God’s Sovereignty and Mere Orthodoxy

I appreciate the thoughtfulness of everyone’s comments, as well as the civility with which they have been presented. I have a handful of comments, first for Andrew and Mark, and second for Philip.

Andrew and Mark: In my experience working, for a time, among the leading intellectual lights of the (Catholic) religious right, I learned that there are indeed many Americans who deny that we (in Mark’s words) “legitimately govern ourselves.” This doesn’t mean that they deny the legitimacy of American democracy as a form of government; it means, rather, that they emphatically believe that American democracy stands under divine judgment. In that sense, then, we don’t really “govern ourselves” at all; we are a Christian nation “under God,” and it is He who rules.

But to repeat a point I tried to make in my initial response to Mark’s essay on political theology, the religious right’s emphasis on God’s ultimate sovereignty does not mean that the religious right (aside from a few nuts on the extreme fringe) aims to install a different “system of government” (Mark) or intends to attack the Constitution “frontally” (Andrew). On the contrary, the religious right believes that such radical actions are thoroughly unnecessary because the Constitution is already on their side — and that it is secular liberals who have had to engage in violent and ahistorical misreadings of constitutional law in order to make their interpretation of our founding documents sound even remotely plausible.

Do I worry that this theological way of understanding the Constitution will prevail — meaning that a substantial majority of Americans will come to accept its truth and then seek to rule politically in its name? Not really. What worries me far more is the fact that a significant number of Americans accept it at all, because that means that a significant number of Americans live, as it were, in another America from the rest of us. (This is where I think we should all take heed of Mark’s concern about the civic consequences of the home schooling movement.) The culture war, as I previously noted, is fundamentally about America’s theological identity. As long as the American people are divided about the theological (or rather, non-theological) character of the country, its history, and its political institutions, the culture war will go on, and perhaps deepen.

Philip: There is, I think, something unique — and uniquely threatening (politically speaking) — about the theoconservative approach to religion. For most of our history, American Christianity has been riven by discord — not enough, for the most part, to spark outright theological conflict among groups, but enough to keep a large number of groups from working together in concert to achieve common political ends. There are exceptions, of course, the foremost being Prohibition. But in most other cases (e.g., abolitionism, civil rights), one denomination, or small numbers of like-minded believers in several denominations, engaged in protest that eventually made a political difference, but only once large numbers of people who were not especially motivated by religious conviction added their support to the cause. Conversely, when large numbers of Christian groups have come together to work for common goals (as the Protestant “Mainline” did in the middle decades of the twentieth century), they have tended to downplay their theological motivations, precisely because of the difficulty of finding theological consensus among believers from different denominations. All of this has been very good for American politics, contributing significantly to our nation’s stability over the past 231 years.

Theoconservative ideology is meant to overcome this confessional pluralism, precisely because its leading theorists understand that such pluralism has tended to stand in the way of orthodox Christians working together to set the nation’s agenda and influence its self-understanding. Building on trends already underway in American religious life over the past several decades, the theocons have worked to develop a new theological-political consensus — a consensus that in my book I call “mere orthodoxy” — on which all devout Christians, Catholic or Protestant, can agree. The motivation for building this interdenominational coalition of traditionalist Christian believers is blatantly partisan — the theological counterpart of Karl Rove’s ambition to create a Republican governing coalition that will last for a generation or more.

Now, it may well be that the current disarray on the religious right is an indication that the theocon program has failed; that is a judgment we will be unable to make for many years. But regardless of its long-term prospects, it is clear, I think, that the theoconservative strategy for overcoming confessional pluralism, and the theocons’ ambition to use a new theological consensus to influence the country’s political culture at the national level, is something new in American history and thus something worthy of special attention and even concern.

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.