Coping with Political Theology

Among the many paradoxes in America’s international relations today, one stands out. It has to do with America’s self-conception, and therefore with religion. On the one hand, America is clearly the most religious nation in the modern West and the most powerful. On the other, American policy has been unable to understand, let alone cope with, the religious passions dominating contemporary world politics. Given Americans’ collective recognition of religion’s legitimacy in a modern political order, one would think that we would be better able to adapt ourselves to the current situation than other, far more secular Western nations. This is not the case, and we need to understand why.

The toleration trap

Considered with even a little historical perspective, contemporary American debates over religion and politics are astonishingly provincial. Whether our arguments take place in the press, in seminar rooms, or on the stump, we keep coming back to the same basic themes: toleration, church-state separation, freedom of assembly, conscience, values, community, and a few others. These terms reflect the way we see religious phenomena at home and abroad and also shape how we see them. Having read our Tocqueville, we understand how deeply rooted in American experience these concepts and categories are. Many of the first settlers were fleeing religious intolerance and persecution at home, and for them establishing a constitutional framework guaranteeing toleration and church-state separation was the first order of political business. Nothing goes deeper in American collective consciousness.

What we seem to have forgotten is how unique the circumstances were that made possible the establishment of the American compact on religion and politics. Perhaps now is the time to restore the much needed concept of American exceptionalism and remind ourselves of some basic facts. The most important one that set our experience apart from that of Europe was the absence of a strong Roman Catholic Church as a redoubt of intellectual and political opposition to the liberal-democratic ideas hatched by the Enlightenment – and thus also, the absence of a radical, atheist Enlightenment convinced that l’infâme must be écrasé. For over two centuries France, Italy, and Spain were rent by what can only be called existential struggles over the legitimacy of Catholic political theology and the revolutionary heritage of 1789. (Though the term “liberalism” is of Spanish coinage, as a political force it was weak in the whole of Catholic Europe until after the Second World War.) Neither side in this epic struggle was remotely interested in “toleration”; they wanted victory.

Looking beyond Europe, we note other things missing from the American landscape, quite literally. For example, there were no religious shrines to fight over, no holy cities, no temples, no sacred burial grounds (except those of the Native Americans, which were shamefully ignored). There also was a complete absence of what we would today call diversity: America was racially and culturally homogeneous in the early years of the republic, even if there were differences – in retrospect, incredibly minor – in Protestant affiliation. Yes, there were a few Catholics and Jews among the early immigrants, but the tone was set by Protestants of dissenting tendencies from the British Isles. The theological differences among them were swamped by the fact that everyone spoke the same language, cooked the same food, and looked to a shared history of persecution and emigration. It was a homogeneous country, and what comes with homogeneity, along with some troubling things, is trust.

It was this trust, bred of homogeneity, that allowed the ideal of toleration to be actualized. People feel comfortable when they are with their own, and it is only in an atmosphere of mutual trust that norms of acceptance and openness can develop. Because the early Americans seemed familiar to each other, at a certain point it no longer seemed far-fetched that a white male who followed one Protestant preacher and cut his hair in one way, could eventually learn to tolerate another white male who followed a different Protestant preacher and cut his hair in another – or, later, that this same principle might be applied to people who were not white, male, or Protestant. Tocqueville begins the first volume of Democracy in America with these geographical and sociological givens, which he saw as the necessary conditions of establishing a successful democracy in a large continent. If toleration is the great achievement in American political and religious life, the road to it was not paved with toleration alone. It was the by-product of many other factors that had to be in place before the deeply rooted human urge to distinguish, discriminate, and fear could be snuffed.

But now the principle of toleration has been rooted in the United States and, at least since the Second World War, is formally recognized in the democracies of Western Europe, Latin America, and parts of Asia. This is a great success for democracy and, insofar as we have helped things along, for American foreign policy. But it has also bred fantasies about the easy spread of democratic institutions and the norms necessary to support them in other parts of the world, most urgently in Islamic nations. Toleration seems so compelling to us as an idea that we find it hard to take seriously reasons – particularly theological reasons – for rejecting the democratic ideas associated with it. For example, in May 2006 Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent an open letter [pdf] to President George W. Bush, which contained the following sentences:

Liberalism and Western style democracy have not been able to help realize the ideals of humanity. Today these two concepts have failed. Those with insight can already hear the sounds of the shattering and fall of the ideology and thoughts of the Liberal democratic systems….Whether we like it or not, the world is gravitating towards faith in the Almighty and justice and the will of God will prevail over all things.

This letter was the subject of a few ironic comments from the White House and a few jokes on late-night television, but otherwise was not taken seriously. For a religious nation, we are strangely unwilling to consider the importance of theological ideas to explain the contemporary rejection of democracy and toleration.

What is political theology?

In a sense this is understandable, given that the United States has no established tradition of political theology. Yes, we have had our share of preachers who supported and attacked slavery, supported and attacked wars, supported and attacked prohibition, fluoridation, communism, socialism, women’s liberation, gay liberation, free-love, abortion, genetic research, and everything else. But rare instances like the Civil War apart, they have all agreed to abide by the outcome of democratic procedures. Except for Joseph Smith in his last days and a few other colorful exceptions, no serious American religious thinker ever developed a full-blown theology of government throwing the basic legitimacy of American democracy into question. It is something of a miracle. But whatever its source, it is exceptional and we need to recognize its consequences. Though the long tradition of Christian political theology eventually died in twentieth-century Europe, memory of it is still strong and laced with fear. But the American founding took place as a self-conscious break with Europe’s traditional political theologies and so memory of the world we left behind is somewhat vague. We were born, so to speak, on the other shore.

So successful has our passage been to this other shore that it is sometimes difficult to remind Americans that political theology is the primordial form of political thought. Virtually every civilization known to us began with an image of itself as set within a divine nexus of God, man, and world, and based its understanding of legitimate authority on that theological picture. This is true of all the civilizations of the ancient Near East, and of many in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Political theology seems to be the default condition of civilizations as they try to articulate how their political order relates to the natural order, and how both stand under a divine order. It is a rational construct with its own concepts and terms, and a long history of intellectual debates that are still alive for those who believe. In it, arguments about authority and legitimacy, or rights and duties, travel up and down a ladder connecting human reasons to divine ones. Making those connections and developing a comprehensive account of God, man, and world simply is what it is to think politically for political theologians.

The ideas and problems of Christian political theology are what shaped the West. Unlike the Hebrew or Muslim God, who delivered a comprehensive law governing all aspects of individual and collective life, the Christian God was a trinity that ruled over a created cosmos and guided human beings by different means: revelation, inner conviction, and the natural order. The Christian picture of the divine was magnificent and allowed a magnificent and powerful civilization to flower. But it was difficult to apply to politics: God the Father had given commandments; a Redeemer arrived, reinterpreting them, then departed; and now the Holy Spirit remained as a ghostly divine presence. Were Christian supposed to withdraw from a corrupted world that had been abandoned by the Redeemer? Were they called upon to rule the earthly city with both church and state, inspired by the Holy Spirit? Or were they expected to build a New Jerusalem that would hasten the Messiah’s return?

Throughout the Middle Ages Christians argued over these questions, and by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries doctrinal differences fueled by political ambitions led to a deadly vicious cycle that lasted a century and a half. In the wars of religion Christians addled by apocalyptic dreams hunted and killed Christians with a maniacal fury once reserved for Muslims, Jews, and heretics. The world had seen exterminating violence before between peoples committed to different gods, but not the self-immolation of a civilization divided over how to picture a god they all worshipped. Only Christians managed that feat, and it was the death knell of Christian political theology.

The Great Separation

As we know, this crisis of Western Christendom prepared the way for modern political thought, and eventually for modern liberal democracy. And it seems to follow from this fact that modern liberal democracy, with its distinctive ideas and institutions, is a post-Christian phenomenon. I want to insist on this formulation as a way of stressing the uniqueness of Christian revelation and its theological-political difficulties – and therefore the uniqueness of the philosophical response to the civilizational crisis those problems triggered. Though the principles of modern liberal democracy are not conceptually dependent on the truth of Christianity, they are genetically dependent on the problems Christianity posed and failed to solve. Being mindful of this should help us to understand the strengths of our tradition of political thought, and perhaps also its limitations.

Its strengths have to do with the art of separation it developed in the wake of the wars of religion. And the most important figure here is Hobbes. Hobbes’s great achievement in Leviathan was to have changed the subject of European political thought from theology to anthropology – specifically, the anthropology of the religious passions. All political theology interprets a set of revealed divine commands and applies them to social life. Hobbes ignored the substance of all such commands and talked instead about how and why human beings believe God revealed them. If we can think about that, he reasoned, we can begin to understand why religious convictions so often lead to political conflicts, and then perhaps how to contain the potential for violence. Hobbes planted a seed, a thought that it might be possible to build legitimate political institutions without grounding them on divine revelation. His new thinking would begin with obvious, observable facts about human nature – like the omnipresence of fear – rather than with a fanciful picture of the nexus between God, man, and world. The hope was that we would develop a new habit, so that whenever we talked about the basic principles of political life we would simply let God be. Hobbes’s wager was that such a habit, once formed, would withstand the onslaught of any political revelation.

This was the Great Separation. We speak frequently of the separation of church and state as being fundamental to any modern democratic system of government. But for it to be successful, a prior, and much more difficult, separation needs to be made in a society’s habits of mind. Letting God be is not an easy thing to do, and cannot be induced simply by drawing a line between church and state institutions within a constitution, or dictating rules of toleration. For many believers in the biblical religions, today as in the seventeenth century, sundering the connection between political form and divine revelation seems a betrayal of God, whose commandments are comprehensive. Intellectual separation is difficult to accept and requires theological adaptation to be spiritually plausible; God must be conceived of more abstractly, as having imposed upon himself a certain distance from the mechanics of political life. Such a theological transformation is unimaginable in many religious traditions, and difficult in all of them – not just Islam, but Judaism and Christianity as well. But it does seem to be a necessary condition of political liberalization and democratization as we understand them.

The enduring difference

So there is, in American thinking about religion and politics, a hidden separation that makes possible all the institutional separations we enjoy. On the one hand, religious Americans believe in the absolute truth of their faiths, even (among fundamentalist Protestants) in the literal truth of scripture. On the other, due to the humanistic turn of modern political thought, they believe that those revealed truths should not affect the rules of the democratic game making it possible for them to practice their faith. To be clear: Americans are more than comfortable with expressing their religious views about particular policies and even symbolic matters like the Christmas crèche, but hardly any harbor religious doubts about the legitimacy of a process that does not recognize the revealed truth of those views. There are the loner exceptions, withdrawn into their communes or hiding outside abortion clinics with guns. But that there are so few is astonishing. For 1,500 years the Christian Bible was the source of a powerful tradition of political theology for which people were willing to kill and be killed, but Americans have rarely read the Bible as a call to political battle, “Onward Christian Soldiers” notwithstanding. It is not even a sourcebook for American government: Americans do not argue about the wisdom of federalism by referring to Holy Scripture.

This is good news, and it should put in perspective some of the worries expressed in recent decades about the political influence of organized religious groups in the United States. Again, considered historically, our problems are relatively minor so long as they are about policy, not about the basic legitimacy of our constitution. Those disturbed by the religious right should keep this in mind. Vigilance is important, not only in protecting the church-state separation but in maintaining the deeper separation between political theology and the humanistic principles of liberal democracy. There is nothing illegitimate about appealing to elements of faith or church doctrine to militate for a particular policy regarding abortion, home schooling, censorship, or any other controversial subject – so long as the legitimacy of the outcome is not thrown into question. Some may argue that it is only a matter of time before those who draw on Biblical revelation to shape their views of policy will eventually question democratic procedures that consistently frustrate God’s will. There are countless historical examples of this happening – but not, so far, in the United States, despite the messianic tenor of our political rhetoric. We should be aware of the threat, but not exaggerate it at home.

Understanding the challenge abroad is another matter, and here Americans have a tendency to underestimate it. We focus too much on the institutional separation of church and state and professions of toleration, too little on the intellectual separation needed to keep political theology at bay. Historically speaking, the Great Separation is a departure from the way most civilizations have thought about themselves, and there are revivals of political theology even in nations we recognize as democratic today. In Israel the radical settlers movement Gush Emunim has been fueled by the messianic writings of Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook (1865-1935) and the political machinations of his son Zvi Yehuda Kook (1891-1982), who recast modern Zionism in terms of a redemptive political theology independent of the norms of democratic governance. In India the nationalist Hindu party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has taken inspiration from the writings of Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya (1916-1968) and others, who argued that the only legitimate sources of Indian laws and institutions are the principles of divine “Dharma,” not those of democratic consent.[1] Neither Israeli nor Indian democracy appear fundamentally threatened by these political theologies, but the nature of the challenge should be recognized.

The challenge in the Islamic world – and in those Western nations that have large Muslim populations – is much greater. Our working assumptions – that democracy is the only legitimate form of government, that the institutional separation of church and state is necessary, that religion is essentially a private matter, that one should be free to enter or leave a religious congregation at will – are simply not the assumptions of millions of Muslims across the globe. This is not because they do not want good government, or decent societies, or that they are utterly intolerant of other faiths. It is because the political theology of the shari’a is still intact and commands the respect of all pious Muslims – just as the Torah is intact for ultra-orthodox Jews, many of whom reject the legitimacy of the Israeli democratic state. Torah and shari’a are comprehensive laws, and those who believe in their comprehensiveness are obliged to look to them for guidance in everything, including politics. Given the statelessness of diaspora Jews for two millennia, the political-theological potential of the Torah lay dormant, except for occasional outbursts of messianic dreaming, as in the case of Shabbtai Zvi (1626-76). But the political theology of shari’a is highly developed and has been put into practice in Muslim nations for over a thousand years. The Great Separation that eventually extinguished Christian political theology in the West has no counterpart in the Muslim world.

What conclusions are we to draw from this fact? The most important is how little our American assumptions about religion and politics, deriving from the post-Christian Great Separation, will apply to a civilization with a strong, intact tradition of political theology. This is not to say that the Muslim tradition lacks political concepts akin to ours, such as justice, toleration, separation of religious and governmental power, accountability, and the like. How could it, given that all societies face the same basic set of political problems? But the bases of these concepts are wholly different: Muslim political theology derives them from the revelation of the Qur’an, the traditions of the hadith, and the decisions of the community of legal scholars who look to these sources; modern political philosophy derives them from a reading of human nature alone. However much overlap there may be in terms of particular “values” and principles, we are deriving them from completely different sources. And that must be recognized if we are to understand each other.


[1] See Upadhyaya’s 1965 set of lectures on Integral Humanism at

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.”

  • 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.