Christianity and politics

The role of Christianity in politics is debated. Max Weber offers guidance when he declares that:

the dominance of magic outside of the sphere in which Christianity has prevailed is one of the most serious obstructions to the rationalization of economic life…capitalism could not develop in an economic group…bound hand and foot by magical fetters…there has been but one means of breaking down the power of magic and establishing a rational conduct of life; this means is great rational prophecy.

I would agree that monotheistic religion constituted an intellectual advance on paganism. But its role is now exhausted as a stimulus to intellectual enquiry, just are the concepts of the ‘aether’ or phlogiston. Today someone who believed in either of these theories would be crank. Chris Berg declares:

It is a historical truism that the development of liberal democracy, modern political philosophies, notions of human rights and equality, and our social institutions all owe much to Christian thought. Almost all thinkers in the formative centuries of Western liberal democracy were convinced (or simply assumed) there was a God, and He was a Christian God. The non-theist exceptions were… exceptional.

On one level this is true and when I teach political ideologies I emphasise the role of Christianity. I even have soft spot for Protestant dissent and its linkages to rational socialism. As Raphael Samuel notes:

Marxists also took over the liberal-radical interpretation of the Reformation, seeing it—very much on the lines suggested by Seebohm’s Era of the Protestant Reformation—as the beginning of the era of freedom, rather than—as in Cobbett’s History of the Protestant Reformation [74] The spirit of this passage is very close to that classic of mid 19th century liberalism, Motley’s (1827)—as the harbinger of capitalist enslavement. William Morris, for all his mediaevalism, seems to have identified the cause of Puritanism with that of liberty, and when he wanted to evoke a spirit of heroism, it was to the epics of Protestant resistance that he turned: ‘To have breasted the Spanish pikes at Leyden, to have drawn sword with Oliver: that may well seem at times amidst the tangles of today a happy fate: for a man to be able to say, I have lived like a fool, but now I will cast away fooling for an hour, and die like a man—there is something in that certainly: and yet ’tis clear that few men can be so lucky as to die for a cause, without first of all having lived for it. And as this is the most that can be asked from the greatest man that follows a cause, so it is the least that can be taken from the smallest’.Rise of the Dutch Republic, with its leitmotif of democratic nationalism, its opposition of Protestantism to sacerdotal dogmatism and persecution, and its picture of a courageous struggle against foreign domination. H.M. Hyndman, in his Historical Basis of Socialism in England, also interprets the international line-up of the 16th and 17th century in a radical Protestant way, with the monarchies of Spain and France representing the forces of bigotry, and England as a haven of refuge. [75] It is a note which sounds quite clearly in Christopher Hill’s writings of the 1940s, with Spain, ‘reactionary, Catholic Spain’ as the heart of darkness, and the young Dutch republic as the symbol of light: ‘The international situation in the reign of James I . . . was as follows. The structure of European feudalism was beginning to disintegrate. Already it had snapped at its weakest link, and a bourgeois republic had been set up in Holland, which had survived decades of warfare against the greatest reactionary power of the day, the House of Hapsburg ruling in Spain and Austria. [76]

In Australia there is the disastrous engagement of Catholicism with anti-capitalist romanticism a la Santamaria a ghastly tradition whose war against liberalism and democracy must accept some blame for the rise of fascism.

But to be a Christan at the time of Locke meant something quite different from what it does now. Contemporary popular Christianity is a  magical system of belief like astrology that its adherents see as providing a higher knowledge that overrules the sciences, consider George Pell and Gregory Melleuish on climate science. Norman Geras makes a useful defense of theology as an intellectual project:

Let us agree for argument’s sake that the whole content of theology is exhausted by those questions in philosophy that are to do with the idea of God and with cognate notions (such as the immortality of the soul). So theology would be that sub-branch of philosophy that explored such issues as: what reasons there are for thinking there’s a God, or for thinking that there isn’t one – I leave it at merely one God in order to simplify the argument – and what qualities a God might be expected to have if a God existed, and how it is possible, if it is, to reconcile the idea of a benevolent God with the existence of evil; and so forth. My question now is this. Why, even under so restricted an account of what theology is, wouldn’t it be a legitimate domain of inquiry, as constituted by philosophical questions of this kind? If the answer is, because we know there is no God and therefore such philosophical inquiries are pointless, then there is something both overreaching and inappropriate to the domain of philosophy contained in that answer. Overreaching since there’s an assumption of absolute certainty of knowledge foreign to the vocation of philosophy. Insisting, as though it were an issue closed for all time, that there is no God is not the same thing as the proper scepticism of the rational atheist who says that she has no grounds for belief in God on the basis of anything that has been argued or established to date.

Does anybody pretend that Pell, Melleuish etc. are interested in these questions?

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