Morality, Religion and Politics: Pt. 1

March 3, 2016    By: Jeff G @ 2:51 pm   Category: Ethics,Politics,Universalism

About a year and a half ago I wrote a small series of posts in which I discussed Habermas’ The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere as a basic outline for different ways in which we can understand the various manifestations of the gospel. Within this post I would like to discuss another book which approach almost the same topic and material from a very different political angle: Reinhart Koselleck’s Critique and Crises: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society. The difference between the two is the whereas Habermas traces his roots back through the Frankfurt School to Kant and Rousseau, Koselleck intellectual heritage traces back through Carl Schmitt to Hobbes. Thus, whereas the former thinks that the “public sphere” is the best thing that can happen within and lead a society, the latter is much more suspicious and cynical about the idea that inter-subjective criticism can deliver on its rather utopian promises.

The topic and relevance of this book can roughly be unpacked in terms of the following reverse timeline: The various political “-isms” and parties that influence us today can be traced back to the French Revolution at the end of the 18th Century. The various factions and ideologies that emerged within this revolution were themselves the products of the earlier, 18th century enlightenment, which was itself a response to absolute monarchism. Absolute monarchism, however, was itself a very rational response to the religious and civil wars of the 17th Century, which were, in turn, a response to the breakdown of the traditional social order and split in ecclesiastical unity during the 16th Century. Koselleck’s thesis is that by seeing absolutism as a solution to a previous problem, we distance ourselves from the rather “hypocritical” self-understanding of the enlightenment thinkers who viewed absolutism solely as a problem to be solved rather than a solution in and of itself to another set of problems.

It is important to realize that while Koselleck is clearly an authoritarian, like his mentor, Schmitt, he does not endorse a traditional kind of conservatism. Indeed, he has almost nothing at all to say about the traditional society that the reformation had torn asunder. That said, he does touch upon two aspects of that pre-Reformation, traditional society: First, there was no distinction between religion, morality or politics. For this reason, the reformation revolt in religion necessarily entailed a moral and political revolt as well. Second, and closely related, there was a “God/King” analogy such that, in a deep sense, a legitimate king was viewed as a mortal, demi-god of sorts to his subjects.

Koselleck thus interprets Hobbes in terms of his departures from these aspects of traditional society. Put simply, absolute monarchism was a solution to the religious and civil wars rather than a problem in desperate need of solution. Hobbes’ Leviathan is based around the empirical claim that a moral/religious conscience was the cause of civil war and bloodshed rather than the solution that each side of the war proclaimed their own conscience to be. Hobbes thus forces a choice upon all such belligerents: virtue or peace? Since all sides of these seemingly endless wars were continuing their fight in the name of Catholic or Protestant virtue, it had become painfully clear that each side could only have peace by forfeiting the legislative prerogative of moral/religious virtue. Thus, Hobbes argues that since each side cares, or at least ought to care about survival above all else – including religious virtue! – then they should all submit themselves to an all-powerful sovereign who’s only responsibility to his subjects is their protection from physical death not moral pollution.

This unilateral authority wielded by the absolute monarch came to be known as Raison d’etat – reasons of state – and was the true source of the separation between church and state. Furthermore, since there was no separation between morality and religion, this was also a separation between morality and state as well. What absolute monarchy was to do, then, was rationalize politics – in the crassest, most instrumental sense of the word – by excluding all religion and morality from the public sphere due to their interminable and deep-seated disagreements. All such moral and religious beliefs were demoted to the status of “opinion.” While each individual was, for the most part, free to accept or reject moral/religious opinions as they pleased, they were not allowed to hold other people – especially the monarch! – accountable to their views in these matters. Society was to be organized according to the public interest as unilaterally determined by the sovereign authority, not by any person or group of persons’ conscience. In this way, the choice between good and evil was transformed into that between war and peace.

Enlightenment thinkers, by contrast, would later argue that Raison d’etat was an unqualified evil for which a remedy must be found, but only by repressing the memory of the civil wars to which it had been a solution. (A contemporary parallel would be how Saddam Hussein came to be seen as the cause of rather than a solution or sorts to sectarian violence in the Middle East.) Whereas absolutism was based in stark contrasts between different states and between each state and its private individuals, the enlightenment ethic was specifically aimed at blurring and destroying such distinctions. Such efforts only seemed plausible, however, within a context of political stability and religious neutralization that had itself been established by the very authority it sought to abolish.

In the next post I will discuss the ways in which the combination of the Republic of Letters and secret societies that made up the Enlightenment sought to draw a distinction between religion and morality for the sake of overthrowing politics altogether.

Questions for Mormons:

• The scriptures seem to send mixed messages about the relationship between politics and religion. The idea that they are utterly distinct from one another seems no more plausible than the idea that they are completely identical. Do we have any firm stance on the subject?
• We often claim that both the reformation and the Enlightenment were, in some sense, inspired by God. What about absolute monarchism to which they both serve as bookends?
• The modern state was founded upon the idea that survival is more important than righteousness. Do Mormons truly agree with this?


  1. My personal take is that we treat politics and religion as distinct, but that both are important. While we give priority to one, we do not ignore the other. But this is a tough one, because our religion is so practical in nature, and we feel that our religious principles are somewhat universal in their application. It is hard for us to think of our religion as separate from anything. So I guess these are technically distinct, but practically connected.

    In some sense, it seems to me that the prophet/king is an ideal in Mormonism, but not practical while in the minority.

    I think many Mormons would completely disagree with this. Better to die than to compromise on righteousness.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — March 3, 2016 @ 6:17 pm

  2. 1. I don’t think there is much firm but there are some things that seem pretty firm and captured in the articles of faith. One is that religious and political authority are not the same thing and that subjection to political authority is presumed as described in the 12th article of faith. Another principle is that privilege of worship is presumed to be respected by religious authority via the 11th article of faith. The degree of interaction between the two doesn’t seem to have clear boundaries.
    2. Is the question whether it is claimed to be inspired or whether it was inspired?
    3. Since almost everything about the modern state and its origins is contested, the premise seems pretty speculative. For example, is the United States a modern state? If so, it has a very well documented founding which seems to condition both the purpose and survival of the state on certain states of righteousness such as justice and providing for the interests of the people. I think most mormons in the USA agree with the idea that a state that is profoundly unrighteous should be replaced by one that is more righteous, within the system if possible but outside it if necessary.

    Comment by Martin James — March 3, 2016 @ 7:41 pm

  3. 1. I think you guys both capture the inclination of the contemporary church to separate politics from religion as much as possible. It is probably for this reason that we forget Joseph Smith explicit attempt to found a theocracy in the Kingdom of God with a “living” constitution. Within this kingdom he sought to defend religious freedom, so it’s tough to see how the two mix together.

    2. The point of absolute – ass opposed to traditional – monarchy was that the sovereign no longer had to claim to be inspired since the entire purpose was to sideline religious claims of all kinds. The state was ruled by reasons of state, not reasons of God. That said, I think that our refusal to call monarchy inspired probably has more to do with our American heritage than our Mormon heritage as such.

    3. Well, the modern state did – and still does – say that we should be willing to die defending our state or intervening within another state that is not protecting its citizens. But other than that, righteousness as such, originally (and to some extent still) had no place in the modern state. After all, the idea that righteousness of a state is more important than the lives of its members is the stuff that Islamic terrorists are made of. This is why the New Atheists went so gung-ho after 9/11.

    Comment by Jeff G — March 4, 2016 @ 7:36 am

  4. Jeff G,
    Its a messy topic but you hit on a lot of good tensions.
    I don’t think the contemporary church separates politics and religion “as much as possible” or else they wouldn’t have done so much prop 8 opposition work.
    One big issue for me is whether you see the anglo-american aspects of the church’s heritage as being coincidental and historically contingent or whether you see it as fundamental and inspired. The people of the left think that there should be more separation between the church and american culture particularly in the way the church operates in other countries. The older anti-communist mormons see constitutional government under anglo-american traditions as making religious liberty possible. The church has downplayed the conflict with muslim countries and atheist regimes but the tension still seems to be there under the surface.
    I don’t know how to separate “righteousness as such” from other duties very well. If the state is promoting duties, what makes a duty a duty other than “righteousness as such”? What do you think of Stanley Fishes arguments that some have interpreted as saying that only extremists really matter whether religious or not?
    Both Joseph Smith’s theocracy and the United Order are interesting in this context but I am fundamentally skeptical that history and origins are that important going forward on the relationship between morality, religion and politics. The interesting developments seem to be outside the state system and the way that new moral communities don’t fit well with existing institutions whether they are states or religions. We are in an era of moral entrepreneurs and the boundaries are porous. Just a few examples, animal rights, privacy advocacy, spirituality movements, drug cultures, sports organizations, social media companies, ecumenical organizations, immigration, etc.
    The action seems to be in all the ways that we have conflicting loyalties and communities. Using the technology companies as an example, they have multiple moralities depending on the jurisdiction of choice and shop for jurisdictions for taxes, etc.
    Globalization and technology continue to change everything.

    Comment by Martin James — March 4, 2016 @ 8:50 am

  5. I don’t think we disagree too much here. Obviously, American culture is not deeply connected to the gospel since the overwhelming majority of church throughout history were not American. That said, American history clearly played an important role in the restoration. For that reason I think the fact that the reformation did not lead to a bloody civil/religious war in the New World, for which we never really had a need for our own version of absolute monarchy (Britain own, watered down version was what we had.) Thus, I can see why american’s wouldn’t tout the inspiration behind absolute monarchism or poo-poo the reformation as much as Europeans might be inclined to do. This, in addition to the fact that all these things happened well-before the restoration.

    In the next post I will deal with some thinkers that are much better aligned with American intuitions. As a preview of sorts – since I think it helps illuminate the point that Hobbes was trying to make – it is worth pointing out who it was that lived in each social contract theorists “state of nature.” Hobbes thought that the civil/religious war of his time was the state of nature which the authoritarian state was meant to “solve.” Locke, by contrast, saw something like the early American settlers as the state of nature where there is plenty of unclaimed property for people to claim by mixing their labor with. The state, for him, was primarily aimed at protecting this distribution of property, not protecting the very lives of its citizens. Rousseau, finally, saw a very romanticized version of the Native Americans as the state of nature which was being overrun and corrupted by Europeans ideas of property, etc. For him, the state was largely an artificial “fall” from much more “natural” and state-less way of living.

    I think each of these capture elements of the societies advocated within Mormonism…. which is probably a part of those “mixed messages” I mentioned.

    “I am fundamentally skeptical that history and origins are that important going forward on the relationship between morality, religion and politics.”

    If nothing else, you’ve been clear on that point. :)

    Comment by Jeff G — March 4, 2016 @ 3:00 pm

  6. I think I’m more influenced by economic theory and since the value of most goods is highly symbolic in developed economies, there seem to be more options. I agree with you more than you think about certain types of power(state and academia), I just find them to be one type of power among many.

    Comment by Martin James — March 4, 2016 @ 5:08 pm

  7. I believe The Book of Mormon is filled with contradictions about this topic. Any discussion of Mormon ideas of government and religion should start there. Some logic can be found in its pages, but only when accompanied by caveats. The overall message seems to be that NO government system is perfect.

    The top tier is a righteous Monarch who sets an example for the people; but they can just as easily be a bad or deadly ruler. Next on the list are democratically elected officials (though not the same configuration as the U.S. constitution outlines). The problem there is the people can start picking a lot of unrighteous leaders. At times the High Judge or the Monarch is also the religious High Priest. During other times they are separate so the High Priest can attend to the Church while the High Judge the Country. The only surety of a righteous government is when the people themselves choose to be individually responsible. The catalyst for the longest period of that was after the King of Kings came for a visit.

    In the end there is not a direct correlation between religion and politics. Rather, there is a correspondence between a righteous society and the government they put into power. The Individual is the source of righteousness, and not the government. A monarch can form society as an individual, but the inverse is true with a democracy where the collection of individuals pick the government. Therefore I would say that, according to an interpretation of Scripture, the government is a litmus test for the condition of the society they rule. A corrupt society cannot, no matter how hard a minority of righteous tries, reform a corrupt government. The best they can do is try to persuade a corrupt society to change first. The question that Mormon and Moroni bring up in their own accounts is how far down the wicked rabbit hole is there no return.

    Comment by Jettboy — March 5, 2016 @ 7:59 am