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Two Kingdoms: Christianity and Islam

How far should we go in restricting freedom in order to promote virtue?

Shadi Hamid, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute, has a new book out called Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World.

Hamid recently posted an excerpt that is worth commenting on:

If salvation is through Christ and Christ alone, then there is little need for the state to regulate private and public behavior beyond providing a conducive environment for individuals to cultivate virtue and become more faithful to Christ. The punishment of sins is no longer a priority, since Jesus died for them. In stark contrast, whereas theologians like Martin Luther famously fashioned a dialectic between faith and good works, these two things are inextricably tied together in Islam. Faith is often expressed through the observance of the law. The failure to follow Islamic law is a reflection of the believer’s lack of faith and unwillingness to submit to God. Salvation is impossible without law. This has implications for the nature of the Islamic state. If following the sharia — for example, refraining from alcohol and adultery, observing the fast, and praying five times a day — is a precondition for salvation, then the state has a role in encouraging the good and forbidding evil, a role it played, to various degrees, for the entirety of the premodern period.

There is much in Hamid’s account to agree with. With that said, I’ll make a few observations.

The soteriological formula “Christ and Christ alone,” or Solus Christus in the Latin, is a Protestant doctrine. It was explicitly formulated — as one of the 5 “solas” of the Reformation — in contradistinction to Roman Catholic theology. So Hamid’s got Protestantism, not Catholicism, in his sights here.

It’s unclear just how different the two theistic traditions he’s contrasting really are on this point. Notice how he describes the Christian and Islamic strategies:

  • Christianity: provide a conducive environment for individuals to cultivate virtue and become more faithful to Christ.
  • Islam: encourage the good and forbid evil.

What’s unclear is how big the gap is between “providing a conducive environment for individuals to cultivate virtue and become more faithful to Christ” and “encouraging the good and forbidding evil.”

Aren’t they more or less the same?

Presumably, in Society A, the Christian society, structuring the institutions and shaping the laws to be friendly to Christian spirituality would require being more heavy-handed than is being let on. It would likely demand doing much more, some of it highly illiberal from our vantage point, than is being done now.

And what’s unclear is how such an approach would differ from Hamid’s description of the Islamic strategy, Society B, which requires encouraging that which is good and forbidding that which is evil.

Beyond that, it’s possible Hamid is relying too much on Martin Luther’s binary between faith and works.

Other Protestant reformers did not share Luther’s suspicion of personal holiness. I give Luther a pass, of course, given that his entire theological trajectory was mapped in reaction to the Roman Catholicism he was so vigorously opposing. But there’s really no excuse for condemning the Book of James, as Luther did, to the appendix of the Bible just because James emphasizes the role and importance of good works in a Christian’s life.

What’s more, Luther made a sharp distinction between the “two kingdoms” (he used the term “governments”): the temporal kingdom, i.e. civil government, and the spiritual kingdom, i.e. the collection of genuine Christians.

This, too, was also developed in opposition to the Catholic doctrine of the “two swords,” which furnished the Catholic church with a far-reaching governmental mandate and in Luther’s eyes conflated earthly and spiritual prerogatives. (Interestingly, Luther was inspired by St. Augustine, whose City of God contributed to his conception of the “two kingdoms” — despite his traditional association with Roman Catholicism, it’s been well-appreciated, of course, that Catholics and Protestants both claim Augustine for themselves.)

John Calvin, who is probably the second-most well-known reformer, also held to a “two kingdoms” view, yet with an important difference.

Here is Matthew Tuininga on Calvin’s view:

Calvin insisted that government has the duty of “rightly establishing religion” in order that God might be honored, the public be protected from scandal, and people who did not yet believe the gospel or accept the law might be exposed to its proclamation. Calvin considered the arguments of the Anabaptists that government should not enforce the true religion but he rejected those arguments on the grounds of the example of Old Testament Israel, prophecies concerning magistrates in Psalm 2 and Isaiah 49, and Paul’s declaration in 1 Timothy 2:2 that Christians should pray that government might allow them to “lead a peaceful life under them with all godliness and honesty,” a passage Calvin interpreted as meaning that government should actively promote godliness and punish ungodliness.

The description of Islamic society that Hamid provides shares a greater political-philosophical affinity with John Calvin’s civil-theological project in Geneva, Switzerland or, more close to home, the various Puritan communities in colonial era America, than the Luther-inspired liberal order that makes a sharper distinction between spiritual community and secular society.

Hamid also notes that, within a society that upholds Christ’s exclusive role in salvation, “the punishment of sins is no longer a priority.”

While it’s true that in such a society there wouldn’t be a federal agency making sure you’re carrying out your penance, it’s also the case that there may be other reasons — reasons Hamid himself outlined in the preceding sentence — for imposing religious laws. In other words, “punishment” is not the most relevant function of theologically-motivated statist regulation within these systems. One motivation for erecting a far-reaching religious code is to incline, rather than disincline, the populace toward virtuous living.

That’s certainly a goal that Christianity and Islam both have in common.



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