Mark Lilla

Tom Shipka

In a recent article and book, Mark Lilla, professor of humanities at Columbia University, gives us a refresher course in how the United States of America and European nations came to separate theology and politics while most other nations did not. (1) Lilla points out that the Reformation destroyed the unity of Christendom and left 16th century Europe a hodge-podge of churches and sects where doctrinal differences and political ambitions fueled each other. This led to the "madness" of a century and a half of religious wars in Europe in which, Lilla says, Christians killed one another with "maniacal fury." (2)
Facing a certain early death, the disparate and desperate Christians frantically sought a way to establish peace and preserve their lives. Aid came from an unlikely source, Thomas Hobbes, a materialist with repugnance for traditional religion, who seized on their fear to propose a path to mutual survival, namely, erecting through common consent an all-powerful political sovereign, a Leviathan, whose unbounded power would cower them into mutual tolerance. John Locke would amend this proposal significantly soon after with the introduction of limited government, the division of powers, majority rule, and human rights, but, even for Locke, secular power over a religiously diverse community would ensure peace and mutual toleration. Professor Lilla calls this separation of theology from politics by Hobbes and Locke "the Great Separation." "In order to escape the destructive passions of messianic faith," he notes, "political theology centered on God was replaced by political philosophy centered on man." (33)
Professor Lilla cautions us that the Great Separation is a work in progress, "an experiment," not a fait accomplit. Why? Because the temptation to inject religion into politics "can be reacquired by anyone who begins looking to the divine nexus of God, man and world to reveal the legitimate political order." (3)
Finally, Professor Lilla reflects on the prospects for a Great Separation among Muslims in today's world. He says that it is unlikely that Islam will take a path similar to Christianity in Europe because Muslims "believe that God has revealed a law governing the whole of human affairs" and "not some arbitrarily demarcated private sphere." (50, 54) Instead, Muslims "have to find the theological resources within their own traditions" to institute change. (54) Lilla is skeptical about the prospects of "liberal Muslims" to spark this because they don't fully grasp the theological currents at work in Islam and they are viewed by mainstream Muslims as deviants. Instead, Lilla sees a ray of hope in what he calls "renovators." Unlike liberals, "renovators," such as Khaled El Fadl, and Tariq Ramadan, "stand firmly within their faith and reinterpret political theology so believers can adapt without feeling themselves to be apostates." (54)
No doubt Mark Lilla can be faulted on one point or another. Nevertheless, in retelling how and why the Great Separation arose, and in reminding us that we need to find ways to manage the interplay of theology and politics if there is to be a future worth living, his work deserves our attention and our gratitude.


  1. See "The Politics of God," The New York Times Magazine, August 19, 2007, and The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, 2007. Quotes herein are from "The Politics of God."
  2. Each sect - Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Calvinists, Anabaptists, Quakers, Ranters, Muggletonians, Fifth Monarchy Men, and others - had its own "path to salvation and blueprint for Christian society" which it struggled to impose at any cost. (33)
  3. Page 50. Americans need to remember this, Lilla writes, as they face "potentially explosive religious differences over abortion, prayer in schools, censorship, euthanasia, biological research and countless other issues..." (50)

© Tom Shipka 2007