Pagans and Christians in the City | Book Review


Christianity was conceived in a Jewish womb but born into a pagan world. For the first four centuries of its existence, Christianity struggled against the polytheism, violence, and sexual immorality of classical culture, eventually displacing paganism as the default faith of the West. That dominance continued through the Middle Ages until the 16th century, when conflicts between Catholics and Protestants divided Christendom and set the stage for the rise of Enlightenment secularism. Since then, secularism has slowly displaced Christianity as the West’s go-to ideology.

That’s the standard narrative of Western history, at any rate. Steven D. Smith’s Pagans and Christians in the City offers a thought-provoking counternarrative inspired by T. S. Eliot’s 1939 Cambridge University lecture, “The Idea of a Christian Society.” Speaking six months before the start of World War II, Eliot stated his conviction in binary terms: “I believe that the choice before us is between the formation of a new Christian culture, and the acceptance of a pagan one.”

At first glance, Eliot’s conviction and Smith’s counternarrative seem implausible. In a 1954 lecture at Cambridge, C. S. Lewis expressed impatience with “those Jeremiahs … who warn us that we are ‘relapsing into Paganism.’” He laughed at the very idea: “It would be pleasant to see some future Prime Minister trying to kill a large and lively milk-white bull in Westminster Hall. But we shan’t.” Why? Because history does not move backward. “The post-Christian” — Lewis’ term for modernity — “is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.”

Fair enough. We can all have a good laugh with Lewis. But what if he misidentified an incidental feature of paganism (sacrifice) as an essential feature? What exactly ispaganism, after all? Smith describes “the pagan orientation” as “the commitment to the immanent sacred.” This orientation “beatifies and sacralizes the goods of this world.” It teaches that “‘the sacred’ exists…in this world and this life.” By contrast, Smith explains, “the Christian position has never been to deny the goodness of this world, but only to insist that it is not the ultimate good, and that its goodness derives from a more transcendent source.”

This description of paganism throws a clarifying light on the term secular, which derives from the Latin term saeculum, meaning “generation” or “age.” According to Smith, “the secular” comes in three forms. In the “pagan secular,” “this world and this life … are viewed as having a sacred quality.” In the “Christian secular,” “this life has value … because it is a (subordinate) piece of the larger domain of eternity.” Finally, there is “the distinctively modern positivistic secular reflected in the naturalistic worldview associated with modern science.” Like the pagan secular, the positivist secular has no concept of transcendence. Unlike the pagan secular, however, it also has no concept of sacredness — that is, of life’s goodness, value, or meaning.

When, therefore, public intellectuals speak of Christianity being displaced by secularism in the modern world, they need to define their terms more carefully. The positivistic secular exists, but it is a distinctly minority position. The hardest battles in today’s culture wars are fought between the pagan secular and the Christian secular — that is, between immanent and transcendent accounts of goodness, value and meaning. Smith illustrates these battles in the debates over public religious symbols, human sexuality, the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, and religious freedom. Smith is Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of San Diego in San Diego, California, and an acknowledged expert on religious freedom and the relationship between law and religion.

What he writes about the debate over religious freedom in particular applies just as well to the other three debates. “One side of the debate favors a conception of religious freedom that is consistent with … a city or a political community that respects and is open to transcendence.” The other side works “to maintain a public square whose commitments are confined to the satisfaction of ‘interests’ and to immanentlysacred values.” At the end of the day, then, what is at stake in all these debates is the kind of community America has been, will be, or should be. Or any other political community where Christianity and paganism clash, for that matter.

As is the case with any book that tackles as large a subject as this one, careful readers will find nits to pick with the author throughout. Whatever those nits may be, however, Pagans and Christians in the City is a real achievement, clarifying the religious nature of the culture wars that have roiled America for the past few decades and showing their deep continuity with the original four-centuries clash between Christians and pagans.

Book Reviewed
Steven D. Smith, Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018).

P.S. This is a preview of an article appearing in the March/April 2019 edition of Influencemagazine. It is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

P.P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

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Review of ‘The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom’ by Steven D. Smith


RiseAndDeclineofAmericanReligiousFreedom Steven D. Smith, The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014). Hardback / Kindle

In America, religious freedom is often named “the first freedom.” One reason reason for this name is religious freedom’s pride of place in the First Amendment. Only after stating, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” does that amendment go on to prohibit congressional laws “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The order of the First Amendment points to a second, more important reason for the name, however: the primacy of conscience that religious freedom protects.

One would think that religious freedom would unite Americans of all persuasions, religious and political. Unfortunately, however, religious freedom itself has become a controversial topic within our increasingly secular and egalitarian political culture. Flashpoints are numerous, but certain clashes are especially prominent at the present moment: the rights of religious groups at public schools, the constitutionality of the so-called ministerial exception, the burden ObamaCare’s sterilization-contraception-abortifacient mandate places on religious business owners; and the increasingly tense battle between gay rights groups and religious believers on the topic of same-sex marriage.

Underlying these conflicts are two very different narratives regarding the meaning of American religious freedom, whose differences Steven D. Smith outlines in The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom.

The “standard story” traces the intellectual roots of religious freedom to the Enlightenment; interprets the First Amendment as a radical innovation in public affairs; contends that its meaning was imperfectly realized in the 19th century, when evangelical Protestant Christianity was America’s established religion de facto, though not de jure; and lauds Supreme Court decisions from the mid-20th century onward for their deconstruction of this de facto establishment and construction, in its place, of secularism and neutrality toward religion. A fifth element of this narrative, increasingly evident among legal elites, though not necessarily in the courts, is the belief that religious freedom is outmoded and therefore should be discarded because it is antithetical to the egalitarian outcomes government exists to secure. If, for example, religious freedom is simply the last refuge of homophobic bigots—as same-sex marriage proponents loudly complain—why should it be preserved?

In sharp contrast to the standard story, Smith proposes a “revised version,” a point-by-point refutation of the former, or at least a counter-narrative to it. This version traces the intellectual roots of religious freedom farther back than the Enlightenment—indeed, to predominantly Christian emphases on the freedom of the church and the liberty of conscience. Far from being a radical innovation, the First Amendment was a non-controversial, ho-hum affirmation of the American status quo, affirming jurisdictional limitations on the federal government’s involvement with religion, which left state governments free to establish or disestablish religions as they pleased. The resulting “American settlement” allowed for “open contestation” between advocates of “providentialism” and “secularism,” even as it enforced jurisdictional boundaries between the federal government and the nation’s churches. Among other things, this settlement allowed presidents to declare national days of prayer and thanksgiving, politicians to offer theological motives for laws with secular effects, and public schoolchildren to pray and hear the Bible read by the teacher in the classroom. Rather than maintain this settlement, the mid-20th-century Supreme Court ended the policy of open contestation and declared that government must be both secular and neutral with regard to religion. This secular neutrality is out of step with American legal and political traditions and is not neutral with regard to religion. Rather, it deprivileges religion in favor of secular accounts of reality. As noted above, some legal theorists want to dispense with religious freedom altogether, arguing that religious believers’ rights of speech, press, freedom of association, and redress of grievances would be more than adequately protected in its absence.

But Smith wonders whether this would actually be so, closing his book with these words:

In childlike fashion, perhaps, let us indulge the assumption that unlike so many rulers throughout history, our contemporary governors are true men (and women) and good, genuinely motivated by a desire to govern justly. Even so, we might recall Justice Louis Brandeis’s observation that “[e]xperience should teach us to be most on guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent… The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”

So it is just possible that the forgetting or forgoing of the logic of jurisdiction that animated the commitment to freedom of church and conscience, and thereby set and underscored bounds to the jurisdiction of the state, might turn out to be a loss sorely lamented…

In other words, should the first freedom fall, can the second, third, and fourth freedoms continue to withstand the encroachment of state power? That’s a good question, and Steven D. Smith should be thanked for raising it in his timely and illuminating study of American religious freedom’s rise and decline.

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