Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Mark Lilla ought to know better

Small wonder that Andrew Sullivan ate this column by Mark Lilla with a spoon. Here’s his conclusion:

The leading thinkers of the British and American Enlightenments hoped that life in a modern democratic order would shift the focus of Christianity from a faith-based reality to a reality-based faith. American religion is moving in the opposite direction today, back toward the ecstatic, literalist and credulous spirit of the Great Awakenings. Its most disturbing manifestations are not political, at least not yet. They are cultural. The fascination with the ’’end times,’’ the belief in personal (and self-serving) miracles, the ignorance of basic science and history, the demonization of popular culture, the censoring of textbooks, the separatist instincts of the home-schooling movement -- all these developments are far more worrying in the long term than the loss of a few Congressional seats.

No one can know how long this dumbing-down of American religion will persist. But so long as it does, citizens should probably be more vigilant about policing the public square, not less so. If there is anything David Hume and John Adams understood, it is that you cannot sustain liberal democracy without cultivating liberal habits of mind among religious believers. That remains true today, both in Baghdad and in Baton Rouge.

What if it is, so to speak, "no accident" that liberalism is failing, if its precepts and nostrums are unsatisfying, not because human ignorance and credulousness are ultimately insuperable, but because they offer spiritual gruel too thin to satisfy the longings of the human spirit, i.e., because, ultimately, liberal teachings are inadequate to nature and human nature? This is a theoretical possibility that Lilla doesn’t want to confront, so he follows
Stephen Macedo in an effort to procure by coercion and coercive civic education what he can’t win theoretically or--dare I say it?--rationally. It’s not clear to me, in other words, that more or less secular liberals have the better theory, that the intellectual, moral, and spiritual heft is all on the secular liberal side of the debate, Lilla to the contrary notwithstanding.

By raising the spectre of contemporary parallels to the collapse of Weimar Germany into Nazism, Lilla seems also to have joined the confraternity of fever swampers thus far largely populated by members of the secular Left. I can think of many differences between our situation and that of interwar Germany, but the one most salient for our purposes is that revealed religion is a much bigger force now. That is, it seems to me, a strength, so long as religionists adhere to the belief that faith cannot be coerced, which is central to Christian doctrine, if not always to Christian practice. (It goes without saying that it isn’t necessarily central to the doctrines or practices of other faith traditions.) This is something that Locke highlighted in Christian doctrine, and so can serve as part of an "overlapping consensus" between a liberalism respectful of faith and a faith chary of coercing consciences. But it’s not just the "liberal" churches and denominations that hold to this position; the fever swampers are wrong to assume that those committed to evangelization are willing to make use of coercion. As I argued here, conservative evangelicals have by and large embraced the spirits of 1776 and 1787, if not necessarily of 2005.

For more, go here, where Tom Cerber points us to an article by Cliff Orwin, and here.

Discussions - 11 Comments

Joe, thanks for beginning the necessary task of responding to Lilla (and his ilk and their typical arguments and attitudes). When Lilla’s good, he’s pretty good: his New Republic article a while back on the nation-state being at the core of the disagreements between Europe (broadly, broadly understood) and the US, and how the positive or negative attitude toward that political form affects their respective judgments of Israel - while significantly ripped off from (an unacknowledged) Pierre Manent, was quite good; when he’s fitting in with, and currying favor with the NYT cognoscenti, he’s dubious and irritating. After this tendentious trifle, I don’t look forward very much to his Enlightenment theology (and politics) opus.

Children of the Enlightenment like Mr. Lilla don’t seem to understand that Man does not live by Reason alone. Libertarians have this same hang-up...they just don’t understand why their rationalist schemes don’t work. If humans were Vulcans then it might work (just as perfectly altruistic people could make Marxism work), but the contradictions in human nature require a regime that places materialism in a metaphysical context. In short, Man needs a purpose beyond his immediate survival, and secularism has provided that only in toxic variants (e.g., fascism, communism). More power to the home-schoolers!

Great observation regarding Lilla’s coercive liberalism. I’ve commented on his op-ed and draw some contrasts with Cliff Orwin’s recent article in The Public Interest.(here)

Lilla’s article is so stupid that it probably doesn’t deserve responses. But the bottom line: Liberal politics is smart and reasonable; liberal theology is vacuous and stupid. There was a current in the founding (Jefferson on the impending victory of Unitarianism etc.) that hoped that Americans would be satisfied with vague and superficial theology. Rorty still hopes that. A people who thought that Rorty taught the truth on the deepest human questions would deserve tyranny. Evangelical enthusiasm may be somewhat silly and subjective in certain respects, but evangelical criticism of even liberal science (Darwinian or evolutionary psychology or libertarian sociobiology) is far deeper than what it criticizes. And evangelicals, knowing that evangelical theology so far is too close to an oxymoron, are always inching in the direction of orthodoxy--through CS Lewis, Chesterton etc.

Orthodox theology is pretty much the smartest thing going today--consider how brainy, profound, and erudite the last two popes have been. There’s no contest between Ratzinger and his best liberal theological opponent, Hans Kung (who is sincere but almost a sloganeer). Our founders, I fear, were often way too dogmatically opposed--in their enlightened way--to the possibility that orthodox theology might be true. Appeals to, say, Jefferson on issues concerning religious or theological truth don’t impress me, and I say that in grateful admiration of what he accomplished politically.

Augustine wrote: Roma locuta est, causa finita est; I amend: Lawlerius locutus est, Lilla destructus est. (For you non-Latinists who worry about the correctness of my "Lilla destructus" noun-adjective agreement: the "a" nominative ending, while as a rule it indicates the feminine, can be used in a male noun, e.g., nauta (= sailor).


This precise issue is why I would have thought that you would have said something by now about the Habermas essay you linked to earlier. His approach to religion is quite nuanced and interesting, but his position doesn’t fit easily into a narrative - apparently the dominant one here - of the corruption of the modern secular left.

Brett -- I wouldn’t say the theme is the "corruption" of the Left so much as its logical Rousseauian conclusion. Worshipping reason (essentially worshipping Man) doesn’t seem to fill the empty whole in most human beings. Why this is so can be argued by theologians, evolutionists, and so on, but it’s a very real fact of life. People need something beyond themselves, and the Left’s answer for this has been quite toxic (collectivism and State worship). Whether or not we view the Religious Right as stupid, naive, or just uneducated, they have an answer that is far more benign than the secular alternatives.


Quite frankly, I haven’t had time to read the Habermas piece, or even to finish a translation of the Ratzinger piece. But I promise I’ll get to it in the interstices of my very busy schedule over the next month (a faculty seminar on liberal education that I’m leading, summer school, and a seminar for high school teachers that I’m co-leading, along with swim team practices and meets for my urchins).

Joe, take some time off, please.

No, Paul, I’m just consumed by ambition and messianic zeal.

Just like you, to draw from the wells of the two oldest premodern traditions; at least you’re aiming at the peaks. WWNS? (What would Nietzsche say?)

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