the Romans saw as the dour demise of the greatest civilizing gift the gods had ever gifted humanity: Rome. Not only did Christians defy the cult of the emperor with an unaccommodating allegiance to a universal God, much as the Jews had centuries earlier, but they also represented an affront to the very values of Roman society through their strict sexual ethic and belief that sin and the basic problems facing humanity could not be overcome through participation in the civilizing life of the city. The Christians not only lived out their convictions in compelling ways, caring for the poor and championing the cause of justice, but they also enthusiastically recruited to their religion and, unlike the Jews, actively claimed anyone could join their communities.
As Smith recounts, Christianity ultimately triumphed over Rome. Paganism was outlawed, and the civic role it played in public life was replaced with Christian symbols. Christendom became defined by the submission of everything to God, his standard of justice, and to his church as the earthly representation of his rule. Though defeated, however, paganism was not mortally wounded, but merely driven underground. While it limped through the centuries in the superstitious imaginations of the populace, paganism would eventually receive its vivification in the cultural and philosophical tastes of the elite. The Enlightenment, with its aesthetic nostalgia for Rome and its rejection of transcendence in the humanist celebration of reason, gave paganism a new lease on life, albeit in a reimagined form.
Paganism “under a Christian canopy” had, at least for a time, to accept the terms of public and moral discourse set by Christian metaphysics. When at last secularism (i.e., paganism garbed in a religious language) grew confident enough to throw off Christianity’s influence, it found itself still constrained by the Christian moral vision. Thus, it retained vestiges of the moral commitments of Christianity to justice and life having ultimate meaning, though in much more subjective and less robust terms. Smith highlights ethicist Ronald Dworkin as but one pagan among many haunted by the lingering weight of a Christian worldview.
How paganism came to dominate the shores of the Potomac and give shape to a constitutional counter-revolution is the subject of the latter half of Smith’s study. Smith’s wheelhouse is American constitutional law, and he takes a dive into two areas he sees as uniquely exemplary of the conflict he has been tracing: sexuality and religious freedom.
Both belief systems, modern paganism and Christianity, vie for control of public symbols that lie at the heart of our civic identities. Sexual desire, with its psychological and biological realities, is not surprisingly the most important religious symbol of the competing orders. Perhaps more than anything else, sexuality is hallowed as sacred by both pagan and Christians, though for different and very important reasons: for the immanentist, sex is sacred only when it is free from all constraint, as it alone is the source of our truest identity; for the Christian, sex is properly meaningful when placed in its proper constraints in relation to God’s good purposes. Both secularists and Christians look to the Constitution and the rights it enshrined to support their vision of social good. But there can be no middle ground, for each position is antithetical to the other.
The other paradigmatic symbol fought over by competing religious orders is religious freedom and the so-called “nonestablishment clause.” In secularists’ hands, the Constitution’s mandate that the government ought not privilege one religion over another or overly burden religious convictions of individuals becomes a mandate for religion itself to be relegated from the public square to the realm of privately held beliefs. The opposing perspective, however, is that government ought to see religion as a public good necessary to a well-ordered society, and therefore should work to accommodate individuals’ freedom to believe and live out their beliefs regarding matters of ultimate truth. The first approach seeks actively to restrict free practice of religion, viewing it as a threat to immamentist hegemony. If the state should respect rather than regulate religious practice, then this indicates that there is some transcendent authority that stands above and beyond the state, limiting the nature and boundaries of the state’s own authority. To counter this, secularists wield the weapon of anti-discrimination laws, restricting the free practices of religion.
Smith’s argument that contemporary culture wars are really late-stage conflicts in competing religiosities is, by now, a well-worn but very important observation. This helps us to make sense of why certain issues possess preeminent focus, and especially why certain tactics are continuously employed, such as the fight over control of the courts that possess the power to dismantle either systems’ public symbols of hegemony. Smith’s unique contribution is to move us from the realm of religious and cultural history to constitutional law, where the fight over the heart of our social order increasingly lies. This is where Smith, as a lawyer and social commentator, shines.
As a historian, one wishes he would fill in the gaps a bit more, especially in the reemergence of paganism in early modern history in rationalism, romanticism, and especially the sexual revolution. Others, such as Charles Taylor and Carl Trueman, help fill in what is lacking.
Additionally, for all his attention to sexuality, the conversation we need to have today concerns race and racial identity as the new locus of the sacred. Still, Smith is right to beckon us to see how the road we are on is leading straight to our own Milvian Bridge, where either Christianity will again triumph for the good of the city, or perhaps paganism will take back the keys to the empire.