Mark Lilla, author of The Stillborn God (discussed in Art's post below), engages in a dialogue with Damon Linker and Philip Jenkins, summarized here, with links to the fuller essays. They are carrying on a dialogue which John, Art and others have been conducting more informally here at our little baby blog.
There is much truth in Lilla’s approach to understanding the place of religion in American politics and history. And he is surely right to urge us not to exaggerate the threat of an emerging theocracy at home, when, as he points out, hardly any believers question the legitimacy of the country’s Constitution or basic democratic procedures. Yet I wonder whether Lilla’s conceptual schema is capable of capturing the complexities of America’s political-religious reality. No, American Christians are not, for the most part, “willing to kill or be killed” in the name of their beliefs, as Christians of earlier eras sometimes were. But is it really common for devout believers in the United States to accept that the principles underlying American government are “humanistic,” as Lilla asserts? And is it really accurate to say, as Lilla does, that one of “our” working assumptions in the United States is that “religion is essentially a private matter”? I know that I make that assumption, as does Lilla, and as do many millions of broadly secular (and a good many religious) Americans. But it is also true that many (other) millions of religious Americans explicitly reject this assumption—as they do the secular-liberal interpretation of the Constitution that Lilla assumes.
In his response, Philip Jenkins takes fundamental issue with Lilla:
Let me begin with his basic argument about American exceptionalism, the idea that the lack of a powerful established church in American history meant that the country never developed a political theology. Certainly, Lilla concedes, preachers and religious figures have often advocated particular causes, but with a couple of rare exceptions, they have not challenged the basic legitimacy of American democracy. To the contrary, I would be hard pressed to point to an era in American history in which politics were not characterized by basic political theologies, often in fervent competition with each other. When Lilla opines that “Americans have rarely read the Bible as a call to political battle”, the rumbling sound you hear in the distance is the massed stirring of tens of thousands of normally placid historians searching for their pitchforks and torches before marching en masse to Columbia University to remonstrate personally with the author. His sentence is accurate, provided we replace “rarely” with “always.”
In a broader conclusion regarding what is required for the kind of "great separation" elsewhere that Lilla traces in the West following the religious wars of the 17th century, Jenkins argues
Change depends on economic development, the creation of free institutions and free media. Social pluralism is the prerequisite, not the consequence, of religious toleration. And given the right economic, legal and cultural circumstances, both the tolerance and the pluralism can flourish in any religious context. The problem lies in a stillborn modernization, not a stillborn God.
I'm not much of a Cato Institute guy -- to say the least! -- but this exchange at "Cato Unbound" is stimulating and valuable.