Mark Lilla has written a fascinating essay entitled Coping with Political Theology, which is also the introduction to his book The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West. Here’s the key thesis. Writing about the religious wars which tore Europe apart in the 16th and 17th century, he observes:

As we know, this crisis of Western Christendom prepared the way for modern political thought, and eventually for modern liberal democracy. And it seems to follow from this fact that modern liberal democracy, with its distinctive ideas and institutions, is a post-Christian phenomenon. I want to insist on this formulation as a way of stressing the uniqueness of Christian revelation and its theological-political difficulties – and therefore the uniqueness of the philosophical response to the civilizational crisis those problems triggered. Though the principles of modern liberal democracy are not conceptually dependent on the truth of Christianity, they are genetically dependent on the problems Christianity posed and failed to solve. Being mindful of this should help us to understand the strengths of our tradition of political thought, and perhaps also its limitations.

(My emphasis.)

Lilla argues that, deep down, Americans recognize this truth, which is why democracy and tolerance have trumped religiosity at every turn, and will (hopefully) continue to do so. Not all agree with him: see, for example, this troubled response by Damon Linker, and this from Philip Jenkins. In any case, it looks like a must-read book.1

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  1. Hat-tip to Sully, who also has an essay at Cato on the subject.
3 Responses to “The Great Separation”
  1. Umm… Key? Western Civ and classical liberalism have a genetic relationship to Christianity, the same Christianity that was dominant in the West for more than a millennium? Wow. In other news, Earth orbits Sun.

    Sullivan continues to demonstrate his brilliant grasp of the obvious, with the usual 2-4 year lag.

  2. geoff says:

    I think you’re a little unfair, Larry. Everyone agrees that there is a relationship between Christianity and Western liberalism (as you say, “Wow”); the disagreement is over the nature of the relationship. And it’s not just an academic quibble; it’s about the fundamental nature of politics and religion in society. When Lilla says “post-Christian”, he’s really saying “post-religious”.

  3. I don’t think I’m being unfair. The middle sentence in the quotation

    I want to insist on this formulation as a way of stressing the uniqueness of Christian revelation and its theological-political difficulties – and therefore the uniqueness of the philosophical response to the civilizational crisis those problems triggered.

    is the unsupported conclusion. Calling the relationship specifically genetic, rather than by content, obviates the conclusion that there’s anything unique about Christianity, except that it was at the right place at the right time.

    What’s more interesting to me is: why didn’t medieval Islam develop into liberalism, even though it had a five-hundred year head start on religious tolerance (at least by medieval standards) and science- and technology-friendliness? Why did Christianity evolve into liberalism, despite being just as authoritarian, superstitious and misanthropic as Islam?

    According to my wife, Bernard Lewis’s work What Went Wrong fails to directly address this question, simply providing a narrative of the decline of medieval Islam.

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