This past summer, three men filed a complaint against the mayor of Washington D.C., Muriel Bowser, for mixing up church and state by endorsing a religion. As protests for racial justice spread across the country, leaders like Bowser tried to signify support for the cause. To that end, the District painted “BLACK LIVES MATTER” in huge yellow text across a street and renamed it Black Lives Matter Plaza. While some criticized these actions for being ineffectual symbolism instead of real change, these three plaintiffs thought the mayor had done something very real—something religious. “Bowser’s paramount objective,” they alleged, “was to convey to the Plaintiffs and all other taxpayers the Black Lives Matter cult, which is a denominational sect of the religion of Secular Humanism, is the favored religion of the city and the Nation and that another who disagrees with their gospel narrative is a second class citizen.” By proclaiming an exclusionary political theology, they alleged, the District had colored the neutral public sphere with particular, unsecular hues.
One might be tempted to dismiss this argument as ridiculous and the plaintiffs as fringe figures. And that interpretation is warranted, to an extent. The case was dismissed because the plaintiffs lacked standing. They are not central players in the conservative legal movement, nor do they apparently have much political power. The lead plaintiff, Rich Penkoski, is a street preacher and leader of the group Warriors for Christ. The second plaintiff, Chris Sevier, is a disbarred attorney from Tennessee who claims in the lawsuit to be a “liaison between the House and Senate on Constitutional Legislative Affairs” and “outspoken electronic dance music artist.” (Sevier is best known for anti-porn campaigns and drafting anti-human-trafficking legislation.) The third, Tex Christopher, identifies as a D.C. lobbyist and former bull rider. They seem like a wacky bunch, and their lawsuit is certainly “colorful.” But their claim that Black Lives Matter (BLM) is part of “the religion of Secular Humanism”—and their tactic, to combat “secular humanism” by alleging an Establishment Clause violation—is not novel. In fact, they are participating in a tradition that is decades old. And in some cases, similar legal arguments have had some success.
While Penkoski, Sevier, and Christopher’s lawsuit was unsuccessful, it is a document worthy of consideration, not dismissal. If you’re looking for a single artifact that might be called Trumpian, this lawsuit will fit the bill. Given the way the Trump Administration appears to be ending—with long-shot lawsuits and stoking conspiratorial fear—it’s all the more fitting. It includes nasty ad hominem against a woman of color, potshots at “the Democrat Party,” zany characters with questionable records, and an intellectual scaffolding that combines conservative legal movement tactics, populist aesthetics, and assorted rightwing religious tropes. It is a window onto a gnarled thicket of rightwing Christian ideas. To begin to untangle it, we must look back on the history of the Christian Right, and our more recent, radicalizing social mediasphere. This piece is, in short, a weird intellectual history of the present.
FIRST OF ALL, what do the plaintiffs mean when they allege that Black Lives Matter (BLM) is both a cult and part of a larger religion called secular humanism? “Cult,” in this case, is used as a delegitimizing term, to name a bad religion with “brainwashed” and unthinking adherents. “Secular humanism” is perhaps a less familiar term. There are self-identified humanists and secular humanists, some of whom identify as religious. Most of them are nontheists who believe in Enlightenment ideals of human reason and the political and ethical goal of human flourishing. For the Christian Right, though, secular humanism is a sinister, anti-biblical, and pervasive worldview. For them, secular humanism means an ideological system that displaces God and biblical law in favor of “man” and human government (and eventually one-world government).
The idea that secular humanism is a religion comes from Christian “worldview” education and presuppositionalist theology. Dutch Calvinists such as Abraham Kuyper and especially Cornelius Van Til argued that one can reason only from presuppositions. If you presuppose that the Bible is true, then a whole biblical worldview—political, economic, social, family life—will follow. In this view, humans are sinful and need God and biblical law. If, conversely, you presuppose that humanity is essentially good and capable of governing themselves, a secular humanist worldview will follow.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Christian leaders warned against secular humanism with increasing frequency and ferventness. The Dutch presuppositionalists were hugely influential in the intellectual development of conservative white evangelicalism (in part because Dutch Calvinists founded and controlled much of the booming Christian book industry), and their ideas spread beyond their original denominational contexts. Van Til helped train the influential theologian Francis Schaeffer, who, along with fellow Van Til student Rousas John Rushdoony, would help educate thousands about the dangers of secular humanism. Schaeffer’s intellectual contributions to the Christian Right have been widely recognized through his book How Should We Then Live?, its accompanying film series, along his Swiss retreat where evangelicals came to learn and train. Rushdoony has been recognized by historians as a founder of Christian Reconstruction, a more thoroughgoing project of rebuilding society to operate according to strict biblical law. Rushdoony stridently condemned secular humanism, calling it the world’s second-oldest religion, founded by the serpent in Eden.
Conservative pastors, educators, and activists caught on to the worldview idea, and the dangers of secular humanism. Tim LaHaye, known for his role in helping found the Moral Majority and then co-writing the apocalyptic Left Behind series, got interested in secular humanism and wrote three books, Battle for the Mind, Battle for the Family, and Battle for the Public Schools, in the early 1980s. These books described a pervasive, powerful ideology. In the first, LaHaye wrote, “Almost every major magazine, newspaper, TV network, secular book publisher, and movie producer is a committed humanist.”
Fears of secular humanism pervaded how these white evangelicals thought and spoke about public schools—actions and ideas that were also enmeshed with racism. As scholars like Randall Balmer have argued, opposition to school desegregation was the foundation of what became the Moral Majority and the Christian Right. Following the Engel and Schempp Supreme Court decisions of the early 1960s, which removed teacher-led prayer and devotional bible-reading, respectively, from public schools, conservative evangelicals argued (with arguments borrowed from Catholics) that public schools were now bastions of secularist and anti-Christian ideology. So, in many cities, especially in the South, they formed their own private schools and homeschool networks. It was not a coincidence that many of these new schools were founded at the same time that public schools were being desegregated. Some of the resulting “segregation academies” became training centers for equipping their largely and sometimes exclusively white student bodies with a biblical worldview. Defending such institutions against this legal persecution galvanized the Christian Right.
Opposition to secular humanism was also a key piece of the Christian Right’s anti-public-school strategy. It stemmed from a clearly articulated ideological commitment, but it operated as a nifty gotcha move. If secular humanism is a religion (or at least an anti-Christian worldview), and public institutions propagate it, are they not endorsing one religion or showing disfavor toward another? This is basically the legal argument that Penkoski et al. use to argue that Bowser endorsed the religion of secular humanism and the cult of Black Lives Matter. Their issue is not just that BLM, which the lawsuit compares to “the Democrats [sic] other favorite racist religious organization, the KKK,” should not be endorsed because it is bad. The argument is that it should not be endorsed because it is a religion.
But is there a way to demonstrate in court that secular humanism is indeed a religion? The proof text is a footnote in the 1961 Supreme Court case Torcaso v. Watkins. There, Justice Hugo Black wrote, “Among religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others.” This provided the necessary citation to make Establishment arguments. In a 1978 law review article, John W. Whitehead (a follower of Rushdoony) and John Conlan explain how this argument might work in court. The Supreme Court recognized in Torcaso that secular humanism is a religion. And, the courts have decided, for definitional purposes, that “religion” is all but equated with sincerely held individual belief. By the 1970s, Whitehead and Conlan argued, public life had been de-Christianized and the biblical foundations replaced by the rival religion of secular humanism. Even in putatively secular subjects, schools advanced this religion of secular humanism.
The next piece of the strategy, which the Penkoski et al. lawsuit follows, was to invoke the “Lemon test,” from the 1971 case Lemon v. Kurtzman. This test required that government actions have a primarily secular purpose and avoid “excessive entanglements” between government and religion. Surely, teaching the religion of secular humanism to public school children—by teaching evolution or human rights or promoting gender equality—would fail such a test. Activists (including Conlan, later a U.S. Congressman) used this argument to remove textbooks throughout the country. Some plaintiffs brought their cases to the federal courts, where they deliberated at great length about the nature of secular humanism and religion. If courts (or school boards or other government bodies) would recognize that secular humanism is a religion, they might be forced to remove it from public institutions, including but not limited to the schools.
IN THEIR LAWSUIT against Mayor Bowser, the plaintiffs utilize these familiar arguments. But what caught my eye was their style and their citations. They write in the language of the online right, trolling with an ironic edge and a sneer. They denounce Bowser’s actions as “virtue signaling.” They write, “Because the Plaintiffs are color blind they are not sure what race [Bowser] is, just as they are not sure what race they are, but none of that matters.” This is the style of Ben Shapiro, not Cornelius Van Til. Neither do their citations bespeak a deep training in the world of Christian Reconstruction. In defining secular humanism, where we might expect to see Rushdoony or Schaeffer, they mention two sources who have spoken occasionally about the subject: conservative Presbyterian pastor Tim Keller and Michael Knowles, the Catholic media personality who writes for Shapiro’s The Daily Wire and hosts his own podcast and cohosts another with Ted Cruz. Their footnote about secular humanism contains only a link to a Facebook video in which Shapiro describes the “religion of wokeness” (he does not use the term “secular humanism”) and analyzes the rituals of public protest following the death of George Floyd. The plaintiffs are not well-trained Rushdoony disciples or crafty operatives of the conservative legal movement. They are, like many people, dabbling in a hodge-podge of rightwing content—as the always-blurry lines between the Republican Party, cheap-shock provocateurs, “respectable” National Review-style intellectual conservatism, patriot-movement extremists, and the wide world of white evangelicalism get even blurrier—eclectically grabbing ideas where they find them. Which is to say, they are using Facebook.
Today, you can hear about the dangers of secular humanism through Facebook or YouTube, as the algorithm bounces you from Fox News to Turning Point USA to QAnon to someone like Rich Penkoski. Online, “secular humanism” becomes a meme, a trollish gimmick to own the libs. But, in some ways, it always has been. It was, from the start, an oppositional ideology concerned foremost with identifying its others. In a world of misinformation and “alternative facts,” it might seem like radical ideas spread more easily, like contagion infecting the unsuspecting and earnest. But this might presume, wrongly, that racist projects of exclusion and dominance were somehow separate from the theologies that bolstered them. The accusation that BLM is a secular humanist cult is not a simply religious idea twisted into racism, just as the Trumpian version of the Christian Right is not a “corrupted” faith that was once pure. The authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism so evident now were part of the Christian Right from its beginnings.
Penkoski et al.’s lawsuit evinces, not to put too fine a point on it, a logic of segregation. It draws from a deep well of anti-Blackness, in theory and practice, from traditions forged in opposition to equality. If secular humanism and Christianity are divided by parallel lines, there can be no common ground. Control of the public sphere is a power play. Their project is not antidemocratic, per se. Rather, it employs the tools and rhetoric of liberal democracy to accomplish exclusionary aims.
The plaintiffs proposed that the District remove “BLACK LIVES MATTER” from the street and paint on others “BLUE LIVES MATTER,” “GREEN LIVES MATTER” (for the National Guard troops who fought protesters), and “ALL LIVES MATTER.” These statements, they argued, are truly secular and public. “Unlike Defendant Bowser, the Plaintiffs are not before this Court attempting to unconstitutionally convert the government into their own private church in a pathetic effort to feel less shamed and inadequate.” They shift into the language of feelings. As they “walk past and are exposed to the unavoidable Black Lives Matter display,” they feel excluded. We might analogize this feeling to that of a Jewish child viewing a creche in her public school or an atheist walking by a granite decalogue on their way into a courthouse. It’s the feeling that you’re not part of the “we.” That yellow paint is intended to “convey to all citizens that Black Lives Matters [sic] is the favored religion of the city of [sic] and of the Nation. This is the message the Plaintiffs receive.” What they seek is more than an accommodation. They want to feel included.
But, I would argue, what they want is not just inclusion. Not equality, but power. The type of power that comes from ostensible race-blindness, from a surface-level equality that masks and thus perpetuates deep structures of inequality. When they say that “all lives matter” is a secular statement and “Black lives matter” is a (bad) religious one, they make a textbook secularist move, pretending to universality and neutrality. The color of their public sphere cannot be Black, only “All,” provided they are protected, through violence, by blue and green. And what is whiteness if not the “right to exclude”? It’s a feeling of inclusion that depends on violent exclusion.
Charles McCrary is a postdoctoral research scholar at the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University, on the project Beyond Secularization: Religion, Science, and Technology in Public Life. He is a former postdoctoral fellow at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics.