Does Theo-conservatism Exist?

Where I disagree with Damon is in his basic concept of “Theo-conservatism.” It’s a lovely term, but what does it really mean? I am surprised to see someone like Rushdoony cited as the representative of anything. Despite the claims of his disciples, the man was a marginal flake whose Reconstructionist ideology had no influence I have ever been able to trace on any serious political cause or movement. (His influence on the early phases of home-schooling was more palpable). Just look at the sales figures on his books. Since I don’t accept the existence of theo-conservatism as a significant force, or a real movement, I’m not sure how useful it is to analyze “the theo-conservative approach to religion” or “the theocon program.” Does Theo-conservatism exist — has it ever existed — except as a pejorative term for religious activism with which one does not sympathize?

I would also repeat that historically, political theology/religious politics are as likely to be found on the left as the right.

Where I thoroughly agree with all the other participants in this debate is in celebrating the success of American constitutionalism and pluralism in creating the extraordinarily healthy and indeed booming state of the nation’s religious organizations today. I very much hope that as Islam comes of age in the American environment, that it will share in this boom, and that American Muslims will export some of their insights back to the Islamic heartland.

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.