Notes on Locke

I stand accused of misrepresenting Locke on two fronts: first, I’m charged with wrongly alleging his “secularity”; second, I’m charged with wrongly crediting him with the development of an absolute theory of property rights. (Perhaps more generally, I stand accused of being: insufficiently enthusiastic about the United States, “woke”, and too Catholic. I won’t bother disputing these latter claims because they are all true.)

Instead, let me address the two claims about Locke. I am quoted at this Acton panel, wherein I argued against (inter alia) child labor, payday loans and Christian libertarianism, saying the following:

“It’s really by the time we get to liberal property theorists like Locke that you see them moving away from this medieval tradition of property and from the patristic tradition and they move to an intentionally secular theory of what property is—to an ontology of property: that it is a thing with a metaphysical relationship to a person that can be absolutely owned, dominated, controlled, and that though you may have moral obligations or whatever to do different things with the property that you absolutely own because of that metaphysical relationship it becomes immoral and unallowable for a civil authority to intervene, so this is a big transformation in the way we think about property.

And it really gets going at the Reformation and then it’s fully realized in people like Locke and other liberal property theorists from these liberal property theorists we get where we are today and thinking about absolute ownership, absolute rights to property—a property right that suggests a metaphysical relationship between people and things that is inviolate in terms of civil authority and perhaps even separate from civil authority.”

1.) On whether Locke is “secular” 

I don’t claim Locke “was secular”; I claim he was part of a transition away from thinking of property rights in (the teleological) terms of Christian doctrine and toward thinking of property rights in the modern liberal way. This is true, and it’s true that the modern liberal way of thinking of property rights is secularized. Let me explain.

“N’a jamais fini de se débattre contre Dieu,” said Proudhon, the struggle against God is never finished. No one is entirely secular, because we all owe our intellectual origins to a tradition steeped in theology. Indeed, secular property theories have religious origins, as I have argued, and even Hobbes, who my interlocutor Shelton cites as the true Enlightenment secularist, was a profoundly theological thinker, as Matthew Rose argues eloquently here. To quote Rose: “The politics of Leviathan is the politics of the Bible, and the Bible, Hobbes insists, is all about politics.”

That we find much Biblical quotation in Locke is, therefore, no reason to assume him an automatic ally of Christianity: At least, not if we stipulate that Hobbes isn’t such an ally, since his writing is also full of Biblical quotations. Now that we have Hobbes and Locke on the same side of the equation, it’s easier to see what I mean when I point to Locke as a thinker who participated in the secularization of property talk.

Locke reasoned with pieces and parts of scripture, sure, but not in a necessarily Christian way. His reasoning did not follow the logic or narrative arc of scripture, especially where anthropology was concerned. Per William Cavanaugh:

“The crucial point here is that the Fall simply does not apply. Locke derives the right of private property through labor from God’s command to subdue the earth — which comes from Genesis 1:28, pre-Fall — but combines it with God’s command to labor and till the earth, which is…a post-Fall curse, given to the man as God’s punishment in Genesis 3:17. Thus does Locke combined to passages from Genesis — one pre-Fall, one post-Fall — into a kind of seamless argument for what is the “natural” condition of humankind. Unremitting toil, inequality, and the enclosure of the commons is not a symptom of the Fall, but simply the way that God and Nature have arranged to make the best use of the creation.” 

Locke is thinking with scripture, but he is ignoring what scripture itself thinks about the human condition. No longer does the prelapsarian state reflect the true nature of man; neither does the postlapsarian state. The difference between them is obliterated altogether, and the Fall itself, crucial in Christian theology, is elided. From here, Locke goes on to construct his theory of private property.

Was Locke “secular”? No, and neither was Hobbes. Why are there incoherent pieces in Locke’s thinking about theology and property? To quote A.P. Martinich: “The straightforward interpretation of Hobbes’ espousal of odd views is that he held odd views.” I think the same of Locke. He was a conflicted person in a conflicted age, and the same will be said of all of us one day. But the conclusion to draw from the observation that Locke wasn’t entirely secular is not that he was entirely Christian; the passage above is nicely demonstrative of important departures from very meaningful pieces of Christian doctrine. Rather, as I’ve argued, he was part of a transitionary period.

2.) On whether Locke provides for “absolute” property rights

My husband and I are both fascinated by Locke, and before we had our baby, he used to read to me from his treatises. “Is this not the wildest shit you’ve ever heard?” he would say. Shelton points out that Locke was really a radical, maybe even a precursor to Marx, because of his Christian-based argument that there are limits to moral property acquisition. This argument took me back to those nights when Matt would read to me, because Matt posed this argument years ago, teasingly, based on our conversations. Here is my husband arguing Locke is really quite Christian, and here he is arguing Locke is no friend to libertarians.

Locke’s argument goes like this: the way unclaimed material becomes ‘property’ is that one mixes one’s labor with it, and yet even if one could mix one’s labor with the whole earth, the whole earth would not then become one’s property, because it’s morally wrong to usurp so much that others lack.

It’s a weird proposition on a couple of fronts. First, it doesn’t make sense. How do you mix your labor with something? Other than my will to believe this is how property is made — that is, my will to believe property acquisition is inherently just — how do I know this is happening? “I know this is mine now, because I mixed my labor with it, which tells me it’s mine now.” This is tautology.

All that aside, Locke creates with this theory a real moral imperative for absolutely private property. See:

The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.”

What you have here is a curious double-movement. When you mix your labor with creation, creation transforms into private property, which by nature of being mixed with your own labor, is a demi-you. (For the record, Augustine himself argued this is silly.) But then there’s a proviso at the end: at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others. 

The problem is that there’s no obvious connection between the theory and the proviso. There’s an incoherence: Locke’s first move is to describe in metaphysical terms how creation turns into property: that is, by mixing yourself with it, imbuing it with your own rights. But from whence comes the proviso, and what could it possibly mean? (“Is this not the wildest shit you’ve ever heard?”) On first glance, it appears to suggest that one can only truly own what they need, and that what they purport to own that causes others to lack isn’t truly theirs.

But this would be an internal contradiction. The labor-mixing process Locke supplies is descriptive, not prescriptive. It describes a metaphysical process. If I mixed my labor with the whole world, I would own it all, if Locke’s process is correct. So perhaps his proviso should be interpreted to mean: you shouldn’t go mixing your labor with the whole world, leaving nothing for anybody else.

But what if I do? Therein lies the rub.

That’s why I go after Locke: Not because he argued people ought to go claiming absolute property rights to the detriment of the poor, but because he supplied a metaphysical process argument that gave them extra-Christian arguments for doing so. In this sense, Locke does originate property rights arguments that would take on an absolutist character, regardless of what he intended. Thus he wound up quite far afield from Augustine and Thomas, contra Shelton.

On the subject of whether I read charitably or not, I certainly think I do. But in love and caritas, truth comes first. Locke himself never minded a row; on the contrary, he made Robert Filmer famous with a deliciously brutal smackdown of his posthumously published Patriarcha. Far be it from us to deny him the same pleasure.

 

On losing faith

A week before my daughter was born, my husband lost his job. It was unexpected. I came home from work just a little early one day because I thought I had felt a contraction — I didn’t know what they would feel like, having never given birth, and so I thought every pain could be a sign of labor.

When I came inside, I saw my husband’s shoes by the door. It wasn’t time for him to be in yet. I looked up and there he was, sitting in the rocking chair we had bought for me to nurse our baby in. And he was slouched with his head in his hands, so then I knew.

I don’t remember much else about what happened then, other than that at some point I pulled so hard on the medal I was wearing — a miraculous medal, imprinted with an image of the Virgin Mary — that the clasp broke.

When I gave birth a few days later, the pain was unmistakable.

My husband and I came home from the hospital and looked for jobs for him. I nursed our baby in the rocking chair we had bought. It was hot and still, and sometimes when a job seemed especially promising I would go to church and light a candle and pray, though I still hadn’t fixed the clasp on my medal, and didn’t wear it. It laid on the surface of my dresser and was buried in short order under towels and rags and baby clothes.

***

I had felt, maybe due to all my prayers, that things would soon look up. And I thought so, too, aside from feeling. It made sense that things would get better quickly.

In late June, while my husband was out shopping for a suit to interview in, he received a phone call from his father in Texas. My husband’s sister, he said, had been murdered. She was 29 years old.

When my husband came home, I was in bed with the baby. Both she and I were glazed with sweat. Our bed is near a window; outside there are only the staggered roofs of other buildings, plain and tan, some of them sometimes crested by birds. I had fallen asleep watching crows rising up in the shimmering heat.

When he woke me up all I could hear through my daze was that she passed away.I looked in horror at the baby — her? And then, no: I realized.

It was only later that he used the word murdered. A man had attacked Heather in the trailer she shared with two other women, a mother and her adult daughter who had previously lived out of their car. She was engaged and looking forward to her impending marriage. She had sporadically studied accounting after high school but spent most of her time waitressing at Cracker Barrel and Red Lobster. She had always been poor; she had never known anything other than being poor.

Red Lobster helped pay for her funeral service. Dimly I thought of God’s love for the poor. Where could it have gone? Where was He now? I thought these things dimly.

My husband flew to Texas, and I slept with our daughter, only a few weeks old. She woke up often then, hungry, and I would nurse her. In between I drifted in and out of a fitful twilight sleep, still aching from birth and worry. I wanted to see my husband but I had run out of encouraging things to say. We were both exhausted. I would try to pray only for my mind to wander into broken thoughts. I had a strange dream.

In my dream, I wandered down the aisle of some kind of noisy, crowded theater. At the front, where a stage should have been, were confessionals. I went inside one to repent and there was no priest there, only a screen with the face of a priest. I said to him: “Father, I’ve lost my faith.”

***

I should tell you the story of my medal.

In 2014, my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent surgery, and my mother visited her in the hospital often. It was a long recovery.

One evening my mother came home from the hospital and showed me something.

“I spotted this in the parking lot,” she said. There was a dull nickel-colored oval in her hand. On one side I could make out the image of the Blessed Virgin, but the other side was coated with chewed gum and dirt.

I am a convert. My mother, a Methodist, wasn’t sure what this pendant could be. Neither was I.

I cleaned it up with dish soap and tweezers. It had been scraped on the asphalt, but I could read the words: O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee. 

The next time I was out, I took the medal with me in a plastic bag. I brought it to a jewelry shop and had it put on a simple black cord with a lobster clasp, and from then on I wore it very often, thinking as much of whoever had lost it in the hospital parking lot as of my mother who picked it up out of the filth for me as of the Blessed Virgin herself.

***

At length the police were able to tell us that they had caught Heather’s killer driving her car, which he had stolen. She had been stabbed in the neck. There was very little more they were willing to say.

A couple of job opportunities seemed very likely. I would pray and ask all my friends to pray. I trust that they did.

But nothing came through.

***

For a while during the long, hot summer I entertained the superstitious idea that things would not look up for my family until I had the clasp of my medal repaired. I did not think I was being punished for breaking it, but I thought I had damaged some trust by doing that, and that I couldn’t fix it until I did some penance by way of cost and trouble.

But things got in the way. There is so much to carry when you go out with a baby. I would always think of taking it with me when I thought we might pass by a jewelry shop, but some other thing — a bottle, a rattle, a just-in-case bundle of socks — would always occupy my hands instead.

Summer stretched on. Our baby grew; she did not wake up so much in the night anymore, and she could smile and laugh. I prayed for the soul of my sister-in-law, and for my husband’s family and my husband, who occupied himself with our baby so as not to dwell to much on everything that was lost. I didn’t rush to light candles for possible jobs anymore. It didn’t seem to be any use, and I thought I had made my hope on that front clear enough. God would listen or He wouldn’t.

I had days of greater and lesser certainty. Mostly I thought God was listening. That was the fact that made me feel so restless: Why are You listening so quietly? I know You’re there. A whisper of doubt sometimes passed through my thoughts: You’re only thinking like this because it’s likely another job will come along. If it were something less likely, you wouldn’t feel so sure. 

***

In August I visited my gynecologist’s office for a postpartum checkup. Everything looked to be in order. She asked me if I had felt sad since the baby had been born, or hopeless or lost. She asked if I had spent many hours crying.

I lied to her. But on the way home, in the still midday street with sun flooding upward from the pavement, I impulsively stopped my taxi short of my apartment building.

Instead I departed from the road into the cavernous darkness of a church.

It wasn’t time for confession but there was a priest in the sacristy who I asked, when he emerged, if he would hear my confession. He led me by the shoulder to the confessional where I knelt down and rested my forehead on my folded knuckles.

I don’t have any more faith, I told him.

But you’re here, he said. He was patient. It took a long time for me to say anything. Slowly I recounted everything that had happened over the last few months, though I didn’t tell him about my medal — somehow even then I was still too cowardly to tell him about my medal.

He listened. He said, at last, that while faith can be a comfort, it can also torture you. It can tear at you in times like these, he said, with his hand fixed like a claw. Because you know everything could be made better. But it isn’t. 

The line between religion and magic, I learned in school, isn’t clear. But many scholars of religion agree that one important division is that while magic is private and crisis-oriented, religion is public and its rituals have no specific, short-term, earthly goals.

Christianity has no magic, and that may be just as well.

***

Eventually a job came along. The way that it happened was very prosaic, the way most jobs are. Nothing about it felt miraculous. I couldn’t discern any sign in it, but I know there must be one. It isn’t always important, I now think, to feel moved. Sometimes faith is an act of will. Maybe it mostly is.

What can I say: That my faith wasn’t injured? It was wounded.

But wounded things heal.

By the fall our baby had grown so much she could no longer fit into her first baby clothes. I decided to put all of them away for the next baby, and so went through our apartment gathering up every sock and onesie marked for a baby up to three months. In doing so I uncovered my medal, still looped on its broken cord.

I was never going to have it fixed, I realized. It wasn’t realistic. Having the clasp of a cord repaired was no longer possible in the scheme of the life I had now.

Nor did I have to. I slipped it from the cord and onto an unbroken silver chain I’d bought someplace a long time ago. It looked different, but wore just the same.

Speech for the Yale Political Union — “Religion has no place in government”

This speech was given before the Yale Political Union on November 15th 2016. The resolution was “religion has no place in government,” and I was asked to argue the negative position. Dr. Ronald Lindsay, president of the Center for Inquiry, argued the affirmative position.


I first want to thank you all for inviting me here to discuss politics and religion, two of my favorite subjects, and perhaps incidentally, the two things you shouldn’t discuss in polite company. I like to think that’s part of why these topics retain such an air of tension and mystery — because it isn’t often we share our thoughts about them in conversation with our friends, colleagues and peers. And that’s a shame. Being that these two categories comprise many of the contours of our public and private lives, it’s worthwhile to give them thorough consideration, both apart and together. And so I’m happy to be here, and hope I can help bring some clarity to all of our thinking on the question of whether religion has a place in government.

 

First, I’d like to take a moment to thank Dr. Lindsay for joining us here. Dr. Lindsay has done so much in the way of thinking on these topics and has contributed a great deal to our shared understanding of them, and I so appreciate that contribution, and wanted to express my gratitude for him putting aside the time to talk with me here today.

 

*** *** ***

 

That religion has no place in government is both a positive and normative statement, by which I mean it can be read both ways: as either a statement of fact, that there simply is no place for religion in government; or as a statement with moral intention, that there ought to be no place for religion in government.

 

These two readings are related but not the same. They are related both because whether something is so is no argument for its being so, and because, things that are nonetheless often carry moral inertia, and justify themselves by their being. So it’s worthwhile to consider the two propositions apart.

 

I’d like to begin by considering the definition of religion.

 

The etymology of the word is contested. By the time of Saint Augustine, roughly the fifth century, the Latin word religio was in use with regard to Christian practice; Augustine himself used the term from time to time, though in City of God he expressed dissatisfaction with it, writing: “The word ‘religio’ might seem to express more definitely the worship due to God alone…yet both the uneducated and best educated use the word to express….the observance of social relationships. (X.1)” Augustine approved of an etymology of religio common to Latin grammarians which attributed it to the root ligare, ‘to bind.’ (Consider our English ligament.) But other ancient sources, including Cicero in De Natura Deorum just as credibly connect religio with relegere, a Latin verb meaning to go over again and again, as in reading, thought, and so on. In this case religio would anchor itself not in a sense of being bound, but in a sense of having an overwhelming central concern.

 

This perhaps shines some light on how religious came to indicate in the Middle Ages clergy who belonged to orders as opposed to diocesan clergy who were attached to particular regions of church administration. There were therefore religious priests and secular priests — a very strange concept to modern ears! — because some had adopted the special concerns of specific groups, as Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites and so on, and some were only associated with geographical areas.

 

But everyone was, in the sense we now employ the term, religious.

 

With modernity religio assumed its present meaning, a “universal genus of which the various religions are species (Cavanaugh)”; this generic usage of religio was essentially unknown to the medieval and ancient worlds, where even religio Christiana was used not to designate everything related to Christianity, but only a distinction between the practice of the Christian faithful and the Roman pagans, who were said to have only superstitio, which was idolatry (Feil.)

 

In fact, some cultures — notably the ancient Greeks — had no expression to match our ‘religion’, and apparently didn’t need one. This background is helpful in that it reveals that the term itself is doing some rather hefty work, that is, relegating certain modes of thinking, certain behaviors, certain ideas, certain images and words to membership in a genus shared by other species which, upon further inspection, they might have precious little in common with. Religion is an inherently tendentious concept.

 

Our best scholars, in fact, can’t agree on what it might mean. “Religion is a belief in spiritual beings,” writes Edward Burnett Taylor, the first cultural anthropologist; “by religion,” writes George Frazer in The Golden Bough, “I understand a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to be direct and control the course and nature of human life”; “religion is,” says William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they consider the divine”; Emile Durkheim, an early sociologist, considers religion to be “a unified system of beliefs and practices related to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden — beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, and all those who adhere to them,”; Durkheim also says, in the very same The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, that religion is “the self-validation of a society by means of myth and ritual,”; for Paul Tillich, religion is “the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary, and a concern that in itself provides the answer to the question of the meaning of our existence,” and for modern sociologist Clifford Geertz, “[Religion is] a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, persuasive, and long lasting moods and motivations…. by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”

 

Oftentimes you’ll hear, in popular culture, various things not typically called religions described as such to critique them; most recently, Harvard scholar Harvey Cox argued the market itself, and free market economics more generally, constitute a kind of religion. To which I say: sure, I guess. Religion is a loose and expansive term and not a very revealing one, I think; in fact, I tend to suspect it occludes more than it illuminates by likening fundamentally unlike themes and practices conceived of by radically different people in entirely different places and times.

 

So then: does religion have a place in government? Obviously it does, as a descriptive matter. Consider all its constituent parts: its symbols, words, virtues, experiences and, yes, its ethics — they’re all evident in our own government, from the mentions of God on our money to the silent prayers of politicians facing down crisis to the private mixture of moral considerations made by voters on their way to the booth. Governments are made up of people, and people incorporate the symbols and ethics of religion into their reasoning and interior lives whether or not they articulate especially religious reasons for the political choices they come to.

 

Further, and again as a descriptive matter, we’re surrounded by a thoroughgoing civil religion. Sociologist Robert Bellah writes:

 

“What we have, then, from the earliest years of the republic is a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity. This religion – there seems no other word for it – while not antithetical to and indeed sharing much in common with Christianity, was neither sectarian nor in any specific sense Christian.”

 

This civil religion is the reason stepping into a stately government building or listening to an impassioned presidential address can be a genuinely moving experience. It’s why burning a flag is anything more than the concern of a fire marshal, and why we can reckon our lives as much by national holidays and anniversaries as by liturgical calendars.

 

It’s why Abraham Lincoln said in an 1861 speech that he could “recollect thinking then, boy even though I was, that there must have been something more than common that those men struggled for; that something even more than National Independence; that something that held out a great promise to all the people of the world to all time to come; I am exceedingly anxious that this Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people shall be perpetuated in accordance with the original idea for which that struggle was made, and I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle.”

 

The discovery of civil religion is one of those interesting consequences of the contemporary definition of ‘religion’ as a relatively broad category. There’s no construal of ‘religion’ in the modern sense that would include, say, both Daoism and Judaism but not the veneration of our American martyrs, from Kennedy to King, or the mythic creation story surrounding our founding. And this isn’t a unique fact of American public life.

 

Religions are often described in terms of experiences of the transcendent or transformative, or in terms of temporal practices or actions which refer to the eternal. And so, it seems, are states — as in Lincoln’s address. This is not just an indication of a particular American civil religion, but a general fact of modern nation states: They bear, as Hegel argued, a sacral quality. States call us, at times, to die for them — for the very idea of them — and it’s hard to imagine someone offering that sort of eternal sacrifice for a purely contractarian purpose. As Alasdair MacIntyre puts it:

 

“The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf. As I have remarked elsewhere, it is like being asked to die for the telephone company.”

 

Which most of us would, I think, be loath to do. AT&T does not strike me as transcendent or transformative. But at my old college at Cambridge I remember a wall outside our chapel (and noticed this afternoon that you, too have such a wall on your beautiful campus — you, too, live with these ghosts, and love these dead) where the names of those alumni killed in the first World War were inscribed, and the inscription address announced that the monument should:

 

“call to remembrance those brothers of ours, who in the studies and playing-fields of the College, and in worship in this Chapel, learned those lessons of self-devotion which – at a call as Christian and English gentlemen they could not disobey – led them to surrender their lives and all that in life was beautiful and hopeful and dear.”

 

It seems to me that — as a descriptive matter — religion indeed has a place in government.

 

*** *** ***

I have said this positive statement has a relation to the normative one. I’ll now turn to the idea that religion ought to have a place in government.

 

I don’t mean to argue for theocracy; I think it’s sufficient to maintain that the religious should, when engaging in political life, feel free to articulate publicly their religious motives and reasoning.

 

There are several reasons why. The first is that law both expresses and enforces certain moral truths which cannot be divorced from broader moral systems, and for the religious — those sharing communities of some overwhelming concern — it’s disingenuous nigh impossible to deliberate on what truths the law should express without citing their religious priors.

 

And this, secondly, allows their co-religionists to hold them responsible for their claims. The tendency of liberal societies to bifurcate religion and politics into two separate spheres — one private, one public — encourages religious participants in political deliberation to equivocate somewhat about their motives and beliefs, as it’s not really possible in that political context to interrogate them. Yet it should be. As long as the religious are going to participate in governance, it’s going to be better, not worse, to argue out the legitimacy of their claims on their own grounds, rather than accounting for all religiously motivated argumentation as both void and unassailable on the grounds of its privacy. Politics are already religious, as I have argued, and are intrinsically so; in that case, it’s better that we be clear and direct about our convictions than cloak them in a flimsy veil of privacy.

 

Thirdly, the language of religion often renders legible phenomena that are illegible to the rationalist lens of the modern nation state alone. Consider, for example, evil. In The Death of Satan, historian Andrew Delbanco writes in order to document the “incessant dialectic in American life between the dispossession of Satan under the pressure of modernity and the hunger to get him back” due to his conviction that “if evil, with all the insidious complexity which Augustine attributed to it, escapes the reach of our imagination, it will have established dominion over us all.” The Augustinian conception of evil as privation — a lack, a deficiency, a receding toward non-being — requires an ontology that acknowledges in being some good, and here again we have strayed into the stuff of religion. But this conception of evil is especially important, Delbanco argues, because by locating the source of evil in our own deficiencies, “it offers something the devil himself could never have intended: the miraculous paradox of demanding the best of ourselves.” A lesser explanation of evil couldn’t necessitate such an absolute offering up of one’s own humility and vulnerability, which is, incidentally, exactly the kind of participation that ensures the best of politics.

 

Lastly, when religion is entirely privatized and politics dominates the public realm totally, there is little with sufficient moral weight to check political hegemony. There is a reason totalitarians seek to swiftly snuff out religious dissenters, and there is also a reason that religions nonetheless endure. The likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were able to resist hegemonic — and unjust — political exercise not out of reserves of private religious virtue, but because they produced religious objections to the evils of their respective states and pressed these cases politically, in public. From this perspective it is easy to imagine why the modern nation-state might insist that religion be privatized and ejected from the public sphere; it should be equally easy to imagine why we should resist that effort.

 

And this doesn’t apply only to fringe cases where extreme resistance measures (as against fascist regimes or racist violence) would otherwise be excused even by garden variety liberals. Indeed, destructive ideologies exert hegemonic control over our everyday, ordinary lives, and in many cases seek to exclude religious reasoning much to their benefit. Eugene McCarraher argues, for example, that in contemporary society religion has been displaced by a kind of Mammon-worship precisely o facilitate the dominance of global capitalism: “Far from being ‘secular’ modes of economic and political rationality,  the nation-state and the capitalist market are unmistakable forms of fetishism, sacral orders which captivate and mobilize our perverted celestial desires.” McCarraher cites the Freudian “money complex” and Marxist “commodity fetishism”, in which the value of objects is imagined to inhere in their material substance rather than in the relationships between persons; Marx himself observed that in this sense commodities are “very strange thing[s], abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties”

 

Since this is the case — that a perverse form of religion dominates our politics and political imagination — then it would be better, as well as orthodox (from my Augustinian perspective) to replace it with a positive, superior religious imagination. This is why in my political writing I argue for as much, and why I do so from an openly Christian position. Some of the most powerful religious forces in politics indeed belong to capital, an unfolding made possible largely by the liberal effort to vacate traditional religion from the ‘sphere’ of political economy in order to, among other things, obliterate formerly limited understandings of property and ownership and replace them with more absolute rights (Ellen Meiskins Wood.) Secularity has thus far done a pretty poor job of resisting this; in fact the rational liberals of the enlightenment are the root cause of it, and for that reason I would resist them not with their own devices, but with open, forthright and robust theology.

 

Thank you.