The Secular Creed: Engaging Five Contemporary ClaimsWritten by Subby Szterszky
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“In this house, we believe . . .”
Signs beginning with these words have been popping up on front lawns and in shop windows, as well as on t-shirts, mugs and posters. They list a series of affirmations (not always the same ones but with considerable overlap) that are meant to be accepted wholesale. The implication is that anyone who doesn’t affirm every point on the list, without question or qualification, is an ignorant bigot out of touch with the times.
According to author Rebecca McLaughlin, “Signs like this sketch out a secular creed or statement of belief. It centres not on God, but on diversity, equality, and everybody’s right to be themselves.”
In her book, The Secular Creed: Engaging Five Contemporary Claims, she addresses the ideas behind a handful of these popular tenets. Her goal is to untangle those ideas that Christians can and must affirm from the ones we must not and cannot embrace.
During a cultural moment characterized by polarization and tribalism, McLaughlin offers followers of Jesus and skeptics alike a key for engaging each other’s beliefs with intelligence, kindness and respect.
Five contemporary claims
“Black Lives Matter”
“Love Is Love”
“The Gay Rights Movement Is the New Civil Rights Movement”
“Women’s Rights Are Human Rights”
“Transgender Women Are Women”
McLaughlin approaches each of these claims on the basis of several core biblical truths. All people are made in the image of God, and thus worthy of love and respect across racial and cultural differences. Moreover, God created humans as male and female, whose immutable, complementary qualities are to be celebrated, not rejected. Jesus welcomed people from every background and social status, and he’s building a church in which women and men from every tribe, tongue and nation will worship him and enjoy his love forever.
These scriptural truths have multifaceted applications for each of the contemporary claims, which McLaughlin draws out with care and compassion.
Black lives matter because they matter to Jesus, and his followers can affirm this wholeheartedly without subscribing to the LGBTQ+ stances of the Black Lives Matter organization. Instead of love is love, Christians believe that God is love, and his love is expressed across a variety of human relationships, all of which can be as meaningful and beautiful as romantic love. Since race is an immutable, morally neutral quality while sexual activity involves moral choice, the civil rights and gay rights movements cannot be conflated. Women’s rights are human rights because women are made in God’s image and are equal to men, but that doesn’t entail the right to abortion; after all, unborn girls and boys bear God’s image as well. And to say that transgender women are women not only denies the created goodness of our bodies, but also empties womanhood of meaning and reduces it to cultural stereotypes of appearance.
Speaking truth with tenderness
McLaughlin engages all of these ideas with clarity and intelligence, but also with kindness and respect. Implicit in the secular creed is an assumption that biblical Christianity is an oppressive belief system opposed to diversity and equal rights. And from the outset, McLaughlin acknowledges that the church’s failures in these areas have been complicit in creating these perceptions.
“First, we must recognize that the tangling of ideas in the secular creed has been driven not only by sin in the world out there, but also by sin in the church in here,” she writes. “We must fall to our knees and repent. The frequent failure of Christians to meet biblical ideals of fellowship across racial difference, equal valuing of men and women, welcome for outcasts, love for those with unfulfilled desire, and care for the most marginalized has allowed this mixture of ideas to coalesce under the banner of diversity.”
If followers of Jesus are to engage the contemporary beliefs of our culture, we must treat the people who hold those beliefs as our Lord would. We must reject the racism and misogyny that has often plagued the church, past and present, so that women and racial minorities feel valued and safe. Rather than making members of the LGBTQ+ community feel like tolerated outsiders, we must welcome them as friends, listen to their stories and share our hope in Jesus with them. And for those who struggle with gender dysphoria or same-sex attraction but seek to live in obedience to Christ, the church needs to find creative ways to help them do that within a supportive and loving community.
The basis for human rights
Having said all of that, McLaughlin also offers a strong challenge to her skeptic readers, demonstrating that their secular creed is founded on Christian ideas, whether they recognize this or not.
She explains, “To our 21st-century, Western ears, love across racial and cultural difference, the equality of men and women, and the idea that the poor, oppressed, and marginalized can make moral claims on the strong, rich, and powerful sound like basic moral common sense. But they are not. These truths have come to us from Christianity. Rip that foundation out, and you won’t uncover a better basis for human equality and rights. You’ll uncover an abyss that cannot even tell you what a human being is.”
McLaughlin underscores her argument with references to the work of leading atheist scholars like Yuval Noah Harari, who make the same point. From a consistent materialist position that rules out God, human beings have no natural rights, any more than spiders, hyenas or chimpanzees do. Without the understanding that we’re made in the image of God, our notions of justice, human value, and right and wrong are mere collective illusions. This isn’t to suggest secularists don’t care about such things, but they have no objective grounds for doing so, based on their beliefs.
Moreover, far from being a unified statement of faith, the various tenets of the secular creed are found to be in conflict with one another. For example, there are secular feminist scholars who take issue with transgender activism, believing that it undermines the experiences and rights of women and reinforces cultural gender stereotypes.
Moving on to church history, McLaughlin shows that concepts such as human equality and the rights of women, children and the poor were utterly alien in the ancient world. These ideas found their origin in the teachings of Jesus, were promoted by the early church, and began to influence the law only when the Roman emperors converted to Christianity. As McLaughlin points out, when it comes to human rights, Jesus was far more radical than the progressive activists of our day.
Breaking down tribal divisions
The signs, mugs and t-shirts displaying the secular creed illustrate the polarization of our culture, the all-or-nothing, take-it-or-leave-it attitude of opposing camps. This is the case not only between Christians and skeptics, but also between Christians and other Christians.
“Seeing signs like this, Christians tend to grab hammers,” McLaughlin says. “Some grab one to drive the sign into their lawn. They lament racial injustice, they believe in diversity, they know women are equal to men, and they’ve been taught that affirming gay relationships, trans identities, and pro-choice positions come part and parcel with these other things. If black lives matter (which they surely do), then love of all kinds must be love. Others take up hammers with a different plan. Knowing that the Bible rejects some things that underlie this modern creed, they swing a hammer to flatten the sign. Perhaps not literally, but in their hearts and minds. If these ideas stand together, they must all be wrong.”
But McLaughlin offers a third approach. Writing with intelligence and compassion, she examines each of these claims through the lens of Scripture and in light of culture. She invites her readers, both Christian and skeptic, to think clearly and charitably and not just toe the party line of their tribe.
For followers of Jesus in particular, McLaughlin provides a scriptural key for disentangling the cultural ideas that we can and must affirm from the ones we must not and cannot embrace. She points to our identity in Christ, who loves us and gave himself for us, as the basis for welcoming our fellow image-bearers and engaging their ideas with grace.
In a cultural moment marked by tribalism and division, McLaughlin offers a roadmap for beginning to chip away at the dividing walls from both sides. She points to a compelling vision for believers and skeptics alike – a diverse multitude at the end of time, made up of women and men from every tribe, tongue and nation, worshipping the Messiah who loved and redeemed them in everlasting unity and joy. And she challenges those who follow Jesus to begin living in light of that reality now.
Sources and further reading
Rebecca McLaughlin, The Secular Creed: Engaging Five Contemporary Claims, The Gospel Coalition, 2021.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2021 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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