Tag Archives: Religion and Political Theory

Wolterstorff’s “The Mighty and the Almighty”: What is Political Theology?

For an upcoming conference, I am reading Nicholas Wolterstorff’s excellent and The Mighty and the Almightyeminently readable book, The Mighty and the Almighty: An Essay in Political Theology. In some future posts, I will get into his argument concerning the dual authority of the church and the state, as well as some important counterpoints to his view (he takes Augustine to be one such counterpoint, and this will also allow me to resume my Augustinian posting).

For this first post, though, I thought to explain a little bit about the subject itself. Political theology may be misinterpreted by those who are imbued with the spirit of post-20th-century American constitutionalism to be tantamount to ecclesiastical or clerical rule (or, perhaps, rule by theologians). But it is actually an account of the relationship of divine and human authority in matters of politics and governance. As Wolterstorff puts it: “[A]t the core of traditional political theology was the question of how God’s authority is related to the authority of the state.” (2) Political theology treats the question, for example, of how a person or a people can reconcile these different authorities and demands in their own lives. And it is Wolterstorff’s aim to articulate a distinctly Christian political theology in the book.

Even so, putting the problem of political theology in this fashion may sound unusual to modern ears. Even if God’s authority was once a political problem, have we not gotten past all of that? Mark Lilla, whom Wolterstorff cites early in the book, recently explained in his intellectual history of the subject that the God of political theology is actually a “stillborn God”–a God that ought not enter into the political calculations of modernity. Though I wonder whether Wolterstorff is exactly right that Lilla was offering a requiem for political theology (more like an admonition to be mindful of the dangerous endurance of political theology), Wolterstorff presents two cogent reasons for the salience of political theology today.

First, believers in God have reason to attend to political theology because the relationship of God’s law to the civil law is a perennial problem for them. And, indeed, there is a long Christian tradition stretching for more than 1000 years (from roughly 500 to 1600) that offered a compelling answer to the problem of political theology–what Wolterstorff calls the “two rules doctrine,” which he contests (more on this in future posts).

Second, political theology is not dead; rather, says Wolterstorff, it has been “flying under the radar.” (3) Wolterstorff’s primary focus here is on some of the writing of Augustine, Calvin, and John Howard Yoder (a twentieth century Christian ethicist), but I might put the point more broadly. Many accounts of political thought have buried within them a collection of assumptions–often not explicitly laid out–of the relationship between the state’s power and other powers (perhaps greater powers) that lie outside the state. Attending directly to the ways in which a political system conceives of the authority and power of different realms (including its own) helps to excavate and shine a light on its deepest commitments.

REMINDER: Register for the 2014 Lumen Christi Conference!

Just a gentle reminder that the 2014 Conference on Christian Legal Thought is only a few weeks away! The conference is sponsored by the Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago and the Law Professors Christian Fellowship and occurs in conjunction with the annual AALS meeting, which is being held in Manhattan this year. This year’s conference celebrates the life and thought of Professor Jean Bethke Elshtain and explores the theme of public engagement with law and religion. It’s a topic that should be of broad interest in this period of great ferment in the field.

The schedule is below. Please register here!

Friday, January 3, 2014, 12:00 pm to 6:00 pm

The University Club

One West 54th Street, New York, NY 10019

Conference Topic: Public Engagement With Law and Religion: A Conference in Honor of Jean Bethke Elshtain

Noon: Registration, Luncheon, and Opening Remarks

1:15 pm – 2:45 pm: Session One. Public Engagement With Law and Religion: The Thought of Jean Bethke Elshtain

Chair: Zachary R. Calo (Valparaiso University School of Law)

* Thomas C. Berg (University of St. Thomas School of Law)

* Eric Gregory (Princeton University, Department of Religion)

* Charles Mathewes (University of Virginia, Department of Religious Studies)

2:45 pm – 3:00 pm: Coffee Break

3:00 pm – 4:30 pm. Session Two. Public Engagement With Law and Religion: Journalistic Perspectives

Chair: Marc O. DeGirolami (St. John’s University School of Law)

* Matthew Boudway (Associate Editor, Commonweal)

* Susannah Meadows (Contributor, New York Times)

* Rusty R. Reno (Editor, First Things)

4:45 PM – 5:15 pm: Vespers

5:15 pm: Reception

2014 Conference on Christian Legal Thought — Public Engagement With Law and Religion: A Conference in Honor of Jean Bethke Elshtain

I’m very pleased to announce the 2014 Conference on Christian Legal Thought, sponsored by the Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago and the Law Professors Christian Fellowship. The conference occurs in conjunction with the annual AALS meeting, which is being held in Manhattan this year. This year’s conference celebrates the life and thought of Professor Jean Bethke Elshtain and explores the theme of public engagement with law and religion.

The schedule is below, and you can register here. I hope to see many Forum readers there.

Friday, January 3, 2014, 12:00 pm to 6:00 pm
The University Club
One West 54th Street, New York, NY 10019

Conference Topic: Public Engagement With Law and Religion: A Conference in Honor of Jean Bethke Elshtain

Noon: Registration, Luncheon, and Opening Remarks

1:15 pm – 2:45 pm: Session One. Public Engagement With Law and Religion: The Thought of Jean Bethke Elshtain

Chair: Zachary R. Calo (Valparaiso University School of Law)

Thomas C. Berg (University of St. Thomas School of Law)

Eric Gregory (Princeton University, Department of Religion)

Charles Mathewes (University of Virginia, Department of Religious Studies)

2:45 pm – 3:00 pm: Coffee Break

3:00 pm – 4:30 pm.  Session Two. Public Engagement With Law and Religion: Journalistic Perspectives 

Chair: Marc O. DeGirolami  (St. John’s University School of Law)

Matthew Boudway (Associate Editor, Commonweal)

Susannah Meadows (Columnist, New York Times)

Rusty R. Reno (Editor, First Things)

4:45 PM – 5:15 pm: Vespers

5:15 pm: Reception

Corey on Oakeshott and the Rationalism of the Early American State

Elizabeth Corey has a very interesting review of a book by Gene Callahan about the extent to which the ideas of the British political theorist, Michael Oakeshott, are consistent with some of the founding ideas and principles of the American nation–particularly those championed in the Declaration of Independence but also in the US Constitution. Corey describes the book–Oakeshott on Rome and America–as working its way through this question by positing that it is true that, for example, the Constitution displays the sort of rationalism in politics that Oakeshott criticized–averring principles and political arrangements that were to bind future generations. Nevertheless, there are both internal and external limits on the rationalism of the Constitution. The internal limits are structural, providing for a government of limited powers and securing ample space for the sorts of civil association that Oakeshott defended. Here’s the conclusion of Corey’s review, which explains the external limits:

Does our American Founding, despite its aim of limiting and checking the power of those who govern, exhibit an essentially Rationalistic tendency? In other words, are the self-evident principles and universal rights it proclaims really nothing more than a distillation of the inherited English political experience, parading as eternal truths? And even if they were considered eternal truths in 1776 or 1787, are they really so today? Callahan observes that if the political culture does not support such rights and limits, or if presidents, politicians and judges are intent on, to put it gently, reinterpreting them, then there is nothing at all to stop them from doing so.

Callahan observes that a written constitution will inevitably “be read in a way that conforms to the prevailing understanding of how government ought to operate and what powers it ought to possess.” This is not simply because living constitutionalists and progressives of all stripes have managed to gain majorities in important cases. It is because, argues Callahan following Oakeshott, no written constitution can do what it purports to do in terms of providing pointed and substantive barriers to political action, especially when majorities support such action. For such reasons even Originalism is unsupportable. The notion of grounding or stabilizing the meaning of the Constitution by recourse to “original intent” is, he observes, “not just a pipe dream today, but always was such.” In short, the political culture supports the Constitution; not the other way around. We need only look at the contemporary debate about marriage to see that this is true, whether we like it or not.

One final thought. Perhaps, it might be argued, Oakeshott is right in his arguments about political culture. Politics goes on as it will in a democracy so long as a majority is happy with the outcomes. Yet given the current debates over religious liberty, one wonders where we would find ourselves without the “protection,” or at least the threat, of the first Amendment against government overreach. It is one thing to find the provisions of the Constitution and Bill of Rights not totally adequate for the job; it is another thing to be without them altogether. All parties in the debates over enumerated rights at least acknowledge that the Bill of Rights must be taken into account.

Reflections from the City of God: On Excellence in the Two Cities

Excudent alii spirantia mollius aera,                                                                              (credo equidem), vivos ducent de marmore voltus;                                            orabunt causas melius, caelique meatus                                                              describent radio et surgentia sidera dicent:

tu regere imperio populous, Romane, memento                                                           (hae tibi erunt artes) pacique imponere morem,                                                       parcere subiectis et debellare superbos.

When I was a kid, these lines were an ending of sorts. We read them in 11th Publius Vergilius Marograde Latin, at year’s end, and they represented the culmination of the first half of the Aeneid. True, several of us continued on to read Books 7-12 in our senior year, but the second half is something of a long walk down the hill (and I always had a soft spot for Turnus and couldn’t get too excited about his defeat). It’s this section of Book VI (lines 847-853)–in which the ghost of father Anchises discloses to Aeneas what the special arts and excellences of the Roman are to be–that was the peak moment. It was satisfying to us not only as an explanation for all of the trouble that the hero of the story seemed to be taking and enduring but also as an inspiring affirmation of political virtue and the excellence of civic governance writ large: to impose the habit of peace, to spare (or, one might say, to tolerate) the subjugated, and to tame the proud!

It is really quite unnecessary to study “politics” as a discrete subject in high school, or even in college, since the study of abstract political ideologies is often simply a truncated version of the study of the political tradition and heritage of a particular society. And if you want to learn about the “political theory” of an empire that continued to think itself deeply committed to its republican past, you can find it all in Vergil. Other people, he says, might make pretty arts and crafts, but this is what you want from your politics.

These lines came back to me as I read some of the Preface of Book I of the AugustineCity of God, in which Augustine notes the obstacles that he faces in laying out the aim of the work.

For I am aware what ability is requisite to persuade the proud how great is the virtue of humility, which raises us, not by a quite human arrogance, but by a divine grace, above all earthly dignities that totter on this shifting scene. For the King and Founder of this city of which we speak, has in Scripture uttered to His people a dictum of the divine law in these words: “God resisteth the proud but giveth grace unto the humble.” But this, which is God’s prerogative, the inflated ambition of a proud spirit also affects, and dearly loves that this be numbered among its attributes, to “Show pity to the humbled soul,/ And crush the sons of pride.” And therefore, as the plan of this work we have undertaken requires, and as the occasion offers, we must speak also of the earthly city, which, though it be mistress of the nations, is itself ruled by its lust of rule.

Book I is, in fact, loaded with Vergil; Vergil’s poetry itself illustrates the excellence of the City of Man. Later in Book I, it is almost as if Augustine is speaking to the hundreds upon hundreds of generations of young Latin students to come: “There is Vergil, who is read by boys, in order that this great poet, this most famous and approved of all poets, may impregnate their virgin minds, and may not readily be forgotten by them,” after which he proceeds to engage in some close textual reading and interlocution of Vergil. All of this, of course, is meant to counter the claims of those who argued that the Romans got what was coming to them by abandoning the Roman gods and embracing Christ. And as for “parcere subiectis,” Augustine argues that, in fact, the Romans did no such thing. To the contrary: “[A]mong so many and great cities which they have stormed, taken, and overthrown for the extension of their dominion, let us be told what temples they were accustomed to exempt, so that whoever took refuge in them was free.” I.6. In this book, then, Augustine punctures the Vergilian rhetoric of the Augustan age extremely effectively–”[a]ll the spoiling, then, which Rome was exposed to in the recent calamity–all the slaughter, plundering, burning, and misery–was the result of the [Roman] custom of war.” I.7. What was novel, and what showed itself in the comparatively gentle behavior of the barbarians, was truly to spare the subjugated who (whether godly or not, whether deserving–by man’s lights–or not) sought sanctuary in the Christian “temples.”

As the eminent Augustine scholar R.A. Markus puts in his magisterial volume, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine:

In Augustine’s mature view the radical vice of Greek philosophy as of Roman political ideology was the belief in the possibility…of perfection through the polis or the civitas. ‘God resists the proud, but to the humble He giveth grace’: the scriptural sentence quoted at the opening of the City of God was to Augustine’s mind the most fundamental comment on classical pretensions to human self-determination, as expressed in Vergil’s line, quoted in dramatic juxtaposition, on the historic mission of Rome….Here is Augustine’s final answer to the illusion of a teleiosis through rational and human means; and it is the more poignant for being a repudiation of a heritage which, as we have seen, had some power over his mind in his youth. (84)

And not only over Augustine’s mind!! The political program, and the power, of Rome is beguiling and attractive indeed. It holds enduring appeal to young people–as it did for me and my friends in high school. There are, I suppose, several reasons that one reads Vergil rather than Augustine in high school. But one of them, perhaps the most important, is that the excellence of the City of Man is so easy and approachable (as texts millennia old go), while the excellence of the City of God is so distant and so difficult. The excellence of humility is so much harder to appreciate and embrace than the excellence of dominion–especially, it seems to me, for the young. The excellence of the City of God holds little of the immediate and prepossessing appeal of the splendors of Rome.

But perhaps a little Augustine in the relatively early educational years, as a counterpoint to Vergil, might cast politics in a mellower light for the rising generations.

Podcast Featuring Delahunty on Tocqueville and Religion

Our guest, Professor Robert Delahunty, has conducted an informative podcast with the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion involving Alexis de Tocqueville and religion. Readers familiar with his excellent posts at CLR Forum over the past month (which will continue this week) will be further edified by Robert’s deep learning on the subject. The podcast is moderated by Baylor University’s Anthony Gill.

Tocqueville on materialism

In my last posting, I discussed Tocqueville’s view that religious belief in “natural” to human beings, but that religion loses its hold when it is instrumentalized to serve a political purpose. On that view, it would seem to follow that religion should be secure in a nation like the United States, where the government seeks to avoid any entanglement with religion. However, Tocqueville also thinks that American democracy has a tendency to corrode religious belief, so that our democratic environment is not as hospitable to religion as it might have seemed. The primary reason why American democracy is predisposed to unbelief, Tocqueville seems to say, is that it gives rise to “materialism.” In this posting, I shall probe that thought.

The religious sentiment is not, for Tocqueville, the only or even the dominant passion within the human heart. “What most sharply stirs the human heart is not the quiet possession of a precious object but the as yet unsatisfied desire of owning it and the constant fear of losing it.” Democracy in America at 616 (Bevan trans.). In an aristocratic society, where the opportunities for gaining wealth are limited, neither the rich, who already enjoy material prosperity, nor the poor, who have no hope of attaining it, are driven by this passion. In that type of society, “the mind of the poor man is cast forward to the next world; his imagination is cramped by the wretchedness of real life, yet it escapes to seek for joys beyond.” Id. at 617. But in more open and egalitarian societies, where the poor have the chance of becoming wealthy and the rich have more cause to fear the loss of their fortunes, both rich and poor will be “constantly engaged in the pursuit or the preservation of these precious, imperfect, and fugitive delights.” Id. Hence both the hedonism and the restlessness of American society; hence also the threat that American affluence poses for American religion. “Religion is often powerless to restrain man in the face of the countless temptations offered by wealth and cannot moderate his eagerness to become rich, which everything around him helps to stimulate.” Id. at 340.

Tocqueville is both impressed and dismayed by the Americans’ unrelenting drive for wealth. “The passions which stir Americans most deeply are commercial not political ones or more accurately they transfer into politics the methods of business. . . . One must go to America to understand the power of material prosperity over political actions and even those opinions which ought to be governed by reason alone.” Id. at 333. The American pursuit of wealth is “feverish;” it leaves them “ceaselessly tormented.” Id. at 623. Yet their enjoyment of their acquisitions is shadowed by a “secret anxiety.” Id. at 624. They cannot rest content. “In the United States, a man will carefully construct a home in which to spend his old age and sell it before the roof is on; he will plant a garden and will rent it out just as he was about to enjoy its fruit; he will clear a field and leave others to reap the harvest.” Id. at 623. Thus we find “unusual melancholy” and “distaste for life” “in the midst of plenty.” Id. at 625-26. “The man who has set his heart exclusively on the search for the good things of this world is always in a hurry for he has only a limited time to find, grasp, and enjoy them.” Id. at 624. The thought of his mortality “floods his mind with agitation, fear and regret; it holds his soul in a sort of ceaseless nervousness.” Id. Yet if Americans could finally “be[] satisfied with their physical possessions alone,” that would bring them ruin rather than repose: “they would gradually lose the skill of producing them and would end up enjoying them without discernment or improvement like the animals.” Id. at 636.

Continue reading

Caryl, Strange Rebels

Strange RebelsThis month Basic Books will publish Strange Rebels by Christian Caryl.  The publisher’s description follows.

 Few moments in history have seen as many seismic transformations as 1979. That single year marked the emergence of revolutionary Islam as a political force on the world stage, the beginning of market revolutions in China and Britain that would fuel globalization and radically alter the international economy, and the first stirrings of the resistance movements in Eastern Europe and Afghanistan that ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. More than any other year in the latter half of the twentieth century, 1979 heralded the economic, political, and religious realities that define the twenty-first. In Strange Rebels, veteran journalist Christian Caryl shows how the world we live in today—and the problems that plague it—began to take shape in this pivotal year. 1979, he explains, saw a series of counterrevolutions against the progressive consensus that had dominated the postwar era. The year’s epic upheavals embodied a startling conservative challenge to communist and socialist systems around the globe, fundamentally transforming politics and economics worldwide. In China, 1979 marked the start of sweeping market-oriented reforms that have made the country the economic powerhouse it is today. 1979 was also the year that Pope John Paul II traveled to Poland, confronting communism in Eastern Europe by reigniting its people’s suppressed Catholic faith. In Iran, meanwhile, an Islamic Revolution transformed the nation into a theocracy almost overnight, overthrowing the Shah’s modernizing monarchy. Further west, Margaret Thatcher became prime minister of Britain, returning it to a purer form of free-market capitalism and opening the way for Ronald Reagan to do the same in the US. And in Afghanistan, a Soviet invasion fueled an Islamic holy war with global consequences; the Afghan mujahedin presaged the rise of al-Qaeda and served as a key factor—along with John Paul’s journey to Poland—in the fall of communism. Weaving the story of each of these counterrevolutions into a brisk, gripping narrative, Strange Rebels is a groundbreaking account of how these far-flung events and disparate actors and movements gave birth to our modern age.

O’Rourke (ed.), “What Happened in and to Moral Philosophy in the Twentieth Century? Philosophical Essays in Honor of Alasdair MacIntyre”

Here is another excellent looking new festschrift circulating in an orbit MacIntyreproximate to the law and religion galaxy, What Happened in and to Moral Philosophy in the Twentieth Century? Philosophical Essays in Honor of Alasdair MacIntyre (Notre Dame Press 2013), edited by Fran O’Rourke.  I have long thought that it would be useful and interesting to include selections of Alasdair MacIntyre’s writing in a course in legal ethics; both his criticisms of contemporary moral discourse and his descriptions of what a “practice”–like a legal practice, for example–consists in would be excellent issues to think about in Professional Responsibility.  Happily, I’ll be teaching the course in spring 2014–students, prepare for MacIntyre.  The publisher’s description follows.

What Happened in and to Moral Philosophy in the Twentieth Century? is a volume of essays originally presented at University College Dublin in 2009 to celebrate the eightieth birthday of Alasdair MacIntyre—a protagonist at the center of that very question. What marks this collection is the unusual range of approaches and perspectives, representing divergent and even contradictory positions. Such variety reflects MacIntyre’s own intellectual trajectory, which led him to engage successively with various schools of thought: analytic, Marxist, Christian, atheist, Aristotelian, Augustinian, and Thomist. This collection presents a unique profile of twentieth-century moral philosophy and is itself an original contribution to ongoing debate.

The volume begins with Alasdair MacIntyre’s fascinating philosophical self-portrait, “On Having Survived the Academic Moral Philosophy of the Twentieth Century,” which charts his own intellectual development. The first group of essays considers MacIntyre’s revolutionary contribution to twentieth-century moral philosophy: its value in understanding and guiding human action, its latent philosophical anthropology, its impetus in the renewal of the Aristotelian tradition, and its application to contemporary interests. The next group of essays considers the complementary and competing traditions of emotivism, Marxism, Thomism, and phenomenology. A third set of essays presents thematic analyses of such topics as evolutionary ethics, accomplishment and just desert, relativism, evil, and the inescapability of ethics. MacIntyre responds with a final essay, “What Next?” which addresses questions raised by contributors to the volume.

Ward & Ward (ed.), “Natural Right and Political Philosophy: Essays in Honor of Catherine Zuckert and Michael Zuckert”

One of the best, most helpful, and most lucid treatments that I have read of theNatural Right and Political Philosophy difficult thinker Leo Strauss was written some years back by the political theorists Catherine and Michael Zuckert.  I am therefore excited to take a look at this new collection of essays honoring the work of the Zuckerts, Natural Right and Political Philosophy: Essays in Honor of Catherine Zuckert and Michael Zuckert (Notre Dame Press 2013), edited by Ann Ward and Lee Ward.  The publisher’s description follows.

Inspired by the work of prominent University of Notre Dame political philosophers Catherine Zuckert and Michael Zuckert, this volume of essays explores the concept of natural right in the history of political philosophy. The central organizing principle of the collection is the examination of the idea of natural justice, identified in the classical period with natural right and in modernity with the concept of individual natural rights.

Contributors examine the concept of natural right and rights in all the manifold and interdisciplinary dimensions associated with the Zuckerts’ oeuvre. Part I explores the theme of natural right in the ancient and medieval political philosophy of Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, and St. Augustine. Part II examines the early modern break from the classical tradition in the work of Montaigne, Spinoza, Montesquieu, Locke, and Hegel as well as the legacy of the modern natural rights tradition as explored by Leo Strauss and Pope John Paul II. Part III treats the theme of natural rights from the Puritans through the Founding period in such figures as Thomas Jefferson and Gouverneur Morris and up to the Progressive era with Booker T. Washington and Theodore Roosevelt. Part IV addresses questions of natural justice in literature, including works of Euripides, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Edith Wharton, and Tom Stoppard.