The United States is comprised of a religiously diverse citizenry, which leaves officials to balance the tension upheld by a constitution that simultaneously prevents the establishment of a national creed and yet preserves one’s right to freedom of religion. In practice, officials in the United States cannot legislate theology, but they can, and do, use theology to legislate.
As a result, the United States is not a secular democracy where laws guarantee freedom from religion and dismiss theological rhetoric in the political process; neither is it a theocracy, where a single religion prescribes all laws. Whether we like it or not the United States is a theolegal democracy.
Thanks again to Brad Littlejohn for his clarifications, and for the opportunity to further clarify my own thoughts. It is always helpful to get this kind of feedback, to see where my readers and I agree and disagree, and where I have simply failed to explain myself adequately.
I am grateful to Bill Cavanaugh for taking the time to respond to my blog post of two weeks ago, “Modernity Criticism and the Question of Violence,” and giving me the opportunity to clarify better the nature of my criticisms. Clearly such clarification is in order, as Cavanaugh’s response seems to have struck off in something of the wrong direction, defending theses that were not really under challenge. If I may adapt the opening from his post, Cavanaugh’s response would raise significant difficulties for the thesis of my critique if (1) the argument of that critique were directed against The Myth of Religious Violence and (2) my purpose was to endorse Steven Pinker’s triumphalist progressivism. The first of these premises is false, and the second is highly questionable.
Brad Littlejohn’s blog entry here last week would raise significant difficulties for the thesis of my book The Myth of Religious Violence if 1) the argument of that book is that modernity is more violent than previous epochs and 2) Steven Pinker has proven that modernity is in fact less violent than previous epochs. However, the first of these premises is false, and the second is highly questionable.
Debates over the virtue or vice of modern liberal political arrangements often boil down to narratives about violence, whether we are speaking of violence in its literal sense, or in the more metaphorical use made so fashionable by postmodernism, namely, the attempt to erase or neutralize difference. According to the eulogists of liberalism, it rescued us from the darker ages of religious tyranny, in which zealots of orthodoxy used political power to enforce uniformity, and even to violently persecute dissenters.
Viewed in the light of liberal commitments, Calvin’s chief error appears to be his presumption that the civil magistrate has not only the right, but the duty, to use his coercive office to enforce “piety.” As Calvin argues, the political ruler must recognize his duty “to cherish and protect the outward worship of God, to defend sound doctrine of piety and the position of the church” and to “form our social behavior to civil righteousness,” thus promoting social peace (Institutes 4.20.2). To liberals, of course, this appears dangerously intrusive.
In recent years, a number of theologians and legal historians have argued that the early modern Reformed tradition was a significant source for the development of various liberal doctrines. Scholars such as Nicholas Wolterstorff, David Little, and John Witte have traced modern doctrines of individual rights and the separation of church and state back to various Calvinist thinkers. Witte has been the most prolific, writing dozens of articles and several books on the topic over the past couple decades.
In the lectionary, Transfiguration follows the season of Epiphany with one last display of light. The lights flare brilliantly and momentarily and then are dimmed. The gospel then sends readers on their way, on the road through Lent following Jesus toward Jerusalem and the cross.
. . . The concept undeniably has a certain appeal, and few slogans are better calculated to capture the imaginations of the young and disaffected than “Towards eucharistic anarchism” (Bill Cavanaugh’s phrase in Radical Orthodoxy) and other such brazen assertions of liturgical politics. But in all the talk of eucharistic politics, a surfeit of aesthetic appeal seems to have usually compensated for a shortfall of logical clarity.
A recent article in the New York Times provides a fascinating account of the profound impact that Christian forgiveness played in a Florida murder case. This forgiveness set in motion an amazing chain of events that culminated in the murderer receiving a greatly reduced sentence of 20 years in prison. How did this happen? The answer lies both in the victim’s family’s practice of forgiveness, and also the practice of restorative justice that was employed during the sentencing process.
The lectionary readings for Epiphany bathe the reader in the language of light. Isaiah 60:1 commands the people of Zion to “Arise, shine; for your light has come.” Psalm 72:5 invokes those celestial light-givers, the sun and moon. And of course Matthew 2:2 gives us the splendid star-following magi and their sparkly gift of gold. In our most domesticated and tamed interpretations, we bask in the warm and cheerful glow emanating from these readings. Like our fireplaces keeping the gray winter at bay, these passages have become homey and cozy for many readers. Truth be told, I rather like that warm glow this time of year! Yet when these passages are let out of the house, they open up a larger landscape filled with things other than light and joy. Yes, they celebrate divine justice for the poor and the leader’s power to create it. They also illuminate the darkness and deception of power politics. They lift up the vulnerability of the divine sovereign made flesh, but also blatantly seek world dominion for the Davidic king. They rejoice in the manifestation of God, but also point to places where God‘s justice is eclipsed by political animals. In short, these passages for Epiphany disorient us about God and politics as much as they reveal God‘s relationship to the world…