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Friday, February 15, 2008

Reinhold Niebuhr was a political liberal but not a theological one; he admired Karl Barth

The Stillborn God: The rules of the games posted by Mark Lilla SSRC Home SSRC Blogs Blog Home

Some critics have asked: what about the United States? Doesn’t its history show that liberal political theology and liberal constitutionalism can work hand in hand, that there is no aut-aut? David Hollinger and Daniel Philpott offer versions of this argument, which has also appeared in previous posts and in published reviews. Let me take them up briefly here before signing off.

I do not disagree with Philpott when he writes that “the formation and incubation of liberal democracy” in the United States drew from Christian tradition of dissent, which opened up theological space for thinking about the autonomy of politics. That is how things happened on the ground; but once it did, Americans found themselves playing by the rules of the new chess game, and today do not generally make reference to a divine nexus of God, man, and world when explaining to themselves what makes their constitution legitimate. We have kicked that ladder away (Pastor Huckabee notwithstanding). Given the presence of real, and really aggressive, political theology in the world today, we need to keep a sense of proportion about this.

Nor do I deny that Christianity “has continued to sustain and, at vital junctures, to contribute to the expansion of liberal democracy, both in thought and substance.” How could it not? After all, the whole point of liberal democracy is that we are no longer in the business of looking into people’s souls and questioning the grounds on which people have certain political views. There are many American Christians, and their Christianity no doubt inspires their views on a range of issues (for better or worse, let’s admit that, too). But the legitimacy of the constitution does not depend on accepting or even recognizing the legitimacy of their deepest convictions, only that they can express them, and by and large they accept that. Which means they are playing on the new board, not the old one.

David Hollinger thinks I misunderstand the American case because I focus on Germany, suggesting that the god of liberal theology is still alive and kicking here. Institutionally, this clearly isn’t so: the liberal Protestant churches have been severely depopulated over the past forty years, losing young people either to religious indifference or more ecstatic forms of faith, and liberal Catholicism isn’t doing any better. But Hollinger is referring to something else, I think, which is the prophetic strain in American religion which has done so much to inspire the political liberalism of our time. But this is not “liberal theology” in any recognizable sense, which is an intellectual tradition rooted in the nineteenth-century hope of accommodating faith to the demands of the present. The prophetic tradition wants to bring God’s judgment down on the present, denouncing racism, war, environmental degradation, inequality, and the rest.

Reinhold Niebuhr was a political liberal but not a theological one; he admired Karl Barth, and his early work in the churches of Detroit during the depression was inspired by a ferocious Augustinianism, not liberal accommodation. Similarly with Dr. King. We should not conflate the prophetic “social gospel” with liberal theology, which inspires very few today. American politics still makes room for prophets, as it should - so long as they retire to their churches once the ballots are cast. And they generally do. This entry was posted on Thursday, February 14th, 2008 at 7:00 am and is filed under The Stillborn God. One Response to “The rules of the games”

Michael Perry: February 14th, 2008 at 12:19 pm I have been studying, teaching, and writing about American constitutional law for over thirty years, but I am in the dark as to what Mark Lilla means, in his post, by “the legitimacy of the constitution” (which, he says, “does not depend on accepting or even recognizing the legitimacy of their deepest convictions”). Moral legitimacy? Political legitimacy? Something else? (Surely not, of course, legal legitimacy.) So many proper names, so little clarity. Please, can someone enlighten?

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