Classic Revisited: Oakeshott’s “Religion, Politics, and the Moral Life”

Andrew Sullivan has an interesting post about belief and practice as distinct facets of religious experience.  The belief/conduct distinction was at one time an important one in the American law of religious liberty as well.  In Reynolds v. United States, for example, the first case interpreting the Free Exercise Clause, the Court stated that while Congress was free to regulate “action,” it could not regulate “mere opinion” (of course, the regulation of “action” might well be thought in some circumstances to infringe gravely on the free exercise of religion).  Sullivan discusses the views of Michael Oakeshott about religion, noting that the English political theorist located religion within the world of “practice” (an important term of art in Oakeshott’s thought).

Sullivan’s reflection prompts me to recommend a wonderful and perhaps lesser known book of Oakeshott’s, Religion, Politics, and the Moral Life (Timothy Fuller ed., YUP 1993), a collection of essays by Oakeshott, most from early in his life, about the relationship of religion and politics.  Religion is a subject that some writers mistakenly believe that Oakeshott ignored.  One of my favorite of the essays in this volume is the first, “Religion and the World,” in which Oakeshott describes the attitudes of early and late Christianity — the one preparing ecstatically for the imminent second coming, the other coping with the disappointment of delay in the fallen world.  Oakeshott describes two types of self, the worldly and religious man, and their orientations and interactions.  For an absolutely superb discussion of Oakeshott’s views about religion and politics, may I also recommend Elizabeth Campbell Corey’s Michael Oakeshott on Religion, Aesthetics, and Politics (2006).   Yale’s description of the Oakeshott collection follows after the jump.  — MOD

Michael Oakeshott’s interest in religion and theology was especially prominent in his essays of the 1920s and 1930s. This book consists of four important unpublished pieces, together with six essays by Oakeshott that originally appeared in remote and inaccessible journals. Much of the collection was written early in his career and reveals not only Oakeshott’s initial intellectual preoccupations but the idiosyncratic nature of his religious outlook and the moral convictions that governed his own life. The opening essay, “Religion and the World,” which dates from 1925, reflects his view of what it means to live “religiously” in the world and prefigures arguments later elaborated in Experience and Its Modes. All the essays probe the meaning of words commonly—but often inappropriately—used in the discussion of political life. Thus Oakeshott explores meanings of religion and worldliness, society and sociality, authority and the state, political activity, and the character of political ideas and political philosophy. His writing is persuasive and compelling, and the essays are distinguished by great clarity and a genuinely philosophic spirit. In a substantial introduction, Timothy Fuller provides the first full explanation of Oakeshott’s religious ideas, setting them within their philosophical and political contexts. He shows how, over a thirty-year period, Oakeshott elaborated the implications of Experience and Its Modes, worked out his political theory as summarized in Rationalism in Politics, and gradually assembled his own philosophical account of the ideal that European civilization had made concrete in history—civil association under the rule of law—and to which he gave definitive expression in On Human Conduct.

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