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Civil Religion and Political Theology

What role should Christianity play in the life of the polis? This question has engaged Christian thinkers for two millennia and, judging from this volume, we are no closer to agreement now than we were at the time of the early Church fathers. The contributors to this recently reissued collection of essays, which is comprised of lectures delivered in the mid-1980s at Boston University’s Institute for Philosophy and Religion, all wish to affirm the relevance of Christian faith to public life, but they differ markedly in how they understand this relationship. The editor casts the discussion in terms of two main approaches: civil religion and political theology. The most interesting contributions, however, are those that question the adequacy of these alternatives and point the reader in a different direction.

If, as it is said, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, then Part III of this book should discourage anyone with the slightest inclination to sample any of the popular brands of political theologies. Grouped under the title, “The practice of Political Theology,” the essays try to enlist our sympathies for a wide assortment of victims of imperialist, sexist, racist, and ecological oppression. The Christian Church – no less than Western societies – comes in for some rather harsh prophetic denunciations in this section, whose heroes invariably are dissenting elements within the tradition, including, for example, egalitarian schismatics who challenged the patriarchal order which the likes of Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine foisted on the Church in North Africa.

The one explicitly economic piece, while putting in some kind words for Michael Novak and making some interesting points along the way, is bereft of any rigorous economic analysis and settles instead for vague appeals for a Christian economy that is neither capitalist nor socialist, and for a global economy that is environmentally friendly. The only thing of which the author is empirically certain is that we are running out of resources and the biosphere cannot accept the increased punishment which Third World industrialization inflicts upon it.

Contributors to this concluding section would have benefited greatly from careful reflection on the essay by Jürgen Moltmann which appears in the first part of the volume. If Moltmann is sympathetic to the new political theology, he is also very aware of its limitations and dangers. He lived, after all, through the first wave of German political theology in which Christianity was coopted into the service of the Third Reich and became thoroughly politicized in the process. His is a cautionary tale of the dangers to Christian faith of political captivity by ideological programs. Perhaps that is why much more so than the others he is clear about his own identity as a Christian theologian. As he states at the outset: “The ecumenical solidarity of the Christian church is for me higher than national loyalty or cultural, class, or racial associations.”

The historical pitfalls which have attended the mixing of religion and politics is one of the reasons why many have sought a language for the public square that transcends religious categories. In a fascinating essay, included in Part I, Yaron Ezrahi shows how Western liberal democracies originally had recourse to the language of rationality and science in order to moderate public discourse and encourage political compromise. The problem, as he points out, is that this discourse rested on certain classical concepts of truth and reality which are fast giving way to a subjectivism that completely collapses the distinction between fact and opinion. The result is what he calls a “crisis in civil epistemology.”

Regular readers of the New York Times and other prestige press will no doubt share Ezrahi’s skepticism concerning the claim that journalism, which some look to as the contemporary embodiment of the scientific realist ideal, is a worthy inheritor of the tradition. Faced with his rather pessimistic conclusions, one is left wondering whether Ezrahi has considered the relevance of the natural law tradition, including its Jewish variant, for the epistemological dilemma of public discourse.

Does American civil religion perhaps provide a better way? Part II of the volume moves from general philosophical and theological themes to tackle this question head on. Robert Bellah helpfully revisits his now-famous treatment of the topic in the context of reviewing the work of other major writers, including Dewey, Lippmann, and Niebuhr. It is left to Rouner to defend the view that American civil religion is an essential common bond which evokes people’s loyalty and provides them with a sense of being at home in a diverse, democratic society. As John Wilson’s essay perceptively points out, however, this American civil religion far from being truly pluralistic was as a matter of fact nurtured by a Protestant consensus which served as a de facto common religion. His major contention is that this common religious base is no longer operative and that a new synthesis is necessary if we are to resist successfully the drift toward a thoroughgoing secularism in contemporary public life.

All of which brings us to Richard Neuhaus’s suggestion that we move beyond a discussion of civil religion and attempt to articulate a public philosophy that can serve as the basis for the American democratic experiment. Though careful to distinguish it from religion, civil or otherwise, Neuhaus clearly affirms the need for this public philosophy to be attuned to the religious character of the American people. Only thus, he argues, will we be able to avoid the twin dangers of religious warfare and, its opposite, the naked public square. He maintains that such a self-consciously modest public philosophy can succeed in retaining the moral sense of politics in the context of a religiously pluralistic culture. Neuhaus explicitly appeals in his essay to the tradition of natural law as providing precisely the kind of mediating language which Ezrahi finds so valuable. Though he fails to clarify precisely how our political institutions should attempt to accommodate this religious diversity in a just legal-constitutional framework, Neuhaus at least sets the stage by insisting that we stop speaking of “the people” or “the public” as though it were a singular, undifferentiated whole rather than the religiously and institutionally plural reality which it in fact is.