Self-Rule Versus Chosenness

Damon Linker and Philip Jenkins put forward serious challenges to my article, and I’m grateful to Andrew Sullivan for formulating the first response I myself would have given, especially to Damon’s concerns. To elaborate on it, I would only say that the key distinction in my mind between political theology and modern political philosophy concerns whether human beings legitimately govern themselves. I think this is deeply engrained in the American psyche, even among those who think vaguely that this is a Christian nation, rather than a nation full of many Christians. I avoid the word secular for just this reason, because it is usually taken in a wide sociological sense rather than a narrowly political one. I just don’t see many people who think, as Damon suggests, that we have “a Christian form of government,” though there are many who think we are, as Lincoln said, “almost chosen.”

How do Americans put these two ideas together: self-rule and chosenness? I’m not sure they do, intellectually. One can make a theological argument (something like Niebuhr’s) that man has to rule himself because he is fallen; politics, on this view, is about protecting sinful people from each other, not realizing heaven on earth. Stated that way, a kind of political theology would be awfully close to Hobbes’s humanistic anthropology. But how many Americans actually share that view? My guess is that a great number wish that our public policies and political rhetoric better reflected their Christian “values,” but values-talk is humanistic, it is not political theology as I see it. They don’t want a different system of government. Of course, Damon is, alas, completely right to worry that there has been an erosion of American self-understanding in recent decades, in no small part because of the rise of the theoconservatism he documents in his excellent book. I worry myself, and I probably could have expressed that more clearly and urgently in The Stillborn God. (I am very concerned, for example, about the long-term consequences of home schooling on civic education in this country.) But by any measure our formal barriers between church and state are more formidable than in most Western countries, and we should maintain a sense of proportion about that. Though Western European societies are far more “secular” than our own, church and state are more intimately connected at the institutional level.

Philip Jenkins’s challenge is of a different nature, and goes to the heart of the intellectual assumptions behind a book like The Stillborn God. He is right that I have written an intellectual history, but I fear my short synopsis may have given him an inaccurate impression of the story it tells. It is the story of an argument: over the nexus of God, man, and world, and how (or whether) that nexus should have any bearing on political legitimacy. Arguments are funny things; they course over centuries, and often the most significant intellectual moves do not have immediate or large effects. It is certainly the case that Hobbes was more vilified than read in the seventeenth century; it is also the case that Leviathan made a decisive intellectual move – from theology to religious anthropology – that permitted other moves, even by those who rejected most of Hobbes’s political doctrines. No Hobbes, no Locke: you do not get the Essay on Human Understanding without Leviathan, no matter what the conditions of “economic development,” and without the Essay you do not get the Letter on Toleration, no matter how much dissenting Protestant literature you read.

But these are intellectual debates; how do and did they shape political institutions? Philip is certainly right to warn that ideas “will have little influence unless they appeal to social and political constituencies, unless they become grounded in social and economic realities.” And it is one of the déformations professionelles of intellectual historians to be maddeningly vague about this connection. But The Stillborn God makes no argument about any necessary connection; it is a retrospective account of an intellectual debate that found echo at certain times and places (mainly Europe) for reasons I don’t explore. My working assumption, I suppose, is that intellectual developments touch on events when people feel the need to understand what is happening to them, and then they turn to whatever is at hand. For example, with the self-immolation of Europe in the First World War, a number of Protestant and Jewish thinkers saw it in terms of the liberal theological tradition in which they were raised, and which they then rejected in favor of political messianism. Was liberal theology a significant cause of the war? No. But ideas about it did shape how important people thought about their present, and about their future, which they in turn did help to shape. This may be where Philip and I really disagree, since he seems to believe in spontaneous intellectual generation out of changes in social conditions. How else could he suggest that “given the right economic, legal and cultural circumstances, both tolerance and pluralism can flourish in any religious context”? I don’t think that’s how societies tick or history moves – or how ideas affect us all.

As for America, he is certainly right to remind me and our readers that our early history was a great deal messier than I suggested, that the established churches had a large role, and that there was inter-confessional strife. Here I can only plead for a sense of proportion and certain basic distinctions. As I suggest in the book, American political rhetoric is shot through with the messianic energy of the Bible, but somehow that energy has never posed a serious challenge to the idea of American self-government (not even during the Civil War), nor has it set off the kind of religious Kulturkämpfe that Europeans historically specialized in (which is what I meant by “political battle”). I do not believe that “religious groups have agreed to abide by the outcome of political debates, because in American history they have usually won them.” The Prohibitionists did not think they won, nor did William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes trial, nor do our theoconservatives today (as Damon’s book documents). They think of themselves as beleaguered, outnumbered, and swamped by the anonymous forces of secular modernity. Yet they generally play by the rules of the game. By any historical standard, that’s a miracle.

As for political Islam, this is where things get interesting. Here we see starkly the fundamental distinction between the religious political activism of Americans worried about climate change, which Philip mentions, and a radical political theology that denies the fundamental right of human beings to govern themselves. We also see the importance of making these kinds of conceptual distinctions, even for historians.

But that would take us into a separate debate, and this response is already overly long. My thanks to all the respondents for this stimulating exchange.

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.