Christian Morality and Public Law–Three Secular Myths

[Editor’s Note: This is Part Two of a three-part series. Click here for Part One.]

Secularism rests on three myths. The first is the myth of the secular state. Secularism is not a positive construct. By its very nature, something is secular only when it denies the existence of God. Here is where Professor Audi’s definition begins to break down. One cannot be genuinely secular and be indifferent to the existence of God, because if God did exist, that would bring immediate demands upon society–obligations and prohibitions which society would not be able simply to ignore without admitting that it is only tacitly or operationally secular. A truly secular state must altogether deny the existence of God. In other words, this is a call for an absolutely secular state–the existence of which is a myth. Why? Because states must deal with fundamental questions. They must deal with questions concerning life and death, questions about human identity, ultimate questions about existence and meaning in the universe. But the moment a state begins to deal with those fundamental questions, it ceases to be secular, especially the way Robert Audi defines it even at the motivational level. When states begin to effect laws and codify some morality, there is no way that can be purely secular. For any question that addresses itself to the meaning of life and death, for example, must be considered in terms much larger than secular theory will allow. There is no truly secular state.

Second is the myth of a secular argument. No argument is truly irreducibly secular. For anyone who wants to make an argument about anything beyond procedure will have to deal with questions of meaning, morality, and value–questions that are larger than any individual human frame of reference. On issues like those, there are no arguments that are genuinely secular. As a matter of fact, listen carefully to those who most seek to advocate purely secular arguments. On questions of meaning and morality, their arguments are themselves just as essentially religious as the “religious” arguments they reject. They may believe their claims are not religious, but they end up being religious precisely because they are anti-religious. Moreover, they attempt to set up their own version of God–their own idea of what is the ultimate good–in order to determine value.

Third is the myth of secular motivation. Motivation is an inherently complex issue, because none of us is fully aware of our own motivation. This is the problem with the circular reasoning of Robert Audi’s principle of secular motivation. Audi expects people to disregard their beliefs about God in thinking about public policy, to decide what they would believe about a certain issue if they did not already believe in God. But a human being can never know what he would believe if he were not motivated by what centrally motivates him. How can a person know that he would continue to advocate the same position if he no longer believed in God, or if belief in God were simply bracketed from the equation? Audi’s position is simply unrealistic. No human being will ever know himself so well that he can separate himself from his own motivations, even those who allow themselves the conceit of believing they are driven by a purely secular motivation. Furthermore, to move the focus of the national conversation from the objective content of an argument to its subjective motivation is to be no longer engaged in public policy discussions, but rather in some kind of communal therapy session.

There is no genuinely secular state, no secular argument, and no secular motivation, even among those who consider themselves secular. There is no neutrality. On questions as ultimate as the existence or non-existence of God, or the binding or non-binding character of His dictates and commands, or the objectivity or subjectivity of morality, or the absoluteness or non-absoluteness of truth, there are no mediating positions. There is no neutrality.

Insofar as the law deals with what is most important, it must deal with ultimate issues like these. The law certainly deals with some issues of mere procedure and with policies that are not inherently freighted with moral importance. Yet on these issues, we do not have intense public, civic controversies. America is not now in danger of being divided in two over parking policies in the nation’s capital, but over the institution of marriage. Passions are not running high over how certain procedures in the tax code could be rewritten, but on questions of normative sexuality. The nation is not in ferment over questions about the federal budget, but over whether a human embryo is deserving of protection recognized as bearing the dignity of life.

To argue over issues like these is to argue at a level far above a secular plane. It is to argue at the level of moral ultimacy–some from one perspective, some from another, but none from a genuinely secular perspective. Therefore, if we accept the argument that Christian moral arguments are forbidden entry into the public space, we have decided not only to violate the clear intention of our Constitutional framers, not only to reject the inherited civilization that has brought us to this point, not only to redefine what it means to be a liberal democracy, but we have actually privileged one form of religious discourse over another. That is, we have privileged irreligious religious discourse over self-consciously religious discourse.

Furthermore, how can society deal with ultimate issues if the only people who are genuinely allowed into the discussion are those who believe there is nothing more ultimate than our own existence, our own communal negotiation of moral questions? If ever we reach such a point, we will have become a civilization not even remotely like the one established by our founders.

In every one of Robert Audi’s principles [ed. note: see yesterday’s commentary], his precise concern is with laws that restrict human conduct. That is the heart of the issue. There is a libertarian philosophy behind this, a basic idea of the liberty of human conduct. Audi’s suggestion is that any limitation on human conduct must be justified. This is the “justificatory principle” now discussed in law schools, which states that any restriction on human conduct must be socially mandated by the political process on purely secular grounds. But here again, there is a serious problem. Where can we find an adequate rationale for restricting human conduct on purely secular grounds?

Most people would agree that murder, for example, is inherently wrong. But why? Once the issue is pressed hard enough, the purely secular theorist has very little ground for argumentation. The question “why” eventually presses the secular argument back to its irreducibly and essentially unsecular form. Why is murder wrong? Some might try to fashion an answer to this question on the grounds of pragmatism. Not only William James and John Dewey, but also Stanley Fish, Richard Rorty, and others, have argued that all issues of ultimacy must be adjudicated on pragmatic grounds. However, the problem is that human life, in terms of its inherent dignity, is very difficult to define in purely pragmatic terms.

For instance, when does human life begin? As Christians, we have a principled, axiomatic answer to that question. But how does a putatively secular theorist fashion an answer to that question? His first instinct, of course, will be to let science step in and adjudicate the issue. But science cannot answer that question, because in order to say when human life begins, there must be some definition of what human life is, and that definition is precisely what science cannot offer. Because of that, there is no consensus among secularists about the definition of human life. There is an entire spectrum among them about what human life should be, how it should be defined, when it begins, and when it is worthy of protection. There are secularists who hold that life begins at conception, and there are other secularists like Peter Singer who would argue that even infanticide should not be considered immoral. After all, a woman’s right to choose is inviolable, and life, Singer says, is not worthy of protection until the human being has attained the ability to relate and use language.

Singer’s conclusions may be distasteful–at least for now–to the secular aesthetic, but according to a purely secular rationale, can we really say he is wrong? He may be embarrassing according to secular politics, but according to a purely secular moral evaluation, he cannot be said to be wrong. This inevitable moral fog is the fatal problem faced by those who try to approach ultimate questions with a purely secular worldview.