February 23, 2009

The Baptism of the State

Daniel Larison has a very provocative post on the claim, often made by the Religious Right (or the “theocrats” as their detractors call them), that “liberalism-in-the-first-sense” (think the Anglo-Saxon tradition, constitutionalism, limited government, free-markets etc.) is inextricably “Christian,” or else that such a system doesn’t function well without a Christian populace. The American Right often uses this idea (which is a half-truth at best) to combat “secular humanism” and ?liberalism-in-the-second-sense.” But as Larison points out, it can just as easily work to grant the Left-liberal welfare state a religious aura that it does not deserve?and at a time when Christians should be criticizing and attacking the state not legitimizing it. We certainly got a taste of this with Pastor Rick Warren’s invocation at Obama’s inauguration. 

I feel like I?ve sensed this problem with the rhetoric of the Religious Right for years, but until I read Daniel?s post, I wasn?t able to put it into words.     

Here’s the essaylet in full:

I think I understand Damon Linker?s argument against the ?theocons? better than I did earlier, but as I read his latest post on this question I am even more puzzled by his hostility to the ?theocon? project. If it is true that theocons believe that ?America must be recognized as a Christian nation in the sense that its form of government ? its regime, liberalism in the first sense ? is essentially, ineradicably Christian,? no one should be more pleased by this than political left-liberals. If it prevailed, this mythology would invest the liberal constitutional order with the sort of legitimacy that would make it impossible for Christians to question.

Of course, it isn?t true that liberalism-in-the-first-sense, the liberal constitutional order of the United States, is essentially Christian, and it is an anachronism of the worst kind to make this claim, so I can see why someone might object to this conflation on philosophical and historical grounds. However, Linker?s objection is not merely that this mythology is wrong, but that it is threatening to the liberal order. What Linker continues to miss is that this effort to baptize liberalism is aimed at shoring up liberalism-in-the-first-sense and it is also aimed, I think, at preventing religiously-grounded critiques of liberalism-in-the-first-sense, which inevitably also blunts religiously-grounded critiques of political left-lliberalism. It ensures that political discourse will remain confined to the fairly narrow limits of different forms of liberalism, which effectively disarms the right and perpetually puts illiberal groups and their institutions on the defensive. Not only does this preclude any possibility of a ?theocon?-led turn towards theocracy or anything remotely like it, but it would have to mean that the ?theocons? would have to insist that theocracy or any kind of political theology that invests a non-liberal political order with religious sanction is more or less antithetical to Christianity. There are myriad reasons why Christians and especially Christian conservatives should fiercely oppose such a project, but there are very few reasons for a defender of secular America to do the same.

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