Sects, Sectarianism, and Secularism

Conciliatory approaches don’t satisfy


Faith Philosophy

Funny things happen on the way to political dialogues. Not to mention that the participants say the darnedest things…

On the one hand, we believe that our deepest commitments should inform our political practices. These practices, presumably, include political dialogues. On the other hand, we tell each other that true dialogue needs to go beyond the narrow confines of competing sects. We should be non-sectarian.

Those are fine resolutions, at least until we push them a bit. If we do push them, even a little, we’ll notice a couple of problems.

A first problem is that unless we are rank partisans—ideologues—our most basic commitments go much deeper than our allegiance to a political party. In any case, every party has its own internal divisions, each with their own partisans. That leaves us, though, with the task of identifying our most basic commitments.

Here’s a second problem. Everybody opposes sectarianism. Yet it’s a rare person who says “Yes, I belong to a sect. I’m a _____ian.” A related puzzle comes to mind. There’s wide support for interdenominational initiatives. Yet it’s still a rare person who says “Yes, I belong to a denomination. I’m a _____ian.” For my part, I profess that I’m a Catholic. But Catholicism isn’t a denomination, much less a sect.

It’s chiefly secularists that speak of sects and denominations. But let’s be candid. Visiting anthropologists and resident sociologists are secularists in their professions. Yet any of us, in the interregnum of our established disorder, is apt to lapse into “secularese.” We might do so unwittingly or to “make nice.”

Here’s an example of such a lapse. In a recent discussion with a friend, the conversation turned to same-sex “marriage.” He and I agree that the political challenge to SSM isn’t our very first priority. For him, it’s because our opposition is confessional. It’s based on our religious beliefs. We shouldn’t impose our beliefs on a secular society. Besides, not every Christian denomination shares our opposition. Plus, he’s come to think that while SSM is “second best,” we should be more accepting of it. Otherwise we’ll come across as sectarian.

Nonetheless, my friend is a man of principle. He thinks that restricting abortion is a first-tier political goal. So, too, is protecting religious freedom and conscientious objection based on it. What’s going on? He sees abortion as a direct attack on the innocent and wrong for that very reason. And an attack on religious freedom is an attack of religion itself and wrong on that account. There are lines we must draw, and those are the lines that he draws.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I agree that there are lines to draw, and I’m with him on drawing the lines that he does. What he overlooks, though, is that in our secular culture, the “thought leaders” will nonetheless argue that the lines he draws are themselves sectarian, if only because they are drawn from a religious perspective.

To speak more bluntly, my friend’s conciliatory approach won’t satisfy his critics. In effect, his secularist interlocutors, quick to note that he speaks “secularese” with an evangelical accent, are more than ready to blow his religious cover.

So what advice do I offer my friend? And what advice do I offer myself when I “go wobbly”?

I’m asking that together we do some serious philosophy about the nature and limits of the State. I’m urging that we do some serious philosophy about the nature of human sexuality. I’m insisting that we critically examine the philosophical presuppositions of secular “thought leaders.”

What I’m calling for, it seems to me, doesn’t involve fundraising or phrasemaking. It does demand sustained intellectual effort. Let’s start with John Paul II’s encyclical Faith and Reason, which begins with a simile: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth….”


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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