Sacred Scripture, Sacred War

Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American RevolutionSacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution by James P. Byrd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Byrd tries to broaden and deepen the scholarly work on clergy in support of the American Revolution. He looks at the major Biblical passages that informed their sermons relating to the war, and argues that “civil millennialism” (the belief in the close relationship between the patriots’ cause and the millennial reign of Christ) has been given undue attention by previous historians. Byrd argues that sermons were more often intended to inspire men to fight with courage and without shame. His concluding sentences are provocative: “In the American Revolution, when it came to making the case for war and ushering citizens to the battlefield, the Bible was a persuasive ally. The ramifications of this relationship would cascade throughout American history as the United States came to define itself and its destiny largely through the justice and sacredness of its wars” (168).

Byrd offers a lot of insight into revolutionary preaching, but it seemed to me that he understated the continuity of Revolution-era sermons with colonial-era sermons. He offers many examples of pre-Revolutionary sermons that strike the same themes, though of course they supported fighting for Britain. It seems to me that the sermons studied show that the patriotic preachers used an inherited approach that assumed a close relationship between church, society, and the subject/citizen that all ought to be committed to righteousness and unalterably opposed to the forces of Antichrist (the Roman Catholic Church, in their view). They applied this inherited approach to the American Revolution, with Britain sometimes portrayed as being aligned with Antichrist. If you’ve read the book and I am missing something here, please set me straight!

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American saints and relics, revisited

Several years ago, I passed on a post from Peter Leithart about the American use of relics from the Revolutionary era.

I was reminded of it when thinking about this passage from James Byrd’s analysis of patriotic sermons during the American Revolution, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War:

Whitefield’s patriotic reputation did not rest completely on political preaching. His sermons certainly had political ramifications, but he rarely addressed politics directly. Typically, he preached on the spiritual “New Birth” of salvation. Still, Whitefield became a source of patriotic authority. In September of 1775, five months into the Revolutionary War and five years after Whitefield’s death, a group of Continental Army officers visited Whitefield’s tomb in Newburyport, Massachusetts. They were looking for inspiration for battle, but in an unusual way. They asked that Whitefield’s coffin be opened. When the sexton complied, the officers removed the famous evangelist’s collar and his wristbands and took the relics with them. The army officers may not have known much about Whitefield’s political preaching, or the relative lack thereof, but they knew Whitefield as an evangelist who appealed to the people and resisted traditional authority. (17)

The future of the right

Ross Douthat made some points in his latest column that have been rattling around less eloquently in my head.

Why Christians might still choose to support Trump over Clinton (though I will not vote for either):

Asking Christian conservatives to accept a Clinton presidency is asking them to cooperate not only with pro-abortion policy-making, but also their own legal-cultural isolation. If you can’t see why some people in that situation might persuade themselves that Trump would be the lesser evil, you need to work harder to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes.

On the Trumpian right:

America needs a religious right. Maybe not the religious right it has; certainly not the religious right of Carson and Falwell Jr. But the Trump era has revealed what you get when you leach the Christianity out of conservatism: A right-of-center politics that cares less about marriage and abortion, just as some liberals would wish, but one that’s ultimately farmore divisive than the evangelical politics of George W. Bush.

When religious conservatives were ascendant, the G.O.P. actually tried minority outreach, it sent billions to fight AIDS in Africa, it pursued criminal justice reform in the states. That ascendance crumbled because of the religious right’s own faults (which certain of Trump’s Christian supporters amply display), and because of trends toward secularization and individualism that no politics can master; it cannot and should not be restored.

But some kind of religious conservatism must be rebuilt, because without the pull of transcendence, the future of the right promises to be tribal, cruel, and very dark indeed.

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

An intellectual history (that needs more context) written for a wide audience

The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern WestThe Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West by Mark Lilla

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Stillborn God was a fascinating read. Lilla traces Western thought from the early modern period to the 1930s, identifying two broad schools of thought. The first begins with Thomas Hobbes and his argument that religion is completely subjective and therefore cannot be used as a basis for politics. Lilla sees in this the modern Anglo-American separation of church and state and the secular basis for political thought and policy. While Hobbes himself was an absolutist, others like Locke made a case for a more liberal and secular order.

On the other hand, Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that religion stemmed from what was good in man, even if it was still subjective. From here, Lilla narrates the intellectual history of this idea, incorporating Kant, Schleiermacher, Hegel, and the liberal German theologians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The “stillborn God” of liberal theology, he argues, could not help but disappoint and produce new arguments for messianic movements like communism and Nazism.

Lilla is a clear partisan of secular politics, but also recognizes the fragility of modern liberalism: it cannot speak to ultimate things. Still, he believes, it must be guarded because of the terrible possibilities that lie outside it, whether they be the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries or the bloodbaths of the 20th century. A condensed form of his argument can be found in this article.

Lilla tells his story well, but there are some weaknesses. First, he accepts the usual simplistic religion leads to violence narrative, which William Cavanaugh dealt with very well in The Myth of Religious Violence. Cavanaugh’s work shows another weakness of Lilla’s argument. The wars of the 1500s and 1600s did not happen just because of disagreements about theology. The centralized European state, and the resistance that it provoked among local interests, was more of a driver of these wars than theological disagreements. Lilla refers to the development of the modern state only a couple of times in the book, and more context would have better grounded his analysis of the intellectual history of the time.

James K.A. Smith points out these weaknesses better than I do, and since I read his review before I read the book I imagine that he primed me to look for them.

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Hobbes and the HHS mandate

Leithart’s reflections in my last post reminded me of Patrick Deneen’s essay on Hobbes and the role of the modern state as the universal defender of its citizens’ liberties that I read recently. Perhaps the Athenian example shows the patterns that Deneen discusses are older than Hobbes, but the essay still works, I think, for the modern state.  Modern states are much larger than the ancient Athenian city-state and their aspirations to and achievements of power throughout larger territories have been very consequential for modern life.

Deneen argues that the philosophical underpinnings of progressive liberalism can be found in Hobbes, who argued for a state that superseded other institutions.

William T. Cavanaugh describes in his excellent study of the rise of the modern state, Migrations of the Holy, how Hobbes’s new arrangement promised liberation, not oppression:

For Hobbes, the individual was not oppressed but liberated by Leviathan. In his view, the State is not enacted to realize a common good or a common telos, but rather to liberate the individual to pursue his or her own ends without fear of interference from other individuals. In the peculiar new space created by the state, the individual members do not depend on one another; rather, they are connected only through the sovereign—as spokes to the hub of a wheel.

The rise of the state hinged on the promise of liberation of the individual from the constitutive constraints (as well as rights and liberties) of non-state organizations and institutions. The state acted as liberator of an oppressed humanity; its power, concentration, and extent increased as a necessary counterweight for the control of non-state institutions. Thus, Robert Nisbet wrote in his classic work The Quest for Community, “The real conflict in modern political history has not been, as is so often stated, between State and individual, but between State and social group.”

The only liberty that could be recognized was the liberty of individuals to “pursue his or her own ends.” The ancient rights, privileges, immunities and liberties of institutions—the Church, universities, guilds, localities—were redescribed as forms of oppression. The increased power, even intrusiveness, of the state, was justified not as a form of oppression, but rather in the name of liberation of the individual. The protections against distant, abstract, and impersonal forms of power, understood to be protections of local liberty, were dismissed as parochial limitations and antiquated restrictions. As Lord Acton accurately described in his History of Freedom,

The modern theory, which swept away every authority except that of the State, and has made the sovereign power irresistible by multiplying those who share it . . . condemns as a State within the State every inner group and community, class or corporation, administering its own affairs; and, by proclaiming the abolition of privileges, it emancipates the subjects of every such authority in order to transfer them exclusively to its own. . . . It recognizes liberty only in the individual, because it is only in the individual that liberty can be separated from authority, and the right of conditional obedience deprived of the security of limited command.

As Hobbes’s illustration to the Leviathan so eloquently depicted, an increasingly “liberated” citizenry, resulting from the diminishment of constitutive memberships in social groups and associations, would be connected only through one bond, one relation, one connection—the state.

Foremost in Deneen’s mind in writing this is the Health and Human Services mandate that forces almost all employers to provide for contraception (including some abortifacients) in their insurance plans. He notes that its defenders “described the HHS mandate as the necessary requirement that will liberate women from the “coercion” of the Church that seeks to restrict their access to free contraception—including abortifacients—and sterilization. The expansion of state power is justified for its liberative effects, freeing women from the oppression of an antiquated institution (its irrelevance was reinforced by frequent citation of the questionable statistic that 98% of Catholic women use contraceptives).”

This is as good a place as any to express my wish that the Catholic and evangelical critics of this measure would not only make their case based on religious freedom but also on liberty more broadly. Their request for broader exemptions basically says that it’s OK to coerce other employers into providing insurance that they may or may not want to provide, but just not us. The religious liberty implications are of course enormous, but so is the idea of limited government.