Twin Powers: Politics and the Sacred
by thomas molnar
eerdmans, 147 pages, $9.95
One of the most distinctive features of post-Enlightenment Western culture is its desacralization of the cosmos, the flip side of secularism. Not only has daily life been transformed by science—for example, we no longer look to the realm of the sacred for a framework to organize our lives—even Western religion itself has become more rational, less “superstitious.”
One possible response to the desacralization of the cosmos is to shift from a politics based on divine sanction to a politics based on a virulently anti-religious totalitarianism—represented on the political right by Nazism and on the left by Communism. Another option is a politics based on reason, popular consent, the democratic process, and a pluralism that asks people to tolerate many things they will not endorse. For those who see little hope in either option, the only alternative is to resacralize the cosmos—something that cannot be consciously willed but can only unfold.
The founders of the American experiment did not want a sacralized politics. Most of them wanted the sacred to infuse society, not the state. They thus intended only an indirect religious influence on the political order. They believed that democratic pluralism was the only way for the diverse colonies to be peacefully melded into one nation. They feared the ideological certainty that so often accompanied divine kingship. Nevertheless, they believed that the Republic could not endure without a strong basis in morality and religious commitment.
In a recent book based on an impressive range of scholarship, Twin Powers: Politics and the Sacred, the well-known Catholic philosopher Thomas Molnar sets forth a critique and condemnation of both atheistic totalitarianism and liberal democracy.
Molnar documents the pervasive influence of the sacred in primitive, classical, and medieval cultures. Showing a thorough understanding of the seminal work of Mircea Eliade, Georges Duby, and Titus Burkhardt, Molnar describes a sacred cosmos in which art, work, education, and (most importantly for this book) politics are infused by a power that emanates from a transcendent source.
The author next shows how the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation (perhaps aided by the Jewish prophets' ambivalence toward kingship) began the process of cosmic desacralization. If God is completely revealed in Jesus Christ, says Molnar, then the cosmos is forever relativized. By focusing the sacred in the Savior, the world is freed to become a demonic, desacralized counter-god. Molnar's earlier work. The Pagan Temptation, further elucidates this theme.
With the dawn of the modern era, says Molnar, the desacralization process reached full speed with the “five scientific myths” of Hegel (the dialectics of master and slave), Darwin (permanent evolution from lower to higher forms), Marx (abolition of social class resulting in the workers' paradise), Nietzsche (the death of God and the rise of Superman), and Freud (the Oedipal murder of the father by his incestuous son). For Molnar, the intellectual life of modernity has lost its moorings; small wonder, then, that politics is adrift.
The desacralization of politics leads either to the horrors of totalitarianism or to the liberal tyranny of majority rule and individual rights. Says Molnar, democracy “is a purely rational and at the same time conflictual procedure because . . . [it] is founded on the untouchability of individuals and their interest.” Democracy, for Molnar, is ultimately idolatrous, man's pathetic self-deification.
Molnar would apparently prefer a return to a traditional monarchy, an established church, and a homogeneous society. There is much to be said for stable traditional society when compared to the messy chaos of pluralistic democracy. Some monarchies even achieve a kind of check-and-balance system of power. But a benign dictatorship only stays benign by the good will of the dictator. There are no solid institutional mechanisms to counter overweening power and injustice. Even in a homogeneous society, monarchy is problematic. In today's multicultural societies, the sacral-monarchical model would virtually guarantee perpetual war.
Molnar explicitly rejects the judicious solutions offered by the Catholic John Courtney Murray and the Lutheran Richard John Neuhaus. Murray, Neuhaus, and others, such as Jacques Maritain and Michael Novak, offer a middle path between sacralized politics and militant secularism. They posit religious freedom, the institutional separation of church and state, and the intelligent interplay of religion and politics. They allow that Americans and other citizens of pluralistic democracies need a civic faith, but they distinguish between legitimate patriotism and genuine religion. They show how Marxism fails. And they also show how democratic pluralism, while it always runs the risk of merging with a philosophy of secularism that legitimates an unjust polity, can and usually does preserve enough of its spiritual and ethical moorings to sustain relative justice and freedom of religion.
Everyone who cares about the foundation of the good society ought to engage Molnar's argument. But in the final analysis, there is less danger to life, limb, and faith in liberal democracy rightly understood than in a hypothetical Christian monarchy.
John W. Cooper is Executive Director of the James Madison Institute for Public Policy Studies in Tallahassee, Florida.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?