Political theology and the Kingdom of God


Mark Lilla has written an article on religion and politics that made the cover story of yesterday's New York Times magazine. The article poses the question of how Western secularism, which seemed to be riding the crest of a triumphalist wave in the last two centuries, can come to terms with the continued existence of religious fanaticism in various parts of the world. It is a good question, and in response the author offers a history of what he calls "political theology", as it developed in the West.

What is problematic about this article is his unclear definition of what he thinks "political theology is." Specifically, he seems to blur the distinction between fundamentalist views of politics and those of moderates and progressives whose ideologies are informed by their religious faith. This leads to a far too broad definition of "political theology" that doesn't really address the problem that he seeks to address. For example, early in the article, he writes:

Though we have our own fundamentalists, we find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still stir up messianic passions, leaving societies in ruin. We had assumed this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. (Emphasis mine).
Here he refers in the same breath to, on the one hand, not separating religious questions from political questions, and on the other fundamentalism and "messianic passions". But this is a huge leap--not all who believe that religious questions and at least some political questions are related support theocracy, are fundamentalist, or act as if they are on a messianic mission. Did Archbishop Romero, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and the Berrigan brothers separate religious questions from political questions? Or did their political ideology derive from their faith? This inability to clearly identify the problem is a mistake that hangs over the entire article. Equally importantly--is it possible to accept that some political questions are also religious questions, while believing also that others are not?

He argues that for centuries Christianity was never able to resolve how to translate theology into politics, that the bloodletting that resulted from religious conflict plunged Christian theology into a kind of crisis in Christian political theology that resulted in two attempted philosophical solutions: that of Hobbes the secularist, and that of Rousseau, whose belief in the inevitability of religious faith, according to Lilla, laid the groundwork for 19th century liberal Protestantism.

Whether this overview of philosophical history makes sense or not, it seems clear to me that Lilla's sympathies lie with Hobbes, but he also seems pessimistic about the the ability of humans to establish a truly lasting secular vision like Hobbes proposed. But I think the problem is that Lilla is framing the question incorrectly. In discussing the failures of Christian political theology prior to the rise of the modern secular state, he writes:
One powerful attraction of political theology, in any form, is its comprehensiveness. It offers a way of thinking about the conduct of human affairs and connects those thoughts to loftier ones about the existence of God, the structure of the cosmos, the nature of the soul, the origin of all things and the end of time. For more than a millennium, the West took inspiration from the Christian image of a triune God ruling over a created cosmos and guiding men by means of revelation, inner conviction and the natural order. It was a magnificent picture that allowed a magnificent and powerful civilization to flower. But the picture was always difficult to translate theologically into political form: God the Father had given commandments; a Redeemer arrived, reinterpreting them, then departed; and now the Holy Spirit remained as a ghostly divine presence. It was not at all clear what political lessons were to be drawn from all this.
It is true that from the broad, sweeping theology that he encapsulated in that paragraph, it isn't clear what political lessons to draw. Believing in God per se doesn't tell you what kind of world God wants us to have. Believing that Jesus was a Redeemer doesn't tell you anything either. Yet those in power during centuries of Christianity managed to draw political lessons anyway. And the reason they were able to do this boiled down to questions about power. The relationship between Christianity and the powerful had been sealed upon the arrival of Constantine on the scene, and for centuries it continued unabated. So it's not about merely believing that God has a vision for the kind of world that we should have; it is also about who gets to decide what that vision is.

I would argue that any form of monotheism that believes in a God who cares about the world will necessarily accept that God's opinions impinge on politics. If God embodies an Ultimate reality which serves as the absolute standard of the highest ideals in the world, then this Ultimate standard will necessarily include political conditions into the equation. I believe that it is pretty much impossible for a serious monotheist not to believe that religion and politics are intertwined.

But knowing that God has a will for the world, and knowing what that will is--there's the rub. It is when political power and religious authority coincide that things get ugly. When Divine will is asserted as the prerogative of the state, when it is given official sanction, then we start to have a problem--because Divine will becomes a self-justifying excuse for the exercise of power. That is where Christianity took a serious wrong turn back in Constantine's time. The problem is not with private voices of conscience believing that religious values inform politics, but with the belief that politics should be used to enforce one's own particular brand of religious dogma over others, on the assumption that certain individuals had a direct pipeline to Divine will that they can rightfully impose on others. There is no room for ambiguity and no room for pluralism under that scenario.

There is one other factor that comes into play here; when Lilla talks about mixing religious and political questions, as I alluded earlier, it is possible to distinguish between certain political questions that have a religious import, and others that do not. For example, there can be a distinction in modern secular states between how the state addresses Divine will with respect to private behavior, versus Divine will with respect to collective or public behavior. Governments in the West sometimes meddle in private behavior, especially in matters of sexuality, but also other areas as well--for example, sodomy laws, blue laws, abortion laws, divorce laws, and the like.

When conservative and fundamentalist religious forces organize to establish or preserve such such laws, it is an expression of the presumed right to establish their interpretation of divine will over private individual behavior. Those who set themselves up as the legitimate interpretors of Divine will feel that it is their right to intervene in these mattes. Thus the question of power comes directly into play here as well--a direct pipeline to Divine will grants some people the power to tell other people what to do in their personal lives. Furthermore, built into that position is an assumption about the nature of Divine will with respect to free will--specifically, that God not only does not want people to do certain things, but that God also doesn't want people to have the freedom to choose not to do them. But there is no inherent reason why a believer in God need accept that assumption. One can believe that God wants people to do certain things, but that God also expects people to do them as a matter of choice rather than coercion. Thus there is a specific set of assumptions, a specific kind of theology that is built in to the notion of public involvement in private "moral" behavior--but not all people of faith hold these assumptions. In any case, this attitude clearly ignores the problems of ambiguity, the difficulties in setting absolute standards on the understanding of Divine will, and the matter of pluralism. Yet there are those who are willing to accept the ambiguity of Divine will, and also respect the existence of people with different interpretations of Divine will (as well, I might add, the existence of people of different faiths or no faith at all).

Collective behavior of an organized society as a whole, however, is a different matter altogether. Everyone in modern democratic society theoretically has a legitimate say in collective decisions. That's because now it isn't just about what one person does, but rather about the web of human activity and how it is organized. In practice, however, I believe that most societies in the world today, even those that are ostensibly democratic, are constructed hierarchically, serving the interests of ruling classes and competing oligarchies. This is where the question of social justice comes into play. I may be wrong in my interpretation of Divine will, but I as a citizen of society have a moral right to participate in the fashioning of social policy as my religious faith inspires me, even if society doesn't in practice afford me that many opportunities to do so. Social organization can benefit the few, or it can benefit all. Social justice, however belongs to everyone. We have thus gone beyond matters of private behavior. And people of faith will inevitably use their understanding of Divine will to fashion their belief in how best to implement the goals of social justice.

Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, which was his vision of how the world would operate if it acted in accordance with God's will; this stood in contrast to the Empire of Caesar that reigned in his time. If you strip Christianity of its various accretions after Jesus died, it is possible to glimpse the essence of this message. When Jesus talked about rendering unto Caesar versus rendering unto God, it was a bit of clever arguing--because, in the theology of his world, everything belonged to God. There was nothing to render to Caesar, in other words. Thus one can argue that Jesus believed that politics and religion were interconnected. But Jesus's vision of what Lilla calls political theology was one of radical inclusion. And what a world of difference that makes. This is the kind of "political theology" that Lilla does not address in his article. He instead simply lumps all theologically inspired ideologies together, regardless of whether the underlying theologies are inclusive or exclusive in nature.

I believe that Jesus's inclusive vision, if taken seriously, must result in a democratic ideology and a belief in social justice. Democracy is, in my view, the ultimate expression of the belief that God is immanent everywhere and that God's radically inclusive welcome is extended to all. Universal love also implies radical democracy, which stands in contrast to the exigencies of imperial domination and class rule. Thus I would argue that a belief in democracy can perfectly well derive from religious faith.

When Lilla complains that political theology 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," I think he thus misses the point. I believe that democracy and social justice are the product of this "divine nexus" that he refers to in his article. I believe that this is the Kingdom of God that Jesus spoke of. The problem is not with a belief in this "divine nexus", but rather with what you believe the nature of this nexus is--is it inclusive and democratic, or exclusive and a self-justifying excuse for the exercise of power over others?