Casey Chalk is the author of The Persecuted: True Stories of Courageous Christians Living Their Faith in Muslim Lands (Sophia Institute Press) and a senior contributor at The Federalist. He holds a Masters in Theology from Christendom College.
The biggest threat facing America today isn’t China or Russia. It’s not radical sexual or racial ideologies, nor globalism and widening economic disparities. No, all of these threats, however real and legitimate, all dim in comparison to a much graver menace to our shared future: the dramatic decline in citizens’ religious affiliation and belief. A recent anti-religious op-ed by the Washington Post’s Kate Cohen hints at what awaits an America untethered from Christianity.
“In America, you have to opt out of religion in public life. That’s backward,” reads Cohen’s provocative title. Citing a number of examples, from court-mandated addiction recovery programs to the language of the Pledge of Allegiance to abortion restrictions, Cohen claims that it is “backward” that the religiously unobservant are the ones who must opt out of various aspects of American civil life that retain, however tenuously, a religious character.
She approvingly quotes a recent legal argument that Americans have the “absolute right to live free from the religious dictates of others.” She adds: “But as long as this country’s default setting is religious—both culturally and politically—we have to fight for it.”
In short, Cohen believes it is unjust, and even a very repudiation of our secular tradition, that the default character of our national civic life remains in some ways sympathetic to a bland, non-sectarian recognition of the divine. Demanding public-school students say the Pledge of Allegiance—even if students are permitted to opt out of it—places an undue burden on such students, she avers. A truly secular state, Cohen believes, would ensure an entirely “naked public square,” to cite the old phrase of the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus.
Of course, atheists and secularists in America have been making such arguments for many years, thankfully with mixed success. But the rise of the “nones,” those Americans with no religious affiliation, portends a future that will be far more hostile to Christians and Christian organizations. Indeed, Gen Z, the least religious generation in America, is also the least supportive of religious freedom and religious exemptions for people like Jack Phillips. That means they will be more sympathetic to anti-religious arguments like those made by Cohen.
Imagine, for a moment, not only John Lennon’s hope that “there’s no heaven,” but that there is no religious belief anywhere in the public square. In Cohen’s “utopian” vision, religious organizations losing their tax-exempt status would be only the beginning. Many professions would become fraught with such moral quandaries that faithful Catholics could no longer in good conscience inhabit them. Forced to be morally complicit in abortion, assisted suicide, distribution of contraception, and any other number of moral evils, Catholics would be forced to vacate many medical professions, and many Catholic medical providers would shutter.
Forced to provide health insurance for morally impermissible things like abortion and contraception, or offer certain services in direct contradiction to Church teaching, many Catholic-owned businesses would fold. Catholics in public education, forced to teach explicitly anti-Catholic, immoral content would quit; and Catholic parochial schools, compelled to teach the same, would close. The same would happen to Catholic adoption agencies and Catholic relief organizations serving millions of Americans in need of various basic services.
I wonder if Cohen and her cohort have considered the ramifications of all of this. About 1.6 million American children are currently educated in private Catholic schools, meaning the more than $26 billion of annual taxes raised to support those children is instead devoted to those in public schools. About one in seven hospital beds in the United States are in Catholic healthcare systems, meaning millions of Americans receive Catholic medical treatment. Catholic Charities affiliates disburse hundreds of millions of dollars in relief aid to needy Americans.
Or consider some sociological indicators. Divorce and its many negative effects on children—higher rates of social and psychological pathologies, dropping out of schools, teen motherhood, delinquency, incarceration, and suicides—costs U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars per year. The Catholic Church, of course, discourages divorce, and thus Catholic couples divorce at lower rates than the average, saving Americans huge sums of cash. And Catholics who attend religious services regularly are even less likely to divorce. (That’s the case for non-Catholic Christians, too.) The more prevalent divorce is, the higher the costs for taxpayers.
In other words, significant growth in the size and scope of government would be required if America were to pursue the kind of secular utopian vision promoted by Cohen and other atheistic, secularist ideologues. Given such people are typically liberals, perhaps this is what they’d like. But we’d be kidding ourselves if we thought such a dramatic growth of governmental powers would result in less, not more, federal oversight and intrusion into our everyday lives.
Such a future America would hardly be enlightened, neutral, and disinterested. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the worldview espoused by people like Cohen subscribes to errant premises informed by positivism, utilitarianism, materialism, scientism, and emotivism. Most of these premises are antithetical to beliefs held by Catholics, other Christians, and even many non-believers. Yet in a perfect secularist world, they will be coercively impressed upon all of us. A non-religious America would hardly be enlightened, neutral, and disinterested.
Indeed, Cohen shows her true colors in her claim that restricting access to abortion is necessarily an imposition of sectarian religious beliefs upon the American citizenry. That’s absurd, given that there are plenty of non-religious pro-life activists and that the pro-life movement for decades has carefully articulated the scientific, ethical, and philosophical problems with abortion based on premises shared by religious and non-religious alike. In effect, pro-choice advocates like Cohen simply want to impose their (unscientific, unethical, and logically indefensible) beliefs about abortion on Americans, and at taxpayer expense, no less.
The Framers understood the need for a religious citizenry, an opinion strongly articulated by our first two presidents, among many other members of that founding generation. Yes, they adamantly opposed establishmentarianism, but they viewed religion as so central to public life that they defended it in the very first amendment of the Constitution.
Religion and its role in the public square was not an afterthought but a forethought for the Founders; they knew a republic couldn’t survive without it. What, then, would they think of the precipitous decline in religious observance among their descendants? I’d imagine they’d get on their knees and pray. And so should we, if we want to avoid the dystopia advocated by people like Kate Cohen.