Religious Country, Secular Constitution

I confess in this debate to siding more with Mark than Damon and Philip. This is not because, as Damon and Philip amply demonstrate, political theology has been absent from American politics and history. It is because that American political theology has not challenged or destroyed the profoundly secular achievement of the Founding Fathers in stark contrast to the experience of Islam in the Muslim world and Christianity in Europe for many centuries.

America is substantively and experientially a deeply religious country, and its political discourse has always been saturated with religious rhetoric and imagery. I don’t think Mark or I would dispute this. It is a country whose politics is experientially creedal. It doesn’t incubate the kind of high Tory pragmatism that I admire in the English experience; or even the kind of atheist secularism that helped spawn socialism in other developed countries in the twentieth century. But the power of that religious presence — I call it “Christianism” and describe it at length in The Conservative Soul — is in many ways a testament to the strength of the secular constitution that resists it. In fact, I think that without the kind of secularism that Mark detects in the founding documents and Constitution, America would long since have succumbed to some version of theocracy or another.

Mark’s basic point is that this is the natural and historical state for humankind. The achievement of keeping God at arm’s length in the ordering structure of a polity is very, very rare. Very few countries have achieved it in the history of the world. America’s genius is to have sustained it, even while fostering an intensely religious, roiling, and often apocalyptic culture. So Damon is right to worry about theology’s political claims — especially in the last few years, and during various spasms of the past. But he is wrong in thinking, I believe, that this will lead to a collapse of the American system as such. It could lead to disastrous social policies, civil dissension, social conflict, and what we have come to call a “culture war.” But even then, the impulse to junk the Constitution as a whole, and the ability even to amend it, is limited. In fact, it is remarkable how modest many Christian fundamentalists have been in addressing the Constitution’s core secularism. Whether out of national pride or simply denial, it remains a fact that the main policy goals of Christianists in American history has been in amending the Constitution or bypassing it, rather than attacking it frontally.

Hence our difficulty in understanding the power of the theocratic temptation. Because we have come to take the Constitution for granted. We mustn’t. But neither must we ignore its resilience, or the unique American balance between the theological saturation of its politics and the austere secularism of its founding documents.

In this, of course, I share Mark’s view of the real import of the Constitution and am unpersuaded by the attempts of some to portray it as an essentially Christian achievement. It is a secular achievement that was brilliantly masked by some Christian window-dressing. Yes, as Mark shows, it is impossible to explain or understand the American constitutional achievement without understanding the long historical interaction between politics and Christianity in Europe and England in the preceding centuries. But once you understand that, the radicalness and newness of the American secular idea is what looms large.

I think this is what Mark is emphasizing: not that America is a secular country or that Americans are secular people — but rather that their religious life and nature are framed and made possible by a deeply secular constitution. American politics is very religious; American foundational politics is very secular. This combination is what makes this country different; and its blessed exception to most historical rules can blind us to the fragility of the achievement and the strength of its ideological and political enemies.

Vigilance at home; and realism about the deep threats abroad, especially from Islam. This is what Mark’s splendid book evoked in me. I hope more people read it.

Andrew Sullivan is a senior editor of The Atlantic, and author of The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back. His widely read and influential blog, the Daily Dish is published at The Atlantic.com.

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.

  • The Stillborn Modernization by Philip Jenkins

    In his vigorous reply, the eminent Penn State religion scholar Philip Jenkins contests both Mark Lilla’s reading of history and the lessons he draws from it. In contrast to Lilla’s claim of American innocence of political theologies, Jenkins points to the centrality of religiously motivated politics in “the moral crusades of the late nineteenth century, … the Social Gospel, the era of Progressivism and Prohibition” and the civil rights movement. Jenkins’ alternative theory of the rise of liberal toleration emphasizes “changes in the material life of Western societies” brought about by increasing commercialization, which “has nothing to do with the intricacies of Christian theology, and was only marginally connected with Enlightenment political theory.”

The Conversation