In a recent article published in the fall issue of University and titled “Why Doesn’t Johnny Laugh?” Professor Eric Goldman of Princeton impales what he calls the “creeping piety … which has now slithered its way to astounding popularity.” Such things as the dial-a-prayer plan of New York’s Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church and hit songs like “I’ve Got Religion,” “Big Fellow in the Sky,” and “The Fellow Upstairs” are among his horrible examples. Leaving aside the question of in any way classing a well-meant prayer plan with current juke box blasphemies, one wonders whether the professor may not have missed the point. For he goes on to say, “Our faces are straight, our thoughts are doggedly constructive, our ramparts are high and wide against the man who belly laughs. The real menace to America is not communism at all. Sometimes I think we are just going to bore ourselves to death.”

The Bible places no embargo on humor and joy. “A merry heart,” says Solomon, “doeth good like a medicine.” One of the chief Old Testament words for “blessed” means “happy,” the beatitudes describe not the solemnly pious but the genuinely happy man, and Scripture is full of words like “joy” and “rejoice.” But there is, as the Preacher reminds us, “a time to weep and a time to laugh.” And though there is a good deal that makes sense in Dr. Goldman’s outburst against religiosity and drab conformity, nevertheless to suggest that lack of laughter is a greater menace than communism looks like a judgment respecting the need of the day that is somewhat out of focus.

Actually the great internal menace to our nation is not a “creeping piety” but rather the creeping secularism that has insinuated itself into all areas of national life, religion not excluded.

In the wake of the Khrushchev visit, we may well ask ourselves some questions like these: Can it be that, despite our violent reaction against communism and all its works, many of our people are already well on the road to adopting one of its major tenets—namely, the assumption that materialism and practical atheism constitute a valid way of life? Granted that most Americans deplore communism as an economic system, what about the infiltration of our culture by the self-same atheistic spirit that is integral to dialectical materialism? In short, is there a tendency in so church-going a nation as this toward a secularism that amounts to nothing less than atheism by default?

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Such questions leave us with an uneasy feeling that, along with our satisfaction at the mounting wave of church-membership and at the wide hearing accorded the Gospel, secularism may be more deeply rooted in our culture than we realize. And what is secularism? To put it bluntly, it is simply a respectable way of spelling godlessness.

Consider a few symptoms of the secularism that tends to negate a great deal of Sunday-go-to-meeting religion. Take, for example, the spirit of secularism in education. To borrow one of C. S. Lewis’ titles, American education is today a victim of “The Great Divorce,” the disunited parties being in this case education and God. Admitting the great difficulty of relating the principle of separation of Church and State to public education, the secularization of our schools has gone much beyond what the founders intended by the First Amendment. In a talk to a group of school heads on the subject “A Frenchman’s View of American Education,” Professor Henri Peyre of Yale pointed out that our education, with its great virtues as well as its striking defects, mirrors the prevailing climate of opinion. And this, he went on to say, is far removed from the basic Protestant world view out of which American democracy grew. Sometimes it takes a friend from abroad to see us clearly.

Secularism is all-pervasive; it finds its way into many areas of life. For sheer, downright godlessness much of modern writing would be hard to match. Even our most reputable literary journals have no compunction about printing stories in which the Name that is above every name is degraded into a common expletive. Problems of intimate human relationships are discussed as if the Ten Commandments had never been heard of. And a whole school of fiction has arisen that takes for its province the perverse and decadent.

And what of the entertainment world? It was secularism when the movie industry chose to entertain the Soviet dictator with a spectacle so crude that, in the words of The Manchester Guardian, it left Madam Khrushchev “grey with shame” and gave her husband occasion to scoff. And we are told that the country will soon be treated to a Hollywood production of Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry. As for the amusement that comes into the majority of our homes, current revelations of the fixing of quiz programs show the extent to which secular entertainment may lack integrity.

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To turn to a very different area, let any pastor do as a Methodist minister recently did and surprise his congregation with a brief test of the most elementary Bible facts. He may find as did this brave minister that his sermons have been directed at men and women abysmally ignorant of even the Scriptural A-B-Cs. For the spirit of secularism may invade the church itself, particularly if the Bible occupies only a marginal rather than central place in the pulpit. Also, it is entirely possible for organization and administration to become so complex in church life that it leads to preoccupation with programs and plans, budgets and conferences, and even an expertly run church becomes more of a secular institution than a spiritually living fellowship of believers.

These are but a few symptoms of attitudes that have crept far into our culture. The plain fact is that secularism has never been an adequate philosophy of life. Even at its moralistic best, it offers no more than a fractional world view. Because it bans the eternal, it lacks integrity in the root sense of wholeness.

What is the answer to the creeping secularism of our day? In his address at the 200th anniversary of Nassau Hall at Princeton, Dr. John Baillie of Scotland quoted the opening of the Westminster Shorter Catechism—“What is the chief end of man?” “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” He went to to say, “It is within the context of that question and answer that what we call our Western civilization has been developed, and I believe our civilization to be doomed to swift disintegration and decay if it should cease to be aware of itself as standing within that context.” It should be added, there is only one message that can make us fully aware of ourselves as standing within that context and that is the message of the living Christ set forth in the Word of the living God.

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