The Stillborn Modernization

“For a religious nation, we are strangely unwilling to consider the importance of theological ideas to explain the contemporary rejection of democracy and toleration.” If Mark Lilla had written nothing else, he would still have performed an immense service to public debate by pointing to this basic paradox. Fortunately, he has written a great deal more, and much of it is equally challenging, and demands close consideration, not least by our diplomats and public servants. My problem concerns the historical framework that is fundamental to his argument at every stage. Yes, of course, the past has baked our loaf, but I do not begin to recognize the past(s) that he offers. And that caveat is not just a matter of academic nitpicking: Lilla’s argument is fundamentally grounded in cultural and intellectual history, and if that history is wrong, so is the overarching argument, and so are the implications for other societies around the world.

Let me begin with his basic argument about American exceptionalism, the idea that the lack of a powerful established church in American history meant that the country never developed a political theology. Certainly, Lilla concedes, preachers and religious figures have often advocated particular causes, but with a couple of rare exceptions, they have not challenged the basic legitimacy of American democracy. To the contrary, I would be hard pressed to point to an era in American history in which politics were not characterized by basic political theologies, often in fervent competition with each other. When Lilla opines that “Americans have rarely read the Bible as a call to political battle”, the rumbling sound you hear in the distance is the massed stirring of tens of thousands of normally placid historians searching for their pitchforks and torches before marching en masse to Columbia University to remonstrate personally with the author. His sentence is accurate, provided we replace “rarely” with “always.”

Sometimes, the radical political content was explicit, as when opponents of slavery challenged the whole basis of the Constitution in the decades leading up to the Civil War. More commonly, such a direct assault was not necessary because parties and governments accepted those religious themes as central to their policies, and the argument was how best to implement them. It was President U. S. Grant who complained that he had three political parties to handle, the Republicans, the Democrats, and the Methodists. Of course religious groups have agreed to abide by the outcome of political debates, because in American history they have usually won them. Look at the religiously-inspired moral crusades of the late nineteenth century, which culminated in the triumph of the Social Gospel, the era of Progressivism and Prohibition.

Just when did political theology cease to drive American politics, reshaping legal and constitutional values in the process? Certainly not in the 1920s, when political/religious anti-Catholicism fueled a revived Ku Klux Klan which, at six or seven million strong, was the largest political movement in American history. (The main competitor for this title was the American Protective Association of the 1890s, which was entirely a manifestation of anti-Catholic bigotry). Political theology still burned brightly in the 1960s, when African-American pastors drew passionately on Biblical and revivalist sources to orchestrate that Fourth Great Awakening which secular historians recall as the Civil Rights movement. The best known American speech of the twentieth century, “I have a dream”, was in equal measures evangelical, charismatic and prophetic, drawing mainly on Amos and Isaiah.

Other examples abound. So much of modern American liberalism has its roots in the Catholic social justice tradition, exemplified in the labor movement, and later in movements for peace and human rights. And the pervasive Jewish presence in movements for reform and social improvement is thoroughly based in the distinct but closely related visions of justice founded in the Law and the Prophets. That’s not a political theology? In each case, of course, one could object that these movements were “really” political, and merely dressed in the convenient garb of evangelical or Biblical rhetoric; but the same argument could be made about any of the Islamic movements that Professor Lilla sees as marking such a stark contrast to American examples.

By the way, nothing that Lilla says about the colonial roots of American exceptionalism makes sense to a historian of that era. No, society then was not overwhelmingly composed of “Protestants of dissenting tendencies from the British Isles.” Indeed, the colonies had their share of Congregationalists and Presbyterians. On the eve of the American Revolution, though, the largest organized church groups included English Anglicans, German Lutherans, German and Dutch Reformed, each the faithful offshoot of a state church that exercised a thorough hegemony in the mother country. And if he really believes that the various churches and sects lived in fair cultural and religious homogeneity, he needs to start looking at the quite abundant religious histories of the era, starting with the struggles of Baptists and Anglicans in Virginia, Quakers and Presbyterians in Pennsylvania.

As I have suggested, the historical context is so important because it shows that nothing we see around us today is terribly new. American politics, liberal and conservative, is and will continue to be grounded in religious allegiances, framed in religious language. Moreover, that spiritual rhetoric is likely to grow with the rapid swelling of evangelical and Pentecostal churches, bolstered substantially by mass immigration from Latin America, Asia and Africa. If you want to see the continuing evolution of political theology, just observe the emerging activism over global climate change, an issue already suffused with religious and apocalyptic rhetoric, and (often) the demonization of one’s unrighteous opponents. In the future, as the past, political theologies will continue to play a central role in American political discourse.

But let’s move away from the United States. Professor Lilla suggests that, following the Wars of Religion, Christian Europe experienced a Great Separation between “political form and divine revelation,” a movement towards privatized religious experience that effectively marked the end of political theology. He connects this trend with the innovative work of Thomas Hobbes, though as any historian of England would have told him, very few people actually cited Hobbes in political discourse for the century or so after his death, and his impact on toleration debates was nil. When he was quoted, it was in the context of contract theory, not religious toleration.

But assume that such a Separation occurred: why in Europe, why after 1648? Why there, why then? Lilla connects this with the peculiarities of Christian theology, “the uniqueness of Christian revelation and its theological-political difficulties,” which led to the unparalleled and unprecedented savagery of the Wars of Religion, “the self-immolation of a civilization divided over how to picture a god they all worshiped. Only Christians managed that feat.” Well yes – but of course, Muslims performed very comparable feats. Everything said here about Christians also applies to the rival sects of Islam, which also spent long centuries killing each other, but somehow without the effects that Lilla finds in Europe. Historically, contemplating the very different schools of thought contesting within each religion, any reasonable observer would surely have forecast that Islam, rather than Christianity, would have been far more likely to evolve the kind of tolerant rationalism that lies at the center of Lilla’s argument. Often such tolerant or rationalist movements, such as the Mu’tazilites, did emerge, only to suffer ultimate defeat.

So why the West, and why not Islam? My fundamental problem with Professor Lilla’s work is that he is a historian of political and cultural thought, who ably studies how ideas breed and feed other ideas, but who pays insufficient attention to just why they have the impact they do at particular times. In contrast, I believe that ideas and intellectual movements may emerge at many different points in history, but they will have little influence unless they appeal to social and political constituencies, unless they become grounded in social and economic realities. In the case of toleration and “Separation,” it is easy to find individual thinkers through the centuries presenting attractively liberal-sounding notions, but these never reached a mass public or influenced political debate. Insofar as toleration and liberalism did reshape Western society, the change has nothing to do either with the alleged theological contradictions of Christianity, nor with the sustained horrors of the Wars of Religion (which actually were no worse than many medieval conflicts), nor any of Professor Lilla’s proposed interpretations.

Let me instead propose a wholly different explanation, one that I believe fits far better with the evidence. Ideas of toleration grew in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries because of changes in the material life of Western societies, changes that at once created vastly greater diversity of lifestyles and cultures and (more important) gave unprecedented opportunities to express and debate ideas. Initially in Great Britain and the Netherlands, vastly expanded trade, entrepreneurship and commercial sophistication were buttressed by predictable, impartial systems of law and property. Rising economic power produced sustained prosperity, and a vastly diversified society. High literacy rates provided the market for frenetically active publishing industries, centered in the hothouse societies of London and Amsterdam. Newspapers and magazines disseminated metropolitan ideas, including the fashion for science. In such an environment, it became impossible to enforce religious or cultural orthodoxies, and diversity, pluralism and toleration grew apace. Far from renouncing their religious-political activism, people found new opportunities for it, but they also became much more selective about the issues on which they were literally prepared to go to war.

So fractious and fragmented did the new society become that when geography sufficiently separated a colony from the imperial center, that land broke away to form a new independent society. That is what the American colonies did, and what Ireland tried to do about the same time. That story has nothing to do with the intricacies of Christian theology, and was only marginally connected with Enlightenment political theory.

If that interpretation is right, that has very different implications for our understanding of the intolerance and religious militancy of non-Western and especially Islamic societies. In fact, this has little or nothing to do with anything in Muslim theology or culture. Change depends on economic development, the creation of free institutions and free media. Social pluralism is the prerequisite, not the consequence, of religious toleration. And given the right economic, legal and cultural circumstances, both the tolerance and the pluralism can flourish in any religious context. The problem lies in a stillborn modernization, not a stillborn God.


Philip Jenkins is professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Coping with Political Theology by Mark Lilla

    Drawing on themes of his new book The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, Columbia University’s Mark Lilla attempts to explain why America, the most religious nation in the modern West, can neither understand nor cope with “the religious passions dominating contemporary world politics.” Lilla lays out how the “Great Separation” in Western political thought, which set aside “political theology” as the basis for conceiving of the legitimacy of the political order, together with the exceptional American experience of religious toleration, has made it difficult for Americans to grasp how uneasily Western ideals of democracy and toleration fit within frameworks of thought that still put God at the center of politics.

Response Essays

  • Political Theology in America by Damon Linker

    Damon Linker, author of The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege, contests Mark Lilla’s claim that Americans have left political theology behind. According to Linker, the prevailing attitude of Americans to their political institutions is neither fundamentally secular nor radically religious. Rather, there is a large segment of the population – the religious right – who “passionately defend American constitutional principles and political institutions but who also interpret these principles and institutions in explicitly theological terms.” Therefore, according to Linker, learning to cope with political theology is not only required to grasp politics abroad, but also to grasp what is going on at home.

  • Religious Country, Secular Constitution by Andrew Sullivan

    Andrew Sullivan, blogger extraordinaire and author of The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back, offers a meditation on the tensions in American politics between a religious culture with a religious politics and the secularism of the American founding documents, without which, Sullivan argues, “America would long since have succumbed to some version of theocracy or another.” According to Sullivan, “the achievement of keeping God at arm’s length in the ordering structure of a polity is very, very rare,” and Americans should better appreciate its rarity and fragility.

The Conversation