Religion & American politics, The Stillborn God:

Liberal Protestantism the key

posted by David A. Hollinger

I enter this discussion of The Stillborn God very late because by the time I was invited to participate I had already written a review of the book for London Review Of Books, and thought I should not enter here until my review was published, which it was recently. I will develop here some of the points I make in the review, but as the only contributor to this blog (so far as I know) who has also published a review, I first want to say what I think distinguishes a blog from a review. The reviewer, whatever criticisms he or she might make, is obliged to provide a fair-minded account of the book for people who have not read it and may never read it. I have tried to fulfill that obligation, whether successfully is for others to judge. But a blog is a more open genre, where this or that hobby-horse can be ridden, and where the audience is more likely to be confined to people who have already read the book or who are otherwise close to the issues it addresses, and where the author of the book under discussion or anyone else can more rapidly jump in to correct a mistake or contest a claim.

My take on The Stillborn God is more positive than most of the postings on this blog. Lilla’s account of the salient intellectual history of early modern Europe strikes me as dazzling in its “lucidity,” the ideal Lilla urges us to pursue. I wish that some of my praise for Lilla’s incisive analyses of Rousseau, et al., had made it past the austere editorial instincts of LRB. I understand Lilla’s purposes to be rather more modest than those attributed to him by many of the postings. What this book does the most commandingly is to put before us the core intellectual resources of the modern North Atlantic West for keeping supernatural warrants for political action from playing too great a role in polities that include many citizens who disagree about just what the divine asks of us and some other citizens who doubt that there is any divinity to be obeyed at all.

My frustration with the book begins with Lilla’s assumption that these core resources are sufficiently available in the writings of the great philosophers of Europe from Hobbes to Hegel. He alludes to Tocqueville, but offers no exposition of Tocqueville’s ideas to match what he offers about Kant and Rousseau. Indeed, after Rousseau, every thinker Lilla addresses was German. One might think that British, American, and French theorists have a claim on Lilla’s attention, especially since in all three of those countries stronger steps were made toward The Great Separation than were made in Germany. By saying virtually nothing about Anglo-American and French intellectuals of the last 200 years, Lilla leaves the impression that he believes all of them were just recycling ideas of the Old Greats. But the narrowly German scope of Lilla’s treatment of the history of ideas about religion and politics since the late 18th century would not be so objectionable were it not for Lilla’s argument about the function of liberal Protestantism in the North Atlantic West during that exact period. The God of liberal Protestantism was “stillborn,” Lilla argues, because it proved unable to do more than sanctify the state.

Lilla’s carefully worked-out, extensively documented, German-centered defense of this claim is not directly discussed (to my enormous surprise and puzzlement) by any of The Immanent Frame’s bloggers so far. Yet, Lilla’s argument about liberal Protestantism is anything but marginal to his book. It is this argument that 1) gives The Stillborn God its title, 2) takes Lilla from Hegel to the Third Reich and the Bolshevik Revolution and beyond, and 3) most distinguishes Lilla from other writers who have addressed the history of ideas about religion and politics in the modern West. Hence much of my LRB review is a critique of Lilla’s interpretation of liberal Protestantism. Let me here summarize my main points about Lilla’s argument, and elaborate in ways that space limitations prevented me from doing in my review.

Lilla attributes to liberal Protestantism a much tighter logic than its actual history displays. Lilla is right to call attention to Ernst Troeltsch’s association of the Kaiser’s 1914 call to arms with “the living breath of God,” and to other connections between liberal Protestantism and state power in Germany, but all of his evidence about the sanctification of the state comes from a society with an overbearing tradition of political absolutism and a monolithic sense of the Volk. If Lilla had devoted more attention to the case of the United States, a nation where liberal Protestantism has been uniquely influential and where The Great Separation was largely enacted through a constitutional separation of church and state, he would be obliged to admit that liberal Protestantism has given itself to a variety of outlooks on state power quite different from those he finds in Germany. The great “higher critic” Theodore Parker was a member of the “Secret Six” who financed John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. “Social Gospel” theologian Walter Rauschenbusch was deeply embedded in the German theological culture on which Lilla concentrates, but Rauschenbusch’s embrace of modernity was defined largely against the decisions made by state, rather than for those decisions. Rauschenbusch’s successor as the most politically important liberal Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, is so significant that his ideas about religion and politics are vigorously and even vociferously debated to this day (The Atlantic published an extensive overview of this discussion in November 2007), but Lilla says nothing about Niebuhr, or Rauschenbusch, or Parker. Harvey Cox’s The Secular City drew explicit inspiration from both Ernst Bloch and Friederich Gogarten, the two German totalitarians with whom Lilla climaxes his narrative of German acquiescence in state power, but Lilla does not deal at all with Cox and Cox’s support of a variety of 1960s radical movements. Martin Luther King, Jr., is perhaps the most widely respected American liberal Protestant of the 20th century, but King and his protests against established political authority escape Lilla’s attention altogether.

Lilla alludes to the fact that “in the Anglo-American orbit, a liberal theological outlook could grow up alongside a liberal politics whose principles derived from Hobbes’s materialism,” but this crucial part of his story he covers only with the cryptic observation that it was made possible by “a strong constitutional structure and various lucky breaks.” At issue is more than a historically accurate understanding of liberal Protestantism. At issue, too, is the role that liberal Protestantism can play in today’s struggles over religion-and-politics. Lilla is too quick to dismiss (he counts among liberal Protestantism’s triumphs a disposition to prescribe “the length of a gentleman’s beard”) liberal Protestantism as a setting in which he might find allies in the campaign to employ lucidity in the defense of a political sphere separated from divinity. Hence the big problem with The Stillborn God, as I insist in my LRB review, is not that Lilla has failed to give us a comprehensive history of the relationship between religion and politics in Western thought. That was never his intention, and he should not be held responsible for it, or for comparative body counts of religious and secular fanatics. The problem is that Lilla’s selection of episodes since 1830 cannot vindicate the claim that entitles his book. Moreover, this misstep drastically narrows the constituency that might potentially avail themselves of the intellectual resources he identifies in the writings of the canonical philosophers of early modern Europe.

If anyone doubts that liberal Protestants can advance Lilla’s cause, they need look no further than the campaign speeches of the liberal Protestant Barack Obama. “Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific values,” Obama declared in a widely quoted speech. Democratic commitment obliges religious believers to advance policy goals on the basis of principles “accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.” This sounds pretty good to me, and it is a long way from Governor Huckabee’s comment the other day to the effect that we ought to amend the Constitution so that it better reflects God’s views on same-sex relationships and abortion. There are sharp differences of opinion among religious believers in the United States, and non-believers as well as believers have a stake in the disagreements between people like Huckabee and Obama. Obama’s theoretical position tracks a tradition of American political theory exemplified by John Rawls that is congruent with what Lilla means by The Great Separation. Lilla’s aloofness from this rich American discourse renders The Stillborn God disappointing even to someone as massively sympathetic as I am with Lilla’s basic outlook. If liberal Protestants can help our cause, why not welcome them?

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