In this episode of Marksism, the editors discuss a review of Joshua Mitchell’s “American Awakening” that mentions John Locke, an article responding to Shadi Hamid’s “America without God,” and what the human rights situation in Afghanistan will look like if the US withdraws.
Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, with another episode of Marksism, with fellow editors and fellow Mark(c)s, Marc LiVecche and Mark Melton. Today we’re reviewing three pieces from Providence this week. One, a book review by our contributing editor Rebeccah Heinrichs on Josh Mitchell’s new work called American Awakening. Secondly, James Wood responds to Shadi Hamid’s article in the Atlantic about the religionization of politics in America. And finally, Rebecca Munson reviews how U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan inevitably will fuel a degeneration of the human rights situation there. Starting with Rebeccah Heinrich’s piece, Josh Mitchell, who is also a contributor to Providence, has written a book. It is partly a critique of identity politics and also a reflection on the religionization of American politics and how themes of redemption, guilt, and sin now infuse our political discourse. There was one point that Rebeccah highlights from osh’s book that I found especially interesting in that many conservative critics today fault John Locke as the supposed author of modern liberalism and autonomous individualism, but Mitchell in effect contrasts Locke with say French universalism, pointing out that Locke was a defender of private property, of the family, and also that he was only a universalist in the sense that he was a Christian universalist. He anticipated only a genuine unity at the end of time and on God’s own schedule, not an artificial human-generated global unity. So, Marc LiVecche, your thoughts on Rebecca’s review of Josh’s book and some of those comments I just cited?
LiVecche: Great review of a great book. We’ve lauded the book before. I think the book continues to deserve being lauded and widely read and all that. I appreciated Rebeccah’s defense of Locke. I know that Locke is presently controversial. Providence friends support him; other Providence friends denounce him. I think she’s right, Mitchell’s right, to point out, as we’ve discussed, Locke can be misunderstood with this idea of universalism. When he pushed for truths, he was pushing for particular truths. And only particular truths will sustain the kind of political regime that Locke had in mind. Certain kinds of gas fuel particular kinds of cars; other types of fuel simply won’t work. I think in modern sensibilities when we read Locke, we could misread that, and we think he is saying something far more universalistic. If it is far more universalist, then those who think that the problems we see in liberalism today are features not bug could be proved right. But I think Mitchell’s reading of Locke, and this is going to be unpopular with several friends on my Twitter feed, Mitchell’s reading of Locke, which is I think, not being a Lockean scholar, is the correct one, would argue that the problems we see in liberalism are not features. They are indeed bugs, and they are therefore things that we can expunge from the liberal project. But that’s going to take something like an embrace of particular truths, which is going to be enormously unpopular. As she cited in her mild defensive of Tucker Carlson’s sort of inane fight that he picked with the U.S. military, there are particular truths that he highlighted in an inelegant way that are unpopular. And until we start talking about particular truths again and get away from this crazy idea that truths are individualistically decided, then the public is not going to move forward. So, with that in mind, I think the book and Rebeccah’s endorsement of the book is excellent.
Tooley: Mark Melton, turning to you, Rebecca Munson reviews the situation in Afghanistan, the inevitable drawdown of the U.S. military presence there after nearly two decades. And with it, inevitably the decline of human rights. Women especially will suffer from the lack of the U.S. presence as old habits reassert themselves. Tragic and almost inevitable. She’s hoping that there’ll be some amendment of this process that will preserve some of the human rights regime, but the situation is not bright. And yet, what other choices are there? The U.S. has invested hundreds of billions of dollars and 20 years of national effort, which cannot be eternal. So, how do we look at this situation as Christian realists do you think, Mark Melton?
Melton: I’s a difficult situation, because we’ve been there for decades now. It’s a country that would have been ranked in the bottom tier of human rights before, and so, to move it from a country that’s in the bottom tier to slightly higher is incredibly difficult. I think it’s unrealistic to think that it would be a bastion of human rights within a couple of decades. I’m kind of reminded of the American South after the Civil War. And after Reconstruction when the North abandoned reconstruction, the South reverted back to some very horrific policies and did some very horrific things. And it seems like a parallel today. If we pull out there will be the deterioration of human rights there. That seems pretty inevitable. But the sustainability of keeping troops there long term is also a very difficult situation, especially when Americans are focused on other topics. It seems that Americans are mostly concerned about human rights when it’s something that’s on the news. I know that, with the atrocities in the Balkans in the ‘90s, it was really news reports, news reports and photographs, that brought that atrocity to the American’s attention that actually drove a response from the Americans. And so, when we have so many other things that are on our mind, it’s going to be hard to sustain any type of long-term American presence that would address human rights there. But at the same time, we’re talking about a country that was, like I said, at the bottom of the rung with human rights before, and a small improvement may be all that can be achieved at this time.
Tooley: Marc LiVecche, it seems to me that as Christian realists, we support the advocacy of human rights everywhere at all times, but in terms of the exertion of American power, obviously, there are limitations. We promote them where at all possible, but we understand that there are limits to what the American people are able and willing to support beyond a certain period of time. But even in the worst-case scenario, it seems to me that after the U.S. withdrawal, Afghanistan will still be at a marginal better situation than it would have been 20 years ago, under the full control of the Taliban. What are your thoughts?
LiVecche: Yeah, I think that’s right. It’s one of those things that ought to be, at some level, heartbreaking to any sort of sensitive, charitable individual. At the same time, it gets the dander up of sort of the red-blooded American who wants to be resolved that American power can solve all the world’s problems. The last two decades, hopefully, is but the nail in the coffin of that ambition. It, of course, has not, and we’ll stick our foot in it again. This highlights Nigel Biggar’s complaints about sort of the human rights agenda. That simply because there are human rights somewhere in the world, it doesn’t directly point to who it is that’s supposed to meet those rights. So, yes, there are going to be human rights abuses when we leave Afghanistan. The question might be well, why should the American military or political system, the American people, be the ones to champion those rights. That would be a Christian realist response. Another Christian realist response, which is more uncomfortable, is that well, it should be asked, because we were there and we sort of broke the system. And as Melton said, we didn’t create the system, but now we’re leaving and there’s every reason to believe that certain bad habits are going to fall back into place. Somebody else might argue well, you were there, you got yourselves involved, and now you’re responsible. And so, then you have to fall back on what you can do versus what you want to do or wish you could do. And that’s going to become much more modest. And so, the “is” in this situation influences the “ought.” Now, the ought ought to stay as our horizon. We ought to try to rearrange circumstances on the ground in a way that in the future the ought is a little bit more realistic. That might be creating regional partners, continuing to be involved in the Afghan economy, proclaiming and speaking the truth when it needs to be spoken, and doing what we can in figuring out what those modest steps are. But it’s pretty clear that we can be involved in the way we’ve been involved in the last two decades. So, that ought to be frustrating and humbling and all the rest.
Tooley: And finally, James Wood, who I think is ordained in the Presbyterian Church in America. Is that right, Mark Melton?
Melton: Yeah, I think he’s PCA.
Tooley: He writes his critique of Shadi Hamid’s Atlantic piece limiting the religionization of American politics And, in essence, at least from James Wood’s perspective, advocating a bifurcation between religion and politics, which James Wood finds concerning in that politics cannot be separated from metaphysics. He says that humanity is intrinsically spiritual, and in that sense, if not the state, certainly civil society or religious institutions are going to have to provide a metaphysics of politics. So, in that sense, politics will always be well as religionized. It’s just a question of to what extent or what kind of religion is going to influence politics. So, Marc LiVecche, your thoughts?
LiVecche: Yeah, I confess to not having read Hamid’s piece in the Atlantic, which would be more thorough. But from what Wood describes, I think Wood has the advantage here. I’m sympathetic with the idea from Hamid’s perspective that religion should be separated from politics when you consider certain kinds of religious interference and religious occupation of politics throughout the world, right. We don’t Sharia Law. There are all sorts of ways that religion can meddle within politics that’s excessive, and okay, we don’t want that. But to separate politics from metaphysics is, what Wood says, one, impossible. You can separate orthodox religion from politics if you want, but there’s going to be a void, and that void is eventually going to be filled by somebody who looks like buffalo boy at the Capitol building. So, that’s not desirable and that’s not an improvement. I think the trauma of the idea is, when you think okay, removing metaphysics from politics is awesome, it means removing political concerns from metaphysics. And so, then all of a sudden, what does it mean to be, in our case, Christians in the world if we’re not concerned about political life? Jean Elshtain said for better for worse, everything is political. There is no non-political sort of idea in public life out there. And Christians are called to be involved in public life. The solution to bad politics is better politics. It’s not withdrawal from politics. Christians should be the ones who forward political solutions that either can be argued and proved to be reasonable and persuasive or that are self-evidently so, because we simply have a better understanding of the way reality works. So, which is right. I mean, we can ignore reality, but reality is not going to ignore us. We have to be involved in it. That said, I think they’re also right to say that the kind of preoccupation that everything hinges on a certain type of political life is also false. We’ve seen how human life in various ways, incomplete ways, can flourish under almost any political regime. Those are less desirable, but that helps to indicate that political life isn’t the only life. So, maybe we end up with something like an understanding of Christian involvement in political life that looks something like the incarnation. We’re not separate from it. We’re 100% involved in political life and we’re 100% withdrawn. And I don’t know entirely what that looks like, but I want that to try to express both the responsibility of participation, but also the recognition that not everything hinges on political life.
Tooley: Wood cites Jacques Maritain in saying yes, there needs to be a civil creed for political life, but religious institutions and religious people can construct religious arguments to support the architecture of that civil creed. Mark Melton?
Melton: Yeah, I’ve heard that argument before and kind of would like to build off of what LiVecche was talking about. I think Christians are definitely called and commanded to seek the peace and prosperity of where we are. I think that passage, I believe in Jeremiah, mentioned like the city it’s talking about, where the Israelites have been exiled to. And so, I think that is a way to love our neighbors and to care for them, and that we really have to be concerned with state, local, and federal government with those things and being engaged and knowledgeable in all of those issues. It really gets down into, I’ve mentioned this multiple times before, but gets down into the local small communities that we need to really focus and on. And that’s where I think a lot of the work needs to be done for Christians.
Tooley: On that note, gentlemen, thank you. Yay you have a blessed Palm Sunday. Until next week, bye-bye.
LiVecche: Take care.