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Going against the grain

“Political theology” is a controversial term, these days. In The Stillborn God, Columbia professor Mark Lilla argues that political theology is lethal for democracy, because democracy requires a public square scoured of religious reference points. Needless to say, I take exception to Professor Lilla’s argument, although those who think they have a direct, specific, divine mandate to order public life often make mischief, and sometimes more-than-mischief. To equate political theology with fanaticism, however, is to equate religious conviction with mindlessness. “Political theology,” properly understood, honors the virtue of prudence, as it applies insights drawn from the Christian understanding of the human person and human community to the messy business of politics.

I came to political theology accidentally. During graduate studies in theology, I focused on systematic theology, and especially Christology. Then, in my first job, I was asked to teach the social ethics course at St. Thomas Seminary School of Theology near Seattle. That surprise assignment launched an intellectual journey of more than three decades, as I’ve tried to apply the social doctrine of the Catholic Church to the most contested issues of American and international public life.

Some of the principal intellectual markers along that journey have now been collected by the Crossroad Publishing Company into a new book, Against the Grain: Christianity and Democracy, War and Peace, which gathers together between two covers twelve essays on various question of political theology that I’ve written over the past decade and a half. Why are these essays “against the grain”? They’re against several grains, actually.

They challenge the notion, often found in our universities today, that political science is a sub-discipline of statistics. On the contrary: political theology is a discipline that continues the great intellectual adventure of political philosophy, which began with the Greeks almost three millennia ago. Political theology, in other words, helps rescue thinking-about-politics from the hegemony of the bean-counters and number-crunchers.

The essays in Against the Grain confront another notion rampant in the contemporary American academy: the idea of “proceduralist” or “functional” democracy. According to these learned folk, democracy is simply a matter of getting the procedures of self-governance – the democratic machinery – right. The machinery doesn’t require mechanics with certain skills; the machine can run by itself. The late Pope John Paul II disagreed, and so do I. It takes a certain kind of people, possessed of certain virtues, to make the machinery of democracy work so that the net result is human flourishing, not degradation. In Against the Grain, I explore what that foundation of virtues looks like, and how it makes democracy possible.

The book contains several essays on issues of war and peace, examined through the prism of classic Catholic just war reasoning. They challenge the pacifist of principle (whom I can respect). They also challenge what I have come to term “functional pacifism,” the distortion of just war thinking that has dominated American Catholic intellectual life and the American bishops’ commentary on these issues for the past twenty-five years. In these essays, I examine once again the question of whether the just war way of thinking begins with a “presumption against war,” or whether it begins with a presumption-for-justice: for the defense of the peace of order. My answer, not surprisingly, cuts against the grain of a lot of contemporary common wisdom; but that common wisdom, I suggest, is based on a mistaken reading of Catholic intellectual history and a mistaken understanding of moral theology. My good friends at Commonweal will doubtless find in this another occasion to deplore my wrongheadedness. I hope others, including those with political and military responsibilities, will find these essays useful in thinking through some of the most urgent questions of the day.

Against the Grain demonstrates, I hope, that it is possible to do political theology in a way that engages believers and non-believers alike. For at a moment in history when what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger once called the “dictatorship of relativism” is a real and present danger, thinking about politics through the prism of religiously informed moral reason is an urgent matter of public mental health.

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George Weigel
George Weigel
George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His column is distributed by the Denver Catholic.

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