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5.0 out of 5 stars The History of the Great Separation, November 28, 2007
This review is from: The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West (Hardcover)
With books about atheism doing well in bookstores (like Christopher Hitchens's _God is Not Great_ or Richard Dawkins's _The God Delusion_), believers might worry that a book titled _The Stillborn God_ (Knopf) offers more of the same. This is not the case. The book's subtitle, _Religion, Politics, and the Modern West_, gives a bit better picture of its subject and theme, but does not make its content completely clear. Mark Lilla, a professor of the humanities at Columbia University and frequent contributor to the _New York Review of Books_, has written a book about the separation of church and state, but you won't find here references to Thomas Jefferson or the U.S. Constitution. This is a broader and generally Eurocentric view of how theology became pried apart from politics, a process that has taken many centuries. We take for granted now that there is something inherently wrong with a government that imposes or favors one church's belief system, and we are aghast at governments who imprison or suspend rights of citizens simply because of their religious beliefs, but that was, at one time, the way all governments operated. There are plenty of Americans who feel that church and state are too separated now, but there are fewer who would insist that the government ought directly to sponsor particular church movements. The concept of what Lilla calls "the Great Separation" was long in coming, and as he tells the story, it was brought about by influential thinkers; if they had not taught in just the way they did, perhaps we would not have managed the separation at all. It wasn't inevitable. Lilla's is a serious tome which will be enjoyed by anyone who appreciates a historic explanation of this particularly important way we have come to regard both religion and politics.

Lilla explains that different conceptions of the Christian God and of the Trinity caused conflict and even bloody religious wars in Europe through the 1500s, so that theologians, and more especially philosophers, began to question whether there should even be a political theology. Lilla nominates 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes as the most important questioner of the issue. He insisted that questions about God could more practically be viewed as questions about human behavior, and that if there were any religious revelation, it had to be filtered by the human mind, perceptions, and passions, including the search for power. The intellectual separation of politics and religion had begun. John Locke and David Hume took Hobbes's ideas and built many of the concepts on which liberal democracies are founded, including that the power of government be limited and shared, and government be unable to interfere or advocate religious ideas or practice. There was reaction against this sort of thinking from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Hegel, and Kant. The German liberal theology promoted Protestant bourgeois society as the highest type of moral life to which humans could aspire. The Bible was symbolic, not inerrant, and the German Protestantism derived from it was held to be essential to public life.

World War I destroyed the bourgeois smugness. Advocates of liberal Protestantism (and liberal Judaism, too) supported the initial German war effort. This led to disillusionment afterwards, the "stillborn God" of the title. It also led, after the war, to a theology that could be incorporated into totalitarian states, both Nazi and Communist, and thus again to religion bound up in worldly battles, the sort of cycle that Hobbes was trying to get us to emerge from. Lilla's is a limited history. He does not mention America's Christian conservatives, many of whom want the nation to support Christianity more openly, and some of whom are interested in turning the country over to an overt theocracy. He also does not mention the lack of church-state separation that such Christians find horrifying within some Islamic countries. Lilla's book is, however, a lucid reminder that despite the clamor of fundamentalists, the separation of theology from politics (however partial it might be) was a process that began centuries ago, not with the formation of the ACLU or "activist judges". It also is a welcome recognition that we are the fortunate heirs of philosophers and societies which understood that neither citizens nor government nor religion prosper when politics and religion are officially combined.
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