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.

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

Who gets the final say? This simple question is at the heart of religion, politics, and psychology. If I am a believer, God's decisions are authoritative: If he says that I shall not kill, I am obligated to follow his commands, fallen into sin though I may be. Political leaders, by contrast, claim that their word ought to be the last word: If I receive a tax bill from the government, pay it I must, or I risk going to jail. No to both, says the radical individualist: Modern psychology teaches that I am the captain of my own ship, quite capable of steering it in any direction I choose.

By now, there is next to no debate about which of these approaches to sovereignty is best. The idea that God's word is supreme is generally associated with an age of dogma and superstition unsuitable for the way we live now. Too many abuses of political authority exercised by totalitarian leaders properly make us cynical about the idea that political leaders ought to be trusted. Best, then, to locate sovereignty in the self; it has taken us a couple of thousand years to achieve freedom and autonomy, but now that we have, we can never go back to more authoritarian, or even authoritative, times.

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Sovereignty: God, State, and Self is not afraid to challenge this received wisdom from the ground up. To understand what impels the project of its author, Jean Elshtain, it is helpful to know how a group of conservative intellectuals, many attracted by various aspects of Catholic theology, approach America's culture wars. (Elshtain herself is not Catholic.) On March 31, 2005, a comatose Florida woman, Terri Schiavo, died. Republican politicians who had rushed to her defense were widely discredited; Americans across the board viewed them as interfering with a family's right to make its own decisions. But for thinkers such as Elshtain, Terri Schiavo's death became symbolic of everything that had gone wrong with liberalism. Here Terri Schiavo was: weak, dependent, unresponsive. By allowing her to be killed, her husband, the courts, and all those who supported them had chosen to use the power of the state to snuff out the life of one of God's creatures simply because her living existence was causing them discomfort.

How did modern society take such a barbaric turn? Elshtain argues that if we had lived in more theological times, we would have had greater appreciation of the mysteries of life. Had we understood that Terri Schiavo had been created by God, and that killing her meant substituting our judgment for his, we would surely have done everything in our power to sustain her existence. But instead of making God's word sovereign, we treat the individual as the final judge of right and wrong. Shifting the basis of sovereignty from God to the state to the self has left us, in Elshtain's view, unable to appreciate "common sense, decency, dignity" and has eroded "our sense of shame, our capacity for joy, our ability to recognize when our dignity is affronted, our ability to love, not just to use, others."

These are bold claims, and Elshtain has written a bold book, one meant to shake up the now-entrenched view that we are at center of the universe and the better for it. She argues that medieval theology offered anything but a blind worship of obedience. A long struggle between popes and kings ended with a standoff: a realm in which God was supreme and another ruled by the sword. As long as such a duality existed, absolutism could not; Christians could appeal to divine authority to protect themselves against the worldly dictates of a prince. From this point of view, the transfer of sovereignty from God to government was a giant step backward. Once the state takes over, the Christian right to resistance—and the sense of being responsible to God—atrophies.

Elshtain's point makes intuitive sense if the state is an absolutist one. But she carries her argument one step further by arguing that even liberal-democratic states are "monist." Unlike the medieval recognition of two ways of life, they accord public status only to one, recognizing claims based on secular reason. All authority is public authority. Those who insist on bringing God into the public sphere cannot be tolerated. This, too, is not justice in her view; it is rank prejudice, a failure to allow the appeals to divine authority religious believers were once given the freedom to make.

In more recent times, we have learned to question all public authority, including that of liberal-democratic states, invoking instead the sovereignty of individuals. For Elshtain, this represents one last step away from a just world. Once we believe that we can control nature, rather than acknowledging that we are controlled by it, we substitute ourselves for God—without being God. Seeking self-mastery, we set little store by those who, for no reason of their own, lack the capacity to direct their lives in the ways we assume all autonomous individuals must. The rise of the sovereign self therefore demands the destruction of those human lives that are deemed not worth living, including "the severely mentally disabled, the feeble elderly, a fetus, a comatose person, an Alzheimer's patient." Self-sovereignty, far from making us free, leads inexorably to the domination of the strong over the weak: the most unjust situation of all.

No one can read this book and not come away impressed by the compassion Elshtain shows toward society's most vulnerable human beings; compared with a philosopher such as Peter Singer, whose utilitarian calculations lead him to conclude that we might be better off killing babies with Down syndrome, Elshtain is someone I want on my side.

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