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On March 29, 2023, Dr. Chad Pecknold delivered the Pio Cardinal Laghi Chair Lecture at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio.

Secular eyes might roll at the excessive Latinate titles and obscure setting. But Pecknold, a postliberal theologian at Catholic University, represents a movement that merits attention from those who value our secular democracy.

The lecture’s title, “Making Disciples of All Nations,” speaks to Pecknold’s theme—using the power of the State to convert America to the true faith of Roman Catholicism by abolition of the separation of Church and State and other aspects of a liberalism he sees as “passing away.”

Specifically, he quotes a letter that Pope Leo XIII wrote in 1899 criticizing “Americanism” in response to efforts by American Catholics at that time to convince their fellow citizens that they were not anti-democratic or anti-liberal, that they believed in the individual liberty that the Constitution promised to all.

Pope Leo wrote that the greater danger to American Catholics was not the discrimination they faced from their fellow Americans, but the very “civil freedoms” and “rights” they were celebrating.

Pecknold sets forth this paragraph from Leo’s letter:

These dangers, viz., the confounding of license with liberty, the passion for discussing and pouring contempt upon any possible subject, the assumed right to hold whatever opinions one pleases upon any subject and to set them forth in print to the world, have so wrapped minds in darkness that there is now a greater need of the Church’s teaching office than ever before, lest people become unmindful both of conscience and of duty.

In other words, Pecknold calls for an end of individual liberty and religious toleration–the destruction of Constitutional democracy.

Readers of OnlySky might just dismiss views such as these as something to be expected from right-wing Catholics. These are the same people, after all, who view Pope Francis as far too liberal.

Why should secularists bother to study the thinking of such people? And in particular, why bother to note that their views are a violation of their own tradition, a theological error?

Two reasons to pay attention

There are two reasons I bring this critique to readers of OnlySky. The first is political and the second has to do with the nature of American secularism.

The political reason is that the Postliberal Order, which is the group that published Pecknold’s address, has become enormously influential on the American right. This is the group that laid the groundwork for the current fascination of FOX News host Tucker Carlson and other conservatives with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Hungary today shows us just what Pecknold means by the “help of temporal power” that will turn America away from liberal ideals toward the truths of Catholicism.

If Pecknold were successful, we could expect the same manipulation of election laws, assaults on freedom of the press, anti-LGBTQ laws and anti-immigrant propaganda. The fact that in America, anti-immigrant bias is largely aimed at Catholics trying to enter the US is lost on these people.

In general, we could expect a government takeover of civil society.

It is important to understand this thinking in order to expose, engage and defeat it.

But there is another and deeper reason to consider the theological assumptions of anti-liberal religious thinking. Many secularists assume that Pecknold’s position is just the logical outcome of any sort of religious commitment. This was the point of Christopher Hitchens’s criticism of “moderate” religious believers. For Hitchens, it was all part of the same package. 

In general, we could expect a government takeover of civil society. It is important to understand this thinking in order to expose, engage and defeat it.

This thinking has created a pro-religion/anti-religion division in American politics that has harmed efforts to promote progressive alliances between believers and nonbelievers.

It has also caused secularists to ignore religious traditions as sources of human wisdom that will be necessary in the creation of a healthy and flourishing secular civilization.

If secularists see that Pecknold rejects important aspects of Christian thought in promoting an alliance of Church and State—that there are religious foundations for freedom of conscience, then this division can hopefully be overcome. Religion can be seen as a natural ally of a sustainable secularism.

Religion is not the enemy

Religion is a big tent, and there is no reason to consider it an enemy just because we are not believers.

Pecknold’s theme is the instruction to the disciples by the risen Christ in the Gospel of Matthew to “go and make disciples of all nations.”

One obvious reading of this passage would be that Christians are expected to do missionary work in order to bring the truth of the Gospel to all the people of the world.

Secularists might scoff at such efforts, but no one could criticize them. If the Christian message is persuasive and people accept it, that is all a part of the freedom of religion that secularists celebrate. In a liberal society, one would expect religious believers to make their case.

And if secularism is not to be just another dogmatism, we will listen respectfully and carefully to such presentations. We reject God and miracles. But, like scientists, we must always be open to the possibility that we are wrong.

Pecknold, however, goes beyond this interpretation. He argues that in referring to “the nations,” Jesus meant that the disciples would convert whole peoples, not individuals, including their public institutions. Pecknold specifically agrees with the 20th-century American Catholic Joseph Fenton that “the state has an objective obligation to worship God.” Pecknold says that “Catholics must become comfortable with using temporal power for the defense of the Faith.”

Pecknold acknowledges that Faith cannot be coerced, but worryingly even here he describes this Church teaching as “conditionally limited” without any explanation.

In any event, he enthusiastically argues that “the Faith can be aided, supported and encouraged, not least through rulers who have become disciples, and who dare to govern accordingly.” Hence the enthusiasm among the post-liberals for someone like Orbán. Orbán really does place the weight of the state behind traditional values.

This also explains the even stranger romance on the right with Vladimir Putin, who, whatever his faults, does the same in Russia.

In all of this, Pecknold revisits the mid-century debate in American Catholicism between Fenton and John Courtney Murray. It was Murray who argued that Catholicism should embrace the American approach to religious pluralism and other aspects of individual liberty. According to Murray, “the state must be religiously neutral yet defend religious liberty as a natural human right.”

Pecknold is aiming finally to bury Murray’s view.

There is a great danger here—not from American Catholics accepting Pecknold’s view per se—but rather that both left and right in America now reject the foundations of liberalism and freedom. On one side, in the name of truth, Pecknold seems willing to drive gay people and transgender people out of public life.

On the other side, equally in the name of truth, Stanford law students shout down a federal judge and try to intimidate law school administrators.

It is easy to point out, in response to Pecknold, that after 1899, Roman Catholicism did actually embrace the concept of religious liberty. No less a conservative than Pope Benedict XVI referred to religious liberty in much the same terms as did Murray, asserting that “the right to religious freedom should be viewed as innate to the fundamental dignity of every human person.”

But Pecknold makes an even more fundamental error in arguing for the use of the State to curtail individual liberty and promote Catholic values.

It is true that Jewish thought out of which Jesus was speaking to the disciples would think of conversion of whole peoples. The Bible is full of references to the “gods of the nations.” Religion is the Bible is a social and not just a spiritual matter.

And it is also true that there are universal human rights that Catholic social teaching urges all societies to adopt. Secularists probably agree with a lot of this, although obviously not with all of it. The Catholic Church, for example, has given a lot more thought to the injustices of the current worldwide economic system than the New Atheists ever did.

But Pecknold makes the success of Christianity turn on obtaining political power in a way that is alien to the New Testament. After all, Jesus famously was tempted by Satan, in an event noted in all three synoptic gospels, to seek political dominion of all the nations of the world.

Jesus declines, but for Pecknold, the temptation remains.

Again, it was Benedict who implicitly warned against aligning the Catholic faith with the political agendas of the Orbáns and Putins of this world.

In his third volume of the life of Jesus, Benedict explained what Jesus meant when he responded to Pontius Pilate that “My kingship is not of this world.” Benedict wrote,

In the course of history, the mighty of this world have sometimes tried to align it with their own and that is when it is put at risk: they seek to link their power with Jesus power, and in the process they disfigure his kingdom and endanger it.

Aside from his general error with regard to religion and political life, Pecknold fails to acknowledge that the New Testament describes the early church as absolutely dependent on freedom of religion and freedom of speech in a way that is distinctly liberal in its assumptions.

This story is told in the Book of Acts.

After the death and resurrection of Jesus and his ascension into heaven, the apostles are warned not to teach in Jesus’s name and are arrested for proclaiming his lordship and healing the sick. But they are miraculously freed.

Nevertheless, the leadership of the Sanhedrin—the collective Jewish leadership at the time—continued to plot against the nascent movement.

Two things are important to remember. First, the new movement is portrayed as successful only in part. People believed but did not join the movement: “No one else dared join them.”

So, the movement was vulnerable and could have been obliterated by the execution of the Apostles.

Second, the Sanhedrin lacked the authority to order executions, even in religious disputes. That is why in the end it was Rome that executed Jesus.

At this fraught moment, the Sanhedrin debated their fate.

The debate is won by Gamaliel, one of the leaders of the proto-rabbinic Pharisee party. Gamaliel points out that there have been previous false Messiahs. Once they were executed, their movements fell apart and were never heard from again. Therefore, it would be best to leave the new movement free to proclaim its truth.

Gamaliel then referred to what we might call the truth of the message of the new movement: “if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”  

Change the circumstances and you can hear Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes touting freedom of speech and the power of truth to be accepted in the marketplace of ideas.

From Pecknold’s perspective, Gamaliel gave disastrously wrong advice. Why should the dominant religion not enlist the government to drive out fundamental religious errors?—and there is no doubt Gamaliel considered the claim that Jesus was the son of God to be the most grievous religious error.

Why should freedom of religion and freedom of speech be tolerated?

Unlike Pecknold, Gamaliel was not afraid of a free society. Gamaliel was confident in history. He thought that the universe was constructed in such a way that truth would ultimately prevail.

In contrast, the post-liberals see only decay, decline, and decadence. They do not expect God to vindicate truth. So, they feel the need to turn to Rome.

There are two lessons here for secularists. First, it should not be assumed that religion and religious institutions are inherently tyrannical. Of course, they can be and have been, like all human institutions.

Historically speaking, the religious traditions have contributed as much to our free institutions as any sources of wisdom.

But there is a second lesson. The underlying source of Pecknold’s dogmatism is fear. He is afraid that history is moving in a direction he does not like. He has lost confidence in the power of truth. He now believes that only another source of power—the weight of the state—can ensure ultimate success.

Secularists must not give in to this kind of pessimism and nihilism. We must rededicate ourselves to the idea that the arc of the moral universe, though long, bends toward justice. We must regard the universe as on our side. We must look with confidence, even in dark times, to the future.

In this way, we can regard our current opponents as simply misguided and work to persuade them. Secularism can be a movement not of anger and resentment but of hope and trust. We can all be Gamaliel.      

Kline Duquesne Law Professor Bruce Ledewitz is the author of 'American Religious Democracy,' 'Hallowed Secularism,' 'Church, State, and the Crisis in American Secularism,' and 'The Universe Is on Our Side:...