When the Texas Board of Education voted last month in favor of a proposal that would emphasize the religious origins of democracy in high school curricula, many liberals were outraged. It seemed to fly in the face of the long-held assumption that Western political ideas — toleration, the separation of church and state, indeed the genius of democratic rule itself — was born from the steady secularization of the West. It was the age of the Enlightenment, after all, that produced America’s great experiment in democracy.
But in recent years a small but significant number of respected scholars have begun challenging this view, arguing instead that several fundamental tenets of modern political theory stem explicitly from religious ideas. What’s more, they are increasingly focusing on the century that preceded the Enlightenment — a period sometimes called “the Biblical Century” — in which many seminal thinkers from Hobbes to Harrington to Locke turned to the Hebrew Bible for insight.
“My view is that if we take the influence [of the Hebrew Bible] seriously, it will challenge the traditional story we tell,” said Eric Nelson, a professor of political science at Harvard. His new book, “The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought” (Harvard/Belknap, 2010), details the ways in which 17th-century British and Dutch thinkers parsed the Hebrew Bible and even rabbinic commentary to justify ideas like toleration and the legitimacy of democratic rule. The idea that the rise of democracy was born from secularization, Nelson added, “is deeply misleading.”
Of course scholars are hardly arguing that religion should play a role in political institutions — either then or now. Rather, they are giving a much more nuanced picture of the way our political institutions developed over time. In fact, many of them go to great lengths to show how strongly held religious beliefs, rather than a lack of them, spawned the idea of separating religion from politics. It was, in effect, mutually beneficial to keep church and state apart.
Protestants, for instance, emphasized that faith was to be arrived at individually — and not mediated by clergy or the church. It stood to reason then that if priests shouldn’t tell you what to believe, then certainly politicians shouldn’t either. “That would mean that we’re imposing our views of God on someone else,” said Gordon Schochet, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, who co-edits the journal Hebraic Political Studies.
The journal, originally funded by the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and launched five years ago, grew out of the conviction that there was enough scholarly interest in the Jewish influence on political theory to justify a regular periodical, Schochet said. In 2004, the Shalem Center announced a call for papers for a conference on political Hebraism and “the enthusiastic response convinced us there was a need for a journal. … It was an attempt to pull together all these different efforts.”
Indeed, it would be hard to identify any one reason for the recent focus on religion’s role in political theory, Jewish or otherwise. Naturally, many scholars point to current events, from the challenge political Islam has posed to Western democracies, to the best-selling atheist manifestoes published in response. But changes that occurred within academia before these cultural trends took hold have had an influence, too, scholars say.
The erosion of Marxist thought, which dominated scholarly discourse in the 1960s and ’70s, has allowed scholars to take religion more seriously without being scoffed at, for instance. The practice of “historicism” — or, reading documents strictly within the context that they were written — has also encouraged scholars to look more closely at long-ignored biblical references in classic political texts.
More recently, scholars — say, political scientists who want to explore the connections between religious and politics — have been rewarded for working across disciplines. “There’s always been a ghetto-like mentality to Jewish studies,” said Schochet, “like, ‘Oh, that’s where they do the Jew thing.’” But he recognized a change of attitude in recent years, and decided to capitalize on the work of disparate scholars coalescing around a similar theme: political Hebraism.
That term, which is the focus of Nelson’s book, came into being about two decades ago. While scholars of the late-16th and 17th century have long known that political thinkers — almost all of them Christians — had an abiding interest in Hebrew texts, they did not spend much time thinking about the influence this might have had on their political ideas. But when widely admired intellectuals like Michael Walzer, of the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, began taking these ideas seriously, skeptics began taking notice.
“For many, many years scholars paid a lot of attention to Aristotle and Cicero and that the references to the Bible were decorative, pro forma,” Walzer said. In order to show the lengthy history of Jewish thought on politics, however, he began editing a four-volume edition called “The Jewish Political Tradition,” published by Yale University Press, which began appearing in 2000. It brought together disparate, critical Jewish texts dealing with political rule, many of which have formed the backbone for political scientists’ recent work in political Hebraism.
Until very recently, however, political Hebraism was mostly discussed among Jewish scholars alone. Political scientists, for their part, tended to downplay its significance, emphasizing the influence of secular Greek and Roman thought instead. But “very few historians would now portray religion as some sort of cultural atavism,” said Jeffrey Collins, a professor of intellectual history at Queen’s University in Canada, in an e-mail. “There is a new openness to the importance of religious belief, practice and theology in shaping the fundamental propositions of liberalism and democracy.”
Still, there is plenty of resistance. Steven Smith, a political scientist at Yale, suggested that he was not inherently opposed to studying the role religion might have played in shaping political ideas. It’s just that much of the scholarship simply isn’t good, he said. “I recently was asked to write a review essay for the journal Political Theory of a number of these books,” he wrote in an e-mail, but “most of them were quite bad.” And while he did say that Nelson’s book, which he recently read, should be praised for challenging the idea that modern political thought was always in opposition to religion, he took issue with many of the details.
Nelson, for instance, shows how John Milton, writing in the mid-17th century, argued that a republican style of government (which today we’d called “democratic”) was the best form in part because the Old Testament said so. Using rabbinic commentary, Milton described monarchial rule as the equivalent of idolatry, and thus sinful, Nelson writes.
Smith says that this reading is “somewhat naïve,” however. The reason most early modern political thinkers were engaged in seemingly arcane religious thought was because they had to formulate opinions in the language their opponents understood. “This is a long way from saying that their thought was ‘religiously inspired’ or that they attempted to derive toleration and republican government from Scripture,” Smith wrote.
And it is another matter entirely as to whether 17th-century political Hebraism has any relevance to the foundation of American democracy, established nearly a century and a half later. Even Nelson is careful not to push his case too far: “I do think that Hebraic arguments, particularly about monarchy, played an important role in the ideological origins of the American Revolution — most spectacularly in [Thomas] Paine’s ‘Common Sense,’” he said. “However, these Hebraic elements certainly coexisted with a whole series of other traditions and arguments that were of equal, and sometimes greater, importance.”
Other scholars have not shied away from addressing the role religion has played in the formation of American political ideas, either. Jack Rakove of Stanford, a leading historian of the early American republic,” said that the very idea of revolution against the British had as its premise, at least in part, Christian “resistance theory,” which holds that Christian Americans believed they had a God-sanctioned right to oppose tyrannical rule. But resistance theory, like many of the religious influences on American politics, he added, has little to do with other fundamental principles of American democracy: “It doesn’t say much about whether you should have one house of government or two.”
In fact, most of the founding fathers turned away from religious justifications for a myriad of other reasons as well: because their own convictions weren’t terribly strong; because the beliefs they did have often conflicted with their compatriots’; because faith was a matter of private conscience that would be denigrated by government imposition; because they saw the government’s role as a limited one. Or, as Jefferson wrote regarding that last point, “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
As for the role religion should play in politics today, even scholars who emphasize its historical importance criticize those who try to politicize it now. When asked of his opinion on the Texas Board of Education case, Nelson made his position clear: “Any scholarship that touches on [the role of religion in politics] is liable to be deployed in unsavory ways by one group or another, but it seems to me that we have to take that risk,” he said. “Getting this right is just too important, both because it’s better to be correct than incorrect … [and] if we fail to understand this history, we will find ourselves condemned to a whole series of philosophical confusions and muddles.”
Anyway, he added, even if Hobbes, Locke, Milton and others relied on the Hebrew Bible to justify their political ideas, “it does not follow … that they should be justified that way in the contemporary world.”
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