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.