Peter C. Meilaender is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Houghton College in New York State.
In the terrorist age we have now entered, the nations of the West are confronted, for the first time in the modern era, with a serious threat from outside the West itself. Yet how can we defend Western Civilization without first understanding what it is? The West and the Rest, the latest offering from Roger Scruton, the conservative British philosopher, seeks to help us understand ourselves, that we may better defend ourselves.
In this thin but penetrating volume, Scruton claims that the defining achievement of the West has been to resolve the “contest between religion and politics” by conceiving of the state as an independent source of human authority, deriving its legitimacy not from divine commands, but from the will of the citizens whom it represents. This disentanglement of politics from religion was made possible by Christianity. Ideas such as Augustine’s theory of the two cities and the medieval doctrine of the two swords produced a Western conception of the state as an independent, secular jurisdiction. This conception, Scruton argues, is the necessary prerequisite of politics understood as a distinct human activity, rather than as simply the perpetuation of some other sort of activity (worship, for instance, or warfare) in another guise. The great advantage of such a view is to lay the groundwork for earthly peace. Even those who do not agree about the ultimate source of religious authority can mutually submit to the merely temporal jurisdiction of the earthly state.
If it is to allow diverse citizens to hammer out a common way of life, this state cannot rest upon traditional bases of loyalty such as kinship or creed. Because humans are communal beings, however, it must be grounded in some alternative form of membership. The territorial nation—larger than the kinship group, smaller than the universal church—provides this new experience of belonging and so lays a new foundation for political loyalty, directed now towards a “community of neighbors sharing language, customs, territory, and a common interest in defense.” This community is represented by its own state, which bears a legal and corporate personality and acts as its agent, representing its permanent will across time. Thus the Christian distinction between the two kingdoms, having generated the need for an independent jurisdictional sphere in which to house secular political authority, culminates finally in the modern nation–state—the only context within which we have successfully and over an extended period of time maintained a stable political order that is representative, peaceful, and free.
This achievement of establishing the independent sphere of politics, Scruton argues, is what distinguishes the West from “the rest,” and particularly from the Islamic world. Unlike Christianity, which distinguishes the things of Caesar from those of God, Islam recognizes neither “the state as an independent object of loyalty” nor “secular . . . jurisdiction as a genuine source of law”; on the contrary, it conceives of the universal divine law as a “fully comprehensive system of commands.” It is thus unable to sustain politics as a distinct form of activity, resulting, as Scruton puts it, in the “confiscation of the political.” This refusal to recognize any source of political authority independent of the divine command tends either to undermine the state altogether (whenever it is charged with having departed from an ideal of religious purity) or to usher in totalitarianism (since a state charged with implementing divine decrees must inevitably be concerned with our spiritual perfection).
Because this radically different conception of the political—or better, to use Scruton’s terms, the absence of any real such conception—views political activity as merely an elaboration of the one, all–encompassing divine law, it necessarily “regards territorial jurisdiction and national loyalty as compromises with no intrinsic legitimacy of their own.” It is hostile, in other words, to the crowning achievement of the West, the nation–state. What is more, these external foes of the nation–state find allies within the contemporary West. Beset from without by those who deny the legitimacy of merely man–made law, the nation–state is also under attack from within by proponents of globalization and transnational government who view it as an archaic remnant of a less enlightened past. They are joined by the carping adherents of what Scruton calls the “culture of repudiation,” who assail the nation–state as a key element in the grim history of Western oppression. This account of the decline of national citizenship within the West amplifies Scruton’s broader comparison of the West and the rest, and together these facets of his argument raise a call to arms in defense of the traditional nation–state.
I will leave to others the question whether Scruton’s analysis of the character of the “rest,” in particular of the Islamic world, is adequate, but his analysis of the West is noteworthy in several ways. His insistence that loyalty, a neglected topic, ought to be a central concern of political philosophy is an important contribution to standard discussions of liberal democracy and offers a far more insightful path than most such discussions into the relationship between the individual, the community, and the state. Furthermore, though Scruton is hardly alone in recognizing the plight of the nation–state and of national sovereignty as defining questions of the contemporary world order, his strong defense of those institutions is welcome, for in intellectual debate they often have few friends.
In an important respect, however, his discussion is curiously unsatisfying. Scruton’s argument hinges on the development, in the West, of a conception of political jurisdiction whose legitimacy is independent of religion, a development that he typically describes in terms of “secular law” or the “separation of church and state.” These are familiar enough phrases, and few of Scruton’s Western readers, Christian or otherwise, are likely to disagree that some such thing as secular law or the separation of church and state ought to exist. But the devil is in the details, and one wants to know precisely what Scruton means by such phrases. About this, however, he is disappointingly vague. At times, his description of the accommodation reached in the West between religion and politics sounds not merely as though Christianity has been prepared to recognize the legitimate sphere of the state, but as though it has been willing to subordinate itself to secular concerns. Thus he can refer, in a passage summarizing important parts of his argument, to the “absolute sovereignty” granted territorial jurisdiction—not the words I would have chosen to express the Christian conception.
The difficulty in ascertaining Scruton’s precise meaning in this respect is pervasive. Consider: he tells us that Western political culture “makes religion a concern of family and society, but not of the state” and that those who “see all law, all social identity, and all loyalty as issuing from a religious source cannot really form part of this political culture.” In the very next sentences, however, he assures us that this does not require the “fanatical expulsion of faith from public institutions”; indeed, it is compatible with—of all things—prayer in public schools. Two pages later, he affirms that the precepts of Christianity “set limits to what the sovereign can command.” This affirmation, however, follows an explicit reduction of those precepts to only the two overarching ones laid down by Christ, “to love God entirely and to love your neighbor as yourself” (he notes elsewhere that “doctrine is the least important part of religion”). Just what should the reader make of this?
Scruton has not, I think, said anything with which a Christian must disagree. But his meaning is not sufficiently clear for the Christian to assent unreservedly. His ambiguous language might reflect either of two positions. It might be part of a strategy to tame or domesticate Christianity by reining in the demands it makes on the faithful and scaling back its claim to sovereignty over all of the believer’s life. Such a strategy would be familiar enough from the historical development of liberalism, in which thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke, and others concerned themselves greatly (and not without success) with reducing Christianity to a form they thought compatible with public order. Presumably, however, most Christians would resist such a strategy, and, in the face of a potentially watered–down faith, might even find themselves sympathizing with Muslim fears about the effects of Western secularism on religious belief.
Alternatively, Scruton’s imprecise formulations might reflect a sophisticated set of distinctions among the private, the public, and the political. Such distinctions, if adequately formulated, could describe a political order that, while not deriving its own legitimacy directly from religion, nevertheless concerns itself with and sustains a public space in which religion flourishes as more than a merely private activity. This position would be considerably more attractive. If this is what Scruton has in mind, however, he has not fully laid it out in this book, opting too often instead for the by now tired language of “separation of church and state.”
This is not only frustrating, it is unfortunate, particularly coming from such an insightful thinker and in such a valuable book. For in our day, talk of the separation of church and state functions primarily as an excuse for careless theorizing—something Scruton normally scrupulously avoids. It provides us with an easy way out, a way of avoiding the more challenging task of constructing a richer, more nuanced set of distinctions. For what Christian thought has really done has not been to separate church and state, but rather to distinguish them—or, more precisely, to distinguish between the City of God and the City of Man, which is not exactly the same thing. Speaking of the “separation of church and state” encourages the mistaken assumption that the state can sustain itself, chugging along indefinitely under its own power, without needing to maintain, or even recognize, the foundations upon which it rests.
Scruton’s own argument warns against such shortsightedness. His excellent discussion of the territorial loyalty without which the modern nation–state is unthinkable shows, as he emphasizes, that we neglect such pre–political loyalties at our peril. Similarly, if Scruton is right—as I think he is—that the vision of politics as a distinct, limited form of human activity owes its existence to conceptual possibilities opened up by Christianity, then the continued vitality of Christianity cannot be a matter of political indifference. That is not to say that the state itself must again become openly religious. It is to say, though, that the categories in which these distinctions are discussed—private and public, individual and social, cultural and political—require more thorough elaboration.
All who agree with Scruton that the achievements of representative government and the modern nation–state are not to be lightly abandoned will want to join him in that task of elaboration. But our labors will be in vain if we can distinguish Christianity from Islam only in a tepid or marginalized form. For such a faith will not only fail to sustain the institutions we cherish; it will also appear to confirm that the West is indeed as soulless as its enemies claim.
Copyright (c) 2003 First Things 131 (March 2003): 49-51.