[PT 12.3 (2011) 491-494] Political Theology (print) ISSN 1462-317X
doi:10.1558/poth.v12i3.491 Political Theology (online) ISSN 1473-1719
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2011, Unit S3, Kelham House, 3 Lancaster Street, Sheffield, S3 8AF.
Bart C. Labuschagne and Reinhard W. Sonnenschmidt, eds, Religion,
Politics and Law: Philosophical Reflections on the Sources of Normative
Order in Society. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2009. 453 pp. £103.50.
ISBN 9-004-17207-6 (hbk).
Reviewed by: Rex Ahdar, Faculty of Law, University of Otago, New
Early liberal political philosophy was not opposed to religion. Quite the
opposite: many discern that classic liberalism emerged “from a set of
ideas rooted in Christian theology and congenial to religious institutions”
(Michael McConnell, “Why is Religious Liberty the ‘First Freedom?’ ”
Cardozo Law Review 21 : 1243–66 at 1257). Liberalism and religion,
specifically Christianity, mutually reinforced each other. Thus, “Liberal
democracy, with its protection for religious freedom, was good for religion;
and religion, in turn, provided the moral and cultural underpinnings
for a liberal society” (McConnell, 1257). Contemporary liberalism seems
to have lost sight of this symbiotic linkage.
Religion, Politics and Law, comprising fourteen essays, represents a
collaboration between Dutch legal scholars based at Leiden University
and German political scientists from the University of Duisburg/Essen.
Specifically, it emerged from a Colloquium on Law, Religion and Politics
held at the Faculty of Law in Leiden in 2006. The essayists and editors
acknowledge the intellectual debt they owe to Eric Voegelin (1901–1985).
His fortunate escape from Vienna (and the enclosing darkness of Nazism)
to America ensured that a valuable corpus of scholarship illuminating the
vital connection between the political order and religious realm survives
to this day.
Voegelin believed the spiritual and religious roots of western civilization
needed to be acknowledged, understood and nurtured lest the West
lapse into various evils of cultural decay and even totalitarianism. For
Voegelin, “the life of people in political community cannot be defined
as a profane realm” but “is also a realm of religious order” (1). The West,
asserted Voegelin, was experiencing “a serious crisis,” the origins of which
lay in “the secularization of the soul.” Recovery, in his view, could “only
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be achieved through religious renewal, be it within the framework of the
historical churches, be it outside this framework” (12).
The editors take up this lead. Exclusion of the religious dimension of
humankind “is a much too dangerous option for moral, legal and political
philosophy” (5). The overall purpose of this volume is nothing if not
ambitious. It is to come to grips, philosophically speaking, with the oftenneglected
spiritual dimension as it informs and shapes the political and
legal spheres. “Our concerns regard the fragile spiritual infrastructure of
modern liberal democracies: its existence, scope and strength, but also its
internal and external threats, and how to deal with them, without relinquishing
the very tenets and values that are contained within it” (5).
The book is divided in four parts. Part A contains three essays that
endeavour to trace, in the history of ideas, the major contributions on
the relation between religion and social order in the writings of Voegelin,
Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Hegel. Part B is a critical reappraisal of
the legacy of the Enlightenment. All three chapters in this section are by
Claus-E. Bärsch, himself a student of Voegelin. The Enlightenment has
claimed rather too much for itself, in terms of its development of (in contrast
to dogmatic religion’s determined feet-dragging) science, democracy,
human rights, political stability and so on, and is itself “in dire need of
enlightenment” (7). Part C takes a “systematical-philosophical” perspective
on a somewhat disparate clutch of concepts: love, war, totalitarianism,
radical Islamism and the meaning of the Enlightenment in contemporary
cultural debate. Part D has a more practical, empirical focus and again
groups an eclectic number of topics under a broad rubric of attempts to
deal with religious pluralism, both historical and contemporary. Thus,
there are chapters on the well-worn subject of the religious roots of the
United States, the preconditions for a successful multicultural democracy,
the religious freedom to be granted new religious movements and
the plethora of self-discovery movements that are united in a belief that
an introspective self-awareness of the divine within (“introcendence,” as
Andreas Dordel and Andre Ullrich dub it) is the path to Truth.
The jewel in the crown for this reviewer was the essay, “Religion
and Order: Philosophical Reflections from Augustine to Hegel on the
Spiritual Sources of Law and Politics,” by Bart Labuschagne, one of
the editors of the anthology. The entire liberal democratic edifice is, he
maintains, living off inherited religious capital that it naïvely supposes
will preserve it indefinitely, despite the unmistakeable diminution in
“traditional religiosity” (72). Liberal polities “live of [sic] preconditions
that these states cannot account for themselves” (71). Labuschagne then
outlines several basic models of religion-state relations. “Consubstantial”
(Voegelin’s term) systems that fuse the religious and political powers and
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2011.
separationist models each have serious flaws. There is a particular temptation,
he discerns, to return to consubstantial regimes which he describes
(unhelpfully in my view) as “Gnostic.” Religion can be politicized (as
with radical political Islam) or politics can be “sacralized” (as in many
totalitarian ideologies). Such moves cynically exploit human feelings of
faith and hope and “only lead to hell on earth” (80). Labuschagne offers
a better way: mediation through differentiation in a “Trinitarian” Order.
The third piece of the puzzle is the crucial role played by critical intellectual
thought and inquiry. Religion and the political sphere can be balanced
properly only by the salutary part played by “the free and critical pursuit
of truth” (82). The origins of this threefold approach are, he notes, found
in Judeo-Christian religion. In ancient Israel, authority was differentiated
among the offices of king, priest and prophet and each operated to the
mutual benefit of Jewish society. In Christianity, Trinitarianism itself is
embodied in the triune Godhead (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). This tripartite
conceptual scheme is reflected institutionally today in the secular state
(the king), the church (the priest) and academia, the free press, the arts
etc. (the prophet). Perhaps, Labuschagne hints, Montesquieu’s renowned
separation of powers doctrine (whereby government is divided into its
legislative, executive and judicial branches) has its roots in Trinitarian
thought as well.
In order for a religion to supply liberal democracy with the spiritual
and moral infrastructure it (democracy) needs to sustain it, a religion
must be capable of internal criticism. Labuschagne worries whether Islam
has the necessary critical or prophetic attitude. It seemingly lacks independent
institutions capable of free criticism. In the absence of this, he
has “serious doubts…as to whether Islam in any form can contribute
positively to the very ethos modern and free democracies need today”
(92). He ends with an observation that needs repeating. When we speak of
“religion” we must really specify what particular religion (and perhaps
even which branch within that religion) we have in mind. Quite correctly,
this raises “unpleasant and awkward questions for some” but,
equally correctly in my view, this “makes it all the more necessary to
pose them” (93).
The insistence upon the specification of the particular religion that
one is postulating as serving beneficent (or pernicious) ends is important.
David Bentley Hart, in his masterly Atheist Delusions (Yale University Press,
2009), points out that “religion in the abstract does not actually exist, and
almost no one (apart from politicians) would profess any allegiance to it”
(8). A great many systems of belief and conduct bear the label “religion”
but their capacity for either enhancing or destroying the civic virtues necessary
for a liberal democratic to flourish vary greatly.
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Labuschagne’s essay is a tour de force and alone is worth the price of
the book. Paul Cliteur and Geoff Gordon’s essay on the contemporary
significance of the Enlightenment was a lucid and stimulating read. David
Suurland’s chapter on totalitarianism and radical Islam was also a helpful
clarification of some difficult phenomena. This is just as well, for too many
of the essays were written in turgid and jargon-ridden prose. Even those
who have a very keen interest in the subject (as I count myself) will find
the book hard-going. What is one to make of a sentence such as: “Finally,
the widespread belief that the causal course of the history of politics, mentality,
mind, and culture are directed purposefully, presupposes human
beings’ awareness of the awareness of Enlightenment” (158)? Or: “One
might assume that under the condition of radical secular immanentism
the philosophical or religious modes of existential orientation in tension
to the ‘transcendent ground of existence’ (Voegelin) will be more and
more displaced by such [25 more words omitted]” (420)? This is a pity
as the burgeoning, if under-developed, literature in the English-speaking
world on the related disciplines of the political science of religion, political
theology, and law and religion sorely needs input from Dutch, German
and other thoughtful scholars outside the usual Anglo-American milieu.
If the editors wish to produce a subsequent volume—and I hope they
do—they would do well to have an English-speaking academic join them
as a co-editor.
The editors are, I think, right in their prediction that the study of the
moral and spiritual infrastructure of modern states “has come to stay
definitely” (12). And, they add, for legal and political philosophers (and
I would hazard the view this is true of the vast bulk of this section of
academia), “this discussion has only recently started.” It is a good thing
that it has and Religion, Politics and Law is, warts and all, a most useful voice
in this vital conversation.