Religion, Politics, and the Modern West
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An elegant and timely investigation of the rise, and fall, and rise, of political theology.

Once upon a time, everyone assumed religion and politics went hand in hand. Here, Lilla (Committee on Social Thought/Univ. of Chicago; The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics, 2001, etc.) traces the relatively recent Western divide between the two. Lilla opens by distinguishing three different kinds of political theology—those that imagine God as immanent, remote or transcendent—and by sketching the different ways Judaism and Christianity conceive of God’s involvement with the world. He then tours post-medieval Western thought. On one end sits Hobbes (who, with Locke and Hume, untangled religion from statecraft); on the other end sit Kant and Hegel. In between those two poles is the most significant section of the book—Lilla’s reading of Rousseau’s “The Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar,” a section of Emile (and the most sustained treatment Rousseau ever offered of religion). Rousseau was the first to articulate the belief that religion is an expression of man’s essential goodness. In wanting to have it both ways—wanting a secular politics shot through with some domesticated sense of piety—Rousseau was, in a sense, undermining the profound break that his forebears had made with religion. The titular stillborn God is Rousseau’s step-child: The liberal religion Emile spawned was dealt a paralyzing blow in the mid-20th century, because it ultimately couldn’t stand up to the monstrous reemergence of the political theology of Nazi Germany. Lilla offers no tidy answers at the end of the book. Given the purchase political theology has on so many people, even today, Westerners must ask whether they wish the separation between politics and religion to continue.

Dense and rewarding.

Pub Date: Sept. 14th, 2007
ISBN: 978-1-4000-4367-5
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 2007