Monday, September 3, 2007

Separation of church and state: in long-view world history terms, an anomaly


On Sunday Aug. 19, 2007 The New York Times Magazine ran an interesting essay on “political theology” by Mark Lilia, “The Politics of God, photographs by Thomas Struth, atarting on p 28. The magazine cover (and a section of the essay) is called “The Great Separation” and the by-line reads “We in the West find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still inflame the minds of men, stirring up messianic passions that can leave societies in ruin. We had assumed that this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that political theology died in 16th-Century Europe. We were wrong. It’s we who are the fragile exception.”

He goes through a long history of the church and state question, a good final exam essay in world history, it seems. He puts particular emphasis on the influence (with some paradox) of Hobbes and then Rousseau.

But the central question seems anthropological. Human beings, coming alive in a world that they did not choose to be born in, seek an explanation for the condition in which they find themselves, seek some kind of order. It’s natural to assume that God (or the gods) want things to work a certain way (say, heterosexually). Religious ideas go hand in hand with collective values that justify the subordination of individual expression for the supposed stability, safety, and (given a hostile external world) prosperity of the group. You can certainly see that in Leviticus. And you can see it in Sharia law. Indeed, Lilia’s ideas might help us understand how someone (“messianic”) like Hitler could take over an advanced nation, even if it was on its back. All kinds of other practices over the ages, like simony, can fall into place.

Lilia’s piece deserves to be compared with recent books by Robert W. Merry, Sands of Empire: Missionary Zeal, American Foreign Policy, and the Hazards of Global Ambition (2005), and Amy Chua. World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, both reviewed on by books blog.

Yes, many people defer to religion to determine what is "right" and "wrong" and it seems perfectly "natural" to do so. But some of the more subtle and psychological subtexts of the cultural wars to project well onto "secular humanist" analysis on issues like shared burdens and "hyper-individualism v. solidarity." The conclusions from making such analysis are not always reassuring.

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