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According to a possibly apocryphal story, one crusty political theorist wondered to another whom they should hire next, having lived through two successive trends in their field. One wave had brought the history of political thought from the Greeks through World War II to a new level. The other had made an academic industry of John Rawls, the great American philosopher whose A Theory of Justice (1971) did more than any other book to define the terms of political thought in our time. “It’s obvious what comes next,” his friend replied. “The history of Rawls!”

And, in fact, two young Harvard political theorists have come out simultaneously with two of the best treatments imaginable of the context and meaning of Rawls’s epoch-making book. But the two could not be more different. In the Shadow of Justice, the exciting new leftish history by Katrina Forrester, suggests that, for all his abstraction, Rawls was offering a metaphysical gloss on the program of the right wing of the British Labour party of the 1950s, when it was seeking an increasingly market-friendly vision of socialism, one that would eventually devolve into neoliberalism. For her right-leaning colleague Eric Nelson, by contrast, Rawls is a failed early-modern theologian, whose legacy is to leave liberals without a good reason to believe that justice requires even modest redistribution.

Nelson is astonishingly gifted and hard-working. At a strikingly young age—he is only in his early forties—he has now written four equally impressive books. They are remarkable in their erudition. With enviable mastery of the classical and Jewish traditions and awesome knowledge of early-modern political theory, Nelson has new things to say about every topic he touches, even when his arguments are not totally convincing. Never until The Theology of Liberalism, however, has he let himself cross the bridge from history to present-day debates.


The gist of his argument is that nobody knows for sure that the distribution of gifts and talents is unjust.

“The left has no concept of forgiveness of sins,” tweeted conservative Christian Erick Erickson in August during the kerfuffle around the New York Times 1619 Project” on the legacy of American slavery. This is basically Nelson’s argument too. But he pursues it brilliantly at a rather higher level of discourse.

Nelson opens his book by placing Rawls’s recently discovered Princeton University senior thesis, written in 1942, in the long Augustinian tradition of Christianity that denied that sinful humans could save themselves. For Augustine and his followers, Pelagianism—named after a late-antique theologian who was condemned as a heretic by the Catholic Church—overstated the extent to which human beings can earn their salvation. Such a belief verged on an ideology of self-redemption of individual sinners or of humanity itself that (as Rawls put it at age twenty) “rendered the Cross of Christ to no effect.” For Rawls, at the time a committed Christian who planned a career in the Episcopal priesthood before World War II service in the Pacific caused him to lose his faith, it followed that “no man can claim good deeds as his own.” To contend otherwise inflated human capacity and courted sacrilegious idolatry of humanity itself.

Nelson contends that this Augustinian response to Pelagianism lurked in Rawls’s defense of fair distributional justice long after he had moved on to secular philosophy. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls remarked that “no one deserves” their social ascendancy and the natural gifts—intelligence or industriousness—with which they achieved it. The fact that one person was endowed with them and another not was “morally arbitrary.” A theory of justice aiming at fairness rather than fortune would reject any sense that people deserved their class position. Some redistribution from the rich to the rest was therefore just.

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What Nelson does with this parallel between Rawls’s Christian senior thesis and his mature theory of redistribution is more contentious. Demonstrating that most founders of the liberal tradition were Pelagians, he insists that it is difficult to reconcile Rawls’s rejection of moral arbitrariness with the politics he hoped to advance.

“Liberalism,” writes Nelson, “began as a theodicy.” By this he means that for the major liberal thinkers in the early-modern period, the attempt to justify the ways of God to men almost always included the belief that God is unfailingly good. It is their own autonomy that leads humans, if they choose not to conform to God’s plan, to introduce evil into the world on their own. What made for the correlation of Pelagianism with liberalism is that the theological defense of human freedom—including freedom to err—implied that individuals should be allowed politically to seek perfection on their own, without the interference of states or sects. Liberalism was born out of the insistence that, since agents were free enough to save themselves, they had to be left alone enough to have a chance to do it.

Observing that early liberals embraced the very theology that Rawls rejected, Nelson thinks Rawls’s followers are left with a big problem. Liberalism originated in the Pelagian heresy that refuses to saddle human beings with original sin, or to make them utterly dependent on the divine, but instead grants them autonomy, dignity, and (at least potential) self-made perfection. How, then, can Rawls and his followers reject Pelagianism without also rejecting liberalism?

Nelson’s answer: they can’t. Either you adopt the Augustinian line that, while no one earns their gifts and talents, any seemingly unfair distribution is part of God’s mysterious design, whose meaning is to be revealed only at the end of time; or you adopt the Pelagian view that you do earn them—that greater wealth really might reflect greater merit. You can’t have it both ways, as Rawls and his followers want.

After suggesting that Rawls’s Augustinian case for redistribution is incoherent, Nelson spends the rest of his book arguing that Pelagians, who believe in the autonomy of human beings, will also find it difficult to make a case for more egalitarian distribution—at least as a matter of obligatory justice, as opposed to optional public policy (a possibility Nelson graciously acknowledges).

The gist of his argument is that nobody knows for sure that the distribution of gifts and talents is unjust. Denying that alternative worlds were better, he observes, is what early-modern Pelagians spent their time doing, perhaps most famously when arch-Pelagian G. W. Leibniz coined the term “theodicy.” It is illicit, Leibniz claimed, to infer from the apparent unfairness of the created world that God didn’t do the best he could with the imperfect human materials he was working with. If you think our reality is not already optimal, you haven’t considered what God had to deal with in making it. What if doing better on one front might have worsened the world in other ways?

What the Lisbon earthquake was to Leibnizians—a scandal for the simpleminded that did not necessarily disprove God’s goodness and justice—neoliberalism is to Nelson. How, he wonders, do progressive advocates of redistribution know we are not already in the fairest of all possible worlds? The mere fact of unequal distribution—whether of wealth itself or of the talent it rewards—hardly proves that a better state of affairs is possible, or that the pursuit of a more equitable distribution would not lead to a worse outcome.

But Nelson’s argument could be turned against him: if no one can know for sure that we are not already in the fairest of all possible worlds, neither can anyone know that we are. Leibniz himself conceded that no conclusive proof is available that the way the world has worked out is best. “Theodicy,” Nelson says when resting his own case, “could be neither demonstrated nor refuted.” If that is so, however, then it is really a matter of determining whether to force on egalitarians the obligation to prove conclusively that—in the old slogan of the alter-globalization movement—another world is possible. Why not instead place the burden on those who conclude that existing inequality is the best available scenario?

In his responses to Leibniz, in any case, Voltaire never took it upon himself to prove that his foe had rationalized horror, the better to preserve the belief in God’s goodness in a flawed world. Rather, Voltaire simply ridiculed him. However difficult if might be to show that it’s false, the notion that our history of crimes and misfortunes has led to the best imaginable society is simply too incredible for us to allow it to get in the way of a zeal for just reform. Nelson surely wouldn’t have required of abolitionists that they prove to dominant skeptics that a better world without chattel slavery was possible before they resolved to achieve it. Why is the case of fair distribution any different in the alarmingly unequal situation of the present?


But there is also a deeper quandary about the way that Nelson brings old theology to bear on contemporary philosophy. He insists that a lot follows from restoring their lost unity, as he does so intrepidly in his book.

The book does not establish that a secular politics demanding more fairness for a society of moral equals is not a just cause—let alone that egalitarian liberalism is or has to be theological.

Nelson is right, of course, about the influence of theology on the assumptions of Western thought, and even on Rawls himself. Nelson convincingly says that in the early-modern period, theology and philosophy were not even distinct enterprises. Amos Funkenstein, one of the many great students of early-modern thought to have taken up similar issues before Nelson’s book, called the results “secular theology.” For that matter, a host of authors, most recently Ian Hunter, have explored the way that the ongoing contest between the heirs of Augustine and Pelagius structured the origins of modern political thought. Besides reconstructing the history in an illuminating and original way, however, Nelson also places Rawls in the theological tradition better than anyone so far. For example, he produces an arresting piece of evidence from Rawls’s library, showing that even after A Theory of Justice Rawls could express skepticism about a claim in a book he was reading by writing “Pelagian-ism” in the margin.

But it takes quite a bit more work to insist on the continuing relevance of theology to political theory. “Liberal political philosophers,” Nelson writes, “have been unwittingly taking up positions in the theodicy debate.” Yet, as Nelson himself acknowledges, it does not follow from the fact that many liberal theorists centuries ago operated in a Pelagian framework that all have done so—they have not—or that they must go on doing so forever. Beyond this, the liberal argument for redistribution, from the premises that nobody deserves their starting points in life and that it would be possible to create a fairer society, has to be proved or disproved by our best secular reasoning.

That contemporary liberal political philosophy is reminiscent of Christian thinking about God’s justice, and was even started by someone with commitments in that old discussion, is surely fascinating as a matter of intellectual history. But if the theological framework were dispositive, Nelson would not have had to spend so many pages of this book mounting a purely secular critique of the liberal argument for redistribution. Nor does the fact that Nelson’s own argument might have roots in theological positions that were first staked out in the theodicy debate necessarily make it any stronger.

I don’t mean to suggest that the history of philosophy is irrelevant to its present and future, or that Christianity in particular has not deeply informed our world of thought. The Theology of Liberalism is a great and rewarding book, for insisting otherwise on both counts. But it does not establish that a secular politics demanding more fairness for a society of moral equals is not a just cause—let alone that egalitarian liberalism is or has to be theological.


The Theology of Liberalism
Political Philosophy and the Justice of God

Eric Nelson
Harvard University Press, $29.95, 232 pp.

Samuel Moyn teaches law and history at Yale University, and is the author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History and Christian Human Rights.

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Published in the December 2019 issue: View Contents
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