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.

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.

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.

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.