CATO’s Symposium on Political Theology

[This was reproduced by the Cato Institute in 2007.]

Cato Unbound features a symposium on religion and politics that centers around Mark Lilla’s new book, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West.

Lilla’s lead essay, summarizing the thesis to his book, provocatively asserts that liberal democracy or republican government is founded on atheistic or Hobbesian premises. Hence American government was founded to be “post-Christian,” and the American founding otherwise lacks a political theology. As Lilla puts it:

As we know, this crisis of Western Christendom prepared the way for modern political thought, and eventually for modern liberal democracy. And it seems to follow from this fact that modern liberal democracy, with its distinctive ideas and institutions, is a post-Christian phenomenon. I want to insist on this formulation as a way of stressing the uniqueness of Christian revelation and its theological-political difficulties – and therefore the uniqueness of the philosophical response to the civilizational crisis those problems triggered. Though the principles of modern liberal democracy are not conceptually dependent on the truth of Christianity, they are genetically dependent on the problems Christianity posed and failed to solve. Being mindful of this should help us to understand the strengths of our tradition of political thought, and perhaps also its limitations.

Its strengths have to do with the art of separation it developed in the wake of the wars of religion. And the most important figure here is Hobbes. Hobbes’s great achievement in Leviathan was to have changed the subject of European political thought from theology to anthropology – specifically, the anthropology of the religious passions. All political theology interprets a set of revealed divine commands and applies them to social life. Hobbes ignored the substance of all such commands and talked instead about how and why human beings believe God revealed them. If we can think about that, he reasoned, we can begin to understand why religious convictions so often lead to political conflicts, and then perhaps how to contain the potential for violence. Hobbes planted a seed, a thought that it might be possible to build legitimate political institutions without grounding them on divine revelation. His new thinking would begin with obvious, observable facts about human nature – like the omnipresence of fear – rather than with a fanciful picture of the nexus between God, man, and world. The hope was that we would develop a new habit, so that whenever we talked about the basic principles of political life we would simply let God be. Hobbes’s wager was that such a habit, once formed, would withstand the onslaught of any political revelation.

This was the Great Separation.

Lilla’s premise that Hobbes founded liberal democracy derives from the Straussian school of thought, is quite contentious, and raises a series of important questions. First, did Hobbes really influence America’s founding? Philip Jenkins says no:

Professor Lilla suggests that, following the Wars of Religion, Christian Europe experienced a Great Separation between “political form and divine revelation,” a movement towards privatized religious experience that effectively marked the end of political theology. He connects this trend with the innovative work of Thomas Hobbes, though as any historian of England would have told him, very few people actually cited Hobbes in political discourse for the century or so after his death, and his impact on toleration debates was nil. When he was quoted, it was in the context of contract theory, not religious toleration.

However, few disagree on John Locke’s centrality to America’s founding thought, though academics disagree on how to properly interpret Locke. Lilla following Allan Bloom, Walter Berns, Harvey Mansfield, Thomas Pangle, and Leo Strauss himself believes Locke was imbibed in Hobbes. Hence America channeled Hobbes through Locke. As Allan Bloom put it in The Closing of the American Mind:

[Enlightenment] provides the structure for the key term of liberal democracy, the most successful and useful political notion of our world: rights. Government exists to protect the product of men’s labor, their property, and therewith life and liberty. The notion that man possesses inalienable natural rights, that they belong to him as an individual prior, both in time and in sanctity, to any civil society, and that civil societies exist for and acquire their legitimacy from ensuring those rights, is an invention of modern philosophy. Rights…are new in modernity, not a part of the common-sense language of politics or of classical political philosophy. Hobbes initiated the notion of rights, and it was given its greatest respectability by Locke. (p. 165).

Why do the Straussians believe Locke was imbibed in Hobbes? Didn’t Locke “justly decry” Hobbes’ name and instead appeal to the traditional natural law thinker Richard Hooker? Hobbes, not Hooker, initiated the notions of the social contract and state of nature. Thus, when Locke put forth his innovative ideas regarding these concepts, he posited Hobbesian ideas.

But didn’t Locke place God as central to his theory? Didn’t, according to Locke, God grant men the “inalienable natural rights, that…belong to him as an individual prior, both in time and in sanctity, to any civil society.” From reading the text of Locke’s writings, yes. The Straussians believe, however, that since Locke was selling Hobbes’ atheistic notions, dressing such up in religious language — i.e., “god given unalienable rights” — didn’t change their atheistic character. Locke was a secret atheist.

Indeed, Allan Bloom notes the Hobbesian-Lockean transformation of language ran so deep that Christian ministers unwittingly became dupes of these atheist philosophers:

When Bishops, a generation after Hobbes’s death, almost naturally spoke the language of the state of nature, contract and rights, it was clear that he had defeated the ecclesiastical authorities, who were no longer able to understand themselves as they once had. (Ibid pp. 141-2).

And indeed, America’s founders themselves may have been duped. As Thomas West summarizes Allan Bloom:

As for politics, says Bloom, America was founded on modern principles of liberty and equality that we got from Hobbes and Locke. Liberty turned out to mean freedom from all self-restraint, and equality turned out to mean the destruction of all differences of rank and even of nature. Our Founders may have acted, or have pretended to act, “with a firm reliance on divine providence” (Declaration of Independence) but their natural-rights philosophy, says Bloom, came from the atheists Hobbes and Locke. (Bloom hedges on whether the Founders were self-conscious atheists or merely the dupes of clever and lying philosophers.)

I write all of this because I think some of Lilla’s premises need to be explicated in further detail. What I have summarized is the standard story of how Thomas Hobbes founded liberal democracy and hence the United States, what Lilla posits. My own view is I cannot endorse the notion of a secret atheist Hobbesian-Locke because Locke never claimed to be an atheist. True, in the past, philosophers did write “esoteric” messages and had good reason to do so. Before church and state were separated and the unalienable rights of conscience were recognized, philosophers could be executed for speaking their minds. See Servetus; see Socrates.

Still on a matter whose history is as disputed as how to properly understand religion and politics, we must take people’s words at face value. When I read Locke I read someone who appealed to God, and made Him central to politics, yet also posited his own variation of Hobbesian ideas (the state of nature and social contract) which were not at all biblical. Locke’s writings reveal him to be an Arian (thus a Christian heretic) who rejected certain tenets central to orthodox Christianity like original sin.

America’s founders likewise, following Locke, were devout theists and gave God a prominent role in politics. See for instance, the Declaration of Independence. However, the God to whom America’s founders appealed — the individual rights granting Nature’s God — arguably was not the Biblical or Christian God. For one, the Biblical God does not grant men unalienable individual rights, certainly not a right to political liberty while the God of the American founding did. Further, on matters of religious toleration, the God of the American founding was not a “jealous” God but granted men an unalienable right to worship, in Jefferson’s words no God or twenty gods.

In studying their public and private writings in detail I have concluded that America’s principle founders (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin) were not closet atheists but really did believe in this rational, benevolent, unitarian deity who fit their republican ideals much better than the Biblical God could. The inescapable conclusion is that America does have a political theology; it is just not Christianity. (For more on America’s founding creed, see this article.) Nature’s God was theologically unitarian, universalist (did not eternally damn anyone) syncretist (most or all world religions worshipped Him), partially inspired the Christian Scriptures, and man’s reason was ultimate device for understanding Him. He was not quite the strict Deist God that some secular scholars have made Him out to be. But neither was He the Biblical God. Rather, somewhere in between.

The political-theological problem America’s founders thus faced is they needed to and did appeal to a God that orthodox Christians did not worship. Such Christianity was socially and institutionally entrenched at the state level during America’s founding era. Though, some studies have shown huge portions of the American populace during the founding era were nominal or unchurched Christians. When the first four Presidents invoked this God in their public supplications, they systematically used generic or philosophical terms for God so as not to contradict either their heterodox opinions on God or the orthodox opinions of the masses (or least the churches to which the masses belonged). In doing so, they established America’s civil religion.

Since the time of America’s founding a tension existed between the non-Christian premises that silently underlay America’s civil religion, and the Christianity that dominated American demographics. That tension still exists. One opiate politically conservative traditional Christians oft-use to ease the tension is the myth of the Christian Nation where America’s civil religion is conflated with traditional Christianity. Damon Linker writes of this when he notes:

According to this theological interpretation, the American constitutional framers were religious believers out to create a political system based on the Christian idea of equal human dignity. The appeal to God in the Declaration of Independence, the theological rhetoric invoked by presidents from George Washington to George W. Bush, religiously inspired popular crusades from abolitionism to the civil rights and pro-life movements of recent decades—these and many other examples stand as indisputable evidence for millions of believers that the United States, along with its democratic habits and institutions, is a fundamentally Christian nation.

Myths often play important roles in the founding of various peoples and this myth was active during the founding era (see for instance, Parson Mason Weems’ revising George Washington’s personal religious creed and turning him into a traditionally minded devout Christian, which he wasn’t) and is still, despite the thorough debunking serious historians have given it, active today.

Still the tension between America’s non-Christian, generally theistic civil religion, and orthodox Christianity does not so easily resolve and will continue to cause problems for the millions of orthodox believers Damon Linker notes are “perfectly comfortable making theological assumption about the political foundations of the nation, its principles, and its institutions.” The problem for those traditional believers is their theological assumptions often are not in line with the political theology of America’s founding.

Two notable recent instances of such problems include the outrage orthodox Christians expressed when George Bush, purportedly an evangelical believer, suggested Muslims worship the same God that Christians worship. On traditional theological grounds, Bush’s Christian critics are right — Muslims and Christians don’t worship the same God. However, America’s civil religion holds that men of all faiths worship the generic “Providence” or “Nature’s God.” As Presidents, Washington, Jefferson and Madison went so far as to pray to the Native Americans’ pagan “Great Spirit” god by name, a god who unlike Allah, doesn’t even purport to be the God of Abraham. Bush’s notion may not be an authentically Christian belief, but it is an authentically American belief.

The second recent example occurred when a Hindu Chaplain was invited to pray for the US Senate which so outraged orthodox believers that a few of them interrupted this public supplication to a “false God.” And again, America’s principle founders, given they believed most religions worshipped the same God, would have had no problem with this. John Adams himself writing to Thomas Jefferson expressed the belief that Hindus worship the same God he did.

As someone who sees danger in excessive religious passions in politics, I often stress, in my writings, this tension between America’s founding and traditional Christianity. I hope that millions who believe in the Christian nation myth will understand America was founded to be more pluralistic and less authentically Christian than they have been mislead to believe by the clownish figures who specialize in propagating the myth. Such traditional believers, more aware of the tension, may resolve it by either a) accepting the non-Christian character of America’s founding institutions, and stop trying to transform the republic into something it never was — a “Christian Nation,” or b) questioning the legitimacy of liberal democracy/republican government itself and attempting to overthrow it. As an optimist, I hope they choose the former.

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2 Responses to CATO’s Symposium on Political Theology

  1. tom van dyke says:

    either a) accepting the non-Christian character of America’s founding institutions, and stop trying to transform the republic into something it never was — a “Christian Nation,” or b) questioning the legitimacy of liberal democracy/republican government itself and attempting to overthrow it. As an optimist, I hope they choose the former.

    Is this presented as an either/or? Not quite following the argument here.

  2. Jon Rowe says:

    When it comes to the “Reclaiming America’s” understanding of a “Christian Nation” yes I do see it as an either or.

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