Messianic Politics

Mark Lilla, a professor of the humanities at Columbia University, has a long and fascinating essay in the current New York Times magazine called “The Politics of God.” The essay is adapted from Lilla’s book The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West, to be published next month. In brief, Lilla looks at the relationship between politics and religion in broad historical context, and presents three essential points:

1. Separating political authority from religious revelation made modern liberal society possible.
2. This separation came about in the West (17th century and after) as a result of a unique crisis within Christian civilization.
3. There is little reason to expect other societies, such as Muslim ones, to follow the same path.

Very briefly — this is a long essay, as I’ve said — it was Thomas Hobbes who showed Europe the way out of the bloody religious wars touched off by the Reformation.

In his great treatise “Leviathan” (1651), Hobbes simply ignored the substance of those commands and talked instead about how and why human beings believed God revealed them. He did the most revolutionary thing a thinker can ever do — he changed the subject, from God and his commands to man and his beliefs. If we do that, Hobbes reasoned, we can begin to understand why religious convictions so often lead to political conflicts and then perhaps find a way to contain the potential for violence.

In the next few paragraphs Lilla elaborates on what Hobbes wrote, then concludes:

Hobbes was neither a liberal nor a democrat. He thought that consolidating power in the hands of one man was the only way to relieve citizens of their mutual fears. But over the next few centuries, Western thinkers like John Locke, who adopted his approach, began to imagine a new kind of political order in which power would be limited, divided and widely shared; in which those in power at one moment would relinquish it peacefully at another, without fear of retribution; in which public law would govern relations among citizens and institutions; in which many different religions would be allowed to flourish, free from state interference; and in which individuals would have inalienable rights to protect them from government and their fellows. This liberal-democratic order is the only one we in the West recognize as legitimate today, and we owe it primarily to Hobbes. In order to escape the destructive passions of messianic faith, political theology centered on God was replaced by political philosophy centered on man. This was the Great Separation.

The ideals of our Enlightenment founders were built on Locke, and to them separation of church and state was a cornerstone of good civil society. Much of Europe, however, took a slightly different road. Inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 19th-century Europeans decided that politics and religion would not have to be separated if religion could be adapted to fit modernity.

It would have to be rationally reformed, of course: the Bible would have to be interpreted in light of recent historical findings, belief in miracles abandoned, the clergy educated along modern lines and doctrine adapted to a softer age. But once these reforms were in place, enlightened politics and enlightened religion would join hands.

This worked for a time, but eventually — especially after World War I — strong elements of messianic nationalism crept into this more “enlightened” religion. In Germany especially, messianic nationalism after World War I had some nasty results.

All of which served to confirm Hobbes’s iron law: Messianic theology eventually breeds messianic politics. The idea of redemption is among the most powerful forces shaping human existence in all those societies touched by the biblical tradition. It has inspired people to endure suffering, overcome suffering and inflict suffering on others. It has offered hope and inspiration in times of darkness; it has also added to the darkness by arousing unrealistic expectations and justifying those who spill blood to satisfy them. All the biblical religions cultivate the idea of redemption, and all fear its power to inflame minds and deafen them to the voice of reason.

There are a lot of undercurrents in this essay about fear and redemption. We humans can’t stop thinking that history has some pre-ordained arc toward utopian perfection, and beliefs about an impossibly perfect destiny fuel fanaticism and war. Even the political heirs of Hobbes have fallen into this delusion.

A little more than two centuries ago we began to believe that the West was on a one-way track toward modern secular democracy and that other societies, once placed on that track, would inevitably follow. Though this has not happened, we still maintain our implicit faith in a modernizing process and blame delays on extenuating circumstances like poverty or colonialism. This assumption shapes the way we see political theology, especially in its Islamic form — as an atavism requiring psychological or sociological analysis but not serious intellectual engagement. Islamists, even if they are learned professionals, appear to us primarily as frustrated, irrational representatives of frustrated, irrational societies, nothing more. We live, so to speak, on the other shore.

In other words, we in the West tend to think that the historical-political arc that took us to democratic liberalism is somehow natural and pre-ordained for all human societies, and it is only a matter of time before all other peoples wise up and step into the light with us. But Lilla says this is not likely to happen in any foreseeable future. Our liberal-democratic order, tenuously maintained in a small part of the industrialized world, is an exception; a fluke of European history. We must not expect mass conversion to our way of thinking about separation of church and state.

This essay ignores the religious fanatics and messianic nationalists in our own midst who are determined to send America backward to the Dark Ages. It may be that Lilla discusses them in his upcoming book. But it is striking to me how easily some can go from declaring that liberty is “God’s gift” to deciding God has called us to spread that gift throughout the world by force of arms.

Think of it; for the sake of a ideal of democratic government made possible by separating religion from government, an American government led by a messianic Christian president engages in war to enforce that ideal in Muslim nations that don’t want it. If there is a hell, all the demons in it must be laughing their butts off.

Update: In today’s Washington Post, Peter Baker what happens when messianic presidents attack.