23 March 2004

Political theology

Ryan posts this morning about David Brooks’ column in the Times this morning.

I too found it disappointing.  I sometimes enjoy Brooks, even if I
don’t agree with him, but lately his ideas have been pretty loose and
logicaly flawed.  Ryan points out one of the flaws (sort of

But let’s have a look at part of what Brooks says, since what he says right after this affects some of my own people.

Whether you believe in God or not, the Bible and commentaries on the
Bible can be read as instructions about what human beings are like and
how they are likely to behave.

Maybe.  At least on the face of it, this could be plausible. 
Political theorists deal in texts that have definite theories “about
what human beings are like and how they are likely to behave.” 
Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Arendt, and many other political
philosophers all had the project of trying to explain why humans behave
politically as they do and how human construction (whether or not any
particular philosopher affirmed or denied “human nature”) can influence
behavior.  You could read the Hebrew and Christian Bibles as doing
something similar.

But there seems a difference in that many of the texts of “political
theory” are generally offered as somehow different than a religious set
of writings.  There’s (usually) no claim to access the divine or
deified in the creation of the texts.  Biblical texts do not
(generally) seem to offer an idea of what a polity should look like, as
political theory does.  It’s not that one is “religious” and the
other “political” because those are recent categorizations and the
distinction breaks down before about 500 years ago.  But in
reading each set of texts (and I have), there’s a difference in focus,
in intent (which I can’t quite name right now).  So I’d be leary
of reading Biblical texts as mandating a particualr concept of

Besides, we owe much of our concept of government not only to the
Bible, but also to Plato, Locke, Montequieu, and so forth.  Brooks
seems to slide right over that.

Then he goes on:

Moreover, this biblical wisdom is deeper
and more accurate than the wisdom offered by the secular social
sciences, which often treat human beings as soulless
utility-maximizers, or as members of this or that demographic group or

Where’s he getting this pipe of crack?  What does he mean by
“deeper” and “more accurate”?  And how would he apply that to our
public, political life?  Sure, the Bible says we should act justly
toward our neighbors.  So does Socrates.  So does J.S.
Mill.  So do the Federalists.  The problem is figuring out
what (for example) “justice” is.  And for that, we have to
actually study the ways human beings live in terms of group
affectation, values, and, yes, even utility.

How would Brooks propose to understand how the soul affects our
decision to go to war or not?  To pay for old peoples pensions or
not?  More abstractly, does Brooks assume that all peoples souls
are so much the same that we can somehow understand, on the basis of
“soul”, what people will do and why?  How does an understanding of the soul help us understand out politics?

Whether the topic is welfare, education, the regulation of
biotechnology or even the war on terrorism, biblical wisdom may offer
something that secular thinking does not — not pat answers, but a way
to think about things.

For example, it’s been painful to watch thoroughly secularized
Europeans try to grapple with Al Qaeda. The bombers declare, “You want
life, and we want death”— a (fanatical) religious statement par
excellence. But thoroughly secularized listeners lack the mental
equipment to even begin to understand that statement. They struggle
desperately to convert Al Qaeda into a political phenomenon: the
bombers must be expressing some grievance. This is the path to
permanent bewilderment.

Hold on a minute, buckaroo!  “Secular” thinking does offer
“ways to think about things.”  What political theorists — and a
number of more empirical social scientists —  do does not offer “pat
answers.”  What we attempt to show is how a large complex of
motivations drives human behavior, and that when faced with a universe
configured in a certain way, humans prioritize some values above others
and then act upon those prioritizations. 

The problem with “secular Europeans” lies less in not having a way to
think, but in a general unfamiliarity with a particular way of
thinking.  Just like Americans don’t understand communal ways of
thinking, monarchist ways of thinking, or scientific ways of thinking
very well.

Even if the phrase “one nation under God” goes away from the pledge of
allegiance, it’s hardly going to affect the religiosity of
Americans.  And it’s hardly a matter of citizenship, like Brooks contends.

For Americans, this is not an easy topic to grapple with, because we’re the only
country to divide religion and state so definitively.  The real
challenge that we face as a nation lies in concurrently learning to
acknowledge religion in the public sphere and learning not to
acknowledge religion in the public sphere.

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One Response to “Political theology”

  1. Brian Says:

    Well, as the theologian/BF, I need to chime in for a bit here about Brooks’ proposed use of scriptural texts and/or commentaries. I think the “secular”/”religious” divide that he sets up is a little too pat, as has been pointed out. As a basically conservative person, I do agree with Brooks that there is some sort of encoded wisdom in our political and religious traditions, won by generations of trial and error and most often encoded at the common sense level rather than at the theoretical level. But I think that one can hold up the value of this sort of knowledge without bashing other ways of knowing at the same time (e.g., the “deeper” and “more accurate” comment), and this is important not simply to avoid offending our political scientist significant others, but to defned the validity of what religious language is trying to say. It smacks a little too much of the same “I’m not religious but I am very spiritual” sentiment that sees religious traditions primarily as paths to personal fulfillment and happiness whose statements primarily refer to one’s own feelings and interior psychological state, rather than traditions whose statements are best understood as attempts to make sense of reality by saying something “true” (notice the scare quotes) about the human person, human history and the divine.

    Nate writes:
    “But in reading each set of texts (and I have), there’s a difference in focus, in intent (which I can’t quite name right now). So I’d be leary of reading Biblical texts as mandating a particualr concept of government.”

    Well, yes and no. I think you are right to be leary of regarding the Christian scriptures (while not my area of knowledge, there is a wider spectrum on this question regarding Torah within Judaism and, even more strongly, the Qu’ran) as prescribing a certain sort of political system (“It says here that the Electoral College is an abomination in the eyes of the law”). At the same time, it is a very political text, to use today’s categories. The work of liberation theology and german political theology beginning postwar in the last century is grounded in the attempt to re-discover the fact that when Jesus talked about “forgiveness of sins”, he didn’t solely or even primarily mean that I would be pardoned for thinking bad thoughts about my friend yesterday, but that the People of God was about to be, quite concretely and politically, raised up above its Roman oppressors. Making Christianity, and, mutatis magnis mutandis, Judaism or Islam, another path to personal growth and Jesus an early 20th century existentialist, evacuates the tradition of its ability to speak about reality. This is why Brooks’ “deeper” comment bothers me; not because I want to take a position in a football game between political science and religious wisdom (Go Team!), but because it seems to start down the road of exalting religious wisdom precisely in its “fuzzyness”, which is a short step towards me and my Jesus whose only job is to help me get to sleep at night.

    Which brings me to my last, obviously rambling point: by sharply dividing the “religious” from the “political” conceptually, even in his attempt to bring religious traditions to bear on contemporary politics, Brooks appears to undermine the role the “religious” can play in our political life. In his schema, we can read religious texts while bracketing out the “religious” in order to learn about the “human” or the “political”, in the same way that we can read a Shakespeare play either to hear Shakespeare’s view of the person, or to analyze the text for details about life in Elizabethan England. But this already assumes that the “religious” and the “political” are two different things, that going into the hunt looking for political wisdom is to use the text in a way different than that intended (like using “Otello” for data on race relations), and if you’ve done that, you’ve already given away the game, and are now free to bracket off the specifically religious parts of these texts as relating primarily to me and Buddy Jesus, rather than being the foundation for the particular political proposals that arise from a christian view of the human person. If I were to go on, I might ask whether the seemingly “secular” texts of classical Greek political thought are as secular as appears obvious at first glance, but as I fear the DayQuil is speaking more and more, I’m going to stop there.