Political Theology

“Political Theology and the Substance of Civil Religion,” by Art Remillard

In 1989, sociologist James Mathisen argued that the discussion of American civil religion peaked in the early 1980s, and sharply declined thereafter. He suspected that it would soon be a relic, fondly remembered but rarely used. After all, Robert Bellah’s 1985 Habits of the Heart lacked any direct mention of civil religion. Bellah responded to Mathisen, explaining that he stopped using the term because he was tired of quibbling over definitions. He insisted that his recent scholarship had remained “very much concerned with the same substantive issues as my writings on civil religion” (Sociological Analysis 50.2).

Indeed, the discussion of civil religion is alive and well today, despite prognostications to the contrary. In recent years, some scholars have employed the term (see: Harry Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation), while others have concentrated on its “substance.” In the latter group, we find Mark Lilla’s forthcoming, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West. An essay adapted from the book appears in a recent edition of the New York Times Magazine. Lilla gives a philosophical history of “political theology,” then explains how the “Great Separation” of politics and religion as imagined by Enlightenment philosophers has failed to materialize. He elaborates,

“The revival of political theology in the modern West is a humbling story. It reminds us that this way of thinking is not the preserve of any one culture or religion, nor does it belong solely to the past. It is an age-old habit of mind that can be reacquired by anyone who begins looking to the divine nexus of God, man and world to reveal the legitimate political order. This story also reminds us how political theology can be adapted to circumstances and reassert itself, even in the face of seemingly irresistible forces like modernization, secularization and democratization.”

This is a very compelling article, well worth the read. It will likely make readers think about current political dilemmas, and the religious “substance” therein.


Kelly J. Baker said…
Christopher Hitchens has a scathing review of Lilla's book at Slate, http://www.slate.com/id/2172468.

I wonder Art, if you find Hitchens' review to be an accurate portrayal of what Lilla is trying to accomplish.
The Messenger said…
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Art Remillard said…
Kelly: I know of Hitchens only through reputation, and what I've read here and elsewere. That being said, I tend to think Hitchens et al. concentrate too much on doctrine, and not enough on worldviews. From what I could tell, Lilla was trying to emphasize that even non-theistic politics will appeal to ultimate authority, or values that transcend indivudual concerns and speak on behalf of the "common good." As a result, "meaning making" people often apply overt religious markers to these values.

Alas, not having read Lilla's book, it's hard for me to determine much more. And the review doesn't help. It appears to be more about Hitchens's thoughts than Lilla's. What do you think?
Bland Whitley said…
Kelly: I also read the Hitchens review. Not sure scathing accurately reflects his take on the book (although with him, it's hard often to distinguish praise from bile). I think he was arguing that Lilla's thesis--that faith-infused political understandings had proven as powerful in modern times as they had during the time of the Reformation (keep in mind that's my interpretation of Hitchens's interpretation)--was overly pessimistic. I'm guessing that Hitchens wants to cling to an Enlightenment idea of progress through secularization. All of this just makes me want to read Lilla's book, which seems really thoughtful and possibly original.
John Fea said…
This is a bit off topic (although it fits with Kelly's post from a few weeks ago), but as long as we are talking about Hitchens... The liberal Catholic magazine *Commonweal* has a provocative review of Hitchens's *God is Not Great* by Villanova historian and cultural critic Eugene McCarraher.
http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/article.php3?id_article=1962 (HT: Ralph Luker over at Cliopatria).
Kelly J. Baker said…
I guess I am going to have to pick up this book as well. Bland, I think you characterize the review quite well, and perhaps, there was some praise present in the article that I mistook.

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