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

By Ross Douthat

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.

Of course it has had victims, has led to evil, and so forth. So has every other sort of political argument. The fact that proponents of early-twentieth century eugenics relied on what were considered impeccable scientific arguments to justify evil, and often found their only serious opponents in the Catholic Church - which they attacked for its reactionary obscurantism, naturally - does not therefore demonstrate that science and politics must be kept separate for all time, or that science is a unique and constant threat to the liberal order. The fact that proponents of ruinous economic policies of various stripes justified their arguments based on cool academic reasoning does not therefore demonstrate that the study of economics is a threat to the liberal order. Religion does have particular dangers, which the First Amendment's establishment clause is meant to guard against, but there's very little in American history to suggest that faith-based absolutism is that much more pernicious the absolutism of secular ideologues who appeal to "Science" and "Progress" rather than scripture.

It is as preposterous as the notion that the dangers of religion in politics apply "a continental model of faith and politics to a context where that model has never applied." As Ross surely understands, the political-theological question knows no boundaries in human life or history. And it knows no final settlement. The notion that this tension somehow doesn't apply to America is ahistorical, or a form of religious faith in itself.

Of course it knows no boundaries. Of course it applies in America. But we have a provisional settlement to the political-theological problem which has worked out pretty well for two hundred years: Church and state are kept separate, religions are freed to compete in the marketplace of ideas, and individuals are free to base their political positions (and their political appeals) on whatever source they wish, be it secular or sacred. If your politics becomes too sectarian, too particularist in its rhetoric, then you'll be punished - but at the ballot box (as Sam Brownback would be, in a national election), not by some high commission policing an imaginary line between religion and politics.

Look at the Brownback video. Notice the crowd's response to his rallying cry in a political setting. Even a child is clapping. The words "All for Jesus!" were in fact a political and partisan rallying cry in a major election event. The audience members completely conflated the struggle for their souls with not just politics but a particular party in politics. Once this happens, once it is acquiesced in, once it becomes normal, the immense power of religion and its unequaled capacity to change society and politics is unleashed in unpredictable and dangerous ways. If you doubt that, look at Iraq. Or read your seventeenth century European history. The core achievement of the modern West - its success in changing the subject in politics from the eternal to the mundane - is threatened.

What Rod said. The notion that we should get the "it's the Thirty Years War all over again" vapors every time some Bible Belt politician references Jesus and says that faith is good is deeply silly, and a recipe for near-constant hysteria.

And incidentally, I have no idea whether Andrew's British background makes him more sympathetic to a continental model of how to cope with the political-theological problem. But I strongly doubt it, since his views are shared by many native-born American intellectuals, who are no less wrong for having been raised on this side of the Atlantic.

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