Andrew Walker, Director of Policy Studies at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention, gives us a dichotomy. We can believe that there is a final justice, an ultimate ordering of society, of life. The question is, does it happen in this world? Or does it happen in the next world? He posits that secular progressives believe it happens in this world. Conservative Christians, like himself, believe it happens in the next.
This gives him a very Niebuhrian insight. If you believe that there can be an ultimate society in this world, how likely are you going to broker dissent? He argues progressives and secular folks cannot. Only if you believe in a final judgement, a final justice, which cannot happen in this life and world, can you create a space where disagreements can be aired. This creates an argument for religious liberty. And this apparently involves his dissertation work.
Some problems arise, when one considers that the term religious liberty not only covers the ordinary use of the term, freedom of conscience, freedom to worship, freedom to agree or disagree but also encompasses a space where the state can fund and support discrimination against other groups, in particular LGBT people. The freedom to deny services, through public agencies and businesses, to LGBT people is being roped into a noble term.
But that is not my argument today. Nor is my argument with the term secular, even as he uses a Roman Catholic, Andrew Sullivan, as an example of a secular mindset. It could be because Sullivan is a gay writer. It could be because Sullivan appeals to a neutral public square, where folks drop certain religious and metaphysical commitments to be involved in a common conversation. Let’s assume Sullivan is a progressive of a kind, would that make Sullivan secular? This is not explored in this piece, so I’ll pass it by.
All I wanted to do is observe how easy it is to bypass dichotomies that are presented to folks. Find a third option. In this case, let’s assume that there is no final justice in this life or the next. If you want to relativize our judgments, denial of some ultimate ordering of society in any time and place should do that. How common of a view is this among progressive and secular folks? I’d argue that it is the dominant view since the end of World War 2. That is, since every totalizing system from communism to fascism was thoroughly discredited.
If there is a threat of a totalizing system, it is not from the religious right, nor the secular left. It is from capitalism, which assumed its inevitably since 1989. And perhaps it is from new forms of ethno nationalism that have swept the globe from India to Russia to the Netherlands to the cohort around Donald Trump. Walker and Sullivan find the college kids at Middlebury as a threat. Anything that shuts down free speech is a problem. But unless applied against states that would clamp down on protest, or against governments that terrorize their own population, this argument seems to ring hollow.
To affirm that there is no final justice, if internalized is difficult to face. Because it means there can be no appeals to the march of history or being on the right side of it. It means that we’re thrown back to ourselves and we have to fight the same struggles over and over again, never resting content that we have arrived. In the age of Trump, we’re faced with this fact as never before.
That makes history real. There never was an end to history, not in 1989, not now. It makes politics important, and it makes our contributions matter. Theologically I’d argue that God, far from being a guarantor of our struggle, is instead that reality which moves us to carry on the struggle.
Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma