Christianity Isn’t the Only Thing in Crisis: A Reply to Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan has written a cover story for Newsweek (disclosure: where I also work) that I think deserves attention and scrutiny. It could not be more timely, and in many ways more needed. But even as it advances some crucial criticisms of the contemporary monstrosity that presents itself as Christianity, I think there is a lot more to be said. Specifically, I’m not sure Andrew’s political framework is up to the task of diagnosing the real crisis we face as inhabitants of Western democracy. If only things were as easy as putting a mutant political Christianity back in its cage.

I have read Andrew’s bracingly honest writing about his own faith enough to know that his Christianity is deeply considered and deeply sincere. In many ways, I sympathize with where he has ended up as a believer: a follower of Christ who wants his readers to understand the purity of Jesus’ life and moral teachings before the contaminations of worldy movements and interests, even those of Jesus’ own disciples and the early Christians who authored the New Testament. The strange, countercultural liberty of the “religion of unachievement,” is what I think moves Andrew so powerfully. Despite what I’m about to argue, I understand how this can be practiced and understood as apolitical, even anti-political.

Andrew describes Jesus’ ideas as “truly radical,” for example, “love your enemy and forgive those who harm you; give up all material wealth.” His project is to convince us that these “radical” ideas are also “apolitical,” that when salvaged from the tangle of theological and political movements that have distorted them, they are something pure, spiritual and otherworldly. Like a good liberal individualist, he reads all of these virtues as a kind of private interior experience, something I’m not sure Jesus ever intended them to mean. Jesus’ ideas are not anti-worldly in the sense that they help guard one’s inner peace against the chaos of the Internet, but in the sense that they challenge the way most human societies work. This is certainly why Jesus was executed, and why the spread of Christianity was met with bloody resistance: he claimed to have a kingdom, threatened to “destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days,” and preached a kind of forgiveness and self-sacrifice that upended and undermined established Jewish law. It is almost impossible to imagine Jesus “without politics,” as Andrew would have him, or that practicing his “pure” ideas would be anything less than an affront to an established political order—as they are invariably perceived wherever they manifest themselves.

So the pure, radical Jesus does not seem to be the one Andrew is really recommending. I would argue that there is another Jesus in the picture who is as much a modern political construction as the god of Rick Santorum. He goes without a name in Andrew’s essay, much like he does in America’s founding documents. Most often when Andrew is describing “good” Christianity, his Jesus seems to dovetail with pragmatic moderate-liberal politics. He wants Christians to be “faithful in a religious space and reasonable in a political one.” It is immensely revelatory that he opens with an admiring retelling of Thomas Jefferson’s cutting out the “good parts” of the New Testament—leaving only the words of Jesus that amount to, in Jefferson’s words, a “benevolent code of morals.” I would argue that it’s this Jesus, not the historical, radical one that Andrew is most interested in.

The Jesus who lives in your heart but doesn’t care much who you vote for or what kind of country you think the United States should be is the result of a long philosophical evolution that began with theorists who explicitly set out to separate Christian principles from their apocalyptic, metaphysical content. That produced liberal democracy, with its dream of a neutral secular state, a politics of compromise, and religion that expressed itself outside the political arena. The liberal view is that this actually went according to plan, and that it continues to be a workable if imperfect setup.

When Andrew says that Christianity is “in crisis,” of course he is concerned that the plain meaning of Jesus’ teaching is being travestied. But, as he makes very clear, he also means that Christianity has jumped the wall between church and state—that it is once again placing metaphysical demands on politics, insisting that politics matter, and that they extend beyond setting next year’s tax levels and paving highways. This is by no means only Andrew’s view; it is the view of virtually every Serious Person in Washington and New York, every mainstream media pundit complaining about strident political discourse, protesters that are too angry, and political parties that just refuse to get with the program and compromise. As religion seems to overstep its bounds, the Serious People tell us that the system is experiencing “atrophy,” a devolution from the enlightened ideal we once enjoyed. Religion—and secular forms of political belief like genuine leftism—is delivering its final gasping howl of protest against modernity, and the sooner it runs out of breath, the sooner we can get back to the inevitable march of progress.

But I think liberals are deluding themselves about the success of what Mark Lilla has called the “Great Separation.” There were fatal cracks from the beginning, and it was only a matter of time before it plunged into crisis. Liberalism’s troubles with belief were apparent as far back as Rousseau’s Social Contract, which concluded with a hastily-written chapter on what the hell to do about religion. He couldn’t throw it out—no we’d need it the moral formation and social cohesion it provides, much like Jefferson’s “benevolent code of morals.” But he clearly couldn’t keep it, either: because actual Christianity is so pure and anti-worldly, Rousseau argued, it is “contrary to the social spirit.” So he proposed a familiar duality: a “religion of man, and that of the citizen.” The Social Contract ended with an uncomfortably tacked-on solution: people can believe whatever they want as long as it helps the state and doesn’t keep them from being good citizens. In other words, the radical teachings of Jesus are an anathema to the social contract—“pure” Jesus is anything but liberal.

Liberalism set up a house divided against itself from day one: it would ostensibly welcome belief while remaining deeply, necessarily hostile to actual religious belief with metaphysical content, especially if that content posed a challenge to its own secularized Christian theology. (Make no mistake: the liberal state has a theology grounded in a metaphysics; if you doubt this, read some John Locke, or just the Declaration of Independence.) Contemporary Protestantism evolved hand-in-hand with modernity and with liberal capitalism, meaning that is broadly compatible with those projects.

But it’s not surprising to see a crisis of belief bound up in political crisis; the two are intimately related. If the numbers tell the truth, liberal Christianity has failed as a motivational force for liberal society, leaving a blend of disenchanted agnosticism and pseudo-spiritual scams. Liberalism’s partisans will continue to try to discredit and marginalize both religious and political movements that see politics as an arena where deep, metaphysically important decisions take place; this is why you will always find good liberals positioning themselves as the pragmatic, non-partisan decision-makers between the populist right and the radical left. Those movements bring high-stakes convictions into the picture, and have increasing resonance in a context where global liberalism has so deeply discredited its own promises of law, liberty, opportunity. The default response in Western democracies is anxious boredom, produced by decades of belief that politics don’t matter. But it’s no surprise to see the disenchanted turn to movements that provide actual metaphysical energy—the very thing liberalism cannot abide, cannot provide, and in the face of which it seems to be utterly without answer.

Where this leaves us is a paradox that stretches back into political theory: the need for belief in a world where belief seems to have been thoroughly discredited. It is terrifying to imagine that the failure of the secular liberal state might lead us back into murderous political theology, but a simple reassertion of liberalism’s core dogmas will not save us now. How to breathe life back into politics—to allow them to matter the way they actually do—without returning to false gods might be described as the leading challenge of contemporary philosophy. I’m glad that people like Andrew are able to find personal meaning and value in the liberalized version of Christianity, and that is certainly preferable to the virus spread by the likes of Rick Santorum. But I’m afraid we’re long past the point of the liberal Jesus being the collective messiah.

[Cross-posted at Patrol]