Does Secularism Render Christianity Irrelevant?

volume 18, number 52, December 26, 2019

“. . . He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy, blameless, and beyond reproach.” -Colossians 1:21

Secularism is very clearly the religion of Western Europe. A good working definition of secularism is this—secularism is a political and social philosophy devoid of any faith or worship. In other words, the secularist (from the Latin word secularum, of a generation, belonging to an age) denies the existence of God, or at the very least, sees no place for God in the public arena of ideas. The secularist views God as either non-existent or irrelevant.     

On April 30, 1789, newly elected and first President of the United States of America, George Washington, following the Colonialists’ victory at Yorktown several years earlier, gave his inaugural address at the new Federal Building in New York City. In the first paragraph Washington invoked God’s blessing on our nation, “making fervent supplication to the Almighty.” At the same time, however, winds of a new kind of revolution, one which the world would face many more times in the next two hundred years, was gaining steam in France. When Louis XVI became King of France in 1774 he inherited a flawed government. At the time, there existed, three highly combustible ingredients, waiting for the right moment to burst into a conflagration. First, there was corruption in government, more specifically the nobility. France was a monarchy with two hundred thousand nobles who whiled away their time in Versailles with parties, drunkenness, lethargy, and aimlessness. Louis XIV had plunged his nation into ruinous debt by thirty years of war in Europe. Inadequate tax revenue trickled into government coffers because the nobility paid no taxes on their vast land holdings and profits. Second, there was oppression of the poor. A heavy burden of taxes fell on the poor. Since they had no advocate before the throne of France, the king continued to tax the poor into poverty and oblivion. And third, there was the impotence of the Roman Catholic Church. The church held one fifth of all the land in France and she also paid no taxes on her wealth. While there were certainly some godly priests, by and large the Roman Catholic church was a robber’s den of iniquity. Things may have remained as they were for many years if it had not been for the fire which ignited the horror of the French Revolution. That fire was the “Age of Reason,” the French Enlightenment. Beginning with Descartes who famously stated, “Cogito, ergo sum,” “I think, therefore I am,” intellectuals in France and the rest of Europe began to jettison the authority of Holy Scripture. Until that time, people generally accepted the authority of the Bible as the truth on which they and their people should live. But secularism, the Age of Reason, began to question Scripture. Man became the measure of all things. He could think for himself. He did not need a church, priest, or preacher to tell him how to live. Denis Diderot and his Encyclopedia, a magazine to which the atheistic intellectuals of the day regularly contributed, began in 1750 to make significant inroads into the psyche of France. Major contributors to the Encyclopedia included Jean Jacques Rousseau (born in Geneva to Calvinist parents), Voltaire, and the Marquis de Sade (a very sexually perverse man who believed that since there is no god, then there is no law, and if there is no law, then man can do totally as he pleases, including all manner of sadomasochism). The church had no answer for this new atheism.

So the three highly combustible ingredients—corruption in government, oppression of the poor, and impotence in the church—were ignited by the Age of Reason. But why? What made France so ripe for a godless, violent revolution? In 1536, twenty-seven year old John Calvin, who had just completed his first edition of The Institutes of the Christian Religion, was in Geneva and William Farel challenged him to stay and preach the gospel. Calvin finally agreed, but after two years, he was no longer welcome and fled to Strasbourg and there pastored a church of French speaking refugees. Upon his return to Geneva in 1540, Calvin picked up his preaching and writing load. He remained there until his death in May, 1564. While Calvin was in Geneva, his heart, nonetheless, was in his native France. He had a great burden to see the Reformation take hold in his country. He regularly trained and sent young French pastors across the Alps into France, knowing that many of them would be killed for their faithful preaching of the gospel. In 1555, God began a mighty work in France. At the time there were only three Protestant churches there. Within seven years there were over 2150 Protestant churches with at least ten percent of the populace being Protestant believers. They were called Huguenots.[1] 

Opposition from the Roman Catholic church and nobility rose against the Huguenots who were rightly seeking their own civil rights. Until then they were marginalized as heretics. The Huguenots, mainly in the south of France, were the heart and soul of the nation. They were composed largely of shop keepers, business owners, artisans, physicians, university professors, and lawyers. As their power grew they increasingly upset the status quo in France. In August, 1572, at the marriage of King Charles IX’s daughter to Protestant Henry III of Navarre, an attempted assassination of Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, a Huguenot leader, took place. Most historians in the know believe Charles’s mother, Catherine de Medici, called for the murder of Coligny as well as thousands of other Huguenots. The killing began at the time of the celebration of St. Bartholomew’s Day in Paris; and over several weeks somewhere between 5000 and 20,000 Huguenots were murdered throughout France. 

Tensions continued to rise, unabated, until 1598 when the King of France agreed to the Edict of Nantes, a move toward religious toleration, giving the Huguenots peace and credibility in France. However, in 1685 the revocation of the Edict of Nantes occurred, removing the status of religious toleration and acceptance for the Huguenots. Many of these God-fearing, Protestants fled France for their lives, settling in far off places like Charleston, South Carolina, St. Mary’s, Georgia, and Cape Town, South Africa. France has never recovered from this atrocity. The middle class was largely expunged from the nation of France. 

Into this religious vacuum came the Age of Reason and the French Enlightenment. So by the time of George Washington’s inauguration in New York City, the dominoes began to fall in quick succession in Paris and Versailles. Ideas matter. Ideas have consequences.

By the spring of 1789 Louis XVI needed money but the populace was tired of the excessive debt and were concerned with the deleterious effects of inflation. So Louis bowed to the pressure and called for a meeting of the Estates General, a kind of Parliament. The Estates General was composed of three parts—the nobility, the church, and the bourgeoise. But the Estates General had not convened in 175 years and the participants really had no idea how they were to work with the king. The bourgeoise very quickly realized that by all three estates voting together they would have far more clout to influence the king. When Louis realized this he suspended the meeting of the Estates General. On June 20, 1789 the third estate, the bourgeoise, refused to disperse and made their way to a nearby tennis court and vowed to continue meeting until they had forged a new constitution. Meanwhile mobs were demanding change, all around Paris. On July 14 a mob of dissidents, the militia of Paris, later called the National Guard, overran the Hotel des Invalides, an armory, and confiscated 30,000 muskets. The problem now, however, was that they also needed gun powder and shot. So the militia stormed the Bastille, an ancient fortress which had long served as a prison. The mob set the prisoners free (there were only seven of them and one was insane) and captured 30,000 pounds of gunpowder. The governor of the Bastille, Bernard Rene de Launay, was captured and beheaded. The mob placed Launay’s head on a pike and paraded it throughout the streets of Paris.  

By the fall of 1789 inflation had caused the price of bread to go through the roof and thousands of women in Paris were incensed. These women, now accompanied by their husbands as part of the militia, made their way to Versailles to confront King Louis and to demand lower prices. At the head of the parade was Lafayette, the French General who was a hero of the American Revolutionary War. The mob demanded Louis come with them to Paris. When Louis understandably hesitated, Lafayette promised to protect him. So Louis reluctantly agreed to go to Paris. He never came back to Versailles. He was repeatedly insulted by the citizenry. For several months, as many as 10,000 of the nobility fled France, seeing the handwriting on the wall, making their way primarily to Austria, waiting for the time they could return again to France and regain their power and privilege. Outwardly Louis was saying “Yes” to the French people but inwardly he was saying “No.” He was secretly working with emigres to regain control. So, in June 1791 Louis XVI and his Habsbourg wife, Marie Antoinette, along with their young children, disguised themselves in servants garb, and made their way in the dead of night from Paris in a stagecoach, headed for the Austrian border. They almost made it but when Louis stuck his head outside of the coach (after all it was June and very hot inside) he was recognized by an antagonist, arrested, and brought back to Paris. Eighteen months later, in January 1793, Louis XVI, King of France was executed by the most efficient engine of execution yet devised, the Guillotine. Shortly thereafter his wife Marie was also beheaded. 

During this time the Third Estate wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Man, calling for Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. On the surface this all sounds very good, but remember the French Revolution was fueled by atheism. Among other things, the Declaration of the Rights of Man was all about expunging religion from the heart and soul of France. To be sure the church was corrupt and impotent, and the poor were oppressed. The Third Estate did away with the seven day week, and consequently the observance of the Christian sabbath, and instituted a ten day week. All titles of nobility were abolished and the church’s tax free privilege was abolished. 

During this time, the emigres, fortified by the armies of Austria and Prussia, saw their opportunity to invade France. The French National Guard, surprisingly, repulsed the invasion. Eventually the National Guard was forged into a powerful and fearful killing machine, led by Napoleon, who would wreak havoc on Europe until his final defeat in June, 1815 at the hands of the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo.   

On the surface, as we view the firmly ensconced secularism of Europe it is quite easy to think that it has effectively rendered Christianity irrelevant. We know, however, that secularism is a false god which can only be defeated by the conversion of millions of people within our nation or any other secular nation. 

The doctrine of salvation, more specifically the doctrine of reconciliation renders Christianity powerfully relevant to each and every European country, as well as the United States and Canada, which have followed in the secular train of Europe. So where does the doctrine of Christ’s reconciliation come into play here? All of us are born into enmity with God. We are estranged from Him because He is holy and we are not (Psalm 58:3). Enmity with God ultimately leads to enmity with people. Without the Spirit’s indwelling, we all are prone to abuse others. When in a position of leadership (a father or husband, a pastor or elder, a member of Congress, an owner of a business) our tendency is to lord our authority over those under our authority. So husbands sometimes abuse wives, some fathers sexually molest their children, some congressmen or presidents live large on the backs of taxpayers, and business owners sometimes exploit their employees. 

On the other hand, when under anyone’s authority (a wife, a child, a citizen, an employee) our tendency is to rebel, to want our own way, to make unreasonable and unjust demands of our authority figures. Conflict arises when people in authority abuse their privilege and when those under authority rebel against those over them. But reconciliation with God through the cross of Christ makes it possible to be at peace with others. If we are reconciled to God, if we are at peace with the One who is a consuming fire, then we can be at peace with people. This does not mean that war is never necessary. This does not mean that we cannot or should not defend ourselves against a home invasion. But it does mean submission to those in authority is vital for a home, church, business, or nation. It means those in authority must lead with sacrificial love, remembering that to whom much is given, much is required.  

1  <> Huguenot French Protestant.

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