I guess Mark Lilla hasn’t been to Jesus Camp, or ever heard about the role of the Religious Right in American politics for the past, oh, 30 years. That’s why he can write in the NY Times that “the most disturbing manifestations [of America’s recent turn toward ecstatic, literalist religion] are not political, at least not yet. They are cultural.” Since when?
A similar kind of obtuseness pervades Lilla’s most recent Times essay about the “West’s” confrontation with the non-West’s “fanaticism.” As I suggested earlier about John Gray, I feel that this kind of special pleading for Western liberalism seems weirdly misguided in the historical moment when Protestant messianism has reached new heights in American politics, and when “liberal” arguments about secular democracy helped sell the American public on an Iraq invasion. In other words, in regards to the Iraq war, the secular and the messianic worked hand in hand to achieve their disaster. The “Enlightenment” or “liberal” separation of the two just makes it harder to see these kinds of opportunistic collaborations, in the service of power.
My suspicion of Lilla’s discussion of liberalism has only been reinforced since I saw Michael Ignatieff’s strange non-apology for his own role cheerleading for the invasion. Lilla probably doesn’t belong in the same camp as Ignatieff, but both men seem to share a common blindness in their presentation of the “West” as a predominantly reasonable, hence liberal space. This allows him to portray Ahmadinejad as a fanatic writing incomprehensibly messianic letters to George Bush. But I’d argue that Ahmadinejad used this kind of language because knew about Bush’s own brand of Christian political theology. And we could further argue that both men owed something of their core political support to the fact that they both speak this language of political theology to their most fervent supporters.
For this reason, I don’t know who or what Lilla is referring to, in this paragraph:
Today, we [who is this “we”?] have progressed to the point where our problems again resemble those of the 16th century, as we find ourselves entangled in conflicts over competing revelations, dogmatic purity and divine duty. We in the West are disturbed and confused. Though we have our own fundamentalists, we find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still stir up messianic passions, leaving societies in ruin. We had assumed this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. We were wrong.
It seems true to me that the old European elites no longer depend upon the language of political theology for their popular legitimacy. They now have other means of staying in power, not least of which are economic. (And business interests dictated that the European powers, against the wishes of their electorates, largely permitted Bush and co. his messianic invasion) But Lilla’s simplistic division of the world seems patently untrue when we begin to think about American politics, especially for the past seven years. And, more importantly, I think that the rest of the world presents a much more mixed picture of economic development, failed projects of cultural modernization and religious growth than he lets on. So I think a paragraph like the following one is seriously, and deliberately, misleading:
A little more than two centuries ago we began to believe that the West was on a one-way track toward modern secular democracy and that other societies, once placed on that track, would inevitably follow. Though this has not happened, we still maintain our implicit faith in a modernizing process and blame delays on extenuating circumstances like poverty or colonialism. This assumption shapes the way we see political theology, especially in its Islamic form — as an atavism requiring psychological or sociological analysis but not serious intellectual engagement. Islamists, even if they are learned professionals, appear to us primarily as frustrated, irrational representatives of frustrated, irrational societies, nothing more. We live, so to speak, on the other shore. When we observe those on the opposite bank, we are puzzled, since we have only a distant memory of what it was like to think as they do. We all face the same questions of political existence, yet their way of answering them has become alien to us. On one shore, political institutions are conceived in terms of divine authority and spiritual redemption; on the other they are not. And that, as Robert Frost might have put it, makes all the difference.
From my point of view, the question becomes, what kind of “engagement” is Lilla calling for, or advising against? And does “engaging” with “poverty” or “colonialism” around the world inevitably constitute a sentimentalization of others, or can it take some other form besides passive or “intellectual” contemplation? And why would these garner so little attention in a piece about West/non-West interactions? But, for better or worse, I think that Lilla’s rhetoric of “two shores” is absolutely limiting and unhelpful.
Update: For some perspective. And I suppose that the most pertinent question for an 18th century forum is why such defenses of liberalism typically depend on a certain potted history of Enlightenment progress.