Political Theology in America

I am delighted to have the opportunity to debate the provocative ideas in Mark Lilla’s wise and beautifully written book The Stillborn God, from which “Coping with Political Theology” is largely drawn. I agree with Lilla about many of these ideas—about the gulf that separates political theology and political philosophy, about the crucial importance of Thomas Hobbes in understanding the birth of liberal government, about the severe challenges involved in Western interactions with the Muslim world. Still, there are important differences between us.

Interestingly, Lilla and I are furthest apart when we come closest to home. In Lilla’s telling, the United States was “born, so to speak, on the other shore,” by which he means on the opposite shore from the one occupied by political theology. With very few exceptions, “no serious American religious thinker ever developed a full-blown theology of government throwing the basic legitimacy of American democracy into question.” And this shows that Americans have a deeply ingrained habit of practicing the art of separation—not merely the separation of church and state, but also the separation of political thinking from theological premises. In this sense, the theory and practice of politics in the United States are secular, all the way down, no matter how many American citizens happen to be devout religious believers.

There is much truth in Lilla’s approach to understanding the place of religion in American politics and history. And he is surely right to urge us not to exaggerate the threat of an emerging theocracy at home, when, as he points out, hardly any believers question the legitimacy of the country’s Constitution or basic democratic procedures. Yet I wonder whether Lilla’s conceptual schema is capable of capturing the complexities of America’s political-religious reality. No, American Christians are not, for the most part, “willing to kill or be killed” in the name of their beliefs, as Christians of earlier eras sometimes were. But is it really common for devout believers in the United States to accept that the principles underlying American government are “humanistic,” as Lilla asserts? And is it really accurate to say, as Lilla does, that one of “our” working assumptions in the United States is that “religion is essentially a private matter”? I know that I make that assumption, as does Lilla, and as do many millions of broadly secular (and a good many religious) Americans. But it is also true that many (other) millions of religious Americans explicitly reject this assumption—as they do the secular-liberal interpretation of the Constitution that Lilla assumes.

There are, then, more categories of American citizens than Lilla presumes. In his view, one is either standing shoulder to shoulder with such practitioners of political theology as Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the Christian Reconstructionist R. J. Rushdoony (who advocated replacing the U.S. Constitution with “Bible law” derived form the Old Testament)—or else one is a believer in the secularist reading of our history and political institutions. But if the rise of the religious right over the past thirty years has taught us anything, it is that there is a third category of citizens in the contemporary United States: those who passionately defend American constitutional principles and political institutions but who also interpret these principles and institutions in explicitly theological terms. According to this theological interpretation, the American constitutional framers were religious believers out to create a political system based on the Christian idea of equal human dignity. The appeal to God in the Declaration of Independence, the theological rhetoric invoked by presidents from George Washington to George W. Bush, religiously inspired popular crusades from abolitionism to the civil rights and pro-life movements of recent decades—these and many other examples stand as indisputable evidence for millions of believers that the United States, along with its democratic habits and institutions, is a fundamentally Christian nation.

In the view of these citizens—let’s call them theoconservatives—Lilla and Rushdoony are mirror images of each other, falsifying the truth about the United States in identical ways. Both wrongly assume that America is a secular nation and that bringing the country into line with Christian political theology would require the overthrow of the Constitution and its replacement by the rule of clerics. That Lilla would decry such a transformation and Rushdoony would applaud it is beside the point. Neither writer grasps the truth about America, which is that (as Lincoln so eloquently expressed it) the United States has been an “almost chosen” nation from the beginning.

This—and not abortion or feminism or gay marriage or euthanasia or stem-cell research or vulgarity in movies and on television—is what the culture war, at the deepest level, is all about: America’s theological identity. Is the United States a Christian nation, with a Christian form of government, in which a small number of secularist elites have continually tried since the 1960s to foist their corrupt and inaccurate understanding of the country’s history and institutions onto its citizenry? Or is the United States a largely secular nation, with a secular form of government, in which a relatively small number of unsophisticated Christian fundamentalists foolishly attempt to persuade the rest of the country to adopt their atavistic theological fantasies?

For those in the first group, who believe America is a Christian nation with a Christian form of government, political theology is not something “we” have abandoned for the sake of securing social peace. And neither is it something that, were “we” to begin practicing it again, would plunge us back into the proverbial dark ages, before Thomas Hobbes put pen to paper and taught us to “let God be” in our political deliberations. For these devout Americans, who practice and acknowledge no “intellectual separation” between “political form and divine revelation,” political theology is something very much alive, in our time, in our country, right now. Yes, it is a distinctively American form of political theology, very different—tamer, more democratic and tolerant—than the earlier forms that sometimes led Christians to “kill and be killed” in its name. And yes, its easy compatibility with liberal political institutions and traditions testifies amusingly to the remarkable capacity of even the most pious Americans to think well of themselves and their country. But however parochial it might seem to a non-believer like Lilla or myself, the political outlook that prevails on the conservative side of the culture war is a form of political theology. Unless, of course, the authenticity of a political-theological view is determined entirely by its willingness to challenge by force of arms the legitimacy of all governments that fall short of complete conformity to divine law, as Lilla sometimes seems to imply.

Lilla appears to have been led to this extreme and unconvincing position by his desire to place the United States, along with the world’s other liberal democracies, firmly on the opposite shore from political theology. Doing so gives his book’s historical narrative a certain dramatic urgency, with nations still dominated by political theology squared off against—and nearly incapable of understanding or being understood by—those who have decisively left it behind (for now). The reality, however, is more complicated than this. Not only does the United States need to cope with the political theologies that dominate the Islamic world. Americans who engage in political reflection without reference to religion also need to come to grips with the presence of political theology right here at home—with the fact that millions of their fellow citizens are perfectly comfortable making theological assumption about the political foundations of the nation, its principles, and its institutions.

Damon Linker, the author of The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege (Anchor), is a Senior Writing Fellow in the Center for Critical Writing at the University of Pennsylvania.

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.