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Essays, Traditions

On Unity, Liberty and Charity

We need not lose sight of the last four hundred years of political theological debate when searching for new ways to deliberate amidst diverse viewpoints and backgrounds.

Tim Stanley’s essay first appeared as an introduction to special issue 20.2 on pragmatism of our journal Political Theology.


Political theology has multiple provenances.[1] One less cited is the seventeenth century irenic dictum: “and we would all embrace a mutual unity in things necessary; in things non necessary liberty; in all things charity.”[2] While aimed at ecumenical peace, this call for mutual unity implied a deliberative context that went beyond sectarian Christian concerns. Liberty and charity were as conducive to a comprehensive church as more modest laws of toleration. My claim is that this dictum’s themes are extemporized in recent pragmatist thought. Locating political theology in this context may yet open new horizons suited to the more diverse political contexts we find ourselves in today.


While its emphasis upon charity has sometimes been misattributed to Augustine of Hippo the phrase’s earliest known appearance occurred in Marco Antonio de Dominis’s 1617 treatise De republica ecclesiastica libri X.[3]Dominis was the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Split, Croatia, but had evinced Anglican sympathies that eventually resulted in his apostacy.[4] Hence, he may have influenced later uses of the phrase, such as the English puritan Richard Baxter’s 1680 preface to The True and Only Way of Concord of All the Christian Churches.[5] Baxter was an early “exponent of Ecumenism in England” and focused debate about Christian unity upon the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Decalogue.[6] Necessity thus relied on deliberative practices between differing views that are patient and charitable.[7] This was echoed in his own self-description: “You could not (except a Catholick Christian) have trulier called me, than an Episcopal-Presbyterian-Independent.”[8] He thus transposed longstanding notions of catholicity into the political tensions gravitating around seventeenth century religious plurality.[9]


Baxter lived and wrote during the interregnum period in England when Oliver Cromwell had evinced wide principles of “true tolerance” in his 1656 speech to the second Protectorate of Parliament.[10] Cromwell would extend that toleration not only to Presbyterians and Anglicans, but “Quakers and the Jews.”[11] He didn’t propose the doctrinal unity of a church, so much as a “confederation of Christian sects working together for righteousness.”[12] Necessity was expressed in the “unity of spirit in the bond of peace.”[13] After the restoration of Charles II in 1660, visions of comprehension in a national church were made more difficult since Cromwell’s toleration of nonconformity had taken root.[14] Hence, when a Bill for Comprehension was debated by the parliament in 1689, the result was a more modest Toleration Act.[15]


While contemporary ecumenical movements may color the view of Dominis and Baxter’s dictum as a strictly theological concern,[16] their aim was not easily bifurcated from political interests. This is an era when the political and the theological remained utterly intertwined. When John Locke wrote his “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” in 1689 he did so in this hotbed of political theological debate.[17] Moreover, this goes some way at explaining why the Jewish Dutch thinker Benedict Spinoza conjoined the two terms in his 1670 Theological-Political Treatise. His argument for a more wholesale freedom of thought was again set in the context of its compatibility with the preservation of piety and a peaceful republic.[18] In either case, both Locke and Spinoza relied on an irenic theological impulse that was never far from view.


By some accounts, political theology was soon superseded by political philosophy. This is the point at which many scholars see secularization intensifying, in the context of what Peter Berger later called “the heretical imperative.”[19] While the wars of this era may not have been wholly caused by religion,[20] the violence of this time made peace a central justification for new theories of the nation state. According to Mark Lilla, this is also the era in which Thomas Hobbes’s 1651 Leviathan marked the beginning of the great divorce between political philosophy and political theology.[21] Even if Hobbes’s Leviathan was riddled with theological discourse, it did so in order to justify political sovereignty according to its capacity to restrain violence.


This is not to say that Hobbes’s political vision did not include religion. Rather, religion was subsumed under the sovereign’s reign in what Hobbes referred to as civil society.[22] This notion was preserved in Jean Jacques Rousseau’s 1762 Social Contract, which displaced the sovereignty of God and king with the general will of the people.[23] Rousseau acknowledged the kind of difficulties that citizens would face adjudicating their religious differences in this new political situation. Key aspects of Rousseau’s civil religion persisted in anthropological studies such as Émile Durkheim’s 1912 Elementary Forms of Religious Life.[24] When Robert Bellah summarized “Civil Religion in America,” he echoed this understanding of how religious symbols arise out of the human need for social cohesion and peaceable civic bonds.[25]


However, when the rise of the nation state’s toleration of religion is narrated in this way, it results in a paradox. This was summarized concisely in Jürgen Habermas’s essay “Religious Tolerance – The Pacemaker for Cultural Rights,” where he also focuses on seventeenth century Europe. The paradox arises when a state’s authority to decide upon what is tolerated may exclude the intolerant behavior of religious citizens. Citing a range of enlightenment era thinkers, Habermas reiterates his broader advocacy for “mutual perspective-taking” and recognition of different citizen concerns.[26] However, in the case of religion, two deliberative tasks are added. Firstly, religious people must discuss internally how best “to adapt their internal ethos to the egalitarian standards of the community at large.”[27] Secondly, when presenting their religious beliefs in a public sphere of debate, they are obligated to translate their concerns into universal discourse.[28] The linguistic and cultural cost to such groups is warranted given the state’s interest in preserving a sphere of peaceable, dominance free interactions.[29] With this irenic justification, Habermas seeks to minimize the state’s paternalism towards religious groups.[30] Nonetheless, he acknowledges the agonistic nature of his proposal as religious differences increasingly act as pacemakers for wider cultural rights.


This emphasis upon deliberative practices is the point at which Habermas’s pragmatism becomes most evident.[31] He clearly states his shared vision of a “discursively structured public sphere as a requirement for democracy.” [32] This is not to say however, that Habermas has appreciated critiques of his translation model of discourse. For instance, even sympathetic readers such as Seyla Benhabib have criticized Habermas’s inadequate apprehension of the “concrete other.”[33] Jeffrey Stout has raised similar concerns about Habermas’s account of universal discourse in Ethics after Babel.[34] However, in Democracy and Tradition, he drew attention to the ways in which Benhabib nonetheless retains key aspects of Habermas’s notions of a “secular, universalist, reflexive culture.” [35] Stout’s pragmatism aims to more rigorously apprehend the way situated selves speak out of their own traditions in democratic political contexts.


Stout’s concern is that failing to foster richer discursive spaces risks exacerbating religious resentment of democratic governance. While Stout also uses the term secular to describe contemporary democratic culture, he raises an important caveat. “What becomes secularized, according to my model, is a set of discursive presuppositions, not necessarily the worldview or state of consciousness of participants in the relevant form of discourse.”[36] For Stout, secularization must be understood as a practical response to plurality, not an institutionalized ideology.[37] Secularization thus creates space for deliberative religious discourse to flourish. The general categories of religious affiliation are not sufficient to determine democratic participation. However, Stout singles out for rigorous critique, support for theocracy and plutocracy, no less cruel and domineering forms of governance.[38] Political theology returns at this point as a means of pursuing the pragmatist’s interest in building coalitions of the right sort.[39]


It is also here that the pragmatist improvises on the third clause of the seventeenth century irenic dictum. Plurality is as rigorous and challenging now as then. The threat of violence is no less disorienting and the practices of peace no less vital. Pragmatists such as Richard Rorty once saw religion as a political “conversation stopper.”[40] Later in his life, while still skeptical of its dangers to democratic deliberations, Rorty acknowledged religion’s potential contribution to public life, including its ability to cultivate loving citizens.[41] Love in public life is related to, but goes beyond, Donald Davidson’s account of interpretive charity.[42] It includes the practices that create the context for a plurality of people to pursue peace. Such practices are not easily quarantined within either philosophical or theological discourses. Hence, the pragmatist vision of democratic citizenship relies on explanatory practices that make deliberations politically effective.[43]


These more recent pragmatist developments make it possible to reframe the religious writings of its early progenitors, such as William James and John Dewey. Each made claims concerning religious faith and plurality that superseded any particular tradition. In the case of James, neither his 1902 Varieties of Religious Experience nor his 1908 A Pluralistic Universe could be easily aligned with the Christian ecumenical thought of his era.[44] Nonetheless, his basic insight into the necessity of making distinctions coupled with his avoidance of essentialist definitions of religion remain vital to contemporary pragmatists.[45] In like manner, Dewey also drew distinctions between faith’s object and its social consequences in his 1934 A Common Faith. Dewey developed a notion of divinity as “a unification of ideal values that is essentially imaginative in origin.”[46] Moreover, faith became a category within general existential terms.[47] This practical theism alarmed atheists and theists alike.[48] However controversial at the time, pragmatists’s viewpoints need not compete with those of other traditions. Rather, it is their approach to fostering deliberative religious thought suited to democratic cultures that remains paramount today.


The essays collected in this special issue call for new work on pragmatist political theology. They build on recent developments in the field as well as the history of the pragmatist tradition – without falling back on nostalgia.[49] Recovering political theology in this way seeks to avoid concerns that its occidental provenance marks a regressive turn away from contemporary plurality.[50] Seventeenth-century toleration was fraught and inadequate, but it sowed the seeds of a contemporary virtue.[51] We need not lose sight of the last four hundred years of political theological debate when searching for new ways to deliberate amidst diverse viewpoints and backgrounds. Rather, for those interested in the vitality of democratic practices, these essays aim to pursue the irenic spirit of unity, liberty and charity anew.

[1] For a brief summary of political theology’s conceptual origins see Vries, “Introduction,” 25-26. Vries begins with Augustine of Hippo’s 426 CE discussion of Marcus Varro’s (116-27 BCE) notion of civil theology [theologia politike] (Augustine, City of God, 108ff, Book 6). However, Augustine was skeptical of its value, which is a sentiment also found in Flavius Josephus’s (37-100 CE) critique of the slightly different conjunction of political theology found in early Jewish theocratic claims in his Antiquities of the Jews (Josephus, The Complete Works, 477, 18.1.23). Josephus contrasted a Galilean sect’s theocracy with a range of other viewpoints, such as Philo of Alexandria’s (c. 25 BCE – c. 50 CE) Hellenized monotheism, which included a notion of the democratic equality of citizens under law (“On the Confusion of Tongues,” in The Works of Philo, 243, 108; Cf. Hadas-Lebel, Philo of Alexandria, 192-196). This conjunction’s provenance is cited by other commentators as the beginnings of monotheistic political theology (Jacobson, The Metaphysics of the Profane, 30-31). However, it is not mentioned by Vries, and the diversity of early Jewish opinion is obscured in Georgio Agamben’s explication of Erik Peterson’s 1994, Ausgewählte Scrhiften, who cited Philo as the originator of theocracy as the preeminent conjunction of political theology (Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory, 9). For the beginnings of positive attributions of political theology, Vries cites Spinoza’s seventeenth century Political-Theological Treatise, which is discussed in point four below (Vries, “Introduction,” 20, 26). My aim here is to expand upon Spinoza’s irenic context and pragmatist implications. Moreover, by recovering this historical trajectory, an alternative set of interests can be discerned beyond Carl Schmitt’s twentieth century emphasis upon the themes of sovereignty and the secularization of theological concepts, in Political Theology, 5 and 46 respectively (Cf. Vries, discussion of Schmitt in his “Introduction,” 46-47).

[2] Dominis, De republica ecclesiastica libri X, 676. This statement appears towards the end of book 4, chapter 8 on papal succession.

[3] Dominis, 676; Cf. O’Donnell, “A Common Quotation from ‘Augustine?’”

[4] O’Donnell, “A Common Quotation from ‘Augustine?,’” citing Nellen, “De zinspreuk,”105.

[5] Baxter, 25. This appears in the third part of the book on schism. Baxter cites Rupert Meldenius as the source, whom some attribute as the pseudonym of Peter Meiderlin of Augsburg (Rouse and Neill, A History of the Ecumenical Movement, 81-82). Meldenius uses the phrase in his 1626 Paraenesis votiva per Pace Ecclesia a decade after Dominis (Briggs, “The Origin of the Phrase,” 496; citing Friedrich Lücke’s 1850 Über das Alter den Verfasser… and 1851, “Nachträge über den Verfasser des Spruches…”

[6] Rouse and Neill, A History of the Ecumenical Movement, 146, citing Davies, The English Free Churches, 79.

[7] The True and Only Way of Concord of All the Christian Churches, 25.

[8] Rouse and Neill, A History of the Ecumenical Movement, 146, citing Nuttall, “Presbyterians and Independents,” 4-15.

[9] My claim is not that this interest in Christian unity was new to Baxter or the seventeenth century. Rather that it took on new political inflections in that era that persist in pragmatist thought today. A common starting place for such a phrase is Vincent of Lérin’s 434 Commonitory: “we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all” (132, II.6). However, there are other ways to consider such concerns. For instance, it is possible to discern cosmopolitan attitudes at work in the history of the early book form of Jewish and Christian scriptures as explicated in Grafton and Williams, Christianity and the Transformation of the Book, 234-35.

[10] Cromwell, “Speech V,” 536. Cf. Rouse and Neill, A History of the Ecumenical Movement, 133.

[11] Rouse and Neill, A History of the Ecumenical Movement, 134.

[12] Ibid., citing, Firth, Oliver Cromwell, 368.

[13] Rouse and Neill, A History of the Ecumenical Movement, 134.

[14] Ibid. For a brief summary of the rise of dissent at this time, Cf, Freeman, Undomesticated Dissent, Chapter One, Loc 214ff; and, Thompson, The Oxford History of Protestant Dissenting Traditions.

[15] Rouse and Neill, A History of the Ecumenical Movement, 148. It should be noted that this act did not include provisions for Jewish people and previous toleration did not address Roman Catholics nor atheist citizens. Nonetheless, the seeds of later wider dispensations began to take hold in this era.

[16] In the seventeenth century, the term ecumenical was reserved for councils and creeds. It is misleading to apply it to irenic political theology as a way of limiting it to ecclesial concerns (Hooft, “Appendix I,” 737). Moreover, its earliest uses were not explicitly ecclesiastical.  It was commonly used to refer to “empire” as well as “world,” as in the second century Martyrdom of Polycarp (Hooft, “Appendix I,” 736).

[17] Locke, “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” 211. For a summary and critique of inconsistencies in Locke’s wider views on religion, see Wolterstorff, “The Role of Religion in Political Issues,” 80-88. Importantly, key aspects of Wolterstorff’s consocial account of liberal democracy (114) influenced both recent pragmatist thinkers such as in Rorty’s contribution to Springs, et. al., “Pragmatism and Democracy, 419, and Stout, Democracy and Tradition, 11, 68, and 234.

[18] Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, 387,in The Complete Works, 387-605. The full subtitle of the work is relevant: “By means of which it is shown not only that Freedom of Philosophising can be allowed in Preserving Piety and the Peace of the Republic: but also that it is not possible for such Freedom to be upheld except when accompanied by the Peace of the Republic and Piety Themselves.”

[19] Berger, The Heretical Imperative, 25. Berger’s more recent essay, “The Desecularization of the World,”notes how this rise of religious plurality led not to the decline of religion, but rather its transformation into voluntary associations, increased religious competition, and fundamentalism. For a wider discussion of contemporary secularization theory, cf. Warner, Secularization and its Discontents.

[20] Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence, 3.

[21] Lilla, The Stillborn God, 74.

[22] Hobbes, Leviathan, 252, 2.31. Hobbes does not use the precise term civil religion, even if it is widely attributed to him beginning in Rousseau’s final chapter in The Social Contract (180).For a wider discussion of this aspect of Hobbes’s thought see, Beiner, Civil Religion, 46-60. For a discussion of the resurgence of interest in theological aspects of Hobbes work, see, Tuck, “The Civil Religion of Thomas Hobbes,” and Lupoli, “Hobbes and Religion without Theology.”

[23] Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book IV.8. The last chapter of the treatise is on civil religion, where his irenic argument for social bonds can be found near the end (182-83). For further details on Rousseau’s theological background cf. Riley, The General Will before Rousseau.

[24] Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 421. For a comparison of Rousseau to Durkheim and other notions of civil religion, cf. Cristi, From Civil to Political Religion, 15-45.

[25] Bellah, “Civil Religion in America.”

[26] Habermas, “Religious Tolerance,” 6.

[27] Ibid., 17.

[28] Habermas, “’The Political,’” 25.

[29] This has appeared to some as a utopic element in Habermas’s thought (Riceour, Lectures on Ideology and Utopia, 251).

[30] Habermas, “Religious Tolerance,” 11-12.

[31] Habermas has acknowledged his pragmatism alongside wider debate in his “Postscript,” to Habermas and Pragmatism. Cf. Heath, “Jürgen Habermas,” in Blackwell’s Companion to Pragmatism.

[32] Habermas, “Postscript,” 228. He notes how The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere did not cite, but nonetheless shared meaningful affinities with John Dewey’s The Public and its Problems.

[33] Stout, Democracy and Tradition, 174-75, citing Benhabib, Critique, Norm and Utopia, and Situating the Self. He cited similar concerns with reference to Habermas in Ethics after Babel: “The ‘sad little joke’ about universal languages, Mary Midgley once said, is that almost nobody speaks them.” Stout, 166, citing, Midgley, Beast and Man, 306.

[34] Stout, Ethics after Babel, 166.   

[35] Stout, Democracy and Tradition, 175, citing Benhabib, and Situating the Self, 42.

[36] Stout, Democracy and Tradition, 175.

[37] In this Stout shares affinities with Rowan Williams’s distinction between “procedural” and “programmatic” secularism in “Secularism, Faith and Freedom,” 48-49.

[38] Stout, “Rorty on Religion and Politics,” 532.

[39] Stout, “The Folly of Secularism,” 543.

[40] Rorty, “Religion as Conversation Stopper,” 171.

[41] Rorty, “Religion in the Public Square: A Reconsideration,” 141-49.

[42] Davidson, “Could There Be a Science of Rationality,” 4.

[43] Stout’s application of Robert Brandom’s notion of inferential scorekeeping is instructive in this regard (“Radical Interpretation and Pragmatism,” 26).

[44] Gale, “The Ecumenicalism of William James,” 161. Cf. Hollinger, “William James, Ecumenical Protestantism, and the Dynamics of Secularization,” 31-48.

[45] Stout, “Rorty on Religion and Politics,” 542. Cf. James, Pragmatism, 505, and Varieties of Religious Experience, 36 for his comments on distinctions and defining religion respectively.

[46] Dewey, A Common Faith, 40.

[47] As he put it in a 1941 interview, faith “means not worrying” (Alexander, “Introduction,” xxiv, citing Eastman, “John Dewey”).

[48] Alexander, “Introduction,” xxix.

[49] This is not an exhaustive list, but some relevant examples of those that sought to broach the gap between pragmatist philosophy and theology beyond those cited above include: Anderson, Pragmatic Theology; Smith, “‘You Turn if You Want To;’” Anderson, “A Pragmatic Reading of Karl Barth’s Theological Epistemology.” For summaries of the literature on pragmatism and religion generally, see, Niekerk, “Pragmatism and Religion;” Zakariasson, “Religion;” and Frankenberry, “Religious Empiricism and Naturalism.”

[50] This is Habermas’s concern regarding the regressive nature of some recent political theology in, “The Political,” 28. Cf. VanAntwerpen and Mendieta, “Introduction,” 4.

[51] For a recent summary and defense, see, John Bowlin’s excellent, Tolerance among the Virtues.

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