Well, the influence of religion on political life has pretty much disappeared from the world in the past couple of decades. At least that’s what you would have assumed if you relied on an important scholarly work released in 1993 by Blackwell, a distinguished Oxford-based publisher. The book in question bore the title A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy. Almost seven hundred pages in length, it featured helpful essays on a variety of political topics. But there was almost nothing to be found in the volume on the relationship between religion and politics. And the omission was intentional. The editors told us that they deliberately avoided any treatment of such things as “theism, monarchism, [and] fascism” because “whatever impact they once had on public life, they would seem to play only a marginal role in the contemporary world.”
That struck me as a laughable statement when the book came out in 1993. But today, about two decades later, it is nothing short of outrageous. Imagine anyone saying now that theism—the belief in a personal God—has at best only a marginal influence on the contemporary political scene in North America, to say nothing of in the Middle East. Quite the opposite. Even before the events of September 2001 the debates over the public relevance of “faith-based organizations” were occupying much of our national attention. But post-9/11—well, to put it mildly, the reality of religiously motivated political movements are very much on all of our minds.
The unfortunate thing is that religious influence on political life these days is often seen as a problem to be solved. My guess is that the editors of A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy were engaging in some wishful thinking when they decided that religion was no longer a factor that needed to be acknowledged in contemporary political thought. Religious convictions caused much trouble in the past and finally we have gotten past those outmoded ways of thinking about the important issues of life. At least that is what the editors hoped.
Of course, like every other human condition, religion has often been a problematic factor in our collective existence. In one of the best known of the Federalist Papers, James Madison portrayed the existence of “factions” as a significant threat to the social order. A faction, in his scheme, is a group of citizens who unite in the service of “some common impulse of passion” that is “adverse to the rights of other citizens.” Madison identified religion as one of the faction-forming interests: “A zeal for different opinions concerning religion,” he argued, is the kind of force that has “divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.” The task of good government, then, as Madison saw it, was not to eliminate them. It was to implement measures to minimize the harm that these factional forces might otherwise cause.
To be sure, religion has often functioned in the way Madison describes—and it frequently functions that way in our own time. But it does not have to be so. While Jean-Jacques Rousseau had worries similar to Madison’s about the threat that deep religious convictions posed to societal harmony, he also saw how religion could be a part of the solution. Thus his recommendation, in The Social Contract, of the formation of a “civil religion” whose “dogmas . . . ought to be simple, few in number, precisely fixed, and without explanation or comment.” These positive tenets would start with “[t]he existence of a powerful, wise, and benevolent Divinity, who foresees and provides the life to come, the happiness of the just, the punishment of the wicked, [and] the sanctity of the social contract and the laws.” Only one negative dogma was necessary, said Rousseau: “intolerance” has no place in a healthy society.
I am inclined to agree with Rousseau on both his positive and his negative prescriptions about the role of religion in public life. What he had in mind is basically what we Americans express in simpler terms when we say, in our Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, that our “one nation” is “under God.” Some people these days call for the deletion of that clause, on the grounds that it imposes “theocratic” norms on what is intended to be a pluralistic society. I find that complaint confused.
To advocate for “theocracy” is to want a society to be ruled directly by God, shaping our laws and public policies on what we take to be the dictates of special revelation. That is different than holding government and society accountable to norms and principles that transcend the flux of public opinion—an affirmation, as Robert Bellah pointed out in his famous essay on civil religion, that typically gets endorsed in the inaugural addresses of American presidents. It is all too obvious that the “God rules” approach to religion in political life is responsible for much trouble in our present day world. However, the latter notion—of the need to be accountable to norms that transcend human opinion—can be a healthy faith-based approach to life in a pluralistic society.
I have seen a notice that the recently updated edition of A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy now has essays dealing with religious concerns—it has a chapter, for example, about “Fundamentalisms” by Notre Dame’s Scott Appelby. I have not read the new version yet, but I hope that at least one of the authors pays attention to some of the things that Rousseau says on the subject.
Richard J. Mouw is president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.