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Can the Faithful Do Power Politics?
It only seems like a weird question if you don’t fully appreciate what politics is.
My friend was driving me to the airport this weekend in the middle of tropical storm Ophelia. As it does on such occasions, our conversation turned to the question of ultimate meaning.
We have been arguing about the same thing for many months now: how to think about what the liberal worldview gets wrong about the world. I tend to come down hard on liberals for thinking that their value system is universal, and on how this belief leads them to misunderstand the power realities that shape politics from the local to the global level. My friend thinks I’m far too enamored of thinking in terms of power. And while he agrees that the liberal values system creates blindspots, he thinks those are in the other direction: that humans are driven by more spiritual concerns than liberalism can readily admit.
This round of the debate kicked off after my friend recounted an amusing anecdote. A believing Christian acquaintance of his had laid out what her faith demanded of her to a prominent liberal celebrity public intellectual. I don’t remember the specifics of the demands, whether they had to do with abortion, or sin more generically, or something else altogether. But the liberal was taken aback. She had thought all these tenets of Christianity were akin to metaphor and were certainly not to be taken too literally.
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My friend went on to point out that what liberals miss is that throughout history faith has always underpinned politics. Indeed it would be impossible to understand politics without taking religion seriously. The universal rationalism of the Enlightenment that underpins the liberal creed simply does not fully account for human political behavior. It certainly gives no insight into societies, and eras, that are not our own. But it also makes American liberals uniquely incapable of understanding what drives politics even in their own country today.
I chortled at the anecdote, and nodded my head about politics and religion. But I added that it felt our own debate about what really drives politics — transcendent faith or grubby power accumulation — was also somehow reductive. Obviously both considerations shaped politics at the same time, and they were not in contradiction with each other at all.
Three of the people that most shaped my understanding of faith in politics are Adam Garfinkle (the editor of The American Interest and my boss for more than a decade), the late Peter Berger (the renowned sociologist of religion, and a regular contributor to TAI whom I regularly edited), and Walter Russell Mead (WSJ’s Global Affairs columnist, and my former colleague and mentor at TAI who I’m still learning from today). I’ve written elsewhere about how both Adam and Walter opened my eyes to the many ways that religion courses through the American project. But this past weekend, I recalled a conversation I had with Peter Berger probably some ten years ago or so.
Peter had written one of his many quixotic essays for the magazine — I think we called it a “blog” at the time, but really it was a column on whatever topic caught his fancy that week — and it had to do with Islam. I confessed to Peter that I was almost completely ignorant about the faith, and asked him for advice on where to start to read about it. Peter thought briefly before replying. Though we never talked much about my (lack of) faith, he must have known I was not a believer. And he certainly knew I liked history and politics. So he wisely suggested I pick up W. Montgomery Watt’s Mohammed: Prophet and Statesman.
As the title suggests, the book is a biography of Mohammed both as the founder of a religion and the leader of a political community. And Watt, who is not Muslim, tells the tale in such a way that it is never does violence to either facet of the man and his legacy. He situates Mohammed in the political realities of his time, but never condescends or blasphemes by suggesting that what was revealed to him was not potentially divine. Similarly, he explains his politics through the lens of his developing faith, showing how political exigencies shaped his decisions and influenced what happened. What emerges is a properly holistic snapshot of early Islam as a world-beating civilization that in a breathtakingly short span of time conquered (and won over) vast swaths of the world.
This book, I told my friend, most faithfully encapsulates how I think about the functioning of societies. Politics need legitimation, and faith provides a legitimating framework for anything that one wants to achieve within a society. A politician can be, and overwhelmingly often very much is, quite sincere in how the tenets of faith help legitimate what he or she wants to do. Faith is therefore frequently instrumentalitized in the service of power, but quite rarely out of pure cynicism. Or to put it a different way, faith constitutes the very fabric of politics, and the faithful engage in a vicious tug-of-war with — and within — this fabric to achieve anything.
As I was wrapping up my description of Watt and riffing on religion and politics, signs for Dulles Airport started cropping up. Soon we parted ways, our debate unfinished. Similarly, as I part ways with you tonight, dear reader, I’ll leave you with a passage from Edmund Morgan’s Inventing the People, about what politics looked like during the reign of James I, to better underline my point:
In England the legal fictions that accompanied the everyday workings of the king’s government endowed him with all the attributes of divinity. He was, for example, immortal: it could not be admitted that the king ever died. And like God he was perfect: he could do no wrong, so no action at law could ever lie against him. Indeed, like God he was the giver of laws, but also like God he acted according to the laws he gave. Like God he was omnipresent, for in himself he constituted the “body politic” over which he ruled. But like the son whom God sent to redeem mankind, he was man as well as God; he had a “body natural” as well as his body politic, and the two were inseparable like the persons of the Trinity.
You can almost hear today’s liberal say, “That’s all, like, a metaphor, right?”
No, it’s not. Or, rather, no less of a metaphor than the comforting idea that “the people” actually “decide” anything in a modern democracy. Faith of a sort underpins it all.