The proper place for religion in politics.
May 1, 2007
May 1, 2007
25 Min read time
Two books even for grounding liberal politics in a distinctively “progressive religion.”
In the morose hours of reckoning that followed George W. Bush’s 2004 electoral victory, many liberals were forced to conclude that their politics had lost its moral center, costing them the confidence of a decisive margin of American voters—with deadly consequences.
Regaining a moral voice in time for 2008 is a tall order. Many liberals—those most closely indebted to the classical thought of Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson—are attracted to the idea that politics neither has nor needs a moral center, that liberalism’s genius lies in a scheme of political checks and balances that relegates life’s sweetest rewards to the realms of religion and privacy. But even those who are comfortable with the rhetoric of public morality face troubles because of the peculiarly American fusion of morality and religion. Religion is risky territory for liberals, who generally wish to maintain a healthy respect for the legal separation of church and state and are also loath to criticize religious beliefs, though some have grown increasingly comfortable doing so.
Others have been tempted to revisit one of the most dubious aspects of the late-19th-century progressive movement: its tendency to conflate religion and politics in a mood of expansive moral high-mindedness. When progressives enlarged political liberalism to include a view of government as both regulatory and attentive to basic social welfare, many grounded their arguments in a belief in historical progress, often with a theological gloss. Then as now, of course, there was nothing like full consensus within the movement. After all, it comprised evangelical moralists, populists, anarchists, socialists, mainline churchgoers, seekers, Republicans, and Democrats. But of all the new ideas hatched by progressives, the notion of moral and technological progress was the most definitive. It came under bitter attack from the post–World War I generation, who lived with the tragic consequences of the naive arrogance it bred. The 1960s New Left similarly criticized the notion of historical progress, in response to the “elitism” of the liberal state that had plunged the country into a disastrous war in Vietnam.
Yet in recent years liberals have reflexively revived the term “progressive,” and two well-meaning books even argue for grounding liberal politics in a distinctively “progressive religion.” That move must be questioned carefully and with some urgency, given the mistakes of the past. Recent books by Gregory A. Boyd and Andrew Sullivan, both religious conservatives, can assist the effort and provide resources for restoring a fruitful relationship between religion and politics, one that does not distort either beyond recognition and may even be compatible with the modern liberal state.
Some calling for a progressive religion reject all claims to supernatural witness and simply collapse religion into a philosophy of immanence. But as we reduce the distance between political views and ultimate metaphysical positions, politics threatens to become more dangerous and religion becomes less satisfying. In The Left Hand of God: Taking Our Country Back from the Religious Right, Michael Lerner—cofounder in 2005 of the Network of Spiritual Progressives—calls for a Spiritual Left that would recognize “that our own well-being depends on the well-being of everyone else on the planet and on the well-being of the earth” and, digging a little deeper, that “we are capable of responding to the universe with awe and wonder.” That’s true, as far as it goes, but a vague sense of interconnectedness and existential marvel are pretty watery gruel for serious spiritual hunger. They can hardly rival what conservative religion has to offer: an overarching eschatological narrative, beginning with First Things and End Days, in which personal salvation and eternal life are secured; ironclad rules for living—a precise sense of sin—along with serious cosmic and psychological consequences should they be transgressed; and a place of common, often joyous worship, where pride in offering one’s gifts to the assembled is tempered by humility before God.
In a sense, Lerner—a rabbi ordained through Jewish Renewal, a syncretic sect established in the late ’60s and regarded by many as New Age Judaism—knows that creating “a sense of community” that satisfies “meaning needs” doesn’t take one very far down the path of redemption, which is why he doesn’t take any affirmative theological stands. Instead he leaves that work to something unnamed but very much implied in his analysis: the often unexamined gnostic theology that undergirds so much of today’s “spirituality.” What is wrong with this? In brief, it removes spirituality so far from the material world that it can breed magical thinking and extreme self-delusion. Such spiritual excess fosters hubris: an unlimited sense of human prerogative that offers none of the self-discipline or consolations of religion.
The only trouble Lerner sees with the “alternative spiritualities” that sprang up in the ’60s and ’70s (of which his own Institute of Labor and Mental Health must be considered a part) is that they “split apart” in the ’80s and now must be revitalized. To accomplish that work, he argues, the Spiritual Left (he insists on capitalizing it) must be above all inclusive. The only two coordinates that matter, the only ones that shape this movement, are provided by its antagonists: the religious right on one side and those secularists on the left afflicted with what Lerner calls “religiophobia” on the other. Everyone else is invited in.
There’s nothing wrong with extending a hand to all God’s children. What’s troubling about Lerner—about spiritual progressivism in general—is the idea that inclusiveness itself is the principal act of spiritual formation. At its best Lerner’s religion offers little more than therapeutic anarchy. He does carve off an outer limit by observing that the “New Age” approach of “working on one’s own head” and “then imagining that social change will follow from this” is “solipsistic.” But he does not provide the intellectual resources to distinguish wisdom from pridefulness or spiritual discipline from the soft theatrics of yoga-as-lifestyle-choice or the false humility of the corporate Buddha bow. Religious convictions offer interdictions that provide grounds for moral censure and restraint when people are carelessly harmful or intellectually dishonest. Absent those convictions, as Philip Rieff argued 40 years ago, the rich healing power of religion descends into self-manipulation.
Indeed, Lerner manages to turn interdiction itself into a form of therapy. Thus “selfishness and cynicism are bad for our physical and psychological health,” and a “politics of meaning” is needed for restoring that health. The inverse of right-wing moralism, which treats interdictions as invitations to punishment, Lerner’s progressive spirituality is instrumental religion at its most breathtaking. Not only does it lend itself to utopian naiveté, it closes the circle of meaning so securely around the self that it locks out mysterious truths gleaned from contemplation of the transcendent. It is hard to respond to that universe with awe and wonder, no matter how fervently Lerner insists we do so.
For all that, Lerner’s impulse to battle strict secularists and to reconfigure a place for religion among liberals is a sound one. The same can be said of Jim Wallis, whose book God’s Politics can be read as a grand culmination of his work since 1971 as editor of Sojourners magazine. Wallis, however, works in a more mainstream tradition, liberal evangelicalism, a tradition that earlier in the century gave rise to the Social Gospel movement and fueled a variety of 20th-century progressive reforms. Today most political liberals, who at most believe in some sort of intelligent order in the universe, are perplexed by such creatures, since, along with seeking justice for the poor and disfranchised, they believe in such divine interventions as the Resurrection and the Virgin Birth. Perhaps that’s why Wallis doesn’t dwell on such matters. Instead he concentrates on the “prophetic religion” of the Old Testament and on placing Jesus within that tradition. Sounding much like the early-20th-century minister Walter Rauschenbusch but repeatedly invoking Martin Luther King Jr., Wallis argues that Jesus’s ministry was essentially one of social justice, and, he urges, it is this aspect of Christianity that liberals must reclaim for politics, from both “secular fundamentalists” and the right. Bringing God into the public square, for him, means principally two things: caring “for the least of these,” thus alleviating the anguish and moral degradation of the poor, and pursuing military action only if it falls within a larger vision of peacemaking, minimizes violence against civilians, and meets the tests of just-war doctrine.
It is worth pausing here to recall that Rauschenbusch, who articulated his own era’s most thoroughgoing statement of social-justice theology in a 1917 book, A Theology of the Social Gospel, was not only unapologetically Jesus centered, but integrated all of the movement’s political preoccupations into an overarching eschatological vision of the kingdom of God. Like Wallis, Rauschenbusch railed against his contemporaries’ exclusive concern with personal salvation and moral propriety, entreating them instead to emulate the “spiritual perfection of Jesus.” For Rauschenbusch, the Social Gospel recovered the authentic teachings of Jesus’s ministry: that salvation is social, that it is as preoccupied with the dignity of labor as with the practice of love, and that therefore sin must be understood as selfishness—a willingness to profit from enterprises that run counter to the common good and thus separate one from God. The Social Gospel, Rauschenbusch argued, is neither a “novel” departure from Christ’s original teachings, nor “alien” to them (unlike the syncretic New Age currents of his own day, such as Theosophy and Christian Science), but reflects humanity’s moral progress toward the world’s destiny: the gradual dawn of the kingdom of God on Earth.
The Social Gospel movement animated the efforts of two generations of liberal evangelicals (along with their Jewish, Catholic, and black-church counterparts) to undo some of the robber barons’ most destructive handiwork. But its theology—however beautifully and passionately wrought, and however Christocentric in Rauschenbusch’s own formulation—eventually came to seem like window dressing for ethical humanism and idealism: original sin was reduced to the long-standing inheritance of corrupt social institutions, Jesus to “moral exemplar,” and the kingdom of God to an optimistic view of historical progress. By the 1930s, scientific modernism had gutted what remained of the supernatural in liberal Christian belief, Karl Barth had urged a restoration of the sovereign mystery of God on the more conservatively inclined, and Reinhold Niebuhr—once an enthusiastic social gospeler—launched a revitalized neo-orthodoxy that wrestled with the dark truths of original sin in each conflicted human heart, and exposed the myth of moral progress as dangerously naive. Liberal evangelicalism, it would seem, had been flattened.
Today’s spiritual progressives, who have no interest in restoring eschatology or original sin to their religious vocabulary, and who, in the interests of interfaith work, would prefer that Jesus lie low, will find little to quibble with in Wallis. To his credit, and unlike many liberals, he pays conservative evangelicals the respect of acknowledging their serious efforts to care for the poor by expanding networks of private charities and grounding them in biblical teachings. Ultimately, however, he condemns such an approach as woefully inadequate on its own, especially given that it is paired with tax and corporate policies that further aggrandize the wealth and life chances of the rich at the expense of the poor. On the Bush administration’s “war on terrorism,” however, Wallis is unsparing, and grants the right not a whit of good will or good sense; it is, he states flatly, “bad theology.” Bush and his supporters confuse Christianity with American imperialism, he argues, in an idolatrous and dangerous revival of Manifest Destiny, with Bush himself as divinely anointed leader.
It is refreshing to hear a liberal theologian talk frankly about the existence of evil, which Wallis does with reference to terrorism. And then he makes an interesting move. Repeating the words of a Christian Science Monitor reporter, he says, “The Gospel, some evangelicals are quick to point out, teaches that the line separating good and evil runs not between nations, but inside every human heart.” This observation could have opened on to a discussion of original sin, or perhaps one of its secular variants that recognizes the internal conflicts that plague humanity. But Wallis does not tarry long here because, one suspects, sin—or rather, “sin,” as he at one point punctuates the word—is not something most liberals want to truck with, especially in its original form. Instead we are rushed headlong into a list of the Christian virtues that aid the heart’s battle: repentance, compassion, humility, reconciliation—the usual abstractions.
That’s a shame, because Wallis might be one of the few liberal religious leaders who has reflected enough on the subject to guide his more secular and modernist brothers and sisters toward reckoning with the limitations of reason and human will. The stakes are high, because the absence of such a reckoning can unleash a drive toward perfectionism, through either an aggressively purist, world-denying gnostic spirituality or a non-transcendent, heart-squelching materialist reliance on science and technology. Not only is the quest for perfection a terrible and even fool-hardy burden, it is antithetical to the very spirit of Christian humility Wallis calls for.
Wallis is more convincingly prophetic, roused by the afflictions he shares with his fellows, when he delivers an angry jeremiad about sex—or rather, the pornographication of culture—that focuses on corporate media consolidation. “The real enemy isn’t sex,” he says, “it’s the commodification of everything.” Railing away against “pornographic corporate profiteers” who flood the airwaves with debased images of sexuality—selling “beer and breasts” in the same ads “just to make a buck”—Wallis can barely control his agitation. It’s refreshing, and it puts one in mind of Martin Luther King, who often said he was unable to rest until the injustice against his people was righted.
But even here, the prophet stays above the fray, this time as a parent bemoaning the corrupting influence porn can have on young minds. Even more troubling, Wallis engages in the sort of rhetorical child-centeredness that has bedeviled liberal culture since the ’90s, by which the test of sound democratic values and policies redounds to their effects on children. This disfigures not only democracy but children themselves, not least because kids are best served by observing and emulating adults who are fully empowered to protect and provide for them, not by getting the message that the world revolves around them. Wallis, in fact, goes this political trend one better and turns political child-centeredness into theology: “Whenever we deal with social and economic decisions and policies, we will always ask what I call the ‘God question,’ which is, ‘How are the kids doing?’” The God question? Oddly, ironically, such sentiments take us even further away from a sense of common suffering, the authentic spring of prophetic religion.
Liberal religious culture is rife with such incoherence, and it has been decades in the making. Evangelicalism offers moral and psychological wisdom that liberals would do well to recover—and translate for non-Christians—but it can’t be done on the cheap in the run-up to an election cycle. Meanwhile, as Tom DeLay was arrested and led away on federal corruption charges last year, he exclaimed, “We are all sinners.” It may have been a manipulative rhetorical nod to his supporters on the religious right, but his words were no less true. And it is this sense of common suffering—which is our shared human inheritance—to which liberals seem tone deaf. How much easier to speak of the children, of caring for the poor, of being peacemakers, in the cadences of compassion. And how condescending.
Liberal politics never fully recovered from white liberal evangelicalism’s fatal collision with modernity, notwithstanding that great wave of spiritual contagion, the civil-rights movement. Wallis seems to recognize as much when he wonders, “Why do so many liberals seem supportive of religious language when it is invoked by black civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., but recoil when such language is employed by white political leaders?” The answer, he suggests, lies in “a subtle kind of racism” that holds white people to a self-styled higher intellectual standard.
There may well be something to that, but limiting the problem to racism misses what was crucial in King’s genius: his own social-justice ministry was not crafted for politics but rooted in a sense of cosmic struggle that grounded hope itself. King was never much troubled by the “literalism” that discredited so many white evangelicals’ eschatology in the eyes of liberals, because the black church had always relied on figurative biblical interpretation; literalism had, after all, given warrant to slavery. Though he took in the theological currents of his day while in seminary—the personalism taught at Boston University and Niebuhr’s “Christian realism,” with its insistence on spiritual discipline against resentment—and though he had once been “embarrassed” by the “emotionalism” of the black church, with its talk of “mansions in the sky,” he ultimately drew on its cosmic, catastrophic story line. In black-church eschatology, “what is hoped for is in some sense already present,” as King put it in a 1966 sermon, as evidenced by those who refuse to give up on Christian hope itself—the slave forebears, the sick, the abused and tormented—hope that is never confined to personal desires but is always extended to others. The mystery of the “already”–“not yet” motif holds the eternal–temporal divide in tension and could never warrant a simple linear optimism or a belief in moral progress. As King said, “human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability.” This is the conviction that underwrote the black church’s ministry of deliverance and forgiveness—crucial resources for King. It also made it possible to accept unmerited suffering as aligned with the purposes of God, with full knowledge that one can retain moral control of a situation, even in the teeth of agony.
King never patronized his auditors, black or white, because his faith was too capacious, hard-won, and demanding to allow him to give in to the temptation to see pain as the lot only of the poor and black. Surely there is still much to learn from this monumental achievement. But white political leaders, racist or not, too often come across as faking it—as if they are simply using religious language to “connect” with supporters—and therefore patronizing. Even Wallis himself at times addresses his readers as though they were kindergarteners, as when he asserts that “it’s bad theology to say that power, per se, is always bad.” Surely we’re more politically sophisticated than that. Can you imagine Martin Luther King, for whom power was nothing less than an enormous given, uttering such words?
Learning from King, contemporary religious progressives would do well to look for signs of religious integrity—a mood, a set of convictions, an orientation specific to religion—without using a political prism. Among them might be included a double consciousness of knowing yet not knowing God; a humility before the majesty of the heavens; a sense of worldly alienation that dares hope for reconciliation; a sense of mystery breaking in on the prosaic; an understanding, with Kierkegaard, that faith often requires a “leap”; a reckoning with the limitations of life that surpasses stoic resignation; a sense of a cosmic future that will outlive us, upon which to base present hope. Without at least some of these elements, which capture facets of God’s immensity, religion loses its shape and becomes all too malleable to human purposes.
Both Lerner and Wallis speak constantly and uncritically of turning from “cynicism” to “optimism,” which they conflate with hope, and in this way perpetuate our reliance on a limited moral vocabulary. Indeed, today’s self-proclaimed “religious progressives” appear doomed to replicate the very real limitations of the earlier Social Gospel. If anything, the religious right’s 21st-century embrace of utopian optimism should remind us where such human conceits invariably lead.
Religion can feed the wellspring of liberal politics—any politics—only indirectly, and two recent books by self-proclaimed religious conservatives explain why. Given the theocratic leanings of the Bush administration, it should come as no surprise that conservatives have become acutely alive to the way religious truths are distorted beyond recognition when mingled promiscuously with secular politics.
Gregory A. Boyd’s The Myth of a Christian Nation began as a 2004 sermon series to his evangelical parish in Maplewood, Minnesota, that lost him a thousand congregants. His description of what is “uniquely beautiful” about the realm of God is truly shocking. If Boyd’s conservative parishioners were stunned by the politically liberal conclusions that could be drawn from his preaching, liberal readers will be dismayed by the cosmic battle line he draws between Satan, who lords it over this world and “pollutes” all earthly governments, and the kingdom of God. Boyd, who attended Yale Divinity School and the Princeton Theological Seminary, could not be more clear: “fusing together” the two realms is “idolatrous” and has “serious negative consequences for Christ’s church and for the advancement of God’s kingdom,” adding that this “applies as much to Christians on the political left as on the political right.” “For theological reasons,” he tells his flock, he will not take political positions from the pulpit.
We are now light years away from anything resembling Rauschenbusch’s A Theology for the Social Gospel. Here is a form of dualism—Manichaeism, if you will—that recognizes only a great deal of “ambiguity” in the relationship between the two realms, is alive to the dangers of their conflation, and refuses to fall back on the Old Testament prophets to explain Christianity’s moral center. Boyd insists, as well, that this is not a form of idealism, of approximating some abstract conception of the perfect. “God’s kingdom” actually exists for Boyd, who argues that its mode of operation is not to “save” or be “saved” personally, but to “be and become” evermore Christlike, ever ready to make real sacrifices, to “bleed for” what is in another’s best interests by listening and engaging them precisely where they are, with no illusions. This is more than exaggerated kindness and goodwill; it is fueled by eschatological conviction—by a belief in the revealed truth that the kingdom of God will one day, one heart at a time, vanquish the Devil and rule the earth. Meanwhile, the world is “enemy-occupied territory” in which Christians are “resident aliens,” in Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon’s evocative term.
Such premillennial talk, with its accompanying missionary edge, is hard on the modern ear. Yet much moral and emotional sense flows from this extravagant narrative. Here is a grandeur of scale altogether appropriate to human efforts to compass the immensity of God. Boyd had been a maverick among his fellow conservatives long before this book appeared, not only for the small opening he gives to free will—by endorsing a form of “open theism,” which holds that aspects of the future are indeterminate, even for God—but for reopening debates about kingdom theology considered settled by evangelicals since the mid-20th century. In brief, Boyd’s warfare motif seeks to move away from both the passive view of God’s kingdom as little more than a covenanted community and the dispensationalist guarantee of personal salvation with the Rapture (which Boyd bats away as nothing more than “irresponsible escapism”). In Boyd’s articulation, the concept of the kingdom of God has what Arthur Lovejoy called the “metaphysical pathos” of all great ideas: an emotional and poetic resonance, “a sort of empathy they engender, a congenial mood or tone of feelings” that restructures the “sentiments.”
For Boyd, living within the kingdom of God transfigures love: it compels one to exercise “power under” rather than “power over” others. “Power over” gambits feed on our vengeful “fallen natures” and merely embroil us in “Babylon’s tit-for-tat game” of endless violence governed by You Know Who. From the time of ancient Israel, Augustine, and the Crusades, straight through to today’s version of American Manifest Destiny, Boyd argues, religious peoples have gotten the kingdom of God exactly backwards. “The kingdom of God is not an ideal version of the kingdom of the world,” he writes. “It’s not something that any version of the kingdom of the world can aspire toward or be measured against. The kingdom of God is a completely distinct, alternative way of doing life.” For that reason, Boyd insists that no human being should presume the wherewithal to judge another; doing so inclines one to exercise power that belongs only to God, and the more such judgment is institutionalized, and thus rendered powerful in the name of God, the more lethal it becomes. Rather, being Christlike involves exercising power under, meeting others not halfway, but all the way: truly loving your enemies for exactly who they are, exposing them to an already-yet-not-quite existing world of love.
Although he merely alludes to it here and there, Boyd is aware that such a view of power is akin to that of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. Indeed, it is remarkable to what degree “social justice”—a term he regards as nonsensical—is served by the “kingdom of Calvary-like love.” It also falls within the tradition of Tolstoy’s anti-state Christian anarchism, though he doesn’t use the term and doesn’t encourage separatist communities, arguing rather that a nation’s laws can be just and noble, and command obedience, which is precisely why they so easily become the devil’s playground. Not only is Boyd a pacifist, a passionate believer in nonviolent resistance who urges Christians to resist military service; he opposes just-war doctrine as an ends-justify-the-means ruse devised by historic Christendom to place conquering warlords under the banner of Christ. You can no more have “a Christian worldly government,” however committed to just principles, than a “Christian aardvark or Christian petunia;” for the kingdom of God functions in another realm, one that enjoins us to “see and experience” what “looks like Jesus.” For that reason, we should discern what is holy in those who menace our well-being or who embrace different faiths, and find ways of not just tolerating them but loving them for their “unsurpassable worth.” We should not be tricked into believing that civil religion and shows of “religiosity” such as pressing for public prayer and banning same-sex civil marriage have anything to do with advancing the kingdom; such efforts actually distort its “holy beauty.” It might even be best for the “radically countercultural mandate of the Kingdom of God,” Boyd avers, if “this civic brand of pseudo-Christianity died altogether.” “What if the energy and resources used to preserve and tweak the civil religion was rather spent feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, befriending the drug addict, and visiting the prisoner?” he asks. “What if our focus was on sacrificing our resources to help inner-city schools and safety houses for battered women? What if our concern was to bridge the unholy racial gap in our country by developing friendships and collaborating in endeavors with people whose ethnicity is different than our own?”
Bear in mind that, while Boyd lost a thousand parishioners with such words, another four thousand stayed. American history is riddled with theological conservatives—Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and otherwise—who have drawn strength from a severe faith to sacrifice their own well-being and do outlandishly loving things on behalf of their Creator.
For Boyd, “the way of the kingdom of God is always simple, straightforward, and uncompromising”—visible, as he says, by its enactment, if not complete. For Andrew Sullivan, God’s ways are utterly mysterious. In The Conservative Soul, Sullivan is every bit as concerned as Boyd is with the dangers of theocratic rule as advocated by those he calls the “Christianists” of the Bush administration. He is less interested in articulating a particular set of religious principles, however, than in grounding the case for limited government in the needs of what might be called the religious–conservative temperament, which requires “freedom,” above all else, to thrive.
Such a soul, claims Sullivan, is rife with skepticism and doubt and moved by an acute sense of loss. To fill out this picture he draws primarily from political philosophers, principally Montaigne and Oakeshott, who argue that everything of value takes place in private day-to-day life. Here Sullivan, who is openly gay, is eager to take on his neoconservative fellow Catholics, such as Richard John Neuhaus and Robert P. George, who have fitted the natural-theology tradition to a conservative social politics that advocates outlawing abortion and contraception and opposes gay rights, while urging religious principles on the “public square.” Such a view, shared with Protestant fundamentalists, holds that “the self is sinful and must always be subject to correction from the outside.” Sullivan argues, following Hobbes, that a conservative politics should rather be concerned only with preserving security and preserving the freedom to experience the mysterious workings of God—or not.
Sullivan finds such experience in liturgical ritual, the mystical transactions of the Church sacraments. It is also a crucial element of sensual existence; although he doesn’t engage aesthetics in any formal way, cultivating the senses for the sheer pleasure of beauty seems to be part of what it means, for him, to be alive to God. Sullivan has a far more capacious view of aesthetics than Boyd, for whom the “holy beauty” of God’s kingdom is, in any case, part of an entire eschatological drama that could not be more alien to Sullivan. Likewise, Sullivan engages time itself in a different manner. Following Oakeshott, among others, he argues that the true conservative views history as contingent, a series of individual choices and events that could lead in any direction, rather than an unfolding narrative such as the neoconservative’s inevitable triumph of human freedom, the Marxist and liberal march of inexorable social progress, the Christian fundamentalist’s dispensational arc toward Judgment Day. To be human is to live with chance and choice and surprises, with full knowledge that history is riddled with unforeseen developments and unintended consequences. The conservative, often in a “posture of sadness,” says Sullivan, “will simply accept the limits of his own practical knowledge.”
The “peculiar people” of Boyd’s Christian anarchism are also alive to what they don’t know. If the kingdom already exists, it is hazy and only incompletely realized. Both forms of religious conservatism recognize the obdurate fact of imperfection and incompleteness in this world, and thus argue for refusing to judge others, least of all with any sense of ultimacy. Far from lapsing into the therapeutic to alleviate the pain caused by such uncertainty, however, Sullivan insists that life becomes “unpredictable, dynamic, uncontainable”; “shocking and impractical,” says Boyd.
Refreshingly, there is no clear path here to either a liberal or a conservative politics. Even Andrew Sullivan’s “conservative soul” is as compatible with an attenuated modern state liberalism as it is with the free-market, libertarian politics he embraces—something he himself acknowledges. While both books were prompted by their authors’ opposition to the Christian theocrats in our midst, they can also be read as sounding loud cautionary notes to those liberals who for whatever reason presume to think that God is on their side. It would be better to concentrate on furthering liberal politics itself, morally strengthened by whatever spiritual waters personally nurture the effort, than to give in to the temptation to reduce the eternal grandeur of religion to the fleeting, wily, and all-too-often merely functional world of politics.
While we have you...
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
May 01, 2007
25 Min read time