Separation Anxiety

David Hollinger

  • The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West by Mark Lilla
    Knopf, 334 pp, $26.00, September 2007, ISBN 978 1 4000 4367 5

‘To ask me to check my Christian beliefs at the public door is to ask me to expel the Holy Spirit from my life when I serve as a congressman,’ declares Mark Souder, a conservative Republican from Indiana, ‘and that I will not do.’ Such affirmations of the legitimacy of religion in the civic sphere are increasingly common in the United States, even among liberal democrats stung by accusations of secularist bias. The practical meaning of the separation of church and state has been contested since its enactment in the Bill of Rights. At what point does the First Amendment’s guarantee of the ‘free exercise’ of religion run foul of its prohibition on ‘the establishment’ of religion, and vice versa? These questions matter today, when the population of the United States is much more assertively Christian than that of any other nation in the North Atlantic West. ‘Either I am a Christian or I am not,’ Congressman Souder explains, and, as a Christian, he has ‘an obligation to change things’. The floor of Congress is a good place to act on this obligation.

Souder speaks in open defiance of what Mark Lilla calls the Great Separation: the sharp distinction between politics and God proclaimed by Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century but rarely implemented as vigorously and decisively as Lilla would like. Deeply affected by the religious wars of early modern Europe, Hobbes wanted to ratchet down the stakes of political conflict. If adversaries no longer believed that eternal life or eternal damnation hung in the balance, they might be less inclined to butcher each other. Hobbes focused not on the theological question of God’s will, but on the psychological and social reasons for people’s belief in God and its consequences for political life. Holding that fear and ignorance were at the root of theism and of the ascription to God of absolute orders for the conduct of worldly affairs, Hobbes envisaged perpetual slaughter unless religion could be cordoned off from politics.

The Stillborn God is a history of the emergence and a defence of ‘modern political philosophy’, as opposed to the ‘Christian political theology’ that came before it and has threatened again and again to reassert its dominance. Believers in the secular public sphere in the US are now on the defensive. Lilla promises to clarify the issues, and to provide a solid theoretical and historical basis for their debate, not only in the United States, but in Western Europe and beyond. ‘We have chosen to keep our politics unilluminated by the light of revelation,’ Lilla concludes on behalf of separationists, and ‘if our experiment is to work, we must rely on our own lucidity.’

A big surprise in Lilla’s otherwise lucid history is that almost none of it deals with the United States, even though he acknowledges that it was the site of the Great Separation’s most complete enactment and the scene now of renewed challenges to its legitimacy. He doesn’t mention Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the great American theorists of church-state separation. He says nothing about the repeated efforts to amend the notoriously ‘godless’ constitution by inserting God’s name in it, or the more recent claims that God has been hiding there all along, just not formally acknowledged. He ignores the copious constitutional arguments by means of which Americans, especially in the middle of the 20th century, kept alive the discussion of these matters.

Instead, Lilla takes us from Hobbes through a series of canonical European philosophers up to and including Hegel. Then he provides an account of liberal Protestantism in Germany from about 1800 to the Third Reich. The ‘stillborn god’ of his title is the result of the liberal Protestant effort to provide a god who could do something other than sanctify the state. The failure to do this paved the way for the worst state tyrannies, for ‘the messiah of 1917’ and ‘the messiah of 1933’.

What Lilla has to say about these philosophers is incisive, and shows that the theoretical foundations of the Great Separation have always been precarious. Hobbes’s own solution for bringing it about was too authoritarian: he advocated an all-powerful sovereign who would control public worship but refrain from asking what citizens actually believed. This was not acceptable to ‘Spinoza, Locke, Mont-esquieu, Hume, the authors of the Federalist Papers, and Tocqueville, among others’, who proposed instead ‘a system based on limited government, separation of church and state, and religious toleration’. Hume reasoned that ‘if the sects could be convinced that toleration would leave them free to save souls without interference, they would see that they have a greater stake in liberty than in the conquest of political authority.’

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