Post-Christian beliefs permeate the culture.  A stroll across the majority of university campuses, five minutes of channel surfing, the U.S. Supreme Court’s First Amendment case law, popular behavior and that of the American elite—these are proof positive that Christianity in the 21st century bears little resemblance to the Christianity of America’s not too distant past.  Although about 70 percent of Americans identify as Christians, their personal lives and the public policies they support would disgust previous generations of American Christians, and even non-Christians.

There’s little doubt that America has evolved from a Christian nation to a post-Christian one, a convert to what Benjamin Wiker calls secular liberalism.  His book is a solid account of the forces and events behind this shift.  However, it does suffer from two flaws.  First, Wiker, for the most part, portrays Christians as blameless victims.  But, if secular liberalism is, indeed, the established religion of these United States, one has to ask: Where were American Christians when this political-cultural coup occurred?  Did these Christians lack the courage of their convictions to the point that they succumbed to the secular liberals?  Wiker does concede that divisiveness among Christians facilitated the success of secular liberalism—e.g., liberal versus conservative Christians, Protestant versus Catholic ones, etc.  That would be an explanatory reason but hardly a valid excuse, as it raises the question why professing Christians of all sorts failed to unite on behalf of basic Christian beliefs to combat the anti-Christian foe.

The book’s second weakness is its excessive deference toward the state or, more precisely, “big government.”  Although he acknowledges that “the Left is . . . fond of using big government to carry out its big visions,” this skirts the issue of whether the left could realize those visions without big government as an accessory to its efforts.  One wonders whether Wiker’s recommendation for disestablishing secular liberalism without attacking big government directly indicates a perhaps unsuspected enthusiasm for it.

For example, in his concluding chapter, “Disestablishing Secular Liberalism,” Wiker observes that

the entire educational system, top to bottom, from the Ph.D. to the first grade, was controlled and defined by a liberal elite.  The takeover was largely completed before the beginning of the twentieth century.  If there is to be an effective counterrevolution, it must occur first in education.

The solution to the problem, in other words, is to be found in the same system of government constructed and controlled by the entrenched elite against whom the political battle is to be directed, and according to its rules of engagement (including the case law of the Supreme Court).  This is, at best, a pollyannaish approach to the problem.  Wiker maintains that

We need to turn away from the pagan fusion of political and religious power and return to the original Christian arrangement, where there is a real distinction between religious and political power and each has its defined role.

That “original Christian arrangement” may have worked when the political class was Christian, and respected and deferred to Christian values when deciding public policy.  But it is unreasonable to expect a political class hostile to Christian values to respect and defer to those values.

If Christians are serious about disestablishing secular liberalism as the religion of the state, they need to grasp the magnitude of the problem and recognize the sole course of action capable of confronting the problem effectively.  They need to attack the source of secular liberalism’s influence: centralized power.

Christians must understand that it is not coincidental that the shrinking relevance of Christianity in American culture has paralleled the growth of governmental power.  They need also to consider that the central role of Christianity in American culture might have remained intact across large swaths of the American political landscape—e.g., the Bible Belt—had the national government been kept within the constitutional constraints intended by the Framers, especially the Antifederalists.

Antebellum Southerners understood this, and fought in large part to fend off, among other things, the secular liberalism Wiker bemoans.  From the Confederate perspective secession and the ensuing war were necessary to thwart the centralization of power and the likely abuse of that power.  The Confederate political class witnessed the morphing of centralized political power from an abstraction to a reality within the American political system.  That reality included the placement of power in the hands of political actors with political agendas unacceptable to the Southern political class.  Southerners understood that, once centralized power was under the control of their adversaries, it would become the pivotal asset in achieving the anti-Southern policy agendas, including atheism/secular liberalism. The problem is not atheism/secular liberalism per se, but atheists/secular liberals with the means to impose their profane schemes on the South.

The heightened concern over Northern atheism was widespread and enduring in the Confederacy.  For example, beginning in March 1864, Rev. William A. Hall, chaplain of the Battalion Washington Artillery, delivered a series of lectures in Petersburg and Richmond on “The Historic Significance of the Southern Revolution.”  The lectures were so well received that 19 high-ranking officers, “[b]elieving that a wide-spread dissemination . . . will be conducive of much good to our great cause,” requested copies for publication.  Reverend Hall acknowledged that America was in the midst of a revolution in the accepted “nature and the bearings of the philosophy, the inmost ideas, which make up and control” the national life.  The conflict between North and South had its “various aspects, social, political, economic, through thought and blood.”  But Hall also sought to explain a “distinct and wider view . . . considered as a movement in history.”  He was convinced that the war “deserve[d] to be studied as a great historic movement, inferior to none preceding” it, and that “modern philosophical atheism [has] reached its extreme development in the Northern portion of the late United States.  Against this we are now contending.”  This view of the war was expressed across pulpits and camps throughout the South during the course of the war, and the Southern political and military elite was motivated by the same view.  Lord Acton, the Roman Catholic historian and politician, understood the consequences of the war.  In his 1866 letter to Robert E. Lee, he wrote,

I saw in State Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy.  The institutions of your Republic have not exercised on the old world the salutary and liberating influence which ought to have belonged to them, by reason of those defects and abuses of principle which the Confederate Constitution was expressly and wisely calculated to remedy.  I believed that the example of that great Reform would have blessed all the races of mankind by establishing true freedom purged of the native dangers and disorders of Republics.  Therefore I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our [Christian] civilization; and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.

Wiker is certainly correct in his view that secular liberalism is the established religion of the United States, and his book competently substantiates the fact.  Nevertheless, it falls short by its failure to realize that the pedestal upon which secular liberalism rests is big government’s monopoly of centralized power.  It is naive to argue that secular liberalism can be knocked off that pedestal, when what is needed is for the pedestal itself to be knocked off its foundation.  Christians who defend centralized power are unwittingly complicit in the secular liberalism against which they are contending.


[Worshipping the State: How Liberalism Became Our State Religion, by Benjamin Wiker (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing) 256 pp., $27.95]