Liberalism: An Established Religion
By John Andra
Governments have often minimized religious conflict by establishing one religion and granting it privileges even where others are tolerated. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution left such power to the states, saying only that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion….” Following the enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment, however, the United States Supreme Court interpreted the First Amendment to prohibit an establishment of religion at any level. How can government now minimize religious conflict?
Many who defend the current interpretation of the First Amendment offer liberalism as the answer. Liberalism proposes to minimize religious conflict by granting individuals liberty in the matter. Individuals must remain within the bounds of public order, but public order is similarly arranged to permit the maximum exercise of individual will.
Liberalism meets the challenge only if it does not thereby function as a religion. If it does, we have a bait and switch. The First Amendment will have been used to disestablish traditional religion in preference for another, albeit nontraditional, religion.
To know whether liberalism functions as a religion, we have to define the term. It is very difficult to define religion based on belief. Religions teach all sorts of things, many of which are inconsistent with religion as known in the West.
It is easier to define religion based on practice. The fundamental practice of religion is worship, and worship is a response to reason. Some are probably amused at the suggestion of worship as a response to reason, but it is so. Non-rational animals do not worship, and rational animals do.
Human reason is both limitless in its range and limited in its power. We can see the immense universe and even discern from it the existence of God, but we cannot comprehend either, i.e., we cannot fully understand what we apprehend. This disparity between apprehension and comprehension compels us to search for something beyond our own consciousness, something often called “meaning.” Realizing at some level that we are creatures, we cast about for the Creator. Our compulsion to worship distinguishes us from other animals, who untroubled by reason remain at the level of pure instinct. No rational human can do so.
The necessity of worship is obscured by the partial definition of it liberals (and other moderns) tend to use. For example, liberals might only adopt the Webster’s College Dictionary definition that defines worship as, “reverence offered a divine being or supernatural power.” Yet these same liberals would ignore the equally valid definition of worship as, “extravagant respect or admiration for or devotion to an object of esteem.” Experience shows humans worship in both ways, but Scripture warns they conflict: “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matt. 6:24).
Liberals might object at this point that while religion is a broad category, it does not include all objects for which people have an extravagant respect, admiration, or devotion. So although one can loosely say a person worships sports, one cannot compare such an interest with religion as typically understood. To do so, liberals might argue, would either render the First Amendment meaningless or prohibit government from enacting laws governing ordinary things like sports.
Such an objection would be clever, but it would also change the subject. The subject is whether liberalism can minimize religious conflict without functioning as a religion. Wherever the line might be drawn between worshipful and non-worshipful interest, can liberalism diffuse conflicts on the worshipful side without invoking worship?