The Return of Political Theology

Political theology, the study of the relationship between human authority and divine (or at least transcendent) authority, has sometimes been thought either a pre-liberal, pre-secular relic or, more plausibly in my own view, as generally flying stealthily just under the radar of political discourse. Both of these descriptions seem to miss something about the present moment, however, in which political theology is either reasserting itself (as against the first view) or showing itself more plainly and openly (as against the second). Law, as usual, is behind the times. I’m still waiting for somebody to write an account of the political theology of the Establishment Clause.

Here is a new book by Harvard history professor Eric Nelson (author of a terrific book on the powerful royalist–indeed, monarchist and neo-Stuart–views of some of the leading American statesmen including John Adams and Alexander Hamilton) all about the political theology of the present, dominant political ideology: The Theology of Liberalism: Political Philosophy and the Justice of God (Harvard University Press).

“We think of modern liberalism as the novel product of a world reinvented on a secular basis after 1945. In The Theology of Liberalism, one of the country’s most important political theorists argues that we could hardly be more wrong. Eric Nelson contends that the tradition of liberal political philosophy founded by John Rawls is, however unwittingly, the product of ancient theological debates about justice and evil. Once we understand this, he suggests, we can recognize the deep incoherence of various forms of liberal political philosophy that have emerged in Rawls’s wake.

Nelson starts by noting that today’s liberal political philosophers treat the unequal distribution of social and natural advantages as morally arbitrary. This arbitrariness, they claim, diminishes our moral responsibility for our actions. Some even argue that we are not morally responsible when our own choices and efforts produce inequalities. In defending such views, Nelson writes, modern liberals have implicitly taken up positions in an age-old debate about whether the nature of the created world is consistent with the justice of God. Strikingly, their commitments diverge sharply from those of their proto-liberal predecessors, who rejected the notion of moral arbitrariness in favor of what was called Pelagianism—the view that beings created and judged by a just God must be capable of freedom and merit. Nelson reconstructs this earlier “liberal” position and shows that Rawls’s philosophy derived from his self-conscious repudiation of Pelagianism. In closing, Nelson sketches a way out of the argumentative maze for liberals who wish to emerge with commitments to freedom and equality intact.”