Has Equality Replaced Christianity?

In my previous post, I asked whether our society is “post-Christian” (as is commonly reported), and I suggested that the question might matter to readers of this blog insofar as many of our revered legal and political commitments are arguably grounded in Christianity (or at least in the bibical or Judeo-Christian tradition). I also quoted T. S. Eliot’s provocative contention that “a society has not ceased to be Christian until it has become positively something else.” Eliot thought that “[w]e have today a culture which is mainly negative, but which, so far as it is positive, is still Christian.”

Suppose Eliot was right in 1939, when he gave his lecture. Even so, things might have changed. So we might ask whether our own society has become “positively something else” other than Christian. Has some other “positive” ideology or philosophy or faith come along to replace Christianity as a foundation for our social and political arrangements? If so, what is that “positive” replacement?

Several years ago in a conference at Cardozo and again in a book published earlier this year (The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom), I speculated that Christianity may have been replaced as a cultural and political orthodoxy by “secular egalitarianism.” Prominent political theorists today view equality– or a commitment to “equal concern and respect”– as the foundation of our legal and political order, much in the way that Christianity was thought to provide the foundational values and truths in centuries past. In addition, just as self-assured Christians often could not imagine that anyone could honestly doubt essential Christian truths, and so dismissed contrary views as the product of ignorance, willful error, or hypocrisy, so also the committed proponents of, say, same-sex marriage often suggest that traditionalists could only be acting from hatred or irrational prejudice, or else are in the grip of mindless tradition or religious authority. Finally (and ominously), secular egalitarianism resembles Christendom in that it is not content to regulate outward conduct, but instead seeks to penetrate into and purify hearts and minds– and to punish people who deviate in thought or word from approved egalitarian values.

Recent events might seem to confirm this speculation. The Mozilla-Brendan Eich affair. The Windsor decision’s invalidation of DOMA based on the Supreme Court’s indefensible and profoundly offensive contention that the law was enacted from “a bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group,” or from a “purpose . . .to demean,” “to injure,” and “to disparage.” (I have discussed Windsor at greater length here.) The avalanche of lower court decisions striking down state marriage laws, and often imperiously refusing even to stay their judgments pending appeal. Equality is at the moment a sort of cultural and political juggernaut, flattening all opposition. Tocqueville observed that “[d]emocratic peoples always like equality, but there are times when their passion for it turns to delirium.” We seem to be living in such a time of egalitarian delirium.

In sum, equality seems to be the order of the day. And yet, upon further reflection, I’ve come to think this interpretation contains a serious flaw. The difficult question, I think, is whether secular egalitarianism, for all of its current power, is something “positive” or rather, as Eliot put it, merely and “mainly negative.”

After all, at least as it functions in our constitutional doctrines and anti-discrimination laws, equality does not affirmatively tell political actors or employers what to do, or what criteria to act on. Instead it tells them what not to do (don’t “discriminate”) and what criteria (race, sex, . . .) they may not act on. More generally, equality cannot tell us what either a good life or a good society consists of. For that we must depend on other sources. Received traditions. Or Christianity, . . . or other faiths, . . . or their secular counterparts. Equality is a parasite; it attaches itself to already formed practices and institutions and then attempts to negate some of their features. (This can be a good thing, by the way: some inherited features– e.g., racial discrimination– may be harmful, and thus in need of negation.)

Take the cause du jour– marriage. Equality did not and could not make marriage. Marriage is the creation of human nature and need, rather, or culture and tradition, or perhaps of religion, or some mixture thereof. The current egalitarian movement, campaigning under the question-begging slogan of “marriage equality” (see here), takes marriage as an existing, already formed institution or practice, and then seeks to negate one of the traditional features that has defined marriage– namely, the feature of being a relation between a man and a woman.

Whether what remains after this feature has been erased still deserves to be regarded as marriage is of course a matter of some contestation. And indeed, in contemporary culture it is very difficult to say just what marriage is. Is it a relationship aimed at procreation? Not necessarily. A loving or romantic relationship? Again, not necessarily. A binding or enduring relationship? Once again: not necessarily. None of these features is either necessary or sufficient to make a “marriage.”

But if the secular egalitarians cannot tell us what marriage is, they do tell us (with unflinching certitude) what marriage is not, or must not be: it must not be a relationship that has as an essential feature a union between a man and a woman. Contemporary egalitarianism has negated that feature. Whether, having achieved its immediate objective, equality will rest content or will proceed to challenge and negate other features of marriage– so that “marriage” eventually becomes whatever anybody wants it to be– remains to be seen.

The more general point, once again, is that equality serves mostly to negate– to tell us what we must not do, what criteria we must not consider. So it could be that current egalitarianism leaves intact, and indeed even serves to confirm, at least part of Eliot’s assessment. “We have today a culture which is mainly negative . . . .”

And yet the second part of Eliot’s contention– namely, that our culture “so far as it is positive, is still Christian”– seems a stretch. It may be true that many of our revered institutions and commitments can be traced back to Christianity. But if Christian rationales are no longer invoked in our official public discourse– indeed, are deemed inadmissible in that discourse– is it really perspicuous to describe the culture regulated by that discourse as “Christian”?

So then if our culture and society are no longer Christian, and if equality turns out to be a “mainly negative” commitment, then what more positive description or term should we use to describe our public order today?

I can imagine a few likely– some might say obvious– answers to the question. (Liberalism, for example. Or maybe secularism.) But the likely or obvious answers seem to me problematic. Maybe we can consider some of these candidate answers and their difficulties in future posts.

Steven D. Smith is the Warren Distinguished Professor of Law, University of San Diego and Co-Executive Director of the USD Institute for Law and Religion.

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Comments

  1. gabe says

    Nice piece!
    Have you considered that so very much of the lefts agenda is nothing more than a concerted effort to negate ALL that was western civilization – in particular, the American variant of same.
    Regrettably, they appear to be succeeding.

  2. nobody.really says

    But if the secular egalitarians cannot tell us what marriage is, they do tell us (with unflinching certitude) what marriage is not, or must not be: it must not be a relationship that has as an essential feature a union between a man and a woman.

    Are you perhaps confusing “secular egalitarians” with the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments? As far as I know, there’s no problem with marriage having the essential feature of a union between a man and a woman – provided the policy is narrowly tailored to achieve some compelling governmental purpose. In case after case, people have been unable to persuasively identify that purpose.

    Confronting a mismatch between the alleged goals and the policy, people have tended to expand the goals. But another option would be to narrow the policy. That is, conceptually we could identify compelling governmental needs for which the most narrowly-tailored remedy would be to target certain policies and programs to couples that 1) procreate, 2) raise the kids they procreate, and 3) enter into life-long mutual aid pacts. Voila, we have the form of True Marriage – a policy that would withstand Equal Protection scrutiny. Now, all that’s left to do is fill in the blanks for “compelling governmental need” and “relevant policies.” Easy-peasy, right?

    Re-reading this, perhaps I’m just providing Exhibit A for the case that equality has replaced Christianity….

    [I]f Christian rationales are no longer invoked in our official public discourse– indeed, are deemed inadmissible in that discourse– is it really perspicuous to describe the culture regulated by that discourse as “Christian”?

    Seems like a semantic argument. The World According to Garp features a group calling itself the “Ellen Jamesians” – even though the eponymous Ellen James wants nothing to do with them. Today’s “Reagan Republicans” would likely have rejected the candidacy of the tax-raising Ronald Reagan. By the same token, it is unclear to me what Christ would think of many self-described “Christians,” or the associations that this label now provokes in people’s minds.

    Rather, I’ve understood you to refer to “Christian” as a label for a subset of Western cultural norms, regardless of their relationship to Jesus.

    • says

      That is, conceptually we could identify compelling governmental needs for which the most narrowly-tailored remedy would be to target certain policies and programs to couples that 1) procreate, 2) raise the kids they procreate, and 3) enter into life-long mutual aid pacts.

      I suspect that you have much more to say than this. I recall a couple of your previous posts in which you touched on the economic aspects of monogamy. Perhaps the relationship between infant mortality and single motherhood might indicate some benefits to marriage that are independent of slogans. Maybe there are some intangible benefits that deserve consideration when altering cultural institutions. It is possible, at least, that a society benefits by encouraging commitment, and fostering institutions of commitment, between those who do in fact procreate.Some benefits are quite possibly discernible, if not quantifiable, and are more than just a generic accessory to “raising the kids they procreate.”

      Maybe the most significant benefit of marriage is not having society recognize the love or commitment of two people (let’s concede that is a good thing regardless of sexuality). Maybe the marriage is more important than that.

  3. gabe says

    “Rather, I’ve understood you to refer to “Christian” as a label for a subset of Western cultural norms, regardless of their relationship to Jesus” – yes, but doesn’t this beg the question?
    Is not Smith implying that these cultural norms are in very real measure the result of Judeo – Christian ethics / beliefs? Clearly, the two are linkedw hich does lead to the question of whether a society which no longer acknowledges this link but continues to “practice” the ethic (in some respects) can be said to be post_Christian (or Buddhist, etc).

    Oh and rather sly of you again to slip in the “tax raising” Reagan. Of course this is possible if one highlights one episode in a politicians career. Again, true in so far as it goes – nevertheless, specious in so far as it may purport to describe Ronnie Rayguns entire career.

  4. Kate says

    Equality works much better in a Christian framework. To say that we are all equal because made so by God and that compared to him, we are more equal than we seem to one another, makes more sense than to say we are all equal by Nature. We look at one another in Nature and know we are not all equal. In Nature, the stronger overwhelms the weaker, the smarter outwits the stupider, etc. We have no protection without externally imposed morality, which keeps us equal within its framework. If that morality is of man, then we can question it. If it is of God, then it is unquestionable. The problem is, as it always has been, those who do not see God. They assume God’s morality is merely man’s. So they question it.

  5. Steve Smith says

    I entirely agree, Kate. Historically, I think it’s fair to say, the commitment to equality derives from Judeo-Christian foundations. My post was actually extracted from a much longer essay which suggests that the grossly counter-intuitive idea that we are all “morally equal,” or something of that sort, makes most sense on a religious premise, such as the premise that we are all, saints and sinners, made in “the image of God” and in need of divine grace. Even Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence say that the are “created equal” in the sense that we are “endowed by our Creator” with rights. The problem is that in modern political thought, these kinds of religious premises are deemed inadmissible (in part, ironically, because their invocation of “sectarian” ideas is deemed inconsistent with a commitment to “equal concern and respect” for all). So the commitment to equality, it is thought, cannot now be defended in public discourse on Christian or Judeo-Christian premises. And so equality comes to be a different proposition– a secular one– with different implications. This is all part of the larger question I tried to raise in a previous post: if we are now in a “post-Christian” society, are our historical commitments to liberty, equality, etc. vulnerable?

  6. Linda Smith says

    Another aspect of human equality is our at least potential ability to act in accordance with the virtues; to strive toward goodness. This is beneficial in countless ways; it eliminates, for one thing, any possibility of finding life boring.

    The Walker Percy book reviewed at this site mentions his thoughts on post Christian boredom.

  7. says

    Edward Whelan, @ http://www.eppc.org, notes…
    The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom
    By Steven D. Smith, Harvard, 240 pages

    Anyone who wants to understand the perilous condition of religious freedom in America should read this book. In lucid prose, University of San Diego law professor Steven D. Smith contests basic themes of the conventional story of American religious freedom and presents a provocative and compelling counter-narrative. His account culminates in a bracing discussion of the threat posed by the emergent new orthodoxy of secular egalitarianism… (The founders) made clear that matters of religion remained within the domain of the states… When the Supreme Court shattered this settlement by adopting the secularist interpretation, it engendered a destructive “discourse of accusation, anathematization, and abuse,” a discourse that has spread to judicial interventions on related issues like abortion and marriage … secular egalitarianism, especially as reshaped and bolstered by the gay rights movement, is fundamentally incompatible with a robust understanding of religious freedom. Indeed, it has all the markings of an oppressive orthodoxy.
    Respectfully, John
    (Facebook, author of The Tribute)

  8. Steve Smith says

    Thanks, John. A few more endorsements like this one, and the book’s sales (which have been hovering lately at about one per week) might even, say, double!

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