Resist the Lure of Theological Politics

Instead of applying religious certainty to public debates, Americans need to take a different lesson from their faith traditions.

Donald Trump
Mike Segar / Reuters

There is something corrupting not just about the struggle for power through politics but about politics itself. Philosophers and pundits have long condemned the political as both profane and belittling, the near opposite of the pure and higher spiritual pursuits. In his valediction for the great, controversial scholar Edward Said, Christopher Hitchens wrote: “Indeed, if it had not been for the irruption of abrupt force into the life of his extended family and the ripping apart of the region by partition and subpartition, I can easily imagine Edward evolving as an almost apolitical person, devoted to the loftier pursuits of music and literature.”

Recently, Andrew Sullivan argued that in losing religion, Americans have more and more sought to satisfy their search for meaning publicly rather than privately. In his response, The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood wonders how we might desacralize politics and points to Japan as an alternative, if still flawed, model of lower-stakes competition. Countries that have experienced fascist rule or military defeat, or both, are more likely to accept normal politics, Wood suggests, although even in these places the rise of right-wing populist parties, such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD), points to the limits of historical remembrance.

But neither returning to the Christianity of previous generations nor desacralizing American politics is likely to fix a public sphere that is simply too invested with meaning for anyone’s safety. Instead, Americans need to construct a different sort of public faith—one that borrows from religious sensibilities to infuse debate with a spirit of humility, instead of theological certainty. The problem with America’s public life isn’t that it has too much religion, or too little—but rather, that it has the wrong kind.

Both Sullivan and Wood draw a clear, almost idealized line between the private and public. It is certainly true that, in the Christian West, the line has always been there—in theory if not necessarily in practice—to a degree it never was in Muslim-majority contexts. As Sullivan writes: “Liberalism is a set of procedures, with an empty center, not a manifestation of truth, let alone a reconciliation to mortality. But, critically, it has long been complemented and supported in America by a religion distinctly separate from politics, a tamed Christianity that rests, in Jesus’ formulation, on a distinction between God and Caesar.” But this distinction between the religious and the political, which solidified itself with the rise of liberal, secular politics in the 19th and 20th centuries, has remained more fungible than we might like to admit, particularly among intellectuals and philosophers who proved unable to content themselves with being merely that.

In The Reckless Mind, Mark Lilla looks at some of the most influential Western philosophers of the modern era to make sense of how men so brilliant could become so dangerous in political life. Martin Heidegger, who made common cause with the Nazis and remained a member of the party until the end of the war, told a German newspaper in the 1960s (after coming to see himself as a victim of the Nazis): “Only God can save us now.” Hannah Arendt, his lover for many years, tried to explain Heidegger’s Nazism by pointing to “a spiritual playfulness that stems in part from delusions of grandeur and in part from despair.” In Lilla’s reading, philosophical passion—or “intellectual sorcery,” as he also calls it—all too easily morphed into a kind of magical political thinking. Meanwhile, the hugely influential jurist-philosopher Carl Schmitt—who also joined the Nazis and helped provide legal justification for their ideas—wrote about the political as a form of divine struggle (for him, the political always seemed to be in a state of italicized agitation). Lilla calls Schmitt “a theologian marooned in the realm of the profane.”

In each of these cases, political fanaticism seems to draw from a sublimated religious impulse; God isn’t enough. But the notion that actual religion might temper worldly passions might sound odd to the modern ear. After all, among the more secular-minded, it is basically an article of faith that religious passion fuels extremism and intolerance (which it no doubt sometimes does). But there is also a private contentment, rooted in religious faith, that allows individuals to accept imperfection in this life in anticipation of the next.

The question that both Sullivan and Wood are asking is how we might make politics more boring, after the interregnum of near-constant excitement known as Trump. Sullivan wants a return to a Christian cultural sensibility, if not a Christian religious faith, that allows us to live with a public politics that is more or less procedural. Wood asks that we consider how the Japanese have built in an expectation that politics isn’t and shouldn’t be especially interesting.

The difficulty with these proposals is that they ask something of people that, even in our secularizing age, is easier to achieve in principle than in practice: the separation of the personal and the political. The line will always be breached, particularly by the more passionate among us (a passion often amplified by technology). Sullivan is right to recognize that we are all religious even when we’re not members of any faith, that we desire not just meaning but ultimate meaning. For those who believe in God, this shouldn’t be surprising: If God exists, presumably he would instill such a desire into his creation. But perhaps the kind of religion that can be insulated from politics is itself becoming untenable, even within otherwise secularized Christian cultures.

In his masterwork City of God, Saint Augustine wrote that the city of man and the city of God, though they inevitably overlapped, were separate, and he sometimes even portrayed them as walled cities, standing in opposition to each other. The gap between them could not be erased, at least not entirely. This dualism in Christian theology sometimes led to a passivity and fatalism. This passivity is more difficult to sustain in an era of mass politics. Higher literacy rates, the spread of university education, and universal access to information (and the resulting sidelining of clerics as the protectors of knowledge) have been major drivers of ideological politics, in the form of socialism in the West and Islamism in the Muslim world.

The Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper, who—unusually for a theologian—served as prime minister of the Netherlands from 1901 to 1905, is the major modern exponent of “Christian pluralism.” He believed that all ideas, when strongly held and believed, were effectively faith-based. According to his intellectual biographer, the American theologian Matthew Kaemingk, Kuyper thought that although one can find some individuals who wish to keep their belief private, “the absence of an ultimate point of loyalty, meaning, or purpose cannot persist for long.”

If this is the case, then it becomes a question of where individuals find their “ultimate point of loyalty.” Is it in a nation, rationalism, truth, God, or some mix of these things? The inherent risk of finding ultimate loyalty in a charismatic leader or a sovereign state is that they are of this world. To claim them, then, requires seeking victory in this world, because they are of this world and this world alone. As the writer Kyle Orton remarks, “Tolerance might not be possible from the secular world, tinged as it is with utopianism and a drive for final victories.” The fundamental question becomes how to clip such a drive.

Kuyper and Kaemingk offer one potential answer. Christian pluralism sees the city of man as inherently broken and fallen from sin, which, in turn, means that politics must be acknowledged as a site of uncertainty, rather than certainty. The solution, then, wouldn’t be walling off one’s Christianity from the domain of Caesar, but rather applying it in a more self-conscious manner.

There is a corollary to this line of thought in Islam that receives perhaps even less attention. One Koranic passage declares: “No one can know the soldiers of God except God.” The “soldiers” part of this tends to attract notice, some of it negative. But some religious scholars, such as the American Islamic legal theorist Khaled Abou El Fadl, interpret this as an endorsement of suspending judgment: No one can know, in this life, who is in fact God’s soldier. In a famous prophetic hadith, if a mujtahid (an authority in Islamic law) strives for God’s truth and is “correct,” then he receives two good deeds; if he is wrong, he still receives one bounty. If the mujtahids disagree with one another, then only God knows which one of them is correct.

If only God knows, then we cannot know. The key idea in these somewhat lost traditions is not the suspension of judgment, so much as the postponement of judgment. For the believer, the judgment presumably comes, but it comes later. For those who do not believe in God, it simply wouldn’t come at all.

Regardless of their faith (it would be a practical challenge to transform a critical mass of Americans into theological pluralists), a small but growing number of citizens can make the conscious decision to resist making the political wholly theological. They can choose to abstain on the question of whether a policy matter—an immigration quota or a Supreme Court nomination—represents an absolute, incontrovertible truth. In practice, this would mean that very few citizens of any nation are outside the fold or beyond the pale. For Americans, it means that, save for a relative few on the fringes, there are no “good” or “bad” Americans in any ultimate sense—or at least not in any ultimate sense that mere humans might be privy to. This is what an American public faith could theoretically look like, and the good thing is that anyone can start believing in it.