I think Andrew Sullivan has some reading to do. I say this mostly in jest – I hope he doesn’t spend his blog hiatus reading these books. But short of an essay that responds to Sullivan’s understanding of Jesus, history, and liberal democracy, I thought I would offer up a very brief reading list that would contest his position on several major points reflected in his exchange with David Sessions’ post here at Patrol.
The three points at issue for me are these: was Jesus apolitical? Were thinkers like Machiavelli and Locke setting up something called liberalism? (Let alone modern, liberal, democracy?) Finally, does modern democratic liberalism have no metaphysical basis? (What does it mean to say, as Sullivan does in his response to Sessions, that liberalism requires no metaphysical principles, only conservative ones?) Given what’s at stake here, these questions deserve careful scrutiny. And while I’m sure Sullivan has given sustained attention to these questions, I can’t help but wonder how he would respond to the arguments of these scholars, each of whom would contest a central element of his political and religious outlook.
Why this list in particular? First, several prominent scholars have made a reasonable case for the political nature of Jesus’ message, though we need to attend with care to how we are using the word “political” here. On the question of Jesus’ message, it might be fruitful to add the book in which N. T. Wright and Marcus Borg, called The Meaning of Jesus, present their respective views, and where Borg’s Jesus is in some sense an extension of Thomas Jefferson’s, and thus Sullivan’s. Second, do we best understand thinkers like Niccolò Machiavelli and John Locke when we approach them as “sources” for liberalism? The books I’ve suggested approach Machiavelli and Locke historically and operate on the contextualist assumption that political thinkers are best understood by placing their thought in its historical context. I would suggest that any contemporary political appropriation of Machiavelli and Locke must necessarily grapple with critical historical scholarship. Incidentally, anyone looking for a connection between Machiavelli and Jefferson in terms of republican political thought, can turn to J. G. A. Pocock’s highly erudite, if controversial, The Machiavellian Moment. Finally, does the fact that citizens of modern liberal democracies have been “more comfortable, less fearful and remarkably stable”, as Sullivan puts it, somehow validate his claim about liberalism’s supposed lack of metaphysical grounding? Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre, to name only two prominent thinkers (and Sullivan’s fellow Catholics), have been arguing for some time that both modern liberalism and contemporary western secularism have specific moral and metaphysical sources with a particular history, and that these ought to be stated and evaluated.
To my mind, then, we do not necessarily save Jesus’ moral teachings by making them apolitical or private; we do not validate (or condemn) contemporary politics by simply connecting our political views with their apparent origins in the past; and we do not protect or justify liberal democracy by claiming it as the neutral political ground, a sort of metaphysical exceptionalism.
If Jesus had a political message it does not mean that that message is necessarily theocratic or totalitarian, as Sullivan seems to suggest. If Machiavelli and Locke were not thinking about setting up our political world, but addressing their own in their own terms, that does not mean that they have no contemporary political or philosophical relevance – but that such relevance must work through critical history, not in spite of it. Finally, if liberalism has a metaphysical basis, in common with all other political thought, it does not mean that its historical superiority – if that is what we want to claim – is necessarily called into question. Rather, the issues become contested and qualitative: we embrace the politics of Jesus in better or worse ways, we appropriate history through better or worse practices, and we defend democracy with better or worse arguments.
That said, here is my extremely brief, idiosyncratic list.
Yes, Jesus was political:
No, Machiavelli and Locke were not liberals avant la lettre:
- Quentin Skinner, Machiavelli.
- John Marshall, John Locke: Resistance, Religion, and Responsibility.
No, liberalism does not lack metaphysical principles:
Patrol readers might also be interested in the reviews (one, two, and three, respectively) of Miroslav Volf’s A Public Faith, of Jurgen Habermas’ dialogue with German Jesuits in An Awareness of What Is Missing, and of John Fea’s Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?
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