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What’s Wrong With Liberation Theology

It occurs to me that I should probably be doing something else right now other than blogging (a class syllabus doesn’t write itself), but my recent criticism of Bush’s liberation theology, which joined a chorus of negative responses from Ross, Rod, David Kuo, and Sullivan, has met with some skepticism from a blogger who issues the inevitable challenge: […]

It occurs to me that I should probably be doing something else right now other than blogging (a class syllabus doesn’t write itself), but my recent criticism of Bush’s liberation theology, which joined a chorus of negative responses from Ross, Rod, David Kuo, and Sullivan, has met with some skepticism from a blogger who issues the inevitable challenge:

There’s a common theme in all these, that because the religious is much more important than the political and worldly, that the political and worldly essentially doesn’t matter and that the religious shouldn’t influence the political and worldly. I strongly disagree with this.

Taken in isolation, the quotes from Ross, David Kuo and myself might seem to match this description, but this would be to misunderstand a great deal about how we think religion and politics should intersect.   

To apply this charge against Ross and myself would have to strike anyone familiar with our published statements on religion and politics as fairly bizarre.  Where Ross and I may differ on policy prescriptions or on the degree to which religion, more specifically a traditional Christianity (Catholicism for him, Orthodoxy for me), ought to influence politics, we are essentially on the same page in believing that religion not only should have an influence but that this influence is absolutely inevitable in any society that has a large number of religious people in it.  Particularly in a regime that is supposed to be democratic, religion and religious questions will play a role in political debate, and I think Ross and I would again be in agreement that they should probably play a larger role than they do and should do so in more explicitly religious language.  Besides the theological confusion in the idea, there are three things that bother me about Bush’s liberation theology.  First, it takes an ideology and then claims that this ideology has theological roots–you cannot disagree with the assumptions of the ideology, lest you declare yourself against the promises of God!  This is clever enough, but fairly transparent.  A second, related matter is that it takes what is otherwise unremarkable liberal revolutionary dogmatism and seeks to baptise it with invocations of the Deity.  Far from having “religion” influencing politics, it subordinates religion to the role of providing justification and being a sort of moral escape hatch when things go awry.  Mr. Bush’s use of this religious language, however sincere and deeply felt it might be, manages at once to enlist the name of God in a purely secular and, as it happens, rather bad cause, and to fulfill the worst stereotype about the political danger of religion in politics (as I have said, the Iraq war is a prime exhibit not of excessive religiosity in government, but rather a decided lack of it).  It has the ring of cynicism, even if it is not intended as cynical, while somehow also giving off the whiff of zealotry, though nothing could be further from the truth than to see in Mr. Bush the religious fanatic.  There may be some fanaticism there, but it is not actually religious.  Finally, nothing could be worse for a properly robust role for religion in public life than taking Mr. Bush’s badly disordered version of it as an expression of religious influence on politics.  This liberation theology, not unlike Marxist liberation theology before it, is a perfect example of how Christians twist and distort the Faith to suit the supposed political needs of the moment.   

My impression has been that Mr. Kuo does not believe that religion, specifically Christianity, should not influence politics, but that Christians should not make political success a greater priority than the calling of the Faith (as he believed was happening with conservative Christians, the modern GOP and the current administration).  You can dispute whether or not Mr. Kuo is right about this confusion of priorities in our own time (to my mind, he is more right than not), but you should not mistake this for a desire to separate religion and politics.  Rather, the goal for him would seem to be that Christians work as a leaven in the body politic, but that they do not allow themselves to be consumed by causes that are more partisan, narrow and limited and instead retain a more balanced sense of the lines between advancing and applying Christian witness in the realm of public policy and becoming servants of the political operation through which that witness is to be carried out.  It is not an appeal to quietism and indifference to political action as such–it is, as Mr. Kuo has said many times, a call for a “fast” from politics.

Then there is this business about whether God “cares” about the state of affairs on earth.  This sets things up nicely for the defenders of elements of the liberation theology, since it implies that anyone who would reject the gnostic and chiliastic deviations of liberation theology thinks that God is indifferent to the organisation of human society and human suffering.  This is not correct.  On the contrary, the charge might readily be made that Ross and I take the claim of a God Who “cares” about such things too far and that we think He “cares” about all manner of behaviour that has been deemed off limits to scrutiny by worshipers of privacy and money and, yes, liberty.  No one has ever exactly confused either one of us for great enthusiasts for a really severe application of the “wall of separation”!  That said, it does not mean that we are going to believe fairy tales that God wants everyone to become good liberal democrats, which is the ultimate conclusion of Mr. Bush’s sort of thinking. 

There is no evidence in Scripture or tradition that this is true.  No relevant religious authority teaches such a thing.  It is an odd view indeed that identifies the longings of fallen man with divine will.  Suppose, despite evidence to the contrary, that all men do long for political freedom–do Christians normally credit every desire of fallen humanity with such a high and noble origin as the Creator Himself?  Most people in different ways desire many things they ought not to desire, at least according to the teachings of Scripture, and they do this in defiance of God’s will–we do not attribute lusts of the heart or the pride of knowledge to some “heavenly plan.”  We recognise them as excesses and flaws.  It is at least possible that a desire for political liberty may contain the seeds of similar spiritual disorders.  Even if every man declared that he wanted political liberty, it is still conceivable that this desire derives not from inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but from another spirit entirely. 

There are circumstances in which faithful Christians can, indeed, must resist unjust, tyrannical government, as Christians are meant to defer to legitimate authority and not simply lawless power.  That is a vital distinction.  The Anglo-American idea of the right to rebel has certain medieval precedents and theological defenses.  Even so, this means that God wills that every society and government be well-ordered according to prudence, justice, charity, moderation.  To the extent that a liberal democratic government can realise these virtues or allows people to realise them, we can say that it does not stand in opposition to what God wills.  It might even be argued (though I would not necessarily argue this) that this is the regime best suited for cultivating such virtues.  Even so, it remains only one means, an instrument, to the true end that God wills, which is man’s perfection in the virtues and the cultivation of God’s likeness unto full sanctification.  However, in certain ways, such a regime can be antithetical to these virtues and stands in need of reform.  Declaring that a particular political order is ordained by God for the entire world opens the door to abuse at home (since questioning the assumptions and goals of the regime could then be taken as resistance to God’s will) and aggression abroad (since the faithful must not tolerate the thwarting of God’s will in the form of different political regimes).  As it happens, this is exactly what has issued forth from the administration for which this idea has been a motivating force. 

When Mr. Bush says that “freedom is God’s gift to mankind,” he isn’t simply praising God for a providential order in which such things as political liberty are possible (which has rather more decent precedents that do not involve Woodrow Wilson or The Battle Hymn of the Republic), but he is saying quite clearly that the development of political liberty is itself integral to God’s providential plan and that God wills that all of the world be brought into a certain political state.  Against this, there is the weight of at least 1,700-odd years of Christian theologians who rarely, if ever, ventured the view that there was any particular regime, political principle or political arrangement that was absolutely favoured by God (and in the last three hundred years, Catholics and Orthodox are still taught to believe that no single form of government has any special endorsement from on high, and that all legitimate government must be obeyed).  Those who gave it much thought routinely came down, of course, in favour of monarchy, and one could be as theologically libertarian (that is, a proponent of man’s free will) as one wished without reaching any similar conclusion that there should be guarantees against arbitrary government written into law.  The thing that may trouble any small-government Theonomists among us is the recognition that political liberty was a primarily secular accomplishment resulting from contestation between different centers of power; strong arguments can be made that it required a Christian culture for the right conceptions of person and human dignity to command broad acceptance, and that Christianity with its recognition of two kinds of authority made political liberty possible in a way that it was not in other religions, but that is a very different kind of argument. 

Within Christendom, early English and Dutch liberal ideas were aberrations and happened to coincide with what most of the Christian world would have then and still does regard as heresy.  European liberalism elsewhere largely came into existence in the teeth of fierce opposition from the Catholic Church, not least because the liberals sought to attack and undermine the authority of the Catholic Church.  These are significant stumblingblocks for any belief in a liberation theology of the kind Mr. Bush espouses.  If God wills political liberation, this means two things.  First, it means that most centuries in the history of Christendom were almost entirely filled with Christians who did not know this part of the will of God and egregiously failed to obey Him (which conveniently elevates the modern liberal Christian to a much higher status in the divine economy–this is just a coincidence, I’m sure).  The other thing that it means is that God’s will was effectively frustrated for almost the entirety of human history, and it has only been in the last two to three hundred years that His plan has made any headway at all.  God is shown to be strangely diffident about His own supposed high purposes, or else most of His servants, including almost all of those whom Catholics and Orthodox today venerate as saints, were engaged in persistent rebellion against God’s will.  Both thoughts are impious and unacceptable.  Very simply, either Mr. Bush’s understanding of divine providence is correct and the broad sweep of Christian tradition has missed something vitally important about God’s will, or Mr. Bush is wrong and the tradition right. 

In the Orthodox world, of course, not only is there virtually no tradition of thinking as Mr. Bush does, but most instances where Orthodox theologians and philosophers have started speaking in terms of freedom have come after intense periods of post-1789 Westernisation.  It is in the very modernity and newness of such talk that distinguishes it from the overwhelming witness of Christian tradition.  Against the sweep of that tradition, the liberation theologians have on their side the Declaration of Independence and the occasional passage from Algernon Sydney.  How could it be that I remain convinced that liberation theology is bunk?



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