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Secular liberalism stands helpless before a new century of religious wars, Columbia University Professor Mark Lilla concedes in “The politics of God,” a despairing vision of the political future published in the August 19 New York Times Magazine.  It is one of those important statements, like the “end of history,” that will repeat on us indefinitely, like a bad curry. It comprises most of the Times weekend magazine, presented with all the pomposity the newspaper can summon.
For the few of us who asked not how to avoid religious war, but rather how best to fight it, Lilla’s essay provides double validation. Not only does he admit that the foundation has crumbled beneath the secular-liberal position but, even better, he lays bare the rank hypocrisy that infected this position from the beginning. Lilla does not love Reason; he merely hates Christianity. He is beaten, and knows he is beaten, but cannot bear to surrender to Western Christians; instead, he proposes to surrender to the Muslims, particularly to Professor Tariq Ramadan. If that sounds strange, it is not my fault. It is all there in black and white, as I will report below. But first, here is Lilla’s de profundis:
For more than two centuries, from the American and French revolutions to the collapse of Soviet communism, world politics revolved around eminently political problems. War and revolution, class and social justice, race and national identity – these were the questions that divided us. Today, we have progressed to the point where our problems again resemble those of the 16th century, as we find ourselves entangled in conflicts over competing revelations, dogmatic purity and divine duty. We in the West are disturbed and confused. Though we have our own fundamentalists, we find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still stir up messianic passions, leaving societies in ruin. We had assumed this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. We were wrong.
That is well enough, and Exhibit 1 for the prosecution is the president of Iran, Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Lilla quotes his May 2006 letter to the US president at some length, eg, “Liberalism and Western-style democracy have not been able to help realize the ideals of humanity. Today, these two concepts have failed. Those with insight can already hear the sounds of the shattering and fall of the ideology and thoughts of the liberal democratic systems … Whether we like it or not, the world is gravitating towards faith in the Almighty and justice, and the will of God will prevail over all things.”
Yet by wink and nudge, Lilla conjures us to believe that the true problem is not resurgent fanaticism in the Muslim world at all, but rather the new ascendance of Christian faith in the West. He presents not a shred of evidence for this outlandish charge. The reader will peruse the essay in vain for a word of explanation concerning the origins of Muslim fanaticism. Instead, the entire content is devoted to presenting the history of a Christian fanaticism that does not exist, and has not existed for a century or more. It may be that Lilla, a follower of Leo Strauss, is trying his hand at what Strauss called esoteric writing – concealing a message for adept readers. Whatever the motive, his argument is inconsequential and silly. Fascism, communism, neo-orthodox Protestantism, Zionism – any movement that elicited passion and commitment – all are summoned to the prisoner’s box to hear Lilla’s bill of indictment.
The generation that survived World War I, he writes, “craved a more robust faith, based on a new revelation that would shake the foundations of the whole modern order. It was a thirst for redemption. Ever since the liberal theologians had revived the idea of biblical politics, the stage had been set for just this sort of development. When faith in redemption through bourgeois propriety and cultural accommodation withered after the Great War, the most daring thinkers of the day transformed it into hope for a messianic apocalypse – one that would again place the Jewish people, or the individual Christian believer, or the German nation, or the world proletariat in direct relation with the divine.” Karl Barth, the anti-Nazi Swiss theologian, and the young Zionist Martin Buber are just as guilty as Marxists and Nazis.
Before all these dreadful people brought faith back into politics, Lilla avers, 17th-century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes had saved civilization from religious wars by changing the subject of political thought to tolerance and compromise:
Over the next few centuries, Western thinkers like John Locke, who adopted his approach, began to imagine a new kind of political order in which power would be limited, divided and widely shared; in which those in power at one moment would relinquish it peacefully at another, without fear of retribution; in which public law would govern relations among citizens and institutions; in which many different religions would be allowed to flourish, free from state interference; and in which individuals would have inalienable rights to protect them from government and their fellows. This liberal-democratic order is the only one we in the West recognize as legitimate today, and we owe it primarily to Hobbes. In order to escape the destructive passions of messianic faith, political theology centered on God was replaced by political philosophy centered on man. This was the Great Separation.
Precisely how Hobbes accomplished all of this is a mystery known only to political scientists who take themselves far too seriously. The masses, after all, did not rally in the public squares waving little books of quotations from Chairman Hobbes. Never mind that the United States, which defined the modern democratic state, was founded by radical Protestant refugees from Europe who set out to build a New Jerusalem, and that impassioned religious faith has characterized American discourse from its founding. Lilla desires us to believe that an elite of political scientists much like himself managed to re-engineer the social order during the 18th century, before those awful fanatics came back. He reminds one of the scientists on the flying island of Laputa in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, who wander with their noses in the air and must be hit on the nose with inflated pig’s bladders to prevent them falling over the edge.
And so we come to the first decade of the 21st century, Lilla argues, over which a terrible shadow lies: man’s desire for redemption:
The idea of redemption is among the most powerful forces shaping human existence in all those societies touched by the biblical tradition. It has inspired people to endure suffering, overcome suffering and inflict suffering on others. It has offered hope and inspiration in times of darkness; it has also added to the darkness by arousing unrealistic expectations and justifying those who spill blood to satisfy them. All the biblical religions cultivate the idea of redemption, and all fear its power to inflame minds and deafen them to the voice of reason … It was as if nothing had changed since the 17th century, when Thomas Hobbes first sat down to write his Leviathan.
Does Professor Lilla seriously believe that nothing has changed since the 17th century, when religious wars killed off half the population of central Europe? Christian America confronted the atheistic Soviet Union during the 1980s, and without a shot fired in anger, the Soviet Union collapsed. Where was the fanaticism, the rancor, the bloodlust on the part of the West? The greatest danger to central Europe today, which over the next century will suffer population declines comparable to those of the 17th century, is the absence of a notion of redemption. Secular Europe has lost its will to live and its desire to reproduce, a malady most prominent in the former communist countries where religious faith was most suppressed.
For that matter, where has Lilla uncovered a streak of religious fanaticism in the West? The previous pope did penance for the murder of the 15th-century Protestant rebel Jan Hus, and worshipped at the synagogue in Rome as well as the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Except for Northern Ireland, the Europeans long have ceased to quarrel about religious issues; in the US, the biblical religious always got along, more or less, and get along today better than they ever have. Toward what end does this messianic urge for redemption manifest itself, and what danger does it pose to the West? Again, there is not a line of argumentation, let alone a shred of evidence, to support the charge that man’s desire for redemption has taken us to the brink of religious wars.
Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. The adept readers of Professor Lilla’s essay, the diehards of liberal secularism, know that Christianity is the enemy, no matter how docile, peaceful, quiescent and non-threatening it might appear. Christianity is guilty until proven innocent; the peaceful intentions of all Christian denominations toward one another and to non-Christian religions merely disguise an irrepressible urge toward violence, in the perverse view of the Lilla-Putans.
Don’t bother to try to liberalize Islam, Lilla intones: “A number of Muslim thinkers around the world have taken to promoting a ‘liberal’ Islam. What they mean is an Islam more adapted to the demands of modern life, kinder in its treatment of women and children, more tolerant of other faiths, more open to dissent. These are brave people who have often suffered for their efforts, in prison or exile, as did their predecessors in the 19th century, of which there were many. But now as then, their efforts have been swept away by deeper theological currents they cannot master and perhaps do not even understand.”
The only hope lies in “renovators” rather than “liberalizers” on the Islamic side, Lilla concludes, such as Swiss Islamist Tariq Ramadan. Given the admitted bankruptcy of his position, it is to these Islamists that Lilla proposes to surrender the broken sword of secularism.
Regarding Ramadan’s terrorist connections and totalitarian ideology, I summarized the principal issues in a June 12 essay (The faith that dare not speak its name). Lilla is not stupid; he knows that Ramadan and his co-thinkers offer a radically conservative version of Islam steeped in the doctrine of religious conquest.
Today, a few voices are calling for just this kind of renewal of Islamic political theology … like the Swiss-born cleric and professor Tariq Ramadan … whose writings show Western Muslims that their political theology, properly interpreted, offers guidance for living with confidence in their faith and gaining acceptance in what he calls an alien “abode”. To read their works is to be reminded what a risky venture renewal is. It can invite believers to participate more fully and wisely in the political present, as the Protestant Reformation eventually did; it can also foster dreams of returning to a more primitive faith, through violence if necessary, as happened in the Wars of Religion.
In the full light of day and in recognition of this danger, Lilla nonetheless proposes that the grandson of the founder of the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood is the last best hope for religious peace in the world:
Perhaps for this reason, Ramadan [has] become [an object] of intense and sometimes harsh scrutiny by Western intellectuals. We prefer speaking with the Islamic liberalizers because they share our language: they accept the intellectual presuppositions of the Great Separation and simply want maximum room given for religious and cultural expression. They do not practice political theology. But the prospects of enduring political change through renewal are probably much greater than through liberalization. By speaking from within the community of the faithful, renovators give believers compelling theological reasons for accepting new ways as authentic reinterpretations of the faith. Figures like … Ramadan speak a strange tongue, even when promoting changes we find worthy; their reasons are not our reasons. But if we cannot expect mass conversion to the principles of the Great Separation – and we cannot – we had better learn to welcome transformations in Muslim political theology that ease co-existence. The best should not be the enemy of the good.
It is as if the High Priest of Reason had ascended its Temple to offer himself as a sacrifice to the Goat God. Professor Ramadan personifies everything that Lilla hates, and Lilla knows it. But Ramadan has one redeeming virtue. He is not a Christian. Lilla does not love Reason; he simply hates Christianity with all his heart, and will make alliance with whichever of her enemies might be available.
Lilla’s essay summarizes a book to be released this month. Don’t bother.
1. The politics of God, New York Times Magazine, August 19.