Messianic Politics

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big picture stuff, Bush Administration, Religion

Mark Lilla, a professor of the humanities at Columbia University, has a long and fascinating essay in the current New York Times magazine called “The Politics of God.” The essay is adapted from Lilla’s book The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West, to be published next month. In brief, Lilla looks at the relationship between politics and religion in broad historical context, and presents three essential points:

1. Separating political authority from religious revelation made modern liberal society possible.
2. This separation came about in the West (17th century and after) as a result of a unique crisis within Christian civilization.
3. There is little reason to expect other societies, such as Muslim ones, to follow the same path.

Very briefly — this is a long essay, as I’ve said — it was Thomas Hobbes who showed Europe the way out of the bloody religious wars touched off by the Reformation.

In his great treatise “Leviathan” (1651), Hobbes simply ignored the substance of those commands and talked instead about how and why human beings believed God revealed them. He did the most revolutionary thing a thinker can ever do — he changed the subject, from God and his commands to man and his beliefs. If we do that, Hobbes reasoned, we can begin to understand why religious convictions so often lead to political conflicts and then perhaps find a way to contain the potential for violence.

In the next few paragraphs Lilla elaborates on what Hobbes wrote, then concludes:

Hobbes was neither a liberal nor a democrat. He thought that consolidating power in the hands of one man was the only way to relieve citizens of their mutual fears. But 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.

The ideals of our Enlightenment founders were built on Locke, and to them separation of church and state was a cornerstone of good civil society. Much of Europe, however, took a slightly different road. Inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 19th-century Europeans decided that politics and religion would not have to be separated if religion could be adapted to fit modernity.

It would have to be rationally reformed, of course: the Bible would have to be interpreted in light of recent historical findings, belief in miracles abandoned, the clergy educated along modern lines and doctrine adapted to a softer age. But once these reforms were in place, enlightened politics and enlightened religion would join hands.

This worked for a time, but eventually — especially after World War I — strong elements of messianic nationalism crept into this more “enlightened” religion. In Germany especially, messianic nationalism after World War I had some nasty results.

All of which served to confirm Hobbes’s iron law: Messianic theology eventually breeds messianic politics. 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.

There are a lot of undercurrents in this essay about fear and redemption. We humans can’t stop thinking that history has some pre-ordained arc toward utopian perfection, and beliefs about an impossibly perfect destiny fuel fanaticism and war. Even the political heirs of Hobbes have fallen into this delusion.

A little more than two centuries ago we began to believe that the West was on a one-way track toward modern secular democracy and that other societies, once placed on that track, would inevitably follow. Though this has not happened, we still maintain our implicit faith in a modernizing process and blame delays on extenuating circumstances like poverty or colonialism. This assumption shapes the way we see political theology, especially in its Islamic form — as an atavism requiring psychological or sociological analysis but not serious intellectual engagement. Islamists, even if they are learned professionals, appear to us primarily as frustrated, irrational representatives of frustrated, irrational societies, nothing more. We live, so to speak, on the other shore.

In other words, we in the West tend to think that the historical-political arc that took us to democratic liberalism is somehow natural and pre-ordained for all human societies, and it is only a matter of time before all other peoples wise up and step into the light with us. But Lilla says this is not likely to happen in any foreseeable future. Our liberal-democratic order, tenuously maintained in a small part of the industrialized world, is an exception; a fluke of European history. We must not expect mass conversion to our way of thinking about separation of church and state.

This essay ignores the religious fanatics and messianic nationalists in our own midst who are determined to send America backward to the Dark Ages. It may be that Lilla discusses them in his upcoming book. But it is striking to me how easily some can go from declaring that liberty is “God’s gift” to deciding God has called us to spread that gift throughout the world by force of arms.

Think of it; for the sake of a ideal of democratic government made possible by separating religion from government, an American government led by a messianic Christian president engages in war to enforce that ideal in Muslim nations that don’t want it. If there is a hell, all the demons in it must be laughing their butts off.

Update: In today’s Washington Post, Peter Baker what happens when messianic presidents attack.

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20 Comments

  1. ken melvin  •  Aug 20, 2007 @11:45 am

    Strange this desire to make others conform (sometimes religion). Tough road ahead with the fundamentalist increasingly unhappy with the ways things are going. They’re not going to like it, but the give’s going to have to be with the fundies,

  2. brownbuffalo  •  Aug 20, 2007 @12:53 pm

    Yet another interesting and well crafted post! Love your site: thanks!

  3. biggerbox  •  Aug 20, 2007 @12:53 pm

    Ah, maha, you know I’m a sucker for any post that has Hobbes and Locke in it. I’ll have to go read this essay, and perhaps Lilla’s book when it arrives.

    I remember the transformative shock I had when I first read H & L, after having grown up as a New Englander. Things I’d assumed “just were”, that were “self-evident”, had actually been figured out by someone, for the first time, which meant that other people might not believe anything like that at all! Whoa. Imagine that. Other cultures might not have anything like the same a priori assumptions about the nature of man and society. What would it be like to grow up in a society that didn’t have hundreds of years of Enlightenment Liberalism coded into its DNA?

    In the 30 years since, I’ve found it’s an awareness that many Americans lack, which limits our ability to deal effectively in the world as well as to really cherish the special accident that is America.

  4. Charles Cameron (hipbone)  •  Aug 20, 2007 @12:59 pm

    It would be useful to know what makes a particular version of politics “messianic”. Does any utopian vision qualify automatically, or is some form of belief in a “messiah” (an individual, oneself or other) need to be present in the mix?

    I ask this because it is not clear to me whether George Bush includes the “soon coming” of Christ in his mix, and it is abundantly clear that Ahmadinejad includes the “soon coming” of the Mahdi in his…

  5. Swami  •  Aug 20, 2007 @2:37 pm

    Charles.. the messianic connotation comes with the Christian package..Jesus wouldn’t bullshit us and not show up, would he?

    As far as I know, Bush is doing the “Lord’s” work. “Be working when I return?”

  6. Diana  •  Aug 20, 2007 @3:31 pm

    If it were really true, as many including George Bush claim, that
    an infusion of a modern, secular democracy was the aim for invading and occupying Iraq, that might, and I say, might, at least seem logical on some perverse level within the framework of misconceptions of what democracy is. But the idea that the U.S. has been trying to supplant an Islamic state with a secular one, is utterly false, part of the propaganda, where Iraq is concerned, since Iraq was already a modern secular society under Saddam — albeit not a democracy, but secular none the less. Saddam had already separated “church” from state.” In fact, he had turned Iraq into a model of the modern secular state in the Muslim world. Our intrusion destroyed what had already been built and given rise, and actually encouraged, the formation of an Iran-style Islamic state under the Shia dominated government we helped install. Had our real objective been to support a secular state, we should have supported Saddam. It seems much more likely that modern secularism in Iraq was actually seen as a threat to U.S. oil interests, since one of the byproducts of secular society is autonomy. We don’t want oil producing nations to be autonomous, we want them to be dependent.

    When asked in an interview “what about democracy?” Saddam said (paraphrase). “Democracy is a good thing. But as you well know in the U.S., democracy requires an infrastructure. I’m building that infrastructure. And when the people are ready, they will have the democracy they want.”

    Imagine that. Saddam was consciously laying the groundwork for democracy to flourish at some future date. It was known, and now has been wiped from popular memory, that Saddam brought Iraq out of the dark ages == modernized it, secularized it, while holding the fanatical religious forces in check, the very forces the U.S. unleashed. The way he described democracy revealed an acute awareness of what democracy actually is — a government by the people. A government that cannot be installed from the top down, it must rise up from the ground, from the people. All that a government can do is establish the conditions that would allow it to rise forth and flourish.

    I do believe that democracy is an evolution, that it is a goal for humanity. This is not merely a western conceit, it is a fundamental outcome of the enlightment, which itself actually had its origins in the middle east. Europe was in the dark ages until it met the Islamic world, where law, literature, science, astronomy and mathematics, was born. Isn’t this the reason why Iraq (i.e. Mesopatamia) is known as the birthplace of civilization?

  7. felicity  •  Aug 20, 2007 @5:24 pm

    Comment by Diana. Very informative post. Thanks.

    Unfortunately, religion and politics are natural bed-fellows in that they are both processed on the non-reasoning side of the brain. Studies have verified same. So a political system which does not recognize and directly deal with the inevitable religion ‘problem’ is doomed to be crippled by it.

    That said, the messianic/missionary/marauder type has plagued mankind forever. George may see himself as a great visionary, a liberator, a champion of God, a champion of God-given liberty, when actually he’s just another in a long line of quite ordinary marauders. Alone, the type is harmless. It’s when they are able to convince hordes of others – probably quite sane people – to join them that they are extremely dangerous. There lies the problem.

  8. Ian  •  Aug 20, 2007 @7:55 pm

    Diana, I think you’re giving Saddam too much credit here. He was a strong proponent of the “one man one vote” theory … he was the man, and he had the vote.

    Iraq was already fairly secular and modern when Saddam took power. His contribution to the wealth and long-term well being of the Iraqi people was to almost immediately get them into an eight year long war with Iran, that they came within an ace of losing altogether. I find it highly ironic (or something, I’m an American so obviously I don’t understand irony) that the reasoning Saddam used was almost identicle to the reasoning that Bush said he used in order to eventually topple him, ie a “preventative” invasion to smash a threat before it had a chance to smash him. He even had some justification for that view, altho not enough to actually, you know, justify it for realsies or anything. More than Bush had tho.

    Saddam was a very bad guy, who was nothing but bad and more bad for his people … that does not *begin* to justify what *we* have visited upon those very same people, but I would not fall into the trap of thinking that since life was better under him for the average Iraqi than it is now or is likely to be for the foreseeable future, that he must have been a swell guy, you know, the kind of guy who would voluntarily lay down his absolute dictatorial power in order to give it to “the people”. He was not. He was a thug, pure and simple.

    -me

  9. maha  •  Aug 20, 2007 @8:54 pm

    Charles —

    It would be useful to know what makes a particular version of politics “messianic”. Does any utopian vision qualify automatically, or is some form of belief in a “messiah” (an individual, oneself or other) need to be present in the mix?

    I thought the meaning of “messianic nationalism” ought to be clear in context, since I was pointing to post World War I Germany, which led to the Third Reich. Hardly Christian; very messianic. So was Marxism, IMO. I think any person or group who is hell bent to trash the present in order to bring about some utopian future is “messianic.”

  10. maha  •  Aug 20, 2007 @9:17 pm

    Diana — Many of us appreciate that pre-invasion Iraq was more secular than whatever government is forming to take its place, although I think you are overstating things a tad — well, a whole lot — to say that Saddam Hussein “had turned Iraq into a model of the modern secular state in the Muslim world.” Just say it was more secular than other Muslim states and stop there. Please don’t make Saddam Hussein into some kind of hero. He really did do a lot of depraved and bestial things.

    No one is saying that the United States invaded to supplant an Islamic state with a secular one. Rather, I’m saying that it didn’t occur to the Bushies that a more Islamic state would rush in and fill the void that Saddam left, because their Utopian vision of human history didn’t allow for that possibility.

    What you’ve always got to appreciate about the Bush Administration is that they have little idea what they’re doing. My impression is that Bush himself just does what he feels like doing and doesn’t consider the consequences. I think his reasons for invading Iraq were more personal/psychological than rational.

    However, he’d been talked into this by neocons who, I sincerely believe, thought that if Saddam Hussein were deposed the people of Iraq would (following what their messianic vision told them was the natural arc of human history) embrace modern, liberal democracy.

    I’ve been following these creatures closely, and I do not think it occurred to them that Muslim people might, given a choice, choose theocracy, or that Iraq would devolved into a civil war between religious factions. The neocons were certain that merely removing Saddam Hussein would cause democracy to flower. They actually dismissed anyone involved in invasion planning who had any expertise in the Middle East, because those people tried to tell them their assumptions and fantasies were wrong.

    And Dick Cheney is just plain nuts.

  11. Swami  •  Aug 20, 2007 @10:09 pm

    I think his reasons for invading Iraq were more personal/psychological than rational.

    I often wonder if Papa Bush’s dragging Manuel Noriega back to the United States and having Noriega’s mug shot plastered all over the front page every newspaper in the world had an effect on young Georgie to try to replicate the feat in the exercise of power to top his father. In the world of macho, Papa Bush hit a home run with Noriega’s humiliation, and I’m sure it didn’t go unnoticed by Georgie.

  12. Doug Hughes  •  Aug 21, 2007 @12:06 am

    Diana –

    The suggestion that Sadaam was going to let Iraq evolve into a democracy is preposterous. He may have said it, but the guy understood basic arithmatic. The Suni minority was oppressing the Shite majority for decades. And when the ‘infrastructure’ was in place, he was going to let the downtrodden majority vote him and the Bathists out? He understood what Bush & Co have not yet figured out. Democracy – for the Shites – is payback time.

    The prime ingredient for a successful democracy has nothing to do with ‘infrastructure’, or we could not have written the Constitution we have; the 13 colonies were short on infrastructure.

    The culture in Iraq is not conditioned – receptive – open – to the concepts which are fundamental to a western democracy. The difference between their culture, not inclined to democracy, and ours can be seen in an article last week, Barb was talking hopefully about the Republican party in a state of health and a return by that party to it’s healthy roots. Their culture (unhealthy Republicans and Iraq leaders) does not seem to recognize respect for an opposing point of view. There is no hope for democracy in Iraq (or the US) when the elected leaders are bent on the literal destruction of any opposing views.

  13. Diana  •  Aug 21, 2007 @12:51 am

    “Many of us appreciate that pre-invasion Iraq was more secular than whatever government is forming to take its place, although I think you are overstating things a tad — well, a whole lot — to say that Saddam Hussein “had turned Iraq into a model of the modern secular state in the Muslim world.” Just say it was more secular than other Muslim states and stop there. Please don’t make Saddam Hussein into some kind of hero. He really did do a lot of depraved and bestial things.”

    He was and still is a hero to Iraqis. Who are we to dispute their opinion of their sovereign leader? And by whose account do you believe that he did “depraved and bestial things?”

    “What you’ve always got to appreciate about the Bush Administration is that they have little idea what they’re doing.”

    You seriously underestimate these criminals. Don’t let them off the hook so easily. This plan was kooked for a long time. The trail is as clear as day, from the first Gulf War, on through sanctions, through kooked intel about WMD, they knew exactly what they were doing. Their blind spot is that they misjudged the Iraqi people. They thought they were like Americans, easily bought, easily duped, easily rendered submissive.

    “I sincerely believe, thought that if Saddam Hussein were deposed the people of Iraq would (following what their messianic vision told them was the natural arc of human history) embrace modern, liberal democracy… The neocons were certain that merely removing Saddam Hussein would cause democracy to flower.

    If you believe that they were sincerely trying to advance the cause of democracy in the middle east by their invasion, then I have a bridge in New York to sell you real cheap.

    “I’ve been following these creatures closely, and I do not think it occurred to them that Muslim people might, given a choice, choose theocracy, or that Iraq would devolved into a civil war between religious factions.”

    Look, the purple fingers was a show, a last ditch effort to legitimize the invasion after WMD were not found. If it meant risking installing a theocracy, so be it. They had no other choice, no other faction to deal with. It was that or leave, and leave with their tail between their legs. Not surprisingly installing a theocracy to rule over a secular society has incited a civil war. Iraqis would rather die than live under a Shia dominated theocracy. Nevertheless, the U.S. has managed to use even this as a pretext for staying and building permanent bases to “protect the legitimate government of Iraq.”

    I cannot believe people are still incapable of seeing through this b.s.

  14. maha  •  Aug 21, 2007 @7:25 am

    Diana is falling into a common error of logic — if Bush is “bad,” then Saddam must be “good.” If one side is black the other side must be white. This is how fanatical thinking works. She’s concocted an, um, highly edited version of reality.

    I rememeber when the Kurds of Hallabjah were gassed back in 1988, and the Reagan Administration refused to denounce what Saddam Hussein had done because he was on “our” side against Iran. The Reagan State Department put out some misinformation that Iranians had gassed the Kurds, but I looked into this in some detail awhile back, and I don’t think there’s any question that Saddam ordered the gassing. Saddam ordered other mass executions, and at one point even murdered two of his own sons-in-law.

    None of these things justified the invasion, which just made things worse for everyone. But anyone who thinks Saddam was some kind of hero of the people is not thinking clearly.

  15. Demon Princess  •  Aug 21, 2007 @8:05 am

    I read & loved every minute of the NYT essay cited here. Well worth reading.

    As you note, the author seemed to avoid naming Bush with his pseudo-Xtianity in all but the most subtle ways. Good thing, because to have done so would have just fed into Bush’s self-proclaimed Third American Great Awakening & sent the most worrisome wingnuts into a ranting defensive tizzy, which we certainly don’t need when trying to place these things in a sensical historical context.

    Agreed, also, that the really dangerous “messianic” mentality is not necessarily religion-driven, just one of the more virulently dangerous forms of it. But from the pov of an intellectually lazy prosepective tyrant, why reinvent the wheel & construct an entirely new philosophy of things *in any event, beyond Bush’s intellectual capacity* when a seething pot of American anti-intellectual fundie religion anger has already been stirred up & pissed off at having been denied a place in the public square for so long (or so they’ve been led to believe)?

    One more reason I think the Bush presidency has been a most unfortunate “perfect storm” of disastrous events.

    But what do I know? I’m just another Godless liberal whining the loss of our about civil liberties at home, resenting the fact that George has used his trumped-up “War on Terra” to convince us, somehow, that it’s all justified.

  16. jonerik  •  Aug 21, 2007 @9:54 am

    An interesting but facile analysis. Mark Lilla sounds like a folower of the Bernard Lewis school of thought. Lilla’s analysis seems to work only with Islam. What about India, Korea and Japan? They are not Christian but I think one could point to these countries where pluralism and representative democracy exist separate from church or religious influence. I would also include Pakistan because despite the threat from fundamentalist Islam and a string man Mushareff, secular political parties exist. I would include China it is still enthralled by the theology of Marxism. It too is moving away from that enthrallment. So I don’t think there is anything unique about Christian culture in the west that is so unique as to have given birth to this transformation he speaks about.

    I love philospohy and intellectual history but I also think Mr. Lilla goves Hobbes and Locke and other thinkers for that matter a lot more credit than they really deserve. I would credit Henry VIII and his successors and actually Martin Luther in Germany for bringing about church and state separation more than Hobbes and Locke.

  17. moonbat  •  Aug 21, 2007 @10:56 am

    maha wrote:

    What you’ve always got to appreciate about the Bush Administration is that they have little idea what they’re doing.

    Diana replied:

    You seriously underestimate these criminals. Don’t let them off the hook so easily. This plan was kooked for a long time. The trail is as clear as day, from the first Gulf War, on through sanctions, through kooked intel about WMD, they knew exactly what they were doing. Their blind spot is that they misjudged the Iraqi people. They thought they were like Americans, easily bought, easily duped, easily rendered submissive.

    Diana has this part right. Yes. BushCo was extraordinarily incompetent in execution, extraordinarily drunk on their dreams and on the imaginings of their capabilities, but they most definitely had a plan for this part of the world, worked up well in advance of their seizing power in this country. They could never plead in a court of law that they did not kow what they were doing.

  18. Ian  •  Aug 21, 2007 @11:32 am

    Diana kinda sorta has that part right.

    She implies there has been a single plan that has been carried out from 1991 all the way through. This is not the case.

    The current administration for sure had plans for that part of the world, and they have had plans for a long time … since the mid nineties at least. I agree with maha that they sincerely believed that democracy would occur (step 1. depose Saddam, step 2. ???, step 3. democracy!), but they certainly didn’t want democracy for democracy’s sake, and the betterment of the Iraqi people played zero part in their plans. They wanted a bigger and better and more centrally located natural ally in the region than Israel … they figured that the resulting democracy would be friendly to the US, and more importantly, in debt to the US, and in no shape to ask the US to move US military bases off Iraqi soil. Then, with a huge military presence in a friendly country sitting right on top of a huge chunk of the world’s oil supply, they figured we’d more or less CONTROL all that oil, via our ability to choke off supply to the rest of the world from there, anytime we felt like it.

    Their dismisive attitude towards Europe and Russia are fairly easily explained then … Europe, Russie, and China are absolutely dependant on Middle Eastern oil. With a friendly base on top of all that oil, we’d have the rest of the world by the short and curlies, so to speak, and thus would be able to ensure the US’s position as the world’s sole superpower.

    All of that, tho, every last bit of it, was utterly dependant on the idea that after we deposed Iraq, it’d turn into a friendly and indebted ally. Obviously, that has not and will not happen. That is where the incopentence part comes in.

    IMHO, of course.

    -me

  19. maha  •  Aug 21, 2007 @11:55 am

    they most definitely had a plan for this part of the world

    Well, yes, they had a plan, but I’m not sure they were on the same page regarding objectives. It’s hard to tell. Certainly their motivations were all over the lot. Bush himself doesn’t seem to think past his own glorification. Cheney and many others no doubt were thinking about oil, and the neocons were thinking about Israel, and they were all thinking about American hegemony. And somehow their fevered imaginations all fixated on the removal of Saddam Hussein as the linchpin of their hopes.

  20. maha  •  Aug 21, 2007 @12:12 pm

    jonerik — and I think it’s your dismissal of Lilla’s article that is facile. For example, India is currently struggling with a rising Hindu fundamentalism. But most of the Asian religions are not conducive to the kind of messianic and utopian thinking that seems to be problematic about the God-centered religions. Buddhism, for example, teaches people to accept the reality that all material things, including life itself, are imperfect and transitory. The dynamics of church-state relations in nations that are primarily Buddhist or Confucian are considerably different from church-state relations in countries that are primarily Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. You really need to learn something about that before you make any grand judgments.

    Your reading of European history also is, um, incomplete.

    I would credit Henry VIII and his successors and actually Martin Luther in Germany for bringing about church and state separation more than Hobbes and Locke.

    The Reformation didn’t separate church and state; it simply gave Catholicism several rivals in the church-state business. The Reformation only took hold in places where the local government authority (i.e., prince or other nobleman) made some form of protestantism the established religion. Eventually the bloody religious wars of the Reformation led to Hobbes, etc.

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