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The Opiate of Almost Everyone


Marx famously said that religion was the opiate of the masses—while building a religion of the state. But the impulse to secular religion didn’t stop with him.

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Every day brings reminders of the importance of religion. The war on terrorism pits the United States against an adversary that grounds its doctrines—however implausibly—in Islam. The Iraq war is fought as a missionary crusade to spread “American religion” across the globe. Domestically, American politics features heated debates about abortion, stem cells, gay marriage, and other moral issues where positions are often determined by religious conviction.

Yet, there is no novelty to be found in a revival of religion per se. Rather, the newest element is the camouflaged resurgence of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other traditional faiths. For most of the 20th century, it looked as though the old-style religions might be disappearing. There were fierce religious struggles—such as the 40-year Cold War—but they involved secular religions, rather than the ancient faiths of Western civilization. World War II produced a struggle between national socialism in Germany and Marxist international socialism in the Soviet Union. Germany and the Soviet Union were in essence two vast and all-controlling national churches with their own theologies, inquisitions, and other accoutrements of religious expression.

The idea that secular religion played a central role in the history of the 20th century is nothing new. The religious elements of socialism, communism, American progressivism (the “gospel of efficiency”), and other secular creeds are rather obvious to anyone not specifically educated to believe otherwise. What is more recent is the growing understanding that secular religion and traditional religion are closely linked. The secular religions of the 20th century were much less novel than they once seemed. Indeed, one might say that Christianity reappeared in the 20th century with renewed vigor, but in disguise. The various secular religions are proving, on close study and with the perspective of a bit of history, to be derived from earlier branches of Christianity. Much like Protestants and Catholics, secular devotees sometimes hate and even kill one another. The world wars and other fierce conflicts of this century were a secular reenactment—if on a much more destructive scale, thanks to the “advances” of modern technology—of the European religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries.

These themes are increasingly being explored in two bodies of literature that I will discuss below. Some authors—and I include myself in this category—operate more in a spirit of intellectual curiosity. Tracing the connections between traditional Jewish and Christian faiths and the secular religions of the modern age turns out to be fairly easy. Whether old or new, religion in the Western world has always been about salvation, about finding the correct path to heaven—in the hereafter or, more recently, on earth.

The other body of literature is found among the defenders of historic Jewish and Christian faiths. For them, secular religion has cleverly and falsely assumed the mantle of true religion. The 20th century offered the greatest field for heresy in the Western world since the Roman Empire. Unlike other investigators motivated more by historical interest, these critics of secular religion adhere to traditional faiths. For them, unmasking the false claims of secular religion is part of a wider agenda of restoring valid Jewish and Christian religions to their proper place in the world.

Both fields of research devote themselves to the “theology” of secular religions. It is possible to focus on the assumptions and lines of reasoning of secular religions through critical analysis—what might be called “secular theology.” Recent studies have employed such methods to explore the contents of “economic theology,” “psychological religion,” “Marxist eschatology,” and the “constitutional faith” of America. All of the authors agree in one way or another that modern religion is really old religion disguised in superficially new—typically, scientific and economic—vocabularies and metaphors. The modern age, in mostly failing to see these connections, has engaged in a grand act of self-deception. Although this is hardly unprecedented in human history, it does belie the many claims since the Enlightenment of the arrival of a new era of human insight and self-awareness. Modern human beings are just as capable of acts of intellectual folly as any of their predecessors.

The new literature of “secular theology” is often published by well-known university presses and has been respectfully received. It has not, however, had the effect on contemporary thought that I believe it deserves. This should not be a surprise. The modern university is itself a religious institution, one that rivals the Roman Catholic Church in its resistance to change. In the contemporary academy, secular religion is still commonly regarded as “value-neutral” and non-religious.

The truth is that, while now taking secular forms, America has official religious orthodoxies to guide its affairs of state no less than any previous society in history. Government officials vigorously employ the authority of the state to defend the national religious orthodoxy. Heretics are no longer burned at the stake in America, but in some cases, such as the war on drugs, heresy can expose an individual to a long prison sentence. More often, the penalty is a loss of job and livelihood.

There is only one avenue to the restoration of true religious freedom in the United States—a sharp decline in the powers of the state. A large part of what falls under the name of government “regulation” is in fact the exercise of religious control over the institutions of American society, grounded in the tenets of contemporary secular religion. A wilderness area is a cathedral of a secular faith no less than a parish church is a cathedral of the Roman Catholic variety.

To advocate a libertarian political philosophy is thus to advocate genuine religious freedom—getting rid of many state functions that are inescapably religious. This may sound “off the wall.” If the books described below are taken seriously, however, this libertarian conclusion is difficult to escape.

America as a Religion

Sanford Levinson is the Charles Tilford McCormick professor of law at the University of Texas. He is well known and respected in American legal circles and has reached wider audiences through mainstream publications . In 1988, however, Levinson published a radically innovative and provocative book, describing his own efforts as those of a “legal theologian.” In “Constitutional Faith,” the U.S. Constitution is seen—literally, not just metaphorically—as the American equivalent of the Christian Bible. The Constitution is America’s “sacred text” that represents the founding document of an American “civil theology.” Quoting approvingly from a Stanford Law Review article on “The Constitution as Scripture,” Levinson agrees that “America would have no national church . . . yet the worship of the Constitution would serve the unifying function of a national civil religion.” The role of constitutional law is to provide “a public vocabulary absolutely essential to understanding the nature of political discourse within our society.”

As America’s ultimate adjudicators, the members of the Supreme Court not only dress and act like priests, but stand as confirmation that the nation has exchanged a “priesthood of lawyers for a pontifical Court.” For Levinson, the contemporary legal debates about constitutional original intent versus a “living Constitution” re-enact much older theological disagreements between Roman Catholics and Protestants. The Catholic Church historically saw Christianity through the prism of centuries of church interpretation, papal encyclicals, Catholic theological writings, church councils, and other historic events. For Protestants, this was heresy, the arguments of flawed human beings seeking to substitute their own words for God’s revealed truth; the real meaning of Christianity could be found in the teachings of the Bible alone. Today in American law, according to Levinson, there is a similar clash among “protestant” and “catholic” legal experts in which “the Protestant position is that [the source of doctrine] is the constitutional text alone, while the catholic position is that the source of doctrine is the text of the Constitution plus unwritten tradition.”

In “Reaching for Heaven on Earth,” I found a similar “Protestant tradition” and “Roman tradition” that had also long shaped economic understandings and interpretation. Like Levinson’s portrayal of the law, some of the most important schools of economics could be traced back to the medieval scholastics and to the natural law teachings of the Catholic church; other schools saw the world in less rational and more individualistic—more “Protestant”—terms. The great success of Adam Smith was attributable to his ability to develop a persuasive synthesis of these two traditions central to the West, adapted to the scientific vocabulary coming to dominate the Enlightenment.

Richard Ely, a leading economist in early 20th century America, suggested that economics departments should be located in theology schools. For Ely, Christianity was about reaching heaven on this earth, and economic knowledge was central to such a Christian theology because it offered the key to salvation in this world. Levinson similarly suggests that “since law really does serve as the basis of our civil religion,” it should be studied fundamentally as a secular system of theology. One option, favored by Levinson, would take a neutral position on the law’s claims to truth, and thus follow a “model of the law school as a secular department of religion”—much as leading universities today treat religion as an object of historic interest. A different view, favored by many others in the legal community, regards the law school as a training ground in “the American creed,” grounded in the constitutional faith, and thus a law school should be based on a model “of the law school as divinity school.” Under the latter interpretation, agnostic law professors (those who do not believe in the constitutional faith) may properly teach in academic history departments but they should not be welcome in a law school that exists to prepare its students for a lifetime in the legal priesthood.

Throughout “Constitutional Faith,” Levinson goes far beyond the common current use of “religion” to refer to almost any strongly held belief. When he writes about the law as a religious system, he means it literally. This reflects in part Levinsons view that “we cannot escape membership in some civil faith even if we wish to, for the alternative to organizing belief is chaos.” Thus, except for a few complete nihilists, everyone has a religion, whether they know it or not, and whether it is traditional or secular. But in the modern age, Levinson says, traditional religion “has lost its power to structure reality for most Western intellectuals.” Such people did not, however, give up religion altogether, thereby ending up believing in nothing at all. Rather, they turned to various “analogues [that] present themselves in the guise of various civil religions” and that in fact today offer the most powerful religious truths in American public life.

Guided by secular religion, the American nation-state became a modern kind of church, based on a founding belief in an American “Constitutionalism [that], like [traditional] religion, represents an attempt to render an otherwise chaotic order coherent, to supply a set of beliefs capable of channelling our conduct” in our personal lives and in the affairs of state. Five hundred years ago, as Levinson observes, “God’s law” fulfilled this role; today, it is a secular system of law that originates in the Constitution. Most Americans have seen little tension between a deep belief in a Christian God and a deep belief in the Constitution. Matters are not so simple, however; as Levinson explains, for a fully committed Christian, the worship of the American Constitution really amounts to a “deification (or idolatry) of the nation-state (including its constitution).” Many Americans are really worshipping two gods of two religions at the same time—if in most cases unaware of the conflict.

America is not simply another ethical community gathered together within the boundaries of a nation. One hears frequently of “anti-Americanism” but never of “anti-Englishism,” “anti-Germanism,” or “anti-Chinaism .” Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington recently wrote in “Who Are We?” that “becoming an American” is a process “comparable to conversion to a new religion and with similar consequences.” For citizens, the American flag becomes “the equivalent of the cross for Christians.” In the American civil religion, “Washington becomes Moses, Lincoln becomes Christ,” the savior who gave his life to redeem the world.

As Huntington observes, America is unique in the ethnic and religious diversity of its population, the product of waves of immigration over several centuries. Hence, in America, the national bonding agent has to be a national religion. No traditional faith could hold together 290 million Americans of all races and backgrounds. This integrating force has had to be provided by “a nondenominational, national religion and, in its articulated form, not expressly a Christian religion.” This civil religion “converts Americans from religious people of many denominations into a nation with the soul of a [single] church.”

Much like Levinson, Huntington finds that American civic religion has older roots than most followers have comprehended. The common faith of America is secular only in its outward appearance; the reality, Huntington writes, is that the American civil religion is essentially Christian—and Protestant Christian, reflecting the origins of the nation. The American nation-state is in essence “a church that is profoundly Christian in its origins, symbolism, spirit, accoutrements, and, most importantly, its basic assumptions about the nature of man, history, right and wrong. The Christian Bible, Christian references, biblical allusions and metaphors, permeate expressions of the [American] civil religion.”

It is not, to be sure, identical to Christianity. As Huntington notes, the American civil religion allows for the frequent use of the word “God,” as on the nations coins. However, “two words . . . do not appear in civil religion statements and ceremonies. They are ‘Jesus Christ.”’ This omission is of course of great religious significance. Many religions believe in a “God,” but only Christianity believes in the divinity of Christ. Again, though, the reality can be deceptive; as Huntington finds, even with little explicit mention “the American civil religion is Christianity without Christ.”

Perhaps Americans simply have two alternative vocabularies, sets of stories, and bodies of saints for a single religious faith. It may be that they can speak interchangeably of worshipping a Biblical law or a constitutional law. Or—and I would say this is more plausible—it may be that Christian religion and the religion of America are really two different faiths, although sharing many common threads. Many devout Christians would admittedly find this difficult to accept, suggesting that they may have been drawn into a modern heresy. But one way or another, America is the church of a powerful shared national religion.

The Third Rome in Moscow

It has long been commonplace to observe that Marxism is a religion. This is often stated in a sociological sense—that the followers of Marx behave in ways characteristic of true believers. Some have been willing, for example, to die as martyrs for the cause. More recently, however, a few students of Marxism have begun to study it as a genuine form of religion, one that drew its central messages from Judeo-Christian sources.

This theological line of analysis was developed in 2000 with great clarity and force in “From Darkness to Light.” The author, Igal Halfin, is an Israeli historian who not only studied the writings of leading communist intellectuals but scrutinized Russian archival documents that only became available in the 1990s. He concludes that the eschatological” elements of Russian communism were powerful influences in molding the very categories of thought that shaped the Soviet government and economy in the 1920s and 1930s. It was not economics that determined religion but the opposite. Indeed, it would otherwise be difficult to explain why Russia embarked on such economically and politically self-destructive actions after the 1917 Revolution. Even when the results soon involved widespread death and destruction, the theological tenets of Russian communism continued to drive the day-to-day workings of the nation.

Thus, Halfin states that the New Economic Plan of the early 1920s was significantly shaped by the tenets of “the Marxist eschatology.” During this period, Soviet universities functioned as “a grand laboratory, designing techniques for the perfection of humanity.” Lists of eligible students were purged to ensure that “only those capable of attaining messianic consciousness were to remain.” The contents of “the Bolshevik identity narratives” worked to produce “a society that thought of itself in terms of class purity.” Life in revolutionary Russia was everywhere a reflection of “messianic aspirations” as the teachings of Marxist religion “shaped the identity of the Soviet citizen; it did not just coerce preexisting, fully formed citizens to adjust to a Soviet reality that was somehow external to them,” but for the communist faithful controlled the way they saw the world.

As with America’s civil religion, the categories of communist religion were ultimately derived from Christianity. Marx said that religion was the opiate of the masses, but this required one of the greatest acts of individual self-deception in the history of the world. Marxism was literally religion, and more specifically a variant of—or a heretical twist on—the Biblical faiths. It was this very feature that explained its extraordinary spread across the world and enormous influence on history. The communist gospel resonated in cultures already imbued with many of its main themes. As Halfin reports, “Marxists would doubtless have renounced notions such as good, evil, messiah, and salvation as baseless religious superstitions that had nothing to do with the revolutionary experience. Yet, these concepts, translated into a secular key, continued to animate Communist discourse” for several decades after the 1917 Revolution. Most Russian Communists were altogether blind to the reality, as Halfin puts it, of the close “affinity” of Russian communism “with Christian messianism.” Yet, as described by Halfin, the parallels are obvious to us today:

The Marxist concept of universal History was essentially inspired by the Judeo-Christian bracketing of historical time between the Fall of Adam and the Apocalypse. The Original Expropriation, at the beginning of time, represented a rupture in the timeless primitive Communism, which inaugurated History and set humanity on a course of self-alienation. The universal Revolution, an abrupt and absolute event, was to return humanity to itself in a fiery cataclysm. . . . Imbuing time with a historical teleology that gave meaning to events, Marxist eschatology described history as moral progression from the darkness of class society to the light of Communism.

When Marx described “alienation,” it had almost the same meaning as “original sin” in Christianity. Both were the result of an original fall—for Marx with the beginning of the class struggle, for Christianity with the apple in the Garden of Eden. The economic laws of history were for Marx as omniscient and omnipotent as the God of Christianity. Indeed, economic history, shaping everything that happened in the world, was for all intents and purposes the new god of Marxism. In this and other respects, Halfin says, the main corpus of Marxist thought consists of ideas historically “adopted by Christianity and transmitted to Marx.”

There were of course some differences. The Marxist prophecy of a new heaven on earth looked to the economic powers of the modern age. With the end of economic scarcity, as Halfin quotes Engels, it becomes “possible to raise production up to such an extent that the abolition of class distinctions can be a real progress.” Halfin describes the path to the “new man” of communism:

The essence of man had to be embodied in real action. In the Marxist view, humans could not achieve consciousness through [intellectual] illumination alone. The path to freedom would open only once the real production system had been transformed so as to be able to generate a spiritualized producer. Only when laborers could change the circumstances of their lives through action could a “change of self” occur. Once a change in the real, which lay entirely within man’s abilities, acquired the dimension of a spiritual breakthrough, the termination of history came to be within man’s control.

This might be described as an “economic theology”; Marx replaces God with economics, and the workings of economics now predestine the salvation of mankind and the arrival of a new heaven on earth. What is most remarkable is that this modern variant of Christian eschatology became the state religion of a large and powerful nation, shaping the very terms of public discourse, the development of state policy, and in many cases even the inner thoughts of good communist citizens. As Russian communists sought to export their religion to the world, they created the Comintern and other state instruments for this purpose. Moscow would once again in the 20th century be “The Third Rome.”

Social Science Priesthoods

In America, a new state religion was also shaping the detailed institutions of society and the very categories of thought in the early decades of the 20th century. This was the American progressive gospel that sought the efficient scientific management of society. As modern religions of progress, Russian communism and American progressivism had important similarities. Both, for example, regarded economic forces as the real determinants of history and looked to engineers and economists to save the world. There was a critical difference, however. In Christian terminology, Russian communism was a “premillennial” religion in which heaven arrives in a cataclysmic burst outside the previous workings of history. American progressivism, by contrast, is a postmillennial religion in which heaven has already been partially realized and its final fulfillment on earth will occur incrementally within the framework of ordinary historic events.

Thus, in place of the comrades of Russian communism devoted to fomenting a worldwide apocalypse—with the disastrous consequences of which we are now all too aware—American progressivism created a social science priesthood to oversee gradual but continual improvements in the practical workings of society. At first, all the social sciences were blended together, but separate fields of sociology, economics, and political science were emerging during the early part of the 20th century. In 1985, Arthur Vidich and Stanford Lyman authored “American Sociology: Worldly Rejections of Religion and Their Directions.” It might just as accurately have been titled “Sociology as Religion.” It did for American sociology what Levinson later did for American law: tracing the theological sources of professional values.

As Vidich and Lyman demonstrated, the religion of American sociology was yet another example of a secular creed suffused with longstanding Christian messages. The early American sociologist Lester Ward had “replaced God with science” and American sociology in general was a “new secular science of society.” Beneath all the scientific language, sociologists offered a promise of “the fulfillment of a secular eschatology—perfectibility on this planet.” The task of “reconstructing the world” required the extensive professional development of “positive scientific legislation, produced by sociologists conducting practical experiments, and passed quickly and easily by intelligent . . . legislatures, [that] would provide nothing less than the scientific ‘organization of human happiness.”’ Sociology would be the basis for a new American “politics in the image of the technocratic administrator,” based on full scientific knowledge of the laws of society, as developed and disseminated by sociological research.

Many of the early American social scientists came from devout Protestant backgrounds and quite a few, such as Woodrow Wilson, had fathers who had been ministers. Vidich and Lyman show how the development of American sociology represented—with the social gospel as a transitional stage—a secularization of American Protestantism. Ward, like many other sociologists of the time, was “a product of a peculiar optimism about the capacity of applied science to overcome the problems of industrial society. . . . Its authority paralleled that of the colonial Puritan divines who claimed the right to guide the earlier New England communities.” In Russia, communism resurrected a Christian message that was rapidly losing its influence in the face of Darwinism and other 19th century challenges. In America, as Vidich and Lyman similarly find, the new profession of sociology “provided grounds for the resurrection o£ appropriately disguised Protestant authority” and theology.

As part of the process of disguise, “all religious elements of social uplift, charity and philanthropy are manifestly eliminated [from sociology], and the research activity has taken on the quality of objective science and professional work.” Science had by then replaced God for many Americans as the legitimate source of authority. The paradoxical result in sociology was a secular “salvational social science” that portrayed itself as entirely “rational” and “value-free .” Professionally acceptable work for a sociologist “came to be equated with numerical measures, statistical surveys, and the ever-expanding use of quantitative measures.” In the process “the [Protestant] Social Gospel . . . was transformed into positive science.” Beneath all the camouflage of 20th century scientism, the real goal was little altered—“to secure the secular salvation of the United States.” Many of the reformers who had enlisted in the social gospel movement had by now outwardly abandoned the Protestant clergy. Instead, they had joined a new religious brotherhood, “a secular and scientific priesthood” of professionals, albeit one no less committed to saving the world.

Theologically, it was possible for sociologists to have such grand aspirations because they shared an assumption widespread in the Western world since the Enlightenment. John Locke said that human beings were formed by their external environment. The ills of mankind—misleadingly seen as the products of original sin in old-fashioned Christianity—were in fact attributable to the influence of bad environments. It followed that good environments would produce better people and perfect environments perfect people. By the late 19th century, the vastly enhanced powers of science and economics to alter nature and transform the world were increasingly recognized. If these historically unprecedented powers could now be properly marshaled—and for this the social sciences were essential, and sociology had the widest scope among the social sciences—the perfection of human existence by human action would be possible. It required only that politicians and other men and women of affairs be persuaded to obey the commands of scientific truth, as revealed by sociology.

As in revolutionary Russia, the commands of progressive secular religion shaped the very institutions of American society. As further elaborated in the New Deal, the Great Society, and other periods of 20th-century American history, the result was the welfare state. The university, for example, had been for most of its history in the United States a training ground for Protestant ministers. As progressive-era hopes for salvation shifted to this world, the university was drastically reorganized to fit a new religious mission. Departments of social science were everywhere created to advance the sciences of society. New schools of forestry, urban planning, and other social concerns were built to provide the requisite technical knowledge. Business schools would help to organize American corporations in the most efficient way. Schools of public administration would do the same for government.

The use of comprehensive scientific knowledge would ultimately have to be orchestrated by America’s political leadership, acting in the best interest of society. As the progressive gospel became the religion of the American nation-state, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and other older religious bodies were increasingly marginalized. They did not disappear, but found their most important functions at funerals, marriages, bar mitzvahs, and other social rituals. The more essential tasks of religion took place within the new church of the welfare state. Two of the leading state temples, not only in their functions but in outward appearances, were the Supreme Court and the Federal Reserve.

In my 1991 book “Reaching for Heaven on Earth,” I showed that the basic tenets of the welfare state owed more to the Roman Catholic side of Christianity. The welfare state took care of the poor, provided for the elderly, and served other welfare functions historically emphasized in the Catholic tradition. This may seem paradoxical because so many American progressives came from Protestant backgrounds. Even in the 19th century, however, the theology of American Protestantism was well removed from John Calvin’s pessimistic views of an irremediably sinful humanity. Many American Protestants had come to agree with the historically more Catholic view that natural laws provided a rational ground for ordering the world and that salvation by good works was possible.

The welfare state now had its own social science priesthood. The president was the pope and Washington was itself a separate jurisdiction—much like the Vatican. By the end of the 20th century, the authority of the federal government for actions within its domain matched that of Rome in the worldwide body of the church. As Thomas Huxley once said, socialism—and this applied to American progressivism as well—was “Catholicism minus God.” Yet, the heritage of old-style Protestantism did not altogether disappear—especially as found in the commitment to individual rights and to democratic rule. The history of the United States in the 20th century was significantly shaped by longstanding religious tensions within and among Americans, now resolved mostly in the secular religious domain.

The Rise of Economic Religion

In “Economics as Religion,” I examined how professional economists gradually surpassed sociologists, experts in public administration, political scientists, and other social scientists in prestige and influence. By the second half of the 20th century, economists had become the highest priests of all, the only social science body with its own office in the White House: the Council of Economic Advisors, created in 1946. It was logical in a way that economists should have such a preeminent religious status because in secular gospels the salvation of the world commonly follows an economic path. Theologically speaking, economic scarcity is the original sin. People sin because they are driven to it by material necessity. It then follows that ever greater economic abundance will gradually eliminate sin in the world. It was not only Marxism but all the other religions of economic progress that saw the world this way. Hence, the responsibility for leading the way to heaven on earth would necessarily fall to the leading experts in economic progress. Economists were the ones who produced the most important scientific knowledge, capable of revealing the laws of the economic system by which society’s resources could be employed with maximal efficiency, material production maximized, and the world thereby perfected.

When the American Economic Association was formed in 1885, its 50 founding members included 20 who were current or former practicing Protestant ministers. One of the leading economists involved, Richard Ely, was best known nationally at the time as a preacher in the social gospel movement. Ely believed that “Christianity is primarily concerned with this world, and it is the mission of Christianity to bring to pass here a kingdom of righteousness.” He criticized fellow social gospellers, however, for their ambitious plans to cure all the ills of American society that were not grounded in any adequate foundation of economic knowledge. To understand and advance the mechanisms of economic progress, it would be necessary to turn to the scientific research of professional economists, which the American Economic Association would now facilitate.

John R. Commons, John Bates Clark, and a number of other early American economists were also linked to the social gospel movement. The role of economics, as Ely said, was to provide the scientific understanding to succeed in “a never-ceasing attack on every wrong institution, until the earth becomes a new earth, and all its cities, cities of God.” Ely’s attempt to incorporate economics as an element within Protestant theology soon foundered, however, on the pluralism of American life. There were important economists who were Catholics and Jews, for example, and rejected the close connections to Protestant religion. Henceforth, economics would have to be a secular religion of progress, suitably disguising the original Protestant values: By the early 20th century, professional economics thus became the secular discipline that it has since been.

Yet, the religious elements were still there, if buried deeper. Jewish by birth, Edwin Seligman was professor of economics at Columbia University and in 1903 served as president of the American Economic Association. His views were developed in his treatise on “The Economic Interpretation of History.” Improving the moral condition of humanity was for him a matter of altering the economic circumstances. “The demand of the ethical reformer,” Seligman considers, will be unavailing “unless the social conditions . . . are ripe for the change.” Indeed, the existing aspirations for “international justice and universal peace” will depend on a continuation of “the economic changes now proceeding apace.” As a result, “the real battle [to create a new world] will be fought by the main body of social forces, amid which the economic conditions are in last resort so often decisive.” It was still the social gospel, now minus the Protestant vocabulary.

By most estimates the most influential economist of the 20th century was John Maynard Keynes. Editor of The Economic Journal for many years, much of Keynes’ work concerned abstruse matters of economic theory. On some occasions, however, Keynes put his secular religious convictions on the line. In his 1930 essay, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” Keynes agreed with Marx (and the Jesus of the social gospellers) that capitalism—necessarily grounded in the desire for money and the competitive workings of self interest-is a “disgusting” system.

But Keynes also saw an escape in the economic forces in history. Keynes thus prophesies the birth of a new man: “[A]II kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard .” It will all come about, Keynes foretells, as a result of “the greatest change that has ever occurred in the material environment of life for human beings in the aggregate.” The continued advance of economic progress would soon enough—perhaps within the next 100 years—“lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.”

Like Marx, Keynes not only studied but made history. Unlike Marx, in Keynes’ case it was a history of social democracy and the welfare state in England, in the United States, and today in a significant portion of the world. In America, the most important Keynesian disciple in the second half of the 20th century was MIT economist Paul Samuelson. Samuelson authored the textbook “Economics,” the bible of American economic religion. The vocabulary and categories of thought of Samuelson and other American economists shaped the political dialogue of much of American public life. Relying on economic facts and theory, the public could have confidence that the rapidly growing American welfare state would serve the public interest. Economists displaced good and evil with a new moral vocabulary of “efficient” and “inefficient.” The real purpose of American education was to increase “human capital,” thus advancing the economic productivity of the nation. Samuelson and his fellow economists never said anything about saving the world but the underlying progressive theology remained, even as the camouflage became thicker.

Modern-day economists are mostly silent when it comes to the ultimate purposes of their professional lives, beyond a good job and benefits. Some suggest that they merely enjoy it as an exciting intellectual game. Others argue that no grand mission is present or necessary—that simply maximizing total goods and services in a nation is a sufficient objective. If pressed, many economists would acknowledge that the precise methods of maximizing production—whether they enhance human freedom, whether they produce a just social distribution, the number of “losers” in economic progress who face large psychic costs, and so forth—can themselves significantly affect the total social welfare. But such considerations are left outside their professional purview; they are effectively dismissed in the work of most economists.

However, all this makes sense if economic progress really is about saving the world. Almost any short-run sacrifices for progress will then be overwhelmed by the prospect of long-run perfection. Indeed, metaphorically and theologically, that is what current economists are saying by the initial simplifying assumptions they make. The practice of professional economics resembles a scholastic mode of discourse where the most important content lies in the assumptions. What these assumptions say today is that the saving power of economic progress justifies ignoring potential complications that might stand in the way of progress. It would be an economic sin to prohibit usury, because interest rates are essential to the rational allocation of capital and maximal efficiency depends on this. Many other “irrational” impediments to economic efficiency and progress are put in the same modern sinful category.

None of this should be taken to suggest that all secular religions are equal. Whatever its many deficiencies, I believe that contemporary economics is greatly superior to Marxist economics—not only technically, but morally. Government in the welfare state may accept too much responsibility for the well-being of the citizenry, requiring the creation of large and cumbersome administrative bodies, but there is still room for human freedom in both the market for goods and services and in the market for ideas.

The Religion of Psychology

Salvation in the religions of economic progress is ultimately social; individual actions play an important role, but in the end it is a whole society and its members that either does or does not reach heaven on earth. The social character of salvation in the welfare state is reflected in the writings of its economists, sociologists, political scientists, and other social scientists. There is one large exception, however: the field of psychology. Admittedly, psychological knowledge can be used to manipulate individual behavior as part of the collective scientific management of society. However, the main goal of American psychology has been the individual’s scientific management of himself.

Many previous observers have commented that Freud was no less a messiah than Marx, if ultimately a less dangerous one. This analysis is extended by Paul Vitz to the full profession in “Psychology as Religion,” an early example of “doing secular theology.” Vitz is a professor of psychology at New York University who later in life became a Christian, and found increasing tension between his professional and his Christian lives. Indeed, he has come to see psychology and Christianity as religious competitors. Vitz argues that even many Christians actually “worry more about losing their self-esteem than losing their souls.”

“Psychology as Religion” offers an early analysis of the religious contents of a leading contemporary social science. Vitz is aware that other social sciences besides psychology have challenged traditional religion. While secular religions typically attribute human sinfulness to the external environment, the traditional Christian view is that “the locus of sin . . . is in the will of us.” Such Christian messages, he finds, have “been under relentless attack for many years by almost all advocates of social science, from traditional economics and sociology to Socialism and Communism.”

This is true as well of “psychology [which] has become a religion: a secular cult of the self.” He labels this secular creed as the modern faith of “selfism.” In psychology, the guidance for achieving “self actualization, self-fulfillment, etc.” ultimately serves to give order, intelligibility, and justification for individual actions. The ideal self-actualized type exhibits personal characteristics such as “acceptance of self and others,” “an autonomous self independent of culture,” “creativity,” and “having ‘peak’ experiences.” One might call the last being psychologically “born again.” In the religion of psychology, one finds “standard explanations for the purpose of everything from college education to life itself.”

Psychological religion, like other secular religions, poses as science. Yet, again like Marxism and other modern scientific faiths, it has the character of religion, something apparent to all but the truest believers. As Vitz explains, “clinical psychologists used to argue strenuously that their discipline was a bona fide science.” However, among many outside observers, there is a clear recognition in “describing psychology” that its “categories [are] indistinguishable from those used for religious cures and conversions.”

Vitz ventures into the realm of political philosophy when he asks how it can be justified that “tax money is used to support the cult of self worship,” when government is not supposed to support any official establishment of religion? Indeed, a similar question could be asked with respect to strong government support of other secular religions. These religions are today widely proselytized in the public schools, even as traditional Christian faiths are excluded. Yet, if the separation of church and state is to be applied consistently and comprehensively, including to secular religions, little of government as we know it would survive.

Even though most psychologists, including Vitz, are hostile to the free market, psychological religion offers the strongest religious defense of individual rights within the social sciences. This is particularly true with respect to social libertarianism but also carries over to offer theological support for the acceptance of individual self-interest in economic realms. Like old-fashioned Protestants were saved individually “by [their] faith alone,” psychological salvation today is one individual at a time.

The Environmental Gospel

The secular religions discussed to this point have had a strong belief in progress. With the partial exception of America’s constitutional faith, they have claimed scientific status. However, the newest powerful secular religion in American life, the environmental gospel, often distrusts science and is hostile to economics. It sees the technological capacity of modern governments to manipulate and control nature as a danger. The Holocaust showed that even economically advanced nations could do horrible things—now more efficiently than ever before. The atom bomb raised the possibility that the products of modern science could create a new hell on earth, instead of the heaven so confidently expected only a few decades earlier. Environmentalism thus represents an important change in the direction of American secular religion.

Perhaps because they are ambivalent towards science, yet recognize the necessity for some source of moral authority and legitimacy, environmentalists have been less overtly hostile to religion, as compared with many followers in secular religions. Indeed, environmentalists now often argue that the protection of the environment requires new values in society and that religion will probably have to play a role in supplying these values. This does not necessarily mean Christian values, however, and few leading environmentalists are devout Christians. Indeed, any suggestion that the secular messages of American environmentalism are actually grounded in Christian doctrine meets wide resistance.

The appearance in 2004 of “Faith in Nature: Environmentalism as Religious Quest” is thus noteworthy. The author, Thomas Dunlap, is a historian at Texas A&M University. He is aware that many of his fellow environmentalists may be uncomfortable with his new line of analysis. Yet, he thinks intellectual honesty—and perhaps good long-term political strategy-requires seeing “environmentalism, its roots in the culture, its development as a movement in religious terms.” To be sure, environmentalism “does not (necessarily) involve God (or gods) or devils, and afterlife, revelations from On High, prophets, or miracles.” Nevertheless, environmentalism is very much a religion in helping its followers to “make (ultimate) sense of our lives in the context of the universe.”

It is, moreover, a product of Christian religion—specifically Protestant Christianity—now expressed in a secular setting. Dunlap observes of John Muir, who in 1892 founded the Sierra Club, that “he began in conventional Protestantism, his father’s Cambellite faith, . . . and ended [finding God] in nature.” His prose was “steeped in Old Testament rhetoric. . . . Muir preached the Emersonian gospel of Nature as ultimate reality, refuge from society, and place of pilgrimage.” A few years later, another early environmentalist, John Burroughs, preached a message that he had first encountered in “the iron discipline of his father’s Calvinist faith.” By the 1940s, Aldo Leopold had “moved from the Bible to ecology,” offering an environmental religion that was still effectively grounded in Protestant understandings, if without any explicit mention of “Christian concepts and language.”

Most recently, Dave Foreman, the founder of Earth First!, was “from an evangelical Protestant background, [and] looked at humans much as the Puritan divine Jonathan Edwards had—as a disease upon the earth—and found redemption in a pristine world of nature.” All in all, as Dunlop concludes, for the past 150 years “Americans who failed to find God in church took terms and perspectives from Christian theology into their search for ecstatic experiences in nature. Environmentalism’s rhetorical strategies, points of view, and ways of thought remain embedded in this evangelical Protestant heritage, which forms the unacknowledged background of many environmental attitudes and arguments.” It is no mere coincidence that there are not many Jews—prominent in so many other areas of American intellectual life—among the leaders of the American environmental movement; Catholics are underrepresented as well.

Thus, even as environmentalism expresses new doubts about science and economics, it resembles other secular religions in offering a camouflaged revisiting of traditional Christian faith. Reflecting its roots, environmentalism embodies some of the same paradoxes and tensions of old-style Protestantism. Carried to the farthest extreme, the logic of Protestantism might be taken to deny any religious authority beyond the individual. Protestantism in fact eliminated the special privileges of the priesthood. When Protestants were a minority, they fiercely defended religious freedom. But when Protestants became dominant, paradoxically, they were among the fiercest oppressors of those who dared disagree. Old-fashioned Protestantism had a fierceness and moral intensity that could easily turn to dogmatism.

Positively, Protestantism played a critical role in setting the world free from sterile orthodoxies, helping to set the stage for capitalism and modern science in Europe. Negatively, Protestantism, as a form of “free-market religion,” spurred fierce internal divisions and civil wars. The English Puritans and their American cousins eventually played an important role in three civil wars—one in England (the rebels won and then lost), the American Revolution (the rebels won), and finally the American Civil War (the rebels lost). Protestant Germany became the center of conflict in Europe.

Environmentalism now shows some of the same paradoxes. On the one hand, environmentalists have challenged the progressive scientific managers in Washington and often defeated their proposals for dams, synfuel plants, superhighways, and other—often pork barrel—projects . Skeptical of scientific claims to authority, environmentalists have often been among the harshest critics of federal government plans. Just like Protestantism, environmentalism, has a strong libertarian streak when it is a minority view. On the other hand, when environmentalists hold power, they show little restraint in its exercise. Environmentalists have shown a dogmatism and sharp intolerance of disagreement fully matching their Puritan forbearers.

Opposing State Idolatry

Most devout Christians today have barely begun to explore the tensions between their worship of Christ and their simultaneous worship of the American creed and other secular religions. Most people today in any case are too busy to engage in deep theological reflection and mainstream American religion has not offered much help. There is at least one leading American Protestant theologian, however, who has confronted the tensions more directly. A nationally prominent professor of theology at Duke University Divinity School, Stanley Hauerwas in 2000–2001 delivered the Gifford Lectures in Scotland, the most prestigious world platform in Christian theology. In “Against the Nations,” and in other writings, Hauerwas argued that too many Christians had sold their souls to the state, effectively turning away from a valid Christian faith. As he writes, “accounts of the Christian moral life have too long been accommodated to the needs of the nation-state, and in particular, to the nation-state we call the United States of America.” If Christianity is to flourish again, it will require “a recovery of the independence of the church from its subservience to liberal culture and its corresponding agencies of the state.”

Hauerwas finds that much of the problem lies in the devotion shown by many Christians to secular theologies. As he laments, too many Christians “have let the Gospel be identified with utopian fantasies.” Many people have left traditional Christian churches and turned instead to secular faiths that derived their core messages from Christian sources but distorted and corrupted them. As Hauerwas thus complains, “the Christian substance is translated into Marxism, into secularised forms of biblical eschatology, existentialism, and psychology; and it develops themes from [Protestant] Reformation anthropology divorced from Reformation theology.” Many adherents of secular religion have left institutional Christianity altogether (becoming what might be called “secular Christians”)—but Hauerwas is equally disturbed by the invasion of Christian churches themselves by secular religion. He is critical of the many “attempts to interpret the Kingdom [of God] in terms of liberal presumptions about what constitutes human progress.”

American progressives—both within and without the Christian churches—have believed that human existence can be perfected by human action alone, when the truth is that “the Kingdom [of heaven] is not to be established by men but by God alone.” It is impossible even for human beings to know precisely the character of the final heavenly destination because “scripturally there seems to be no good grounds to associate the kingdom of God with any form of political organization and/or to assume that it is best characterized by any one set of ethical ideals such as love and justice.” Partly because it is impossible to know God’s actual design for the world, Hauerwas rejects the view that America offers an ethical and political model that must be followed everywhere, declaring that as Christians “it is not our task to make the ‘world’ the kingdom.” When a Christian church “thinks and acts as if ‘America has a peculiar place in God’s promises and purposes,”’ it is betraying its proper role and losing its “ability to be a ‘zone of truth-telling in a world of mendacity.”’ A good Christian must remain vigilant to the “ways the democratic state remains a state that continues to wear the head of the beast.”

Hauerwas is no libertarian and in fact has critical things to say about the individualism of the libertarian philosophy. Yet, he also argues that “no state will keep itself limited, no constitution or ideology is sufficient to that task, unless there is a body of people separated from the nation that is willing to say ‘No’ to the state’s claims on their loyalties.” Instead, many Americans have become worshippers in secular religions that have become official religions of the American state. Separation of church and state does not exist in the United States, only separation of Christian (and Jewish) religion from the state. For too many Christians, Hauerwas explains, American “democracy has in fact become an end in itself that captures our souls in subtle ways we hardly notice.” The result is that, rather than independent religious voices, many Christian churches have “in fact become a captive to and in America.” Their Christian religion has become subordinate to their American constitutional faith, a national mission to save the world, and other powerful, and for many intoxicating, elements of American national religion.

The rise of modern science posed a great challenge to traditional Christian religion. Since the Enlightenment, and partly as a product of this challenge, the Christian (and sometimes Jewish) message increasingly has been found in secular religions. By the 20th century, secular religions were more powerful over most of the western world than traditional Christian faiths. This development can be seen in several lights. The spread of secular religion might be seen as a new valid expression of Christianity—in the category of, say, the emergence of Protestantism during the Reformation. Or it might instead be seen as a great heresy which falsely distorts and caricatures the valid Christian message. Or it might be the development of a brand new religion, even if it borrows heavily from Christian sources—much like the emergence of Islam in the 7th century.

However one sees it, secular religion became the most powerful religious force in western Europe and the United States in the 20th century. The nation-states of the West saw the apparatus of the state become a state church. In some nations the punishments for heresy were no less severe in the 20th century than in the medieval Christian period, while in other nations heretics no longer feared for their lives, although they often paid other prices. Religion—in its new secular forms—was as central to the tasks of governance, the organization of society, the moral judgments of the populace, as it had ever been. Even though Marxism collapsed at the end of the century, and other progressive gospels came under increasing scrutiny, powerful new secular religions continued to arise, such as the environmental gospel.

If secular religion is taken seriously as a real form of religion—and it is difficult to see why it wouldn’t be—certain political and religious questions must be answered. If Americans wish to maintain the traditional separation of church and state, much of the modern welfare state—which amounts to a new “secular church”—will have to be dismantled and privatized. Libertarians will find this a happy prospect, but it is perhaps equally likely that the principle of separation of church and state will be jettisoned.

That will, however, create its own large complications. What is the justification for religious coercion? When the state is a church, tax collections become coercive tithes. This problem could be ameliorated if the United States broke into a number of smaller sovereign jurisdictions. A state religion is less objectionable when the citizens of the state are religiously homogeneous. There is little need for religious coercion when you and I share the same faith. Perhaps an American principle of free secession will have to be enshrined. When a state becomes a church, secession becomes the practical means of asserting freedom of religion. Protestantism asserted this right 500 years ago with respect to the Roman Catholic Church; perhaps a similar new “protestant” movement against 20th century national state churches of secular religion is required.

It is time to take secular religion seriously. It is real religion. In the 20th century it showed greater religious energy, captured more converts, and had much more influence on the world than traditional Christian religion. Once this is accepted, the conventional pieties of our times will face some difficult challenges. The task of integrating Christian, American, economic, sociological, psychological, environmental, and other religious impulses into the full domain of world theology lies ahead: the books discussed here are all steps in the right direction.

Bibliography

Arthur J. Vidich and Stanford M. Lyman, “American Sociology: Worldly Rejections of Religion and Their Directions” (Yale University Press, 1985).

Sanford Levinson, “Constitutional Faith” (Princeton University Press, 1988).

Robert H. Nelson, “Reaching for Heaven on Earth: The Theological Meaning of Economics” (Romman & Littlefield, 1991).

Stanley Hauerwas, “Against the Nations: War and Survival in a Liberal Society” (University of Notre Dame Press, 1992).

Paul C. Vitz, “Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship,” 2nd ed. (Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994—1st ed. 1977).

Igal Halfin, “From Darkness to Light: Class, Consciousness, and Salvation in Revolutionary Russia” (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000).

Robert H. Nelson, “Economics as Religion: From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond” (Penn State University Press, 2001).

Thomas R. Dunlap, “Faith in Nature: Environmentalism as Religious Quest” (University of Washington Press, 2004).

Samuel P. Huntington, “Who Are We?: Challenges to America’s National Identity” (Simon and Schuster, 2004).


Robert H. Nelson is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute and author of the latest book, The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs. Environmental Religion in Contemporary America. He is also of Environmental Policy in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Princeton University, and he has been Staff Economist for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs; Visiting Senior Fellow, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; Member of Economics Staff, Office of Policy Analysis, U.S. Department of the Interior; Federal Executive Fellow at the Brookings Institution; Chairman of Interior Department Task Force on Indian Economic Development; and Staff Economist, Twentieth Century Fund.


New from Robert H. Nelson!
THE NEW HOLY WARS: Economic Religion vs. Environmental Religion in Contemporary America
“Economics and environmentalism are types of modern religions.” So says this analysis of the roots of economics and environmentalism and their mutually antagonistic relations in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Questions about the proper relationship between human beings and nature have led to the growth of these public theologies, or secular religions, even while both avoid mentioning their derivation from Western Judeo-Christian sources. So while environmentalists regard human actions to warm the climate, expand human populations, and increase economic growth as immoral challenges to the natural order, economists seek to put all of nature to maximum use for the production of more goods and services and other human benefits.