Political Theology and Liberal Democracy

This from a critique of Mark Lilla’s The Stillborn God at The Immanent Frame, a Social Science Research Council blog, with contributors like Robert Bellah and Charles Taylor (referred by Agnieszka Tennant):

[Today, evangelical American Protestants, traditional in their theology, are solidly supportive of the constitution’s religious freedom and establishment clauses as well as other basic features of liberal democracy. Those who dislike their influence may well demur, but they should ask themselves: Are the political positions of conservative Christians simply ones that I do not like, or are they antithetical to liberal democracy? In fact, only a tiny fringe of “Christian Reconstructionists” like Gary North and the late R.J. Rushdoony challenge the constitution’s fundamental rights or its configuration of religion and state. Keep in mind also that, as political scientists Jonathan Fox and Schmuel Sandler have shown through their rigorously constructed “Religion and State” dataset, the United States has the greatest degree of separation of religion and state in the entire world. Put differently, it is the least theocratic country in the world. …]

Read the compelling historical argument behind this statement here.

To whet your appetite:

[But I dissent from its [The Stillborn God] core argument. Let us identify just what that core argument is, for Lilla believes that many of his critics misunderstand what he is trying to explain. Some of the defining principles of modern western politics – “separation of church and state, individual rights to private and collective worship, freedom of conscience, religious toleration” – are ones whose historical development depended crucially on the “Great Separation,” a decisive severing of Western political philosophy from the “political theology” that had previously dominated Western thinking about politics. Of the severers, Hobbes was the most decisive of all. The Great Separation “remains the most distinctive feature of the modern West to this day.”

But the Great Separation was not inevitable or somehow the result of the long march of reason, Lilla reasons. In The Stillborn God, he writes of it as an “experiment”; in his August 2007 piece in The New York Times, he called it “fragile,” a “miracle” and a matter of “lucky breaks.” It was novel in western history and is unique in the world today. And it is reversible. The human mind did not cease to ask theological questions after Hobbes, or to deliver theological answers, or to derive political implications from these answers. One answer, liberal theology, was relatively harmless because it was indistinguishable from modernity. The other, which he calls messianism, is worrisome, for it proposes apocalyptic conclusions and encourages movements like Nazism. Today, there is reason to worry again, Lilla says: “[W]e are again fighting the battles of the sixteenth century – over revelation and reason, dogmatic purity and toleration, inspiration and consent, divine duty and common decency.”

The idea of modern liberalism depends decisively on a jettisoning of theology as a source for arguing about politics: If there is one claim to which Lilla returns again and again from different angles, this is it. So if there is one phenomenon that most decisively calls Lilla’s argument into question, it would be a positive relationship between traditional, orthodox political theology and key features of liberal politics, especially separation of religious and political authority and religious freedom. To the degree that such a relationship is found, it weakens the case that liberalism – particularly, its separation between religious and political authority, freedom of religion, etc. – depends crucially on a divorce from political theology. But in fact, ample evidence exists that traditional political theology has contributed vitally to incubating, sustaining, and expanding liberal democracy, in thought and in practice, before, during, and after the early modern religious wars. Unquestionably, political theology has also begotten the bizarre, the violent, and the illiberal. But its positive contribution is large enough to raise serious doubts about Lilla’s thesis. …]

3 Comments on “Political Theology and Liberal Democracy

  1. I don’t know. It must be Monday; I just can’t form a thought around this. (Either this makes me a Tuesday Reader or it makes you a Tuesday writer. Not that you should change your posting schedule or anything!)

  2. L.L., You’re so kind to assume a schedule! I had to stop and think … is it Monday?

    Again it’s a long article. I am just trying to tempt you to read the whole thing.

    It seems whether the discussion is politics or science or law, some would like to divorce Western culture from its history.

  3. Pingback: The Stillborn God, Take 2 « Christine A. Scheller

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