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Don’t hold your breath waiting for secular democracy to spread around the world, says cultural historian Mark Lilla. The idea of separating religious questions from political ones—of separating church from state—was less an inevitable and irreversible human advance than it was an unlikely accident. The pebble in the road that sent the West down its unusual path was Christianity itself, he says. Founded as a faith that rejected earthly power, it was ill-suited for the role of state religion. Not until Thomas Hobbes arrived in the 17th century did philosophers begin to untangle spiritual and temporal authority. The question of how best to govern humanity, Hobbes said, should be settled without reference to God. Just 125 years later, that idea found mature expression in America’s Declaration of Independence.
Lilla’s “provocative” new book adds welcome “nuance and complexity” to a story about human political evolution that we all think we know, said Rebecca Newberger Goldstein in The New York Times. The book is also a warning. It says that we can’t assume that the ideas of the Enlightenment are capable of fending for themselves in a world full of theocrats. Lilla argues that the urge to shape society according to some notion of divine intention comes so naturally to people that it will never be reduced to a historical curio. To drive home how fragile liberal democracy is, he explains how Locke, Hume, and Rousseau expanded and mostly improved on Hobbes’ breakthrough, then risks an unusual turn. The “stillborn God” of his title refers to a watered-down 19th-century revival of political theology, whose failure, he claims, paved the way for Soviet and Nazi utopianism.
Lilla’s “extremely lucid” argument doesn’t give humanity enough credit, said Christopher Hitchens in Slate.com. The idea that society works best when some walls are erected between politics and faith has spread well beyond the Christian West. “Even the Jews who set up Israel and the Muslims who set up Pakistan” understood that. Lilla also fears religion more than he probably should, said Adam Kirsch in The New York Sun. Soviet Marxism proved that “the totalizing, fanatical tendencies of the human mind cannot be strictly identified with religious belief,” but Lilla ignores Marxism altogether. He also fails to consider that some religions, at least, teach a “reverence for human life” that may be our best defense against a return of the bloody conflagrations of the 20th century.
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