Sunday, August 19, 2007

Mark Lilla's "The Politics of God"

Today's New York Times Magazine (August 19) has an article by Mark Lilla on "The Politics of God."

Lilla traces back to Thomas Hobbes the modern Western liberal idea of separation of politics and religion. "In order to escape the destructive passions of messianic faith, political theology centered on God was replaced by political philosophy centered on man. This was the Great Separation." But he argues that despite the apparent success of this Great Separation in the West, it ignored what Rousseau recognized--that human beings are "theotropic creatures" with an "urge to connect" who long for redemption from the world. Political theology, therefore, will always reassert itself to satisfy this religious longing. This can come in a secular form--such as the messianic utopianism of Nazism and Marxism. Or it can come in the form of an orthodox religious movement like Islamism. But in any case, this religious longing supporting political theology will not be easily defeated by Western liberalism.

Lilla is obviously much influenced by Eric Voegelin, particularly in his account of political messianism, although Lilla never refers to Voegelin.

In speaking of human beings as "theotropic creatures," Lilla is acknowledging what I have called the natural desire for religious understanding. Because this religious longing is rooted in evolved human nature, there is no reason to think that it can be eliminated by "modernization" or "secularization."

The question, then, is whether this religious longing can be channeled in such a way as to avoid a dangerous moral and political fanaticism. Lilla seems pessimistic about Hobbes' Great Separation as the final answer. At the end of his article, he suggests the better answer might be a "renewal of traditional political theology from within" that makes orthodox believers good citizens. He suggests that Martin Luther and John Calvin did this in the Protestant Reformation, and that Islamic thinkers like Khaled Abou El Fadl and Tariq Ramadan might do that for Islam today. But it's hard for me to understand exactly what Lilla has in mind here, particularly since both Calvin and Luther taught that heretics should be persecuted!

The one path that he does not consider is that taken by Roger Williams--the path of radical Protestantism. Contrary to what Lilla says, Hobbes did not invent the separation of religion and politics. Williams and other radical Protestants had argued before Hobbes that the New Testament--as opposed to the Old Testament--dictated liberty of conscience in religious belief. That's why Williams was expelled from Massachusetts when he rejected the theocracy in Massachusetts Bay. Moreover, Williams could argue that the New Testament Christians showed no interest in politically enforcing their beliefs on those outside their Christian churches. Paul was clear about this: "For what is it to me to judge those outside? Is it not for you to judge those inside? But God is to judge those outside" (I Corinthians 5:12-13). Here, then, is the New Testament basis for a Christian libertarianism that runs against the theocratic traditions that began with Constantine and Augustine. It is not surprising that Locke was able to quote Paul's verse as supporting the idea of toleration.

Actually, Williams and others in the Baptist tradition would seem to be much better sources for the idea of separating religion and politics than are Hobbes and Locke. In fact, Hobbes taught that the political sovereign should have the sole power to dictate the theological doctrines sanctioned by the state. So it would seem that far from teaching the Great Separation, Hobbes taught the Great Unification!

Darwinian conservatism recognizes the importance of religious belief as satisfying a natural human desire and as supporting the social life of believers within their religious groups. But it also recognizes that the natural human tendency to be corrupted by unchecked power makes it necessary to separate religion and politics by securing individual freedom of conscience.

In another post, I have elaborated my argument for Williams's position.

1 comment:

David said...

Lilla has an interesting review of Voegelin in The New York Review of Books, June 28, 2007. Unfortunately, it isn't available free online.