Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Political and the Holy

Liberalism has failed to separate religious and political spheres, but true theology can.

Discontent in American public life has struck a resounding cord across the political spectrum. Speaking to the American crisis, Yoni Appelbaum has pinpointed a significant feature of the problem for the Atlantic: We have not only lost trust in our democratic institutions. We seem to have given up the habit and practice of democracy itself.

While we will be quick to point to a set of proximate occurrences as the cause of this bipartisan gloom, there is a more remote feature of our present condition that is often neglected. We need to pay closer attention to an overarching narrative, a story that American citizens have been taught to believe, and which in its own incoherence provides a more coherent explanation for our current discontent.

Liberalism does not simply entail a set of philosophical and political principles that can be drawn to their logical conclusions. Rather, liberalism is a tale that helps democratic citizens understand themselves and their place in this world. When we better grasp some of the essential features of this story, we can perhaps catch a glimpse of what is happening today in American social and political life.

The first principle of the liberal narrative, the one in crisis, is this: Liberalism inaugurated the necessary division between the religious and political spheres, which is the cause of universal flourishing and societal peace. The powerful influence of this tale can be seen by looking at two particular instantiations of its telling.

One comes from Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker. Pinker argued in his recent work, Enlightenment Now, that the world has improved in almost every measurable area of human life for the past three centuries, and that said progress is only continuing. The central argument that Pinker presents is meant to push against a resurgent narrative of decline in American social and political thought, spanning both the left and right. This story contends that the state of the world is not only in a condition of angst, but experiencing a serious existential and social crisis stemming from tenets of liberalism itself.

The progress that Pinker sees throughout the world—the astounding decline of poverty, war, disease, and famine, and the vast increase of wealth, equality, and democracy across the globe—is said to owe its success to the ideas laid down by Enlightenment thinkers. For Pinker, “our ancestors replaced dogma, tradition and authority with reason, debate and institutions of truth-seeking. They replaced superstition and magic with science. And they shifted their values from the glory of the tribe, nation, race, class, or faith toward universal human flourishing.”

The attempted substitution of religious authority with science and universal human flourishing constitutes a revolutionary paradigm shift. In his book The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, Columbia professor Mark Lilla elucidates a second component of this narrative feature, which concerns the novelty of modern thought. According to Lilla,

The first modern philosophers hoped to change the practices of Christian politics…By attacking Christian political theology and denying its legitimacy, the new philosophy simultaneously challenged the basic principles on which authority had been justified in most societies in history…The ambition of the new philosophy was to develop habits of thinking and talking about politics exclusively in human terms, without appeal to divine revelation or cosmological speculation.

We must admit the claim that liberalism brought about a needed division between the religious and political spheres has some truth to it. And yet, at a deeper level this narrative of liberalism neglects the fact that political theology is still alive today, albeit in a distorted and rather crippling manner. Whether we are speaking of climate change, racism, or economic justice, our political thinking has ultimately become a dialectic between the “innocent” and the “stained.” A new public theology has emerged, wherein one must constantly display an appearance of being a victim. Those that are not able to play a victim, then, are made akin to Covid-19, a disease needing to be eradicated at all costs.

The shift that is identity politics is not merely a new form of religion. This common contention usurps its own self-understanding. Identity politics is not only a set of doctrines but is patently liturgical. The pseudo-liturgical activity of identity politics reveals its connection to the new condition of modern man. Its worship is made visible in public denunciations of illiberalism, racism, xenophobia, hatred, privilege. Worship is nourished by its nominal telos whereby humanity become witness to the final overcoming of all forms of discrimination and oppression. The vitality and tenacity of identity politics becomes intelligible by seeing it within this deracinated liturgical context.

In other words, there is an aspect in which liberalism has ushered in its own sacramental vision, where religion and politics have again become joined together. Liberalism, then, is manifest precisely as a theology. Some would argue it always was.

So how is it that we might respond to the union of religion and politics? As part of a broader approach, a first step would seem to entail the actual desacralization of the political. In Christianity, the salvific message of Jesus Christ transcends the political; salvation is not dependent upon the condition of one’s political society. The fullest meaning of the Christian faith ensures that the spread of its healing doctrine not be tied to any one political regime. To be a citizen of a particular political order does not make or break one’s eternal beatitude.

Alongside this theological principle, as Augustine argues in the City of God, is the realist recognition that all earthly regimes will fall short of justice. This is why Augustine drew such a sharp distinction between the City of God and the City of Man. The City of God was not the earthly church, but a transpolitical reality, something to which human beings are ordered as their ultimate end. Following in the footsteps of Plato and the classical tradition of political philosophy, Augustine believed that it was necessary to ask what the best regime would be, or is under eternity. Yet, he also agreed with Plato that such a perfect regime is impossible to create in this life, and that attempting to bring it about would destroy actual regimes.

In conjunction with Augustine, talk of a Christian regime should be approached with great prudence and a deep caution. The temptation to guard against is a sort of “re-enchanted” nationalism, even under the guise of Christianity. The City of God is not an attempt to undermine the need for the embodied realities of home and political life. Rather, the nuance or caveat is to say that the City of God offered by Christ as witnessed in the Gospel is ultimate. The desire and orientation towards this Ultimate Home can become eclipsed even in the attempt to recover the goodness of home and attachment in this world.

We need to recover an account of divine revelation that can counter the worst tendencies of sacralizing political life. As part of the larger narrative of revelation, politics has an opportunity to be put in its rightful place, one where the political cannot become a metaphysics or a pseudo-religion. For the Christian, salvation is not a political project. Our life is meant to be an incarnation of the God who became man. This is always the Christian vocation, no matter in which regime we may find ourselves.

Brian Jones is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy in the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas.