In the global culture war, secularism is suddenly facing a strong challenge

In nation after nation, a global culture war is being fought on the same battle lines: citizen against cosmopolitan, populist against expert, democrat against judge. Bound up with these battles is a dispute between those who believe that authority has a divine origin against those who would derive it from formal procedure. Secularism is being challenged by a return of the sacred.

One can see this in Hungary, which on January 1, 2012, proclaimed that the “constitutional continuity of Hungary’s statehood and the unity of the nation” is embodied in the Holy Crown of St Stephen. This thousand-year-old relic, a Byzantine crown whose gold bands are decorated with bright enamel and topped by a bent cross, was a gift (it is said) from Pope Sylvester to St Stephen, Hungary’s first king, it symbolises Hungary’s independence from any earthly power and submission to the spiritual power of Christ.

Or take Poland, where on November 19, 2016, Christ was enthroned as King. At the Church of Divine Mercy in Kraków, the Eucharist was removed from the tabernacle, placed in a monstrance topped by a golden crown and censed. President Andrzej Duda, prime minister Beata Szydło and 6,000 other Poles knelt and prayed to Christ the King: “We Poles stand here before you together with our authorities, clergy, and laity to acknowledge your reign…” They prayed that Christ’s reign might be acknowledged by every people, “especially those that have made Poland bear the cross”. Three hundred and sixty-eight years after King John Casimir crowned Mary the Queen of Poland, Christ took his place beside her.

In America the return of the sacred has been less Catholic, more commercial – but still unmistakable. Trump campaigned by asserting America’s Christian identity. It began in November 2015, when Trump held a campaign event in Grand Rapids that opened with Mannheim Steamroller’s Deck the Halls and featured a red and green backdrop hung with wreaths. “Merry Christmas” became a kind of campaign slogan.

Trump’s opponents in the primary merely asked for tolerance of Christian belief. They packaged religious concerns in the liberal language of “religious liberty,” imploring secularists not to suppress them. Trump shifted the grounds of debate. He said: “We’re going to say ‘Merry Christmas’ again.” His voters heard: “We are a Christian nation before we are a liberal one.”

Doing this won the campaign for Trump. A study by the academics Andrew Whitehead, Samuel Perry, and Joseph Baker found that support for Trump correlated with belief that America is a Christian nation. “Many voters believed,” they wrote, “that regardless of his personal piety (or lack thereof), Trump would defend what they saw as the country’s Christian heritage – and would help move the nation toward a distinctly Christian future.”

Nothing has summed up the nature of the global culture war as well as a Bloomberg report on Poland’s battle with the EU. “The populist government wants the country to answer to God,” it said, “not its critics in Western Europe.”

In various ways, the leaders of Poland, Hungary, Israel, and the US have all rejected the authority of a global liberal consensus. On what basis? On the authority of God, delegated to them as the heads of sovereign states.

Of course, in strict formal terms populist Poland and Hungary remain more secular than countries like Britain or Denmark that have established churches. But no one objects to a state church that has been drained of all meaning and public significance. What shocks is the apparent return of the sacred, the possibility that the dry bones of Europe’s history of sanctity and chivalry might find new life.

At the enthronement of Christ Poland’s Cardinal Dziwisz said, “Let us not be afraid of such an act. Jesus Christ does not take anything away from us, but gives everything. His rule does not threaten anyone, because it is expressed through love that has been crucified.” We need leaders who are ready to affirm the sovereignty of God in our common life, but we should remember not to put our trust in princes – even if those princes say they put their trust in God.

Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things and a Robert Novak journalism fellow

This article has been edited. An earlier version said that the Whitehead, Baker and Perry study rejected a correlation between support for Trump and racism or economic distress. It did not.

This article first appeared in the June 22 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here