The Political-Theological Problem; Or, "A Whiff of Nativism"


On the question of whether the separation of church and state should be extended to the separation of religion and politics, I wrote that "Andrew misunderstands American history, American religion, and the intersection thereof," and accused him of "trying apply a continental model of faith and politics to a context where that model has never applied, and so and so forth." He responds:

His argument is weak, which is why, I suppose, he feels the need to grace it with a whiff of nativism ... If someone thinks I'm wrong about a country I wasn't born in but have lived in my entire adult life, then please say why I'm wrong. Don't play the "you weren't born here" card, however guilefully.

The "and so and so forth" in my original point was intended as a suggestion that I have said why I think that Andrew's wrong, at length and ad nauseum, in many other places, and didn't see the point of rehashing the arguments again. For what it's worth, you can find my brief against what I take to be Andrew's vision of secular politics elucidated in this review essay, this exchange with Damon Linker, and a host of blog posts (see here or here or here or here; I'm sure I've written others as well).

But for the sake of debate, let's take up Andrew's latest salvo:

Now, of course, American political rhetoric has been much more saturated with religious imagery and idiom than British or much European discourse since the Enlightenment (though not before). Some of this, as the theocons keep reminding us, has been to the good - the abolitionist and the civil rights movements spring to mind. What they're less likely to say is that the institutional core of today's Christianism was on the wrong side of those struggles (SBC anyone?) and that abolitionism and the civil rights movement emerged to undo the Christianist impulse to enslave, torture and then segregate a race that God had allegedly set apart. Moreover, much of the rest of Christianist campaigning over the centuries has also been for the bad - Prohibition, anti-miscegenation laws, vicious persecution of homosexuals, etc. The difference between the good and the bad in Christianism is that the good was also often framed in terms of secular, non-sectarian arguments (as MLK took pains to do), while the bad, having much less logic to stand on, was more reliant on pure Biblical authority. The more explicitly Christianist you get, in other words, the greater the likelihood of abuse to human dignity and individual freedom.

By this ridiculous standard, the many arguments for racial segregation, eugenics, imperialism and indifference to the poor that relied on what was considered sound science at the time would be admissible in a political debate - because they were secular and non-sectarian - while the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" would be dismissed as dangerous and un-American. (And yes, I know, the "Battle Hymn" is theologically problematic for all sorts of reasons - but you take my point.) Again, I would suggest that Andrew's argument - with its suggestion that Christianity's role in American political history was confined to race, Prohibition, and the persecution of gays - reflects a simplistic understanding of our nation's past, and the extent to which religious arguments have been interwoven into nearly every political controversy. Sometimes these arguments have been deployed for good, sometimes for evil; often for both. But the kind of bright line Andrew's trying to draw - in which secular arguments are kosher, religiously-inflected arguments framed in a non-sectarian fashion are acceptable, and purely religious arguments are dangerous - simply doesn't map onto the American experience. That doesn't mean that such a line can't be drawn, as it is in Europe, but it would reflect a break with the American political tradition.

The notion that this kind of politics has no victims, has not led to evil, has not at times led to absolute insanity (like Prohibition), and is not still a constant threat - is preposterously complacent.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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