Political theology’s relationship to liberal democracy

A little over a year ago, I read The Stillborn God by Mark Lilla, which I briefly commented on here. Because it’s a provocative book, I had wanted to read some reviews of it, and I found a collection of blog responses here, of which the James K.A. Smith review that I mentioned in my comments was a part. The best response that I have read so far was by Daniel Philpott, who criticizes Lilla’s thesis that “the idea of modern liberalism depends decisively on a jettisoning of theology as a source for arguing about politics. As Philpott writes, Christians have often been the most effective advocates for liberal ideals:

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 [sic] 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.

You can see the rest of his post for his inclusion of 19th-century American evangelicalism, the beginnings of American feminism, the civil rights movement, and 19th- and 20th-century developments in Catholicism. However one conceives of the proper relationship between church and state, Philpott gives some necessary context for considering the history of liberalism

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