The Stillborn God:

Political theology & liberal democracy

posted by Daniel Philpott

Professors who assign Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan to undergraduates typically draw students’ attention to the part about how the nasty, brutish state of nature gives rise to political authority. As Mark Lilla points out, though, Hobbes does not begin Leviathan with this part, but rather with his scientific, materialist theory of matter and motion, through which he purports to explain human perception, thought, politics, and, most of all, the force that was tearing apart England at the time: religion. Contemporary professors’ pedagogy indeed constitutes a piece of evidence for Lilla’s thesis: that modern Western political thought is marked by a strong departure from traditional political theology. What students may miss, though, is that Hobbes was pivotal in effecting this departure. As Lilla points out, Hobbes’ Leviathan “contains the most devastating attack on Christian political theology ever undertaken and was the means by which modern thinkers were able to escape from it.” Religion was also integral to the thought of Locke, Kant, Hume, Rousseau, Hegel, and most other theorists who developed modern liberal democratic thought, Lilla shows. In one sense, then, The Stillborn God does a great service. Professors can be grateful for a primer on religion in modern political theory. Students will appreciate that it is written vivaciously, clearly, and dramatically. James Smith is right: It is a page turner.

But I dissent from its 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.

Many scholars have charted roots of the separation of religious and political authority to events, episodes, and ideas that long predate Hobbes. Jesus’ own commandment to render to God and Caesar what is proper to each, Pope Gelasius’ enduring fourth century doctrine of the two swords, the growth of emperor and pope as twin authorities in western Christendom (contrast with eastern Christendom where this separation did not occur and where democracy remains weak), and medieval conciliarism were all important. Historian Brian Tierney has made a compelling and respected case for the growth of the notion of rights in medieval canon law. Theologian Christopher D. Marshall even makes a strong case for the origins of human rights in Old Testament texts. In the fifteenth and sixteenth century, theologians like Vitoria and de las Casas argued against their king for the rights of Indians, rooting their case both in biblical scriptures and in Thomistic natural law (which Hobbes also rejected). All of this occurred long before Hobbes, sprouted from the very heart of traditional political theology, and arguably helped lay strong foundations for features of modern liberalism. At the very least, none of this can be dismissed, as Lilla appears to do. (Curiously, in Chapter One, he presents a sketch of classic Christian political theology in which he recognizes many of these features but then argues that they were abruptly severed from, and presumably rendered impotent in western political thought).

Indisputably, the Reformation and the attendant wars of religion in early modern Europe propelled the development of liberalism, too. But did liberalism arise only through a rejection of traditional political theology brought about by ferocious fundamentalism and bigoted bloodshed? It is a story that contemporary liberals commonly tell, including the Dean of Contemporary Liberalism, the late John Rawls. But is it accurate? In his book, How The Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, historian Perez Zagorin has argued that this era’s bloody struggles produced three kind of intellectual reactions: first, religion skepticism, second, the politique approach of temporary accommodationism, but thirdly, and most surprisingly for Lilla’s thesis, arguments for religious freedom and tolerance that were in fact rooted in Christian theology. Diggers, Levelers, other radical Protestants, Mennonites, Anabaptists, Baptists, Quakers – all reached into the very scriptures of the New Testament to argue that expressions of faith ought not to be enforced through the sword. These arguments were in fact the most robust. As Lilla partially acknowledges, Hobbes’ arguments were not very good ones. His scientific materialism, like other forms of deep skepticism, simply cannot sustain arguments for religious toleration – or for virtually any principle of political morality at all. The politiques were pragmatists, open to accommodating religious dissent but also to quashing it if stability demanded it, as King Louis XIV did when he expelled the Huguenots from France in 1685. These theological defenses of religious freedom were not without consequence. As Jose Casanova argues in his post on Lilla, it is virtually impossible to conceive of the religious freedom and establishment clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution apart from the theological arguments of Protestant Christians in the American Colonies, those of Roger Williams being the most famous. As we know, the American constitution was then pivotal in modeling religious freedom for other countries in the world.

Beyond the formation and incubation of liberal democracy, Christianity (and surely Judaism, too, though I am less familiar with its modern intellectual history) has continued to sustain and, at vital junctures, to contribute to the expansion of liberal democracy, both in thought and substance. From the time of the American founding, Protestant Christianity has been at least a key vertebra of American democracy. I don’t simply mean theological liberal Protestantism, either; I mean evangelical Protestantism. In the nineteenth century, as historian Nathan Hatch has shown in his landmark The Democratization of American Christianity, Protestant church structures themselves democratized. Protestants then reciprocally provided the cultural “funds” for liberal democratic political institutions. True, Protestant theology helped to sustain slavery in the American South. But so, too, evangelical Protestants, drawing directly on their theological convictions, largely drove abolitionism, as they did the movement to abolish the slave trade in England. Early feminism was largely rooted in traditional Protestant Christianity, too. Probably the most famous story of Christianity contributing to the expansion of liberal democracy is the civil rights movement in the American South in the 1950s and 1960s. In his book, Stone of Hope, historian Douglas Chappell documents how, in the 1930s and 1940s, secular liberals like Gunnar Myrdal and John Dewey hoped that racial discrimination in the South would disappear through education and economic development, but with little result. It was not until the black churches – with their distinctively theological rationales, motivations, and language – mobilized their followers that the marches on Selma and Birmingham took place and liberalism was expanded. 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.

My point here is only to demonstrate historically a strong symbiosis between traditional Christian political theology and the idea of modern liberal democracy. If such a symbiosis indeed exists, then does it not sharply call into question Lilla’s contention that the rise of modern liberalism depends precisely on a great separation between traditional political theology and political thought? Obviously, Christian churches and individuals have not always supported liberal democracy. It is a relatively recent historical development that was caused by many factors, including advances in economics and literacy, internal struggles within Christianity, yes, in part a reaction to the religious wars in early modern Europe, as well as a dialogue with the Enlightenment. But there is little doubt that Christians have drawn on their traditional theology to form, sustain, and expand liberal democracy since early modern times.

The story of Catholicism corroborates the finding. Lilla ignores this story, which he justifies in a footnote (see page 12) saying that the Church was hostile to modern society until the twentieth century. Of course, there is much truth to that. But even in the nineteenth century, the Catholic Church by and large prospered in America (despite outbreaks of anti-Catholic prejudice) and came to accommodate the American church-state relationship on a provisional if not deeply principled level. In Europe, figures such as Lord Acton and Cardinal John Henry Newman pioneered Catholic advocacy of religious freedom from a position of traditional, orthodox Catholic theology. Then, in the twentieth century, one of the great stories of evolution in western Christian political theology took place through the rise of arguments for religious and other liberal freedoms among Catholic intellectuals like Jacques Maritain and John Courtney Murray, mostly of a Thomist stripe – again, a strand of thinking whose jettisoning Lilla has us believe was necessary for liberal democracy. Drawing directly on his theological and classical philosophical beliefs, Maritain was also a key player in developing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, a milestone in liberal thought and law. Culminating this trend, the Church’s Second Vatican Council promulgated a right to religious freedom as a manifestation of human dignity, drawing on both scripture and natural law reasoning to make its case. After the Council, and especially its Declaration on Religious Freedom, the Church became an agent of democratic revolution in places like Poland, Chile, Brazil, Guatemala, Malawi, and the Philippines (though not in Rwanda, Argentina, or Uruguay). Again, the necessary caveats are in order: Pope Benedict XVI himself has credited the Enlightenment with promoting the dialogue that brought the Church to embrace human rights and democracy. But when it did embrace them, it did so on the basis of its own theology and tradition of thought – a possibility that Lilla does not adequately recognize.

Finally, as several of the other commentators have pointed out, Lilla gets Karl Barth wrong. I want to reinforce this criticism so as to magnify my general argument here. While acknowledging that Barth opposed the Nazis, Lilla thinks that the “messianic” character of Barth’s thought encouraged radical, illiberal criticisms of the Weimar Republic. What does messianic mean? Virtually any reasonably orthodox Christian or Jew, after all, believes in the coming of the Messiah (whether solely in the future or in the future, past and present alike). Lilla seems to think that it means something more: esotericism and apocalypticism. But this was not Barth. To be sure, he rejected natural law and natural theology, even of the medieval sort. But his central project was to recover the trinity and God’s communication of himself in Jesus Christ as the central sources of Christian knowledge and action, not to make predictions about the end times or some such thing. He was convinced that nineteenth century liberal Protestant theology had lost track of these central sources and had instead conformed itself to the modern German state. Lilla’s own example of theologian Adolf von Harnack writing war speeches for the German Kaiser is deliciously illustrative. It was precisely Barth’s stress on traditional Christian sources that placed him among the handful of German theologians who dissented from the Nazi regime most – including its anti-semitism, which he rejected on strong theological grounds, unlike even many of the other theologians in the bravely dissenting Confessing Church. By contrast, it was the vast majority of German Protestant Christians who, precisely because of their deep theological liberalism, lacked the theological resources from which they could formulate and sustain opposition to Hitler. To boot, during the 1930s and 1940s, Barth wrote some of the most profoundly Christian defenses of modern liberal democracy one can find, rooting his defense of such institutions directly in the character of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. It is hard to understand, then, why Lilla thinks that Barth somehow encouraged right wing critics like Friedrich Gogarten, whose embrace of the German state could not be more inimical to what Barth himself stood for. Perhaps Lilla believes that once one begins to think theologically, one has departed from the plane of the rational and the reasonable and that all bets are off. But if that is the case, then it becomes clear that Lilla’s argument is driven by his own beliefs about theology as much as it is by his beliefs about the history of theology.

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