Andrew Sullivan has written a cover story for Newsweek (disclosure: where I also work) that I think deserves attention and scrutiny. It could not be more timely, and in many ways more needed. But even as it advances some crucial criticisms of the contemporary monstrosity that presents itself as Christianity, I think there is a lot more to be said. Specifically, I’m not sure Andrew’s political framework is up to the task of diagnosing the real crisis we face as inhabitants of Western democracy. If only things were as easy as putting a mutant political Christianity back in its cage.

I have read Andrew’s bracingly honest writing about his own faith enough to know that his Christianity is deeply considered and deeply sincere. In many ways, I sympathize with where he has ended up as a believer: a follower of Christ who wants his readers to understand the purity of Jesus’ life and moral teachings before the contaminations of worldy movements and interests, even those of Jesus’ own disciples and the early Christians who authored the New Testament. The strange, countercultural liberty of the “religion of unachievement,” is what I think moves Andrew so powerfully. Despite what I’m about to argue, I understand how this can be practiced and understood as apolitical, even anti-political.

Andrew describes Jesus’ ideas as “truly radical,” for example, “love your enemy and forgive those who harm you; give up all material wealth.” His project is to convince us that these “radical” ideas are also “apolitical,” that when salvaged from the tangle of theological and political movements that have distorted them, they are something pure, spiritual and otherworldly. Like a good liberal individualist, he reads all of these virtues as a kind of private interior experience, something I’m not sure Jesus ever intended them to mean. Jesus’ ideas are not anti-worldly in the sense that they help guard one’s inner peace against the chaos of the Internet, but in the sense that they challenge the way most human societies work. This is certainly why Jesus was executed, and why the spread of Christianity was met with bloody resistance: he claimed to have a kingdom, threatened to “destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days,” and preached a kind of forgiveness and self-sacrifice that upended and undermined established Jewish law. It is almost impossible to imagine Jesus “without politics,” as Andrew would have him, or that practicing his “pure” ideas would be anything less than an affront to an established political order—as they are invariably perceived wherever they manifest themselves.

So the pure, radical Jesus does not seem to be the one Andrew is really recommending. I would argue that there is another Jesus in the picture who is as much a modern political construction as the god of Rick Santorum. He goes without a name in Andrew’s essay, much like he does in America’s founding documents. Most often when Andrew is describing “good” Christianity, his Jesus seems to dovetail with pragmatic moderate-liberal politics. He wants Christians to be “faithful in a religious space and reasonable in a political one.” It is immensely revelatory that he opens with an admiring retelling of Thomas Jefferson’s cutting out the “good parts” of the New Testament—leaving only the words of Jesus that amount to, in Jefferson’s words, a “benevolent code of morals.” I would argue that it’s this Jesus, not the historical, radical one that Andrew is most interested in.

The Jesus who lives in your heart but doesn’t care much who you vote for or what kind of country you think the United States should be is the result of a long philosophical evolution that began with theorists who explicitly set out to separate Christian principles from their apocalyptic, metaphysical content. That produced liberal democracy, with its dream of a neutral secular state, a politics of compromise, and religion that expressed itself outside the political arena. The liberal view is that this actually went according to plan, and that it continues to be a workable if imperfect setup.

When Andrew says that Christianity is “in crisis,” of course he is concerned that the plain meaning of Jesus’ teaching is being travestied. But, as he makes very clear, he also means that Christianity has jumped the wall between church and state—that it is once again placing metaphysical demands on politics, insisting that politics matter, and that they extend beyond setting next year’s tax levels and paving highways. This is by no means only Andrew’s view; it is the view of virtually every Serious Person in Washington and New York, every mainstream media pundit complaining about strident political discourse, protesters that are too angry, and political parties that just refuse to get with the program and compromise. As religion or genuine political conviction seem to overstep their bounds, the Serious People tell us that the system is experiencing “atrophy,” a devolution from the enlightened ideal we once enjoyed. Religion is delivering its final gasping howl of protest against modernity, and the sooner it runs out of breath, the sooner we can get back to the inevitable march of progress.

But I think liberals are deluding themselves about the success of what Mark Lilla has called the “Great Separation.” There were fatal cracks from the beginning, and it was only a matter of time before it plunged into crisis. Liberalism’s troubles with belief were apparent as far back as Rousseau’s Social Contract, which concluded with a hastily-written chapter on what the hell to do about religion. He couldn’t throw it out—no we’d need it the moral formation and social cohesion it provides, much like Jefferson’s “benevolent code of morals.” But he clearly couldn’t keep it, either: because actual Christianity is so pure and anti-worldly, Rousseau argued, it is “contrary to the social spirit.” So he proposed a familiar duality: a “religion of man, and that of the citizen.” The Social Contract ended with an uncomfortably tacked-on solution: people can believe whatever they want as long as it helps the state and doesn’t keep them from being good citizens. In other words, the radical teachings of Jesus are an anathema to the social contract—“pure” Jesus is anything but liberal.

Liberalism set up a house divided against itself from day one: it would ostensibly welcome belief while remaining deeply, necessarily hostile to actual religious belief with metaphysical content, especially if that content posed a challenge to its own secularized Christian theology. (Make no mistake: the liberal state has a theology grounded in a metaphysics; if you doubt this, read some John Locke, or just the Declaration of Independence.) Contemporary Protestantism evolved hand-in-hand with modernity and with liberal capitalism, meaning that is broadly compatible with those projects.

But it’s not surprising to see a crisis of belief bound up in political crisis. If the numbers tell the truth, liberal Christianity has failed as a motivational force for liberal society, leaving a blend of disenchanted agnosticism and pseudo-spiritual scams. Liberalism’s partisans will continue to try to discredit and marginalize both religious and political movements that see politics as an arena where deep, metaphysically important decisions take place; this is why you will always find good liberals positioning themselves as the pragmatic, non-partisan decision-makers between the populist right and the radical left. Those movements bring high-stakes convictions into the picture, and have increasing resonance in a context where global liberalism has so deeply discredited its own promises of law, liberty, opportunity. The default response in Western democracies is anxious boredom, produced by decades of belief that politics don’t matter. But it’s no surprise to see the disenchanted turn to movements that provide actual metaphysical energy—the very thing liberalism cannot abide, cannot provide, and in the face of which it seems to be utterly without answer.

Where this leaves us is a paradox that stretches back into political theory: the need for belief in a world where belief seems to have been thoroughly discredited. It is terrifying to imagine that the failure of the secular liberal state might lead us back into murderous political theology, but a simple reassertion of liberalism’s core dogmas will not save us now. How to breathe life back into politics—to allow them to matter the way they actually do—without returning to false gods might be described as the leading challenge of contemporary philosophy. I’m glad that people like Andrew are able to find personal meaning and value in the liberalized version of Christianity, and that is certainly preferable to the virus spread by the likes of Rick Santorum. But I’m afraid we’re long past the point of the liberal Jesus being the collective messiah.

[Cross-posted at The American Scene]

About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. He studies intellectual history at New York University; his writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

  • Peter S.

    Thanks for writing this, David. Very interesting, provocative thoughts.

  • http://sexmahoney.blogspot.com Sex Mahoney

    Liberal Jesus is an attractive figure because he gets to tear the house down. A functioning church/state is more like The Grand Inquisitor, who has no use for such a Jesus.

  • http://menliketreeswalking.blogspot.com Matthew

    Right on. I find it intriguing that the cover story for Newsweek would be a direct, pointed, downright evangelistic appeal to “Follow Jesus.” And yet the Jesus that Sullivan wants us to follow is apparently a pure & transcendent spiritual being, but is He coming again to rule? And, for example, would He want us to stick up for the poor to get healthcare or would He want us to fight so that the unborn are not killed? He has the same problem as Rick Santorum– reading his own cultural biases into the story of the Bible and assuming that its grand metanarrative fits his own.

  • Warren

    Lovely to read an articulate summation of the project of modernity in re: religion and its role in the state – to extend the timeline further back, it is worth considering the pre-Reformation status of Christianity that was political in a very different way than afterwards (pre-nation state &c.). Christian practice has been a servant of the state since Constantine in different forms (e.g. Byzantine Emperor’s state-controlled model or Charlemagne’s and others’ military expansion of the faith). Fundamentally, Christians in all times must consider how (as you put it) “Jesus’ ideas are not anti-worldly in the sense that they help guard one’s inner peace…but in the sense that they challenge the way most human societies work.”

    The challenge to the ‘way societies work’ is Christianity’s strength. It resists static definition and the prophetic voice continues to rebuke those who attempt to turn it to their corner for their benefit. Perhaps what Sullivan hopes to find is this neither left-nor-right Jesus, the one who equally rebuked political conservatives (pharisees) and political liberals (saduceess). Easy to see that as apolitical rather than politically engaged though actively resisting easy boxing up (the way any authentic person should). Perhaps as much a culprit is the human desire for over-simplified models rather than ongoing deepening of understanding over time.

  • Alan Hoffman

    I agree with much of the article but take issue with the quote: “…he claimed to have a kingdom, threatened to “destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days,” and preached a kind of forgiveness and self-sacrifice that upended and undermined established Jewish law.”

    As a learned observant Jew and a Jewish historian, I have to call this out as mispercieved at best. Jesus, if he was a believing Jew, would have understood Judaism of its day – all of which survives still today (Pharasaic Judaism IS normative rabbinic Judaism). Threatening to “destroy the Temple” (or any building) is prohibited in Jewish law – only a heretic, brigand or enemy of the people and nation of Israel would even consider that. In modern politics, this is considered arson, theft and mayhem. As for “rebuilding the Temple in 3 days”, I leave it to Christians to rationalize Jesus’ failure to meet his own prophecy and whether that disqualified him as a divine predictor of events. History proves Jesus was wrong on that tidbit. Lets be honest at least.

    The we come to “he…preached a kind of forgiveness and self-sacrifice that upended and undermined established Jewish law.” First, this anti-semitic characture has been debunked by Jewish history, and thankfully, even the Catholic Church has repudiated such characterizations. Hillel’s teaching, occuring circa 30 BCE, probably was part of Jesus’ own education as a child, taught a similar kind of “foregiveness and self-sacrifice” before his birth and was already considered millenia old at the time. Jewish Law has yet to be “upended and undermined” as Jews continued to survive, and even thrive during the 2,000 years this prejudice has been held. The Jewish world recently will celebrate its 12th seven year series of Jews completing the study of the entire Talmud – over 70,000 celebrants will be feted, simulcast in 11 countries and dozens of cities. That Law kept the Jewish people alive…against impossible and overwhelming odds: the Church, Communists, Nazis, Islam and even the Enlightenment. So before we resort to such obvious Christian-inspired, stereotyped polemical statements and triumphalism, consider: we Jews are still here, we still study, we now have our language and state re-established, Orthodoxy is quickly growing faster than all other Jewish branches, and the Jewish people today are a nuclear power. We no longer wear our Stars of David on our clothes in yellow – we wear them on our flag, and on the wings of F-15s and F-16s….probably to the discomfort of the author. Show some respect for the people and nation that took all the Church and Jesus dealt us and reconstituted ourselves. May you have a happy Passover and Easter and consider the message of love Judaism bequeathed to Jesus and Christianity.

  • Alan Hoffman

    One follow up to the idea of religion and state…Judaism has always been “more than a religion”, its a socio-political-religio construct. Its simultaneously a people, a nation and religion (you can add culture and ethnicity). No where in the Hebrew Scriptures is Judaism referred to as a religion (“das”). Religion merely emerges as a cultural form or expression from the context of Jewish history. However, Jews are referred to as a people and nation repeatedly, most importantly at the foot of Mt. Sinai at the giving of the covenant (a constitution?). The covenant is the model for political self-determination, it includes: a court system, limited rights for the sovereign, defined borders, a military, civil and criminal laws, building codes, farming policies, land and boundary rules and much more. By my count 211 of the 613 commandments involve the trappings of “state”. The rest of the commandments deal with ritual, holidays and social roles. All of which define a society of people, living within a nation. The basis for the hope and resurrection of the body of Israel and the Jewish The Enlightenment presumably certified the separation of house of worship and state: current events, history seems to be saying – that is not so easily done.

    What Rome and Christianity, and the other assorted forces of history, tried to put or keep asunder in Jewish consciousness has been resurrected. Why this should be ignored by the religious faithful can only be explained by religious bias or assumed replacement theology.

    • Lakbima

      So much Jewish chauvinism in Mr. Alan Hoffman’s typing. I believe some call it Zionism. According to him, challenge to the story of Jews, Jewish religion and culture will be braded with the antiS word. Jewish people did kill prophets before Christ because previous prophets threatened their leaders, just as Jesus was a threat to Jews leaders in Jesus’ time.
      Why is this tendency to shift the blame to others (that is so antiX ethnicity/race/breed). Just because the media entertainment Borg (church/synagogue of hollywood) doesn’t stigmatize, ridicule your biases doesn’t make you a better human being. You are just another human being, yet a one with a false clear conscious.
      Said that, I do think that as a group of people/religion Jews do have a right to the real estate that the present day Israel is located, because Judaism did come before the other two Abrahamic religions. However, a permanent land for Jews? That is not a right of any group of people. Some people loose/regain/loose.. historical land they live for many reasons. And the present day Israel is there because many non Jews died for that strip of land, so it is not the single handed accomplishment of Jews.
      Now, before I will be labeled an antiS let me mention that, I just don’t know why Christians think that Judas betrayed Jesus (despite even Jesus’ claim, in an emotionally weak night). Judas did what he was supposed to do. I believe that Judas and Jews (the ones that were manipulated: yet that is what they were supposed to do) acted according to God’s will. So, they don’t deserve any scorn from a theological point of view. Now, how some Jews behaved regarding power/money and as a minority they were getting wacked, is behavior unbecoming of Jews and Christians and others who act maliciously toward Jews.
      I guess what I am saying is that no group of people is without sin when it comes to inhumane behavior toward the other. Some more examples: There is this idea that Pharaohs were black in complexion. So that means Jews were held slaves by blacks. In addition, it is true that there were Jews who were involved in the slave trade to the US.

  • James Stagg

    Discouraging, just like Sullivan’s ravings. The enduring essence was once written years ago, and remains the standard by which such goofiness as this article (and Sullivan’s) will be judged by literate Christians and religious apologists: Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis.

    Often, confused scribes tend to illustrate their lack of knowledge by such stretches of their imagination as this article and Sullivan’s do. This could even be given a title: “pop Christianity”, where current politics and failed culture masquerade as current ideological anchors. A famous quote comes to mind: “Better to be considered an idiot, than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.” Such a comment also applies to the written “opinion” piece.

  • SW

    From Rousseau’s “social contract” and beyond, the notion of the “social” being able to take by coercion from the individual has been the large problem in philosophy as in practice. Societies which have practiced charity as a voluntary thing need no “contract,” because contracts impose legalism and a hierarchical authority to trump the voluntary, especially when the voluntary refuses to “volunteer” to the depth and productivity as defined by the authority itself. Today’s social contract has large numbers in many peoples and nations unable and unwilling to work for many reasons, and for them the “social contract” has become a one-way street — to them, from others. Quite a parallel to Marx, excepting the small detail that creativity and entrepreneurship are mostly individual at their root, and when these roots are dealt blow after blow, that productivity weakens and fails. For this, even Brezhnev noted that in order to “distribute” one must “produce,” and we know where the Soviet system led. We are seeing where Greece’s “social contract” leads. Collapse comes to those who deem a social contract to benefit them over others, and this rather well describes all the talking heads and politicians and bureaucrats aplenty. Those of us individual enough to understand this hunker down, produce enough for us and wait for the insolvency. Greece is only a prelude, for the floor show is bringing on new acts like Detroit and Harrisburg, Portugal and Spain, and — the program of all the performers hasn’t yet been printed in its complete listing. The state must suck the life out of the individual, when it becomes hungry enough, and many states as noted above and in other articles states are now carnivorous. The outcome is foreseen. Liberal churches slowly collapse, as liberal inner cities implode around the world. People wander off, when the burden becomes too onerous, and no “social contract” can stop this basic, human response.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003407078297 Delevega

      The passion of the Christ. not sure if you have alaredy seen it but its pretty heavy stuff. . . . its based on God’s Crucifixion!i cried most of the way through it. . . but even if you have seen it, it would be good to watch it again and it has plenty of stuff to discuss.

  • http://www.danwhitejr.blogspot.com Dan Jr.

    Great review and potent statement “I’m afraid we’re long past the point of the liberal Jesus being the collective messiah.”

    I did a less scholarly reply to the Newsweek article> http://danwhitejr.blogspot.com/2012/04/newsweek-abandoning-church.html

  • Maria Lucia Gomez-Greenberg

    Bravo! I just listened to Andrew Sullivan On Face the Nation give the most eloquent position against churches wilding their power for political power–Jesus died because he refused to be part of politics!

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