Jean Bethke Elshtain's Sovereignty: God, State, and Self.

Reading between the lines.
June 9 2008 6:57 AM

Why Me?

The case against the sovereign self.

(Continued from Page 1)

Unfortunately, however, Elshtain's Christian-inspired moral sincerity has, in recent years, led her to become a politically engaged conservative, and too often in the book, standard-issue right-wing ideology drives out thoughtful clarity. Elshtain's predictable conservative pieties lead her to stack the deck: She not only passes over all that was wrong when God ruled the world; she ignores all the benefits that follow from the fact that people now do.

Had Elshtain related the history of Christianity rather than the history of theology, her portrayal of European history would have been quite different. Godly and political authority, far from constituting dual realms, frequently operated within a moral division of labor. The most extreme example was provided by the Inquisition: The church sought out the heretics, while the state sent them to their death. But even in less bloody circumstances, Catholicism was most comfortable as a state church, quite happy to use the sword in defense of God's word. The dualism of which Elshtain is so proud existed more in theory than practice.

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The Protestant Reformation broke the link between the pope and the prince, but only to offer instead a church that furthered the interest of a particular nation. Elshtain is on firmer ground here; her discussion of Martin Luther quite accurately points out how his fear of disorder led him to defend the prince's use of the sword in the bloodiest of ways. But if Luther blended spiritual and political authority, he can hardly be classified as a dualist. Monism therefore has religious as well as secular origins—an obvious fact, but one that Elshtain all too easily glosses over.

It is when we come to the modern period that Elshtain's politics become too one-sided to ignore. There are many examples from which she could have chosen in discussing the sovereign self. There is, for example, the notion of individual autonomy embodied in the civil rights amendments that prohibited slavery in the United States. Or there were all those thinkers who claimed that people living in situations of poverty and desperation required help in the form of the welfare state. Both of these movements on behalf of self-sovereignty, as it happened, were led by deeply devout Christians. They were, in that sense, dualistic: They judged man's law—Southern customs on the one hand, the logic of the market on the other—as incompatible with the compassion of Jesus Christ.

To be sure, citing examples such as these might have complicated Elshtain's contention that self-sovereignty is a bad thing. But the example she does pick to illustrate why autonomy is the wrong goal for human beings is simply off the charts: "The Nazi project," she writes "was a dream of perfection, a systematic rational project, not a descent into barbarism as is often alleged." (Although the Nazis dominate this section of her book, they are not the only example of self-sovereignty's distortions that she cites; she also discusses abortion.) Liberals and progressives in the United States were once eugenicists. So were Nazis. Self-sovereignty therefore leads to the gas chambers. People who lacked the most basic of human rights were the victims—victims not of a dictator motivated by virulent racism and delusions of grandeur but by the ideas of Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill.

It is a shame that someone of Elshtain's learning can endorse such a one-sided view of the modern condition. Without self-sovereignty, it is true, we would not have women demanding control of their bodies. But nor would we have born-again Christians claiming a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. If you are a believer, God indeed created you. But perhaps he also created those miracle drugs that keep you alive—as well as the desire, which so many seem to have, to die with the dignity with which they lived.

Liberal democracy, moreover, does not make it impossible to find justice in the world; it brings justice down from the skies and locates it in laws and courts charged with fairness to all sides. That is a far cry from a time when divine justice, because it transcended both the state and the self, was unchangeable by either. Against an all-seeing, all-powerful God and an arbitrary and capricious prince, I'll take the sovereignty of the self any day.

Alan Wolfe, professor and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, is the author most recently of Does American Democracy Still Work?

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