Monday, June 09, 2008

Alan Wolfe's review of Jean Bethke Elshtain's Sovereignty: God, State, and Self

Here's how Alan Wolfe begins his review of Jean 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.
Elshtain thesis is apparently that we have moved first from letting God be in charge to letting the state be in charge and then to insisting that we are autonomous beings. Elshtain claims that we would be better off letting God be in charge. Wolfe criticizes Elshtain's arguments, claiming that she paints too rosy a picture of life when God was in charge and too dreadful picture of life when we think of ourselves as autonomous.

What surprises me is that Wolfe doesn't mention the possibility that this isn't a choice. If there is a God then God is in charge whether we like it or not. Since as far as I am concerned there isn't, this isn't an option for us. Whether or not to let the state be in charge is also not an option. Deciding to let the state be in charge is a decision of an autonomous being. So it's still the individual who makes the choice. Wolfe apparently got so carried away with Elstain's distorted (according to him) view of history that he missed the main issue. (If the review accurately reflects the contents of the book, then Elstain appears to have missed it also.)

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