The Magazine

Look Out Below

Religion remains the opiate of the masses, according to Mark Lilla.

Dec 17, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 14 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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This, too, is highly promising material. The problem lies in Lilla's execution. To begin with, there is his unstated and unexamined fundamental premise: that political theology--the effort to build and govern human societies according to the principles taught by one's faith--is a Very Bad Thing. And by "political theology" Lilla specifically means Christian political theology. His use of that politically loaded word "theocracies" (with its behind-the-scenes specter, Bush the Evangelical Bogeyman) is the giveaway. Lilla never bothers to engage any actual works of Christian political theology: not Augustine's City of God, not Thomas Aquinas's disquisitions on natural law, not the "mirrors of princes" that proliferated during the Middle Ages, not Luther's doctrine of the two kingdoms, not even Calvin's Institutes, which formed the basis for some of the very few genuine theocracies in the long history of Christianity.

Instead, Lilla combines broad and dubious generalizations about inherent contradictions he sees in the Christian religion that make it particularly susceptible to bad political thinking and, hence, violence--Christ's entering, and then abruptly leaving, the world, engendering dangerous apocalyptic longings for his Second Coming; a plethora of complex doctrines about the Incarnation and Trinity that generated a plethora of heresies and heresy-hunters; and the paradox that Christians are supposed to be not of this world yet, after the rise of Constantine, became the world's rulers--with potted history. (Like Fukuyama, Lilla tends to confuse the history of philosophy with actual historical events.)

In Lilla's historical scheme, the "conflicts rooted in the deepest ambiguities of Christian revelation" came to a head in the religious wars of the Reformation and its aftermath. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Lilla avers, "Christians hunted and killed Christians with a maniacal fury once reserved for Muslims, Jews, and heretics alone." (This is a sentence worth unpacking for its revelations about its author's prejudices, since Christian violence against Jews was real enough but quite sporadic, and as for "Muslims"--a religious group with a distinct "political theology" that is mostly ignored in this book--it was Islam that, having systematically obliterated the Christian civilizations of the Near East and North Africa, constituted the single most aggressive threat to the survival of Christian Western Europe from the seventh through the 17th centuries.)

At any rate, ignoring the efforts of at least some Christian rulers and Christ-ian societies during and after the Reformation to devise policies that would stanch the sectarian bloodshed--the Peace of Augsburg, the Edict of Nantes, the Swiss Federation, the North American colonies with their religious freedoms--Lilla writes, "The greatest lesson was that entering into the logic of political theology in any form leads into a dead end, and that none of its twisting paths issued out into a decent political life for human beings."

And so we come to (and if you took Political Science 101 in college, you have already guessed it) Thomas Hobbes, godfather of the modern secular state. Hobbes had little use for religion in any form and believed that human beings were chiefly motivated by desire for pleasure and fear of calamity, and so they invented gods and then one God to be supplicated so as to avoid the latter and maximize the former. Hobbes was the author of what Lilla calls the Great Separation: the idea that political philosophy could be divorced from religious claims and cater strictly to human psychology and its pleasure-pain nexus. Once Hobbes spoke, and influenced a variety of other political theorists, including Locke, Montesquieu, the authors of the Federalist Papers, and Tocqueville, Lilla argues, the Great Separation became a permanent and unbridgeable divide between Western modernity and the credulous, premodern past.

Later thinkers, chiefly Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel, while firmly on this side of the Great Separation (that is, disbelieving in the Christian creeds, divine revelation, and the irruption of the supernatural into ordinary life), were more sympathetic toward faith than Hobbes and tended to view religion, or at least the religious impulse, as a benign psychological and cultural force. Hegel, in particular, argued that the human mind craves "absolute knowing," and that the history of religion in the West is actually a history of Western culture itself, with its various religious myths and rituals serving as reflections of a constant human striving toward deeper self-understanding.