The Limits of Liberal Islam

The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview
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The Limits of Liberal Islam


THE SOURCE: "The Politics of God" by Mark Lilla, in The New York Times Magazine, Aug. 19, 2007.

TO MANY AMERICANS, THE rise of militant Islamism is inexplicable. Why can't Muslims keep polities separate from religion? Behind that question, says Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, is an assumption that secularism is the natural condition of humankind. But it isn't. The West's own break with political theology was a unique historical event--and the fragility of that separation is underscored by the way political theology has occasionally returned, notably in Protestant thinkers' support for Nazism.

We owe what Lilla calls the "Great Separation" of politics and religion in the West to Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Amid the furious wars of religion between Protestants and Catholics in 17th-century Europe, the English philosopher "did the most revolutionary thing a thinker can ever do--he changed the subject, from God and his commands to man and his beliefs." Ignoring divine commands, Hobbes argued in Leviathan (1651) that peace must be the first imperative of life on earth, and that humans must surrender to absolute rulers in order to achieve it. An exhausted Europe accepted the secular prescription, as later modified by John Locke and others.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) represented the proverbial fly in the ointment. No friend of organized religion, Rousseau nevertheless argued that human beings need religion both as an expression of their natural goodness and as a moral compass. The "children of Rousseau" flourished in continental Europe, especially after the traumas of the godless French Revolution and the Napoleonic conquests. Immanuel Kant and G. W. F. Hegel were among the thinkers who embraced a romantic vision of religion's purifying force. Hegel argued that religion alone could forge social bonds and encourage people to sacrifice for the common good--it was the source of Volksgeist, a people's shared spirit.

Among both Protestants and Jews in 19th-century Germany, these ideas bred a stolid liberal theology that prescribed "a catechism of moral commonplaces" and dutiful citizenship.

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