Recent debate in these pages concerning the nature of secularism reflects a fundamental uncertainty within the Christian intellectual tradition. Though modern Christians are often wary of a secularism that precludes religious discourse in the public sphere, it cannot be denied that the development of the modern notion of secularism was made possible by the history of Christian theory and practice.
The distinction between the City of God and the City of Man laid the foundation for the Catholic Church’s cession of temporal power to the emerging European state, which in turn placed limits upon the Church’s temporal response to the Reformation. When states used the schism to justify their temporal pursuits, the obvious and effective rejoinder was the doctrine of religious tolerance. Once applied to domestic policy, tolerance gave rise to the separation of church and state. And since the public sphere is not far from the state in a democracy, the separation of church and state naturally gives rise to secularism.
Now it may be true, from the point of view of Christianity, that the modern understanding of secularism has taken the distinction between the City of God and the City of Man too far. Thus the continuous debate in America on the proper role of religion in the public sphere. But at the very least, Christians have a history that requires them to grapple with secularism as something of their own kin. Secularism cannot be completely rejected as “other,” as an imposition of a rival faith.
The situation is much different for Muslims. Islamic theory describes a proper ordering of the civil community. Secularism is as foreign to Islamic theory as is Sharia law to Americans. Thus it was surprising when Prime Minister Blair, at his talk last weekend, suggested a parallel between tensions relating to Ireland in Great Britain and the tensions in the Middle East. Tensions in the Middle East are only partially caused by internal sectarian conflict. They are also caused, and perhaps to a much larger extent, by the prospect of globalization.
Globalization does not simply mean the development of third-world countries, the spread of efficient communication and transportation systems, or the increasing mobility of capital. Rather, globalization also entails the progress of Western ideals, secularism foremost among them. While it is possible, therefore, that globalization will strengthen Christian faith, it is not possible for it to strengthen Muslim faith.
The anxiety of the Middle East in general, and of Islamic terrorism in particular, is thus placed in sharp relief. Since the West and the Islamic world cannot communicate on the same terms, globalization seems to foreshadow a clash of civilizations. While some advocates of globalization distract themselves from this truth, heralding only the economic benefits of globalization, others embrace it with gusto, advocating the triumph of Western ideals through pitched battle — whether military, economic or diplomatic — on the world stage.
American public discourse is dominated by a debate between these two forces. Perhaps this debate obscures another plausible position — the desire to avoid a clash of civilizations. Certainly, Christians who are wary of secularism because it tends to limit religious discourse in the public sphere ought to worry. For the clash of civilizations is not a reasoned debate. It represent the final wages of secularism and the end of the belief that discourse can give rise to truth that matters in human lives.