“Your God Will Have Been Supplanted by an Idol” – The Dangerous Illusion of a ‘Secular’ State

National Conservatism Conference

Miami, Florida

September 13, 2022

Well, good evening. It is a great honor to be here with you. The decision to invite a Southern Baptist in this conference is an act either of desperation or of opportunity, but it was an act that was nonetheless reckless. One of the big questions about inviting a Baptist is whether my role here at the end is to give an invitation or take an offering, and the answer is probably both.

It is a great, great joy to be here. I have drawn strength from being with all of you, and from the exchange of ideas and the encouragement from the exchange of heart that has taken place, session by session, room by room, sometimes conversation by conversation. I have been involved in conservative meetings and conservative conferences for my entire adult life. At least one thing I’d like to offer is that this is not as new as some of you think.

As a theologian, one of the academic principles I teach is that the history of the Christian Church indicates an ongoing tension between what may be assumed and what must be articulated. This is why at certain moments the church has had to come together in moments of theological crisis. Those moments of theological crisis are often marked by the great creeds of the Christian Church throughout its many centuries. Sometimes, those creeds were made necessary, simply because what could have been assumed just as common knowledge, common faith, common confession, just a matter of, say, a few years before, now requires overt articulation.

Let me just say that a lot of what is being affirmed here at this meeting, and has been in the other NatCon conferences, is what conservatism understood itself to be: an unashamed appreciation for, and seek fo, the conservation for, for the nation. And that means, first of all, this nation. But then the idea of nations, and the integrity of nations.

I want to thank the Edmund Burke Foundation for sponsoring this event. Yoram Hazony, who was given so much intellectual content and helped to substantiate and shape out what such a movement would look like. Friends and fellow conservatives, it is just a great joy to be here. All good things must come to an end, and such it is with this conference tonight. But perhaps some closing thoughts would be helpful.

When you do get religious people together, things can get awkward. You may have noticed sometimes the closest of denominational neighbors can find themselves in awkward situations. About a hundred years ago, the great Methodist evangelist, Sam Jones, was preaching in Cartersville, Georgia. This is when the Protestants had long meetings they called protracted meetings, and that’s because they protracted them. They were going for days and days, and in the classic protracted meeting, you didn’t know when it would end. It ended when the Holy Spirit indicated it should end.

Sam Jones was a famous Methodist evangelist. He was preaching in Cartersville. In the morning they had the sessions for men to pray very early in the morning. And then later, women gathered together. He’s speaking at one of the women’s gatherings during the time of this meeting in Cartersville, and he asked how many in the room where Methodist. And evidently, all in the room of all these ladies were Methodist, except for one who raised her hand. And he said, “Well then, what are you?” And she said, “I’m a Baptist.” Sam Jones said, “Why are you a Baptist?” Now, I just want to tell you, as a Baptist, this is a bad Baptist answer. She said, “Because my mother and father are Baptist, and my grandparents are Baptist, and all my folks are Baptists.” And Sam Jones then turned to her, taking the rhetorical advantage, and said, “Well, what if your parents were fools? And your grandparents were fools? And all your folks were fools?” And she said, “I get it. I would be a Methodist.”

It just points to the fact that there’s both awkwardness and opportunity. I want to lean into the opportunity and say that if this is something you find awkward, welcome to the future. Because insofar as conservatism as a movement has a future, it is a future that is going to be increasingly tied to explicit theological claims and confessions.

It is not an accident that as we gather here, there are those who represent in the main, just in terms of visible identity and over a conversation, those who represent especially the orthodox strain of Judaism, and both Catholic and Protestant Christianity. Better get used to being in the room together. And this is where as a Baptist, I just have to remind myself and all of us, that we have theological ecclesial rooms, and we have social cultural rooms. And so we have different theological convictions, and we respect that. Amazingly, the secular world wonders how in the world this can happen. We actually respect one another more. I respect a genuinely Catholic Catholic when I’m in conversation. I respect that genuinely Protestant Protestant. I’m glad to say I’ve enjoyed the honor to have those conversations through the years, and also with Jewish friends, ongoing conversation of which this conference is another down payment for the future.

I want to speak about one of the most dangerous ideas of the modern age. During COVID, when everything was in disequilibrium, I taught a class. Everything was online at this point. We were all trying to scramble. We have thousands of students, and I was trying to figure out how can I most help? And I thought one way I could encourage is to teach a class that will get their attention. I intended this primarily for undergraduate students. I entitled the class The Most Dangerous Ideas of the Modern Age. A class, I might offer, that in terms of the curriculum, is much easier to start than to finish. But nonetheless, I was astounded when hundreds of students signed up. Hundreds of students, all the way from doctoral students in the graduate school, all the way down to homeschooled students who were 14, 15 years old and heard about it, and the parents signed them up.

It is because, I think, people alive today of conservative conviction understand that we are surrounded by a battle of ideas, and it’s a very dangerous battle of ideas, because so many of the ideas are inherently dangerous. To be human is to be uniquely capable of perceiving intellectual and ideological threats. Animals can perceive physical threats; otherwise, they don’t survive. We alone are capable of recognizing ideological and intellectual threats, and it’s actually a part of our responsibility.

So with this opportunity, I thought that I would discuss one of the most dangerous ideas of our age, and that is the very dangerous illusion of the secular state. In this class, on the most dangerous ideas of the modern age, I discussed Marxism, materialism, fascism, scientism, pragmatism, post modernism, critical theory, deconstructionism, lots, isms. I want now to speak about secularism, in particular as represented in the secular state.

In order to do so, first I want to share with you a fairy tale, an interesting way to begin tonight. But I want you to think of this fairy tale tonight. There once was a day when people were religious. They believed in strange gods and strong doctrines, and engaged in bizarre rituals that represented tribal identities and supernatural superstitions that took on totalistic significance, and were passed on through intergenerational transmission. The fairytale continues. Such super naturalistic systems of belief were representative of ancient humanity’s attempt to reckon with and to explain the world around them, the consciousness within them, and the cosmos above them. Surely be pity.

They found emotional refuge, and also found meaning in their mythic poetic systems. They developed ethical systems that reflected their backwardness, and often argued with rival belief systems, and sometimes worse than argument. All of these belief systems, to greater or lesser degrees of explicitness, reflected the faulty moral beliefs of the old of the tribes, including patriarchy, sexual repression, mandates concerning marriage, the family and human reproduction, and the raising of children; beliefs about spiritual and ethical superiority, the assumption that absolute truth exists, and that dangerous extensions into the political sphere threaten.

Now, according to this fairytale, it’s certainly in its earliest forms, there was the insistence that the purpose and end of human existence should be some form of emancipation. In short, the fairytale came with a tale of emancipation. It came in the form of the modern project. And as humanity came of age, the Enlightenment would bring emancipation from ancient creeds and religions and worldviews, and allow humanity finally to come of age. Emancipatory liberalism would free all humanity in the shackles of tyranny, despotism, superstition, dogma, prejudice, and ignorance. The suggestion was that this emancipation would retain some form of religious morality while deconstructing religious doctrine in authority.

It was very interesting, and when I teach history of theology, one of the things I point out is that Protestant liberalism, especially in the first half of the 20th century, was largely driven by the argument, “Well, ditch the theology and keep the morality.” How’d that work out? With the rainbow flags outside those churches. You can’t have the morality without the theology. Take it from a theologian.

According to this fairytale, humanity would finally come of age with a truly rational, cosmopolitan, and consensual moral ethic, personal and social. But they could not yet imagine what an ethic might be, and they could not escape their religious tentacles of the moral expressions they found inevitable. And yet, they were sure that such a secular option would eventually emerge. The early versions of this fairytale also assumed to rather restrain the assault upon the ultimate citadels of truth and knowledge and morality. They reassured the public that Enlightenment would make sense to all, or at least, at least on the major pillars of Enlightenment thought. As we know, later versions of this fairytale, updated constantly, would repudiate their early version, arguing that even they were hopelessly mired in the mud of traditional moral judgment in metaphysics and biological reality. All that would have to change.

According to the fairytale, along came four friendly giants to emancipate the elves. I’m thinking here primarily of Nietzsche, Darwin, Freud, and Marx. They were the giants that emancipated the elves by their prophecies of modernity. Then came new marvels. Technology, modern universities, contraceptive devices, pills, automobiles, no fault divorce, social media. The list goes on.

And then we can follow the modern experiment through early modernity, and then modernity, and what’s now called late modernity. It used to be kind of called post modernity, but the problem is that it doesn’t really break down that carefully and distinctly. It’s not like you have the pre-modern and also this modern, everybody knows it’s modern. Pre-modern, left behind. It’s not like the post-modern means that modernity’s left behind. It just means it’s a later stage; it’s a more accurate development. And then of course, according to this fairytale, more giants have arrived, and even more will arrive. Emancipatory modernity is inevitable, never to be resisted and only to be welcomed.

Well, we understand that this is a fairy tale, but it’s the fairy tale that basically drives the progressives in this culture. They’re absolutely certain it’s not a fairytale, but it’s the truth. What puzzles them, perplexes them, and infuriates them is that there are people who will not go along with the fairy tales. Not only that, it’s also very perplexing, especially, and I don’t say in the Christian world, that the very people who follow the fairytale end up with churches that are evacuated of actual people. And people tend to gravitate toward those who hold to the ancient truth and preach the timeless truth.

Amongst the assumptions of this fairytale is that the state is itself must be secular. No religious authority, no religious privileges, no theological truth, no acknowledgement whatever religious roots, no comprehensive doctrines, as said John Rawls. Of course, of course, the comprehensive doctrine of secularism, which is no comprehensive doctrines, turns out to be a comprehensive doctrine.

So anyway, the secular dream here was supposed to end with a secular state. Everyone is to live happily ever after in a secular state of mind. Liberated and free, unrestrained, undivert, unoppressed, uninhibited, by even the slightest risk of a theological thought. Now, in one sense, of course, that didn’t happen. I mean, the very fact it’s a fairytale is that it didn’t happen. And yet you’d have to say it didn’t happen, except where it did. So in other words, where this fairytale worked out, pretty much like the tellers of it had predicted, was Western Europe, Northern Europe. Amazingly prophetic in terms of how this would play out. The American college and university campus, which is more European than American in many ways, when you think about secularity in the intellectual climate. It didn’t happen everywhere, though, in the modern age, especially even in the modern industrialized world.

Somebody by the name of the name Peter Berger, the religious sociologist, a brilliant person and one of the very rare human beings who was still making intellectual contribution in his 10th decade of life. Just think about that. Still writing books in this 10th decade of life. Now, if you do live that long, as an academic, you have to go back and revise your theories, because at least some of them have been disproved by time. One of them was the theory of secularization. Peter Berger, the young Peter Berger, held that secularization was the inevitable result of industrialization, and mass culture, and high technology. It happened everywhere, inevitably, pretty much on the same time table, except it didn’t happen. Berger came back to revisit his own theory of secularization. And by the way, he did it, first of all, in the pages of First Things.

Peter Berger was once asked about the current situation in the United States, and he spoke about a longitudinal study that had been done of relative religiosity. I know that’s very exciting in a dinner session. Latitudinal study of varied religiosity. The basic point is, they did a study, nation by nation, and without theological claims, which nations tend to be more religious and which less. And it turned out that as he said, the most religious nation just marked by religious fervor, religious holidays, the time invested in religion was India, and the most secular was Sweden. So the most religious, least secular, India. The most secular, least religious, Sweden. And then he was immediately asked by a reporter, “Well, what about the United States of America?” And he famously said, “It is a nation of Indians ruled by an elite of Swedes.” It’s pretty much the way it goes. And he said, “A population of Indians, but we have reality, or at least would have reality defined for us, by an elite of Swedes.”

Now at least the part of what’s going on in this meeting is that the Indians are refusing to go along with the Swedes. I’ve encountered at least one Indian in this sense, but many others are refusing to go evolve. We understand that one of the reasons why is because secular space is not empty space. It is space hostile to human dignity. It is space dangerous for human good. It is simply another fairytale to believe the secular space is space empty of metaphysical and moral claims of ultimacy. It is space hostile to the truth, and space that celebrates the disillusion of the good, the beautiful, and the true. It is space that eventually will be hostile to human dignity and virtue.

Once transcendence is denied, once God is denied, a host of alien doctrines establishes a new religion and a new public orthodoxy in various forms and places, including recent history. That space has been filled by Marxism, Communist ideology, critical theory, post-structural list of identity politics and woke activism, all driven by a religious passion and with ideas that invariably take on a religious shape. More about that in a moment.

After the fairytale, however, I want to offer some corrective history. This is important, too. Because many people who explain the modern age would say that it’s inherently secular, and that secular means absolutely non-religious. And yet, it never was. Witness number one, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It was Rousseau who wrote, in his Discourses and other early political writings, “I would wish, then, that in every state there were a moral code or kind of civil profession of faith containing positively the social maxims everyone should be bound to acknowledge, and negatively the fanatical maxims one should be bound to reject.” Not as impious, but as judicious. Rousseau was locally calling for an explicit civil religion, and it would include orthodoxy and heresy, as every religious system inevitably does. It would be a civil religion imbued with theological authority that eventually took the shape of what Rousseau called the catechism of the citizen.

Emilio Gentile referred to this process as the sacralization of the modern world. The sacralization means that the state eventually takes on the role of the sacred. And the point is, as Rousseau understood, something’s going to take on the role of the sacred. And if you deny God, then the state is the most likely suspect to show up and make the demand of ultimacy.

It’s not only Gentile, it’s also Eric Vogel and Raymond Aron. Aron referred to secular religion as the doctrines that promised salvation in this life. It was some corrective history. Think about the French Revolution. People said, “Well, it was absolutely irreligious.” No, it was anti-Christian. It was not hardly irreligious. Remember that as a part of the early period of the revolution, they stormed into Notre Dame Cathedral and removed the Madonna and Child and replaced it with the Goddess of Reason, and actually put in place the Cult of the Goddess and the Cult of Reason. It was a state sponsored religious cult. It was atheistic. And make no mistake, it was explicitly religious. And in a cathedral, no less. That’s not by accident.

Eventually in the Revolutionary history, and in its sad, tragic unfolding, there would be the release of the Cult of the Supreme Being under Robespierre. Again, a Cult of a Supreme Being. It takes on not only ideological shape, but explicitly religious shape.

I mentioned Emilio Gentile. In describing what he calls the political religions, he says this. “The Enlightenment made an important contribution to the sacralization of civil society and of the nation by elevating them to the status of supreme bodies and values for the modern citizen.” He continued, “The Enlightenment was convinced that a well ordered society could not do without some form of collective religion, but educated the individual to place the public good above the personal interest.” Now, just think about this.

Fast forward to Marxism, communism, Bolshevik Revolution. Marx would refer to religion, of course infamously, is the religion which comes down merely to the opium of the people. A force for oppression then. Any kind of transcendent and theological language was simply nonsense in his materialist worldview. However, Marxism, and in particular, Bolshevik Revolution took on a religious shape, and eventually even took over religious properties and filled them with a new secular and incredibly lethal cult. 1925, the League of Militant Atheists, a communist cult. It had hymnals.

I was at a used bookstore the other day. I bought one of the Wobbly hymnals. This was a communist workers’ movement, and they had songs. They printed it up. It looks just like a Christian hymnal. I need Sam Jones, the Methodist evangelist, to come into that meeting.

What would surprise many people is that intellectual figures now associated with critical theory and with neo-Marxism, someone like Antonio Gramsci, made the very same point. Gramsci said this. “Once religious faith and the traditional sense of the word had gone, people desperately searched for a new system of beliefs and general principles around which to regroup themselves, and in which to find reason in their innermost selves for living in a worthwhile fashion. They thus created an endless number of new “churches”. According to their social class, some found followings in the salons, others amongst individuals, and still others among the working people.”

Gramsci himself was very much influenced by Benedetto Croce, who also said, “Religion derives from the need for a concept of reality in life and for direction in relation to them. Without religion and without this direction, you cannot live happily.” He meant no secure political system.

Now, I mentioned this, not because I want to point to the social utility of religion. I’m pointing to this because I believe in the imago Dei. I believe every single human being made in the image of God is a religious being, and can never be anything other than a religious being. And this is why I enjoy debating atheists. And I dare said they do not enjoy it. I do not mean by that that I just some somehow trump them on every question. I just mean I kind of enjoy infuriating them.

Because when I meet an atheist, I always ask, “What kind of atheist are you?” And they say, “An atheist atheist.” I said, “No, there are no atheist atheists. There are atheists who are rejecting some specific God. At least that’s where it starts. There is no generic atheism. In which God do you not believe?” And even if they try to get out of it, I say, “Well, at least you don’t believe in God.” They say, “Well no, it’s just that God is completely absent my worldview.” And I say, “Well, you say you’re an atheist. That’s a Greek alpha-privative in front of the word theism.” In other words, there’s no intellectual possibility being an atheist without the existence of God. They do not like the argument God. And there may be some who believe you could believe yourselves to be atheist. And I understand that the structure of thought that is possible, I’m just saying as a Christian theologian, based upon what I believe to be revealed by our Creator, it is inevitable that every human being will worship something. And of course we see the deadly political consequences of this.

Charles Taylor and others go on to say this is just secularization working. And secularization is just inevitable, because the society’s moved through modernity. There’s less and less dependent upon any kind of transcendence, any kind of divine authority. Everything from the social systems, the financial systems, the academic systems, the moral systems, they all just have to move to a new basis of rationality. Robert Audi, an American, goes so far as to say that the only way that we should allow any civil discourse in this country is if you have no religious structure of thought and no religious motivation to what you think. So even if you show up a better religious argument, if in your heart you’re religious, you are not a good American. John Rawls famously argued for just basically the same thing. Absolutely no comprehensive doctrine. By the time you read Rawls, you recognize that is a comprehensive doctrine.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, we’ve seen major revelations of this unexpected moments. One was in the period of drafting and adopting the Constitution for the European Union, and the draft treaty for the Constitution for Europe, there was an acknowledgement, originally, of the Christian roots of Western civilization. That was just too much. And eventually, not for all nations, not for all delegations, for the majority. And by the way, the vote, I went back to look at this. I somehow would remember it to be closer than it was. It wasn’t stalled close.

The European parliament refused to acknowledge even the Judeo-Christian roots of the European project, and instead they adopted this language. This is like the smarmiest language you ever heard. I don’t mean to offend all Europeans, but it’s inevitable in a sense. The European Union, not Europeans, the European Union. There’d be proud Europeans in this room who would very much stand apart from this statement. “Drawing inspiration from the cultural, religious, and humanist inheritance of Europe, the values of which, still present in its heritage, have embedded within it the life of society, the central role of the human person, and his or her inviable and inalienable rights, in respect for law.” That’s all there is. They just happened. Came out of the ether. Europeans digging for potatoes found to them. We can now leave them behind.

You come to the modern age, you come to the United States, you come to arguments very current here. Charles Taylor, who’s Canadian, but vast influence here in the United States. He writes about the requirements of the secular state. Now get this. He says this, “There must be equality between people of different faiths.” Or basic belief. No religious outlook or irreligious or religious worldview can enjoy a privileged status, let alone be adopted as the official view of the state.

So with time brief, I just want to make an historical argument. After telling a fairytale and just offering a bit of corrected history, I just want to make an argument. And that argument is, that one of the great myths is that somehow the American constitutional tradition emerged out of a secularist impulse. And by the way, historian state that the word wasn’t even really intellectually available during the founding era in the United States.

I’m going to argue that what Peter Berger referred to as a sacred canopy, that that canopy of theological fixed meaning that was grounded in some form of Christianity, explicitly when it comes to the American experiment, that that created the space whereby the two principles of the First Amendment of a free expression and no establishment of religion could be adopted. Because even as Charles Taylor recognizes, the big issue then was to avoid strife among Protestant sects, to use his word. We’re in a very different world now. And yet, it’s a world uninformed by history, either constitutional or political. It’s the assumption that somehow we have a secular state that just emerged virgin born.

Charles Taylor recognizes, “The whole range of comprehensive views for deeper reasons.” Speaking of deep theological reasons, “They were in the original sense, varieties of Protestant Christianity with a smattering of deists.” So in other words, they could afford to say, “No establishment of religion.” Something that I actually agree when it comes to the establishment of a state church. But there also is by extension the argument that there was no acknowledgement of religion whatsoever, which is just historically false. And by the way, Charles Taylor arguing against the recognition of religion, in the sense nonetheless has to acknowledge throughout most of American history, it was the norm.

Justice Joseph Story in the 1830s. The goal of the First Amendment was to “exclude all rivalry among Christian sects.” But he also argued that “Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the state.” By the 1890s, 37 of 42 state constitutions recognize the authority of God. By 1892, the Supreme Court would just simply say, “This is a Christian nation.”

Now I want to back up because I’m a Baptist, I’m a conversionist. I believe that salvation comes to those who come to a personal knowledge and confession of the Lord Jesus Christ and repent of their sins. I do not believe you become a Christian by being born in a nation predominated by Christians. But I am thankful to live in a society that is the inheritance of a Judeo-Christian civilization.

Where else do we have access to any stable notion of human dignity? Where else do we have any access to the notion and defense of human rights in any substantial form? You know, you go back to December 22nd, 1952. It’s an interesting moment. Dwight David Eisenhower was President-elect of the United States. He went to speak at a meeting. It is believed to have been at the Waldorf Astoria, but he apparently wrote his notes on another hotel’s stationary. It’s driven historians nuts ever since. But he got up, and he simply said that our form of government “has no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” Most honest presidential statement of all time.

The historian William Lee Miller said, “One might say that President Eisenhower, like many Americans, is a fervent believer in a very vague religion.” And there’s a sense in which that was true. A very firm believer in an extremely vague religion. But you had secular historians, and even liberal Protestant historians, who have taken that and said, “Look, he’s just throwing that out, it’s nothing but the social utility of faith.” And they missed the entire context, which is that at the very time he was giving that statement, just short of 100% of Americans identified either as Jewish or Protestant or Catholic.

Indeed, Will Herberg the famous religious sociologist who was himself Jewish, would publish a book just a matter of a couple of years later, entitled Protestant, Catholic, Jew. And that was the American population. His point was that the United States, by the way, was refuting the sociological prophecy about the end of religions. He pointed out that there’s a vast increase in attendance of synagogues, and churches, cathedrals. Will Herberg was also enough of a theologian to recognize that that doesn’t necessarily represent lasting, authentic, organic religious faith. But it certainly is not secularism; that’s the one thing it certainly is not.

Well, the Christian faith has had a great deal to say about life in this world, in this age, and the in between time. The most classic work short of Scripture that is in our Christian tradition is the great Church Father Augustine’s work The City of God, which made very clear that there are two cities. Even as Jesus says that, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” There are two cities driven by two loves. Christians, by faith, are part of the city of God in the eternal kingdom of Christ. But, by God’s own sovereignty, we’re left in this world with the responsibility in this age. And in this age we are to be good citizens in the city of man to seek the good of the city of man, without any compromise of our primary allegiance to the city of God. That’s really tricky these days.

Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde. I really love that name. Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde. You’d have to name something for him. It’s known in the law as the Böckenförde Paradox. He asked the question, “Does the free secularized state exist on the basis of normative presuppositions it cannot guarantee?” That’s the paradox. Does the free secularized state exist on the basis of normative presuppositions that it itself cannot guarantee? And the answer to that is absolutely. Or at least it is trying to exist on the basis of normative principles that it itself cannot guarantee. You can make assertions about human dignity, but unless you believe that human beings are made by God, then eventually we’re just some form of dignified or undignified dust. Unless human rights are grounded in the righteousness and justice of God, then they are nothing more than political fictions to be endlessly negotiated and renegotiated.

Well. Why about all this? Tonight I want to suggest that if there is to be a future for conservatism in the United States, it’s going to increasingly be a conservatism of strong theological arguments. And even here, you’ve heard some strong theological arguments. Even now, I’m hoping you hear some strong theological arguments. And you should get accustomed to hearing strong theological arguments. That does not mean that conservatives are limited to those who make strong theological arguments. But I will say to other conservatives, you’re kind of riding on the wake of strong theological argument. You are living off the capital of the Old and the New Testament of Israel and the Christian Church and that witness.

We see the great alternative before us, the post-Christian religion of the woke, demonstrating again the imago Dei. Demonstrating the fact we will worship something. We will be religious, that religion is going to work its way out, and by the way, predictably, as others have noted throughout time, in very religious form. The new woke religion has its own liturgy. It has its own doctrines. It has its own catechesis. It has its own cathedrals. It has its own doctrine of sin, its own promise of salvation. It has its own notion of sanctification. It has its own written canon of scriptures and slogans. It has its own crusading flags, and choirs. It has its own inquisition and holy office. It has its cherished dogma, and it enjoys the right of excommunication, known more popularly as cancel culture.

Well. I want to thank you for having Christians as a part of this conversation, and Jewish friends as a part of this conversation. I mean, Protestants as a part of this conversation, and Catholics as a part of this conversation. And I just have to say, as the closing speaker and as a Baptist, when you get us, you get all of us. I don’t just mean every one of us, I mean all that we are, individual as believers. I’ve got to show up in full Baptist battle dress wherever I go. I show up with a full weight of Baptist conviction, which means yes, I’m ready to argue with a Methodist. Not to mention a Roman Catholic, or anyone else in the room. I mean, what fun is there in life if you cannot enjoy a good argument over what matters?

People on the planet who know they show the greatest respect to one another when we honestly disagree with one another, and respectfully honoring God and the truth seek rightly to come to an understanding not only of one another, but of the one true and living God. So what do we do now? Well, I want to argue that a part of what it means to be conservative is to be committed to the pre-political. Politics is important. There’s so much political discussion here, and frankly, there simply has to be so much political discussion here. But at the end of the day, the pre-political is more important, more foundational, than the political. The political is an extension of the pre-political. If you don’t believe that there is an institution before the state, then honestly you idolize the state.

I mean this. To be a conservative is to have to conserve the whole. We have to recognize a prior commitment to the pre-political realities of creation, order, marriage, family, community, nation. A real commitment rooted not merely in ourselves, nor in human will, but in the entire structure of creation as the revelation of the Creator’s glory. We define them biblically. We strive to concern them all. And that’s to say that a conservative movement that does not conserve what it means for God to make human beings male and female in his image, that does not conserve marriage is the lifelong covenant union of man and woman, that does not define the natural family as the essential heart of human society, that does not protect life in the womb and life in the family, that does not acknowledge the theological roots of our political life as a nation, is by no means conservative. And such a society, or such an intellectual project, would be unable to sustain a defense of community and nation. And the nation will not survive the undermining of the prerequisites of marriage and family and human dignity grounded in ontological truth.

I have great hopes. As evangelicals, it’s good to be with such worthy and thoughtful Catholic and Jewish friends and others, as we think about our duty to conserve what must never be lost, what must always be honored. In that conserving project, we cheer each other on, pray each other well, and bear honest witness to one another, respectfully, lovingly, continually. We have a common enemy in the image of a supposedly secular state, and the looming threat of a new progressivist religion raised up with an official state ideology and idolatry. And so here we are.

John Courtney Murray, a major Catholic figure during Vatican II, helped to define the modern Roman Catholic notion of religious liberty. In 1948, he offered a very stern word of warning to Protestants who were living upon the false idea that there could be some kind of neutrality in a secular state. And I have to say, that liberal Baptists were at the top of that list of culprits.

He said this. “If the myth of democracy as a religion is triumphant, and achieves its ‘establishment’ as our national religion, the triumph will be over you,” he said to Protestants. “Your God will have been supplanted by an idol.” If the last word is the secular state, then our God is supplanted by an idol. If all we have to offer is the argument of secular sterility, then our God has become an idol. If conservatism can be somehow severed from creation and severed from Creator, then ultimately there is nothing left to conserve.

So again, we came here in great hope. I leave in great hope. It has been a great privilege to be with one another, and a worthy discussion that began before we entered these rooms on these days, and should surely continue. I’m very thankful for the dedication of those who worked so hard to make this conference happen. No small thing. Join me in expressing appreciation.

One of the great privileges of being here together is that at least a part of our disappointment is that we did not to have conversations, personal conversations, worthy conversations, with just about everyone in the room. We leave with great hope, cheering each other on, praying for one another, and understanding that we do have a common enemy. And that enemy is advancing swiftly. The enemy of a new progressivist woke religion that is raising itself up as the official state ideology. You say, “Well, that’s not a very hopeful word on which to end.” Well, Christians know that we are neither optimist nor pessimist. Because of Christ, we live in joy. We live in hope. Hope is not optimism, and hope is not pessimism. But joy is security and joy is motivation, which reminds us that we have work to do. So brothers and sisters, friends, it’s been good to be together. Now let’s get to that work. God bless you all. Thank you.