Secularization Renewed?

Tom Flynn

In Wendy Kaminer’s op-ed and in this issue’s cover feature, we focus on public funding for faith-based charities. As several writers note, the practice of funneling government money to religious charities began during the Great Society years. Of course, those recipients (organizations such as Catholic Charities) were notably secularized. Incorporated independently of their sponsoring churches, they helped—and often hired—without regard to creed and concealed religious symbols while delivering services. (Still, even this breach of the church-state wall made resolute secularists queasy.) Starting in the 1970s, evangelicals argued that withholding public funds from more overtly religious charities discriminated against people of faith. The first White House to find that view persuasive was Bill Clinton’s. Fortunately, his administration recognized that the most obvious ways of making government friendlier toward faith-based charities happened to be unconstitutional. George W. Bush had no such scruples; under his administration faith-based funding came into its own with alarming results.

Until mid-2008, secular humanists could hope that a new Democratic president might end these abuses with the stroke of a pen. (That’s all it would have taken; Bush’s faith-based apparatus was based solely on executive orders.) But it soon became clear that Barack Obama would not be that president. Candidate Obama pledged to continue offering religious charities public support. (As Susan Jacoby notes in her essay, how quickly a radical, even illegal, practice can weave itself into the tapestry of “normal.”) Obama also pledged that he would not let charities receiving public funds practice employment discrimination based on religion. Guess which pledge he fulfilled?

Over the short term, then, as Rob Boston notes in his article, faith-based funding is here to stay. Over the long term, though, I’m guardedly optimistic. Late in 2005 (“Who’s Afraid of Faith-based Charities?,” Free Inquiry, December 2005/January 2006), I described Bush’s faith-based initiative as a “ghost dance”: a last, defiant self-assertion by religious social-service institutions whose days were already numbered. Today I’m starting to hope that the end of faith-based funding—eventually, even the end of long-established religious social-service agencies—may be closer than many think. Why?

First, faith-based funding runs counter to an enormously long-standing trend. As I noted in 2005, organized religion has spent most of the last 1,500 years losing its extra-liturgical mandates one after another. Consider that in the Middle Ages, the Church was the sole working institution in an otherwise shattered West. It took responsibility for almost everything: education, banking, diplomacy, the arts, care for the poor and the sick. As civilization slowly recovered, it spawned new institutions. Function after function was withdrawn from the Church’s “job jar” to be taken up by secular governments, private institutions, or individuals. By the end of the Renaissance, state and private patrons had eclipsed the Church as principal supporters of the arts. International diplomacy became independent of the Vatican around the same time. By the mid-nineteenth century, religion was losing its monopoly over higher education. (Though clerical outcry flared when Cornell University dared form without denominational affiliation in 1865, the institution flourished.) During these years, churches and religious orders still dominated poor relief, with results that Charles Dickens chronicled to devastating effect. A new generation of secular public charities swiftly arose; by the 1960s the biggest secular actor of all, the United States government, was rapidly assuming many social-service functions hitherto dominated by religious charities.

Whatever its limitations, the Great Society era was in sync with this 1,500-year trend to shift work from ecclesiastical to secular hands. What happened next was not. A resurgence in fundamentalist piety erupted in the 1970s, in part a reaction against the “God is dead” secularity of the post-World War II years. At about the same time, an anti-government, pro–laissez-faire impulse also waxed strong. Its advocates hoped to sweep away the perceived statism and social engineering of the Great Society period. These two movements reinforced each other so powerfully that for a couple of decades, it was as though history ran backward. That 1,500-year secularizing trend was even briefly reversed: under Bush, some social-service responsibilities previously discharged by government were actually transferred back to religious organizations. Ascendant fundamentalists added to the mix their abiding hostility toward church-state separation, yielding the perverse innovation of desecularizing social services but having government continue to pay for them.

On my view, only the conflation of those two highly energetic reactionary movements made possible the extraordinary “ghost dance” that was Bush’s faith-based initiative, a project otherwise so flamboyantly contra-historical that one can scarcely imagine its achieving anything at all.

Now here’s the cause for my guarded optimism. Those fundamentalist and libertarian impulses that made the clocks spin backward are now more than thirty years old. Social movements often lose steam as they reach that age; amid the shocks of the present economic meltdown, I expect these two will fade fast. Already privatization has few champions, while pollsters tell us that for better or worse Americans are rediscovering their enthusiasm for big-government social programs. (The chastened libertarian in me views this wistfully; be tolerant while I remind myself that we’re all Keynesians again.)

Bush’s faith-based initiative owed its existence to a unique and frankly peculiar confluence of trends, one that’s falling apart so rapidly that I doubt whether even Barack Obama’s sincere attachment to a more benign form of that agenda will long preserve it. To strain a metaphor, after the ghost dance comes giving up the ghost.

If we’re heading toward a period of renewed secularization, what can we hope to see? First, the gradual transfer of responsibility for social service programs from religious agencies to secular ones, including government—a process that’s been largely on hold since the mid-1980s—should resume. In order to deliver services fairly to a population of unprecedented lifestance diversity, it makes sense to reorganize them outside the purview of any faith community. Also (pardon me while my inner libertarian shudders again) it makes sense to realize most of this at the federal level, so that all Americans can share these programs’ benefits and burdens. In this way, needed social programs can best develop unmarred by needless regional or denominational variations.

Public funding for religious charities that blatantly evangelize should wither relatively soon—if not during Obama’s presidency, surely during the next. Looking further ahead, I hope to see an end to those old-line secularized social service agencies like Catholic Charities, Lutheran Services in America, and their counterparts. It was these agencies’ acquisition of Great Society funding, after all, that indirectly set the stage for the abuses of the Bush years. More important, in a nation that members of every religion—and none—now call home, continuing to operate what are actually secular institutions under the ill-fitting labels of this or that historical denomination makes no sense. This is especially true of Catholic Charities, which has been sharply criticized by Catholics when thoroughly secularized professionals eager to “do the right thing” got caught supporting gay adoption, helping women access contraception, or in one case obtaining an abortion for a minor. Further, in a typical poll, 92 percent of Catholics reported knowing that Catholic Charities serves needy people without regard to their denominational affiliation. This sounds like a secular social-service agency I’d like to support. Tell me again why it fund raises at Sunday Mass?

In a resecularizing society, I suspect secular-but-denominational charities won’t last too long. I don’t expect them to founder, I expect them to split. Imagine Catholic Charities spinning off a small sectarian aid organization that accepts no public funds and raises money from the pulpit to help needy Catholics, leaving behind a large secular public charity that goes on doing most of what Catholic Charities has done well—but without that disingenuous denominational link. Imagine its Lutheran, Jewish, and other counterparts doing likewise. Imagine some of them folding into a single, highly capable United Way agency, while we’re at it.

The reactionary movements that shaped so much of American life over the past three decades have run spectacularly off the rails. Tragically, they’ve taken with them much of the global economy. Surveying the devastation, I dare to hope. Secularization, always the brightest prospect for crafting a fair and inclusive society where citizens holding the planet’s widest variation of worldviews can live together in peace, may stand poised for renewal.

For the immediate future, when it comes to faith-based funding, the president who campaigned on change has opted to cling to the status quo. I think that’s wrong. But in the long run I don’t think it will make a difference.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).


In Wendy Kaminer’s op-ed and in this issue’s cover feature, we focus on public funding for faith-based charities. As several writers note, the practice of funneling government money to religious charities began during the Great Society years. Of course, those recipients (organizations such as Catholic Charities) were notably secularized. Incorporated independently of their sponsoring churches, …

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