The Ongoing American Experiment

The Stillborn Godby By Mark LillaKnopf. 334p $26
In his provocative new book, The Stillborn God, the historian Mark Lilla tackles the centuries-old debate about the nexus between politics and religion.

After 1,500 years during which religion and government were inextricably intertwined, political philosophers began to question the wisdom of that arrangement, leading to what Lilla calls the Great Separation between church and state that started four centuries ago.

Today we find it incomprehensible, he writes, that theological ideas still inflame the minds of men, stirring up messianic passions that leave societies in ruin. We assumed that this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. We were wrong.


The challenge, Lilla says, has been to find a delicate balance that accepts the civil role of the state, but also recognizes the positive role of religion. In healthy societies, he writes, religion has helped to forge the social bond and encourage sacrifice for the public good.

But Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, also recounts how frequently differing conceptions of God, including the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity, became a source of almost unremitting struggle and conflict, much of it doctrinal, pitting believer against believer over the very meaning of the Christian revelation. Many have wondered how and why belief in God could inspire so much carnage. During the Protestant Reformation, for example, doctrinal differences spawned vicious cycles of killing.

The core of this important book is Lillas discussion of the groundbreaking writings of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and other European political philosophers who were reacting to centuries of religion-inspired violence. Their goal was to build a just society that did not depend on church dogma or interpretations of Gods will.

Hobbes book Leviathan contains the most devastating attack on Christian political theology ever undertaken, Lilla writes. Summarizing Hobbes, Lilla says that wars based on religion are impossible to contain so long as the adversaries believe that the ultimate prize is eternal life, and that defeat means eternal damnation.

But the story is more complicated, because some esteemed political philosophers, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant, defended the role of religion in political life. Lilla calls Rousseaus essay The Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar the most beautiful and convincing defense of mans religious instincts ever to have flown from a modern pen.

A sharp divide emerged between thinkers in Germany, who wanted to preserve the link between politics and religion, and those in England and America, who wanted to keep them separate. It is chilling to read how a group of Protestant church leaders calling themselves the German Christians supported Hitler in the 1930s, even declaring, Christ has come to us through Adolf Hitler. Through his power, his honesty, his faith and his idealism, the Redeemer found us.

Although debate continued in England and America about where to draw the line between politics and religion, there was no disagreement about keeping them separate. No one, for example, argued for a bicameral legislature on the basis of divine revelation.

Readers may gain a new appreciation for the uniqueness of American democracy and its assumption that a just society can be created without reliance on divine revelation. Although every civilization known to us has been founded on religion, not on philosophy, somehow the American experiment in church-state separation has worked.

The books awkward title alludes to liberals attempts to reconcile biblical truths with modern political life. The liberal deity, Lilla writes, turned out to be a stillborn God, unable to inspire genuine conviction among those seeking ultimate truth. But that issue is not central to the books thesis, which is more about church-state separation than about what inspires true believers.

More to the point, Lilla lauds contemporary democracies, saying they have managed to accommodate religion without setting off sectarian violence or encouraging theocracy, which is a historic achievement.

Although The Stillborn God is an important book that advances our understanding of a long-running debate, it suffers from an overly academic tone. Some passages are confusing, and it is not always clear whether Lilla is summarizing someone elses beliefs or stating his own.

Readers naturally will wonder what all this history means for the United States today, but Lilla offers little guidance.

Much has been written recently about the rise of Christian fundamentalism and about attempts to merge religious belief with public policy. Without addressing that concern, Lilla concludes that we have chosen to limit our politics to protecting individuals from the worst harms they can inflict on one another, to securing fundamental liberties and providing for their basic welfare, while leaving their spiritual destinies in their own hands.

Lilla ends the book with this tepid sentence, If our experiment is to work, we must rely on our own lucidity. That offers little guidance to people worried that we have a president who thinks he is on a holy mission in Iraq and who claims to be guided by God.

Jose V. Casanova and Drew Christiansen, S.J. discuss The Stillborn God.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

In her new memoir, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, Senator Kamala D. Harris, Democrat of California, positions herself as an underdog, a savvy “top cop” and, most of all, Shyamala Gopalan’s daughter.
Brandon SanchezJanuary 18, 2019

The fascinating premise of Mary Gordon’s lovely little book On Thomas Merton is that, except for his extensive correspondence with Evelyn Waugh and Czeslaw Milosz, Thomas Merton was without literary peers who could perceptively judge, critique and improve his writing.

Ron HansenJanuary 18, 2019
Sagal knows what it is to run away from problems, to need to be needed, and how much can be achieved through stubborn persistence.
Emma Winters January 11, 2019
The simple lessons of Jean Vanier on humility and Christian love always bear repeating.
Colleen DulleJanuary 11, 2019