The Fiscal Cliff and Secularism

That we seem to be merrily rolling along toward a fiscal cliff is evident. Why is not as clear — at least not the deep why. Some of the depth of the problem can be plumbed out if we look at the relationship between secularism and our current morbid financial mess.

To live in a secular world means that the only heaven, if there is to be one, will be on earth. And since there are no souls in a secular, materialist world, then the only goods we can get are bodily goods. Thus, we run on from the self-preservation of having sufficient food, clothing and shelter to seek superfluous pleasures, titillations, entertainments and luxuries.

If we don’t get it here and now, we won’t get it at all. That’s one key aspect of our current cliff-hanging experience.

Another is the immense growth in size and power of the modern secular state, which is itself both a cause and a result of increasing secularization.

Modern secularism is, both by definition and actual historical effect, the removal of Christianity and the Church from the defining center of the culture. But that removal leaves a kind of institutional vacuum into which the secular state itself rushes. The modern state takes over the whole "space" that had previously been occupied by both the Church and the state as distinct, complementary powers.

That whole space covered humanity’s full range of existence, stretching from this world to the next, from the temporal goods of the body to the eternal glories of the soul. But in a secularized world, that whole space — that whole spectrum of human desire and fulfillment — is crammed into the temporal realm, and it is the secular state that attempts to satisfy it.

That’s why the modern state has gained so much power. Subtract God and the Church, as secularism by definition does, and the state becomes the greatest source of collective human power on earth. And so to that power we run, and ask of it, or take from it, all we long for, all we can get.

The gargantuan budgets of modern states attest to our expectations of this "mortal god" (as the secularist philosopher Thomas Hobbes called it). To take our own case, the U.S. federal budget revenue for 2012 was about 2.5 trillion dollars, a bit over $8,000 of revenue per person. And our current U.S. debt is 16.5 trillion dollars, about $52,000 of debt per person.

Who’s to blame? Since nearly all of us are to blame, then pointing fingers in any direction is accurate. Things are complicated, but I’d like to suggest how both the poor and rich (and a good number of people in between) are complicit in piling up such debt and how this relates to the rise of secularism.

Both in America and Europe, the burden of increasingly bloated entitlement programs is sinking state ships. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment, disability and so on make up about 62% of the U.S. budget. We’re approaching the roughly 65% spent by European liberal democracies.

We must be clear here. The problem is not, as such, the government providing a safety net for its most unfortunate citizens. If that were all that the state did, the states wouldn’t be going bankrupt. The problem is that the various entitlement programs go well beyond a safety net and provide ever more lavish benefits to more and more people so that now middle-income people are dipping into the federal entitlement pie.

We all want as much as we can get, here and now.

Here’s an example of how some of these entitlements currently work. A person would have to earn more than $60,000 to match the federal and state benefits he’d receive if he either gave up work or worked part time at a minimum-wage job and gathered in all the entitlements he’d be "entitled" to receive.

Others have calculated that total welfare spending per household in poverty is $167 per day. The median household income is only $137 per day per earning household.

And now for the rich. Here, the problem secularism causes is somewhat more complex.

To boil it down, the moral world of Christianity was prefaced on the existence of the soul and a hierarchy of its virtues. In this moral scheme, avarice (aka greed) was a vice, and so the inordinate desire for worldly wealth was a character defect that ruined one’s soul (and hence damaged one’s chances for bliss in the next life).

However, secularism, in rejecting Christianity, left us with no heaven to hope for or hell to fear. One of the effects was the dilution and then dismissal of the need for virtue. The notion arose among early "capitalists" that passionately pursuing one’s own material self-interest actually resulted, as a happy side effect, in producing moral social order and even something like virtue in the individual.

In buying and selling, they reasoned one must be honest or risk losing customers; one must be just in one’s transactions for the same reason; one must be industrious and prudent or one’s business would fail.

But as we became more secular, things became more crass. Some began to argue that a vice, greed, was actually good, because the desire for wealth — especially if it is inordinate and all-consuming — will produce more wealth for oneself and others and spread technological, medicinal and practical benefits that enhance everyone’s life.

So what happens when some people realize that they can get a lot richer, a lot more quickly and with a lot less work, if they milk the system for whatever its worth, whatever the consequences for anyone else?

They make super-risky investments with other people’s money, sell rotten bundled loan packages to unwitting investors, strike secret deals with members of Congress, crush competitors by gaining control of regulatory agencies, set up super-cushy CEO compensation packages in companies they’re riding into the dirt (companies that then get government bailouts), and rig and manipulate stock market trading with elaborate computer programs.

Government covers the risky investments, rewards rather than punishes the chicanery and, even more, becomes the place where the moneymakers increasingly go to control the market.

And why not? If this world is all there is, and there’s no punishment to fear from God in the next, you should make as much money as you can, any way you can. Right here and now.

And the government can pick up the tab — bailing out banks, bailing out industries, subsidizing gross mismanagement and predatory monopolies.

Until the tab becomes an abyss so deep that its edge is a fiscal cliff and our desire to get it all here and now carries us over the brink.

So we need to do the hard work of looking at the legislative details in our attempt not to roll over the cliff, but take an even harder look at the effect of secularism on our entire worldview.

Author and speaker Benjamin Wiker, Ph.D., has published nine books, with his newest, 

Worshipping the State, coming out soon. His website is