Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

European religion and/or lack thereof

Tom Cerber, back in the blogging saddle after a bit of an absence, notes this book review in today’s NYT. Cerber notes one of the smartest passages from Mark Lilla’s review of Michael Burleigh’s Earthly Powers, which covers the history of religion and politics in Europe during the long 19th century. Here’s the less satisfying conclusion:

The West as a whole, and not just Europe, faces a double political challenge from religion today. One is to realize that the world is full of peoples whose genuine faith in the divine gives them a precise, revealed blueprint for political life, which means that for the foreseeable future they will not enter into the family of liberal democratic nations. Only if we give up the fantasy of a universal historical process driving all nations toward a secular modernity can we face this fact squarely and humanely.


The other challenge is to learn how to distinguish between those whose political programs are inspired by genuine faith, and those whose defense of religion is inspired by a reactionary utopianism having less to do with God than with redirecting the faulty course of history. In radical Islam we find both phenomena today, authentic faith and antimodern fanaticism, shaken together into an explosive cocktail.


And even in the United States we are witnessing the instrumentalization of religion by those who evidently care less about our souls, or even their own, than about reversing the flow of American history since the "apocalypse" of the 60’s. Michael Burleigh’s book shows how difficult it was for Europe to cope with both these challenges as recently as the 19th century. It is no easier for us today.

What Lilla doesn’t tell us is whether it’s possible for there to be authentic religion in a liberal democracy, whether the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberal democracy are potentially complementary or necessarily at odds. This interesting inquiry is short-circuited by the need to take a swipe at some fellow citizens he dislikes.

Discussions - 2 Comments

Well, I suppose it was inevitable that secular liberal (latu senso) thinkers would "feel threatened" and push back in their way. We now have enough efforts in this vein to begin to characterize their strategy, if not their mentality. Lilla, Allan Wolfe, a more recent New Republic contributor, and others have pretty much disclosed the strategy: connect every Orthodox believer (in James Davison Hunter’s sociological sense) with Carl Schmitt (as well as "Straussians" in Wolfe’s case), don’t forget to leave out Adorno et al’s "authoritatian personality" pseudo-social psychology, and - this is my main point - be sure to present their thought in a vacuum, as thought the 1960s and the Warren Court, and Roe v. Wade and Lawrence, and the coarsening of the culture, and other wide-spread phenomena didn’t happen. That has the virtue of making "conservative" and "theocratic" discussions appear apocalytic and, well, irrationally paranoid. Then link that paranoia to the substance of the faith. QED.
It would be interesting - but fairly predictable, I think - to see what they’d do with Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr.’s "The Legacy of the Late Sixties" (in Reassessing the Sixties).

Paul seems a little excited. As noted in the original post, Lilla at least raises the possibility that "genuine faith" and liberal democracy are compatible. One certainly knows people of faith who embrace liberal democracy. Might we pursue the thought -- including his distinction between "genuine" faith and instrumental religion -- without assuming that Lilla has a contrary agenda? Who most adequately makes the argument that Lilla short-circuits?

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