Mark Lilla’s engaging history, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, will never be made into a movie. But if it were, militant atheist Christopher Hitchens could slip right into the role of its central character, Thomas Hobbes—the 17th-century thinker and author of the classic case for central government, Leviathan.

Acting might not be Hitchens’s cup of tea, but he really owes Hobbes, who did his best to get God out of politics. In May Hitchens published God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, in which he criticized religious belief as false, immoral, and totalitarian. Back in Hobbes’s day people were burned at the stake for less; on October 10 Hitchens was named one of five finalists for the National Book Award in nonfiction.

Hitchens’s slashing polemic sets the stage for Lilla’s more measured account of how religion and politics resumed their combustible union after Hobbes tried to break them up. Hitchens shows why Lilla’s sometimes convoluted history matters; Lilla shows why Hitchens’s arguments so often fall on deaf ears. Hitchens hasn’t exactly been the flavor of the month since he came out in favor of the Iraq war (which he has called “a critical front in a much wider struggle against a vicious totalitarian ideology”).

“Many religions now come before us with ingratiating smirks and outspread hands, like an unctuous merchant in a bazaar,” he writes in what could be a tribute to Hobbes. “They offer consolation and solidarity and uplift, competing as they do in a marketplace. But we have a right to remember how barbarically they behaved when they were strong and were making an offer that people could not refuse.” Hitchens presents the familiar case that supernatural belief adds nothing to our understanding of the world, as well as the slightly less familiar case that it’s inimical to morality. Take the Ten Commandments—please. As he observes, they say nothing against rape, child abuse, slavery, or genocide, and passages that turn up nearby in the Bible mention some of these practices approvingly. “In verse 2 of the immediately following chapter [Exodus 21],” Hitchens notes, “god tells Moses to instruct his followers about the conditions under which they may buy or sell slaves (or bore their ears through with an awl) and the rules governing the sale of their daughters.” Though Hitchens doesn’t say so, these days many Christians, Jews, and Muslims are happy to disregard large chunks of their holy books. Many more know them only from selective lectionaries that omit inconvenient verses.

Hitchens’s case rests on real-life moral decisions, of which the gruesome 20th century offers many examples. Hitler, for instance: “The papacy took until the 1980s to find a candidate for sainthood in the context of the ‘final solution,’ and even then could only identify a rather ambivalent priest who—after a long record of political anti-Semitism in Poland—had apparently behaved nobly at Auschwitz.... The secular left in Europe comes far better out of the anti-Nazi struggle than that, even if many of its adherents believed that there was a worker’s paradise beyond the Ural Mountains.”

Hitchens doesn’t actually weigh up the pros and cons of God, for the same reason that most people don’t weigh the pros and cons of Chairman Mao. There’s a word, he writes, for an all-powerful, all-knowing, capricious ruler who makes impossible demands on his subjects: totalitarian. “Religion even at its meekest has to admit that what it is proposing is a ‘total’ solution, in which faith must be to some extent blind, and in which all aspects of the private and public life must be submitted to a permanent higher supervision.” The Christian escape hatch is no less distasteful. As in the case of Abraham and Isaac, “We have a father demonstrating love for God by subjecting a son to death by torture, but this time the father is not trying to impress god. He is god, and he is trying to impress humans.”

The cogency of arguments like this notwithstanding, they continue to be necessary. Mark Lilla, formerly of the University of Chicago and now of Columbia University, offers some insights as to why in The Stillborn God. (Lilla’s own religious preferences, if he has any, aren’t on display in this scholarly book.)

Catholics and Protestants in the 1600s disagreed on how God wants us to live together, and their differing political theologies led to wars that made a wasteland of central Europe. The very idea of political theology itself is key to Lilla’s book but unfamiliar to most Americans, even the devout—which is why he wrote it. Religious Americans may oppose war or abortion for reasons of faith, but when our political process produces wars or permits abortions, they just campaign harder—they don’t condemn democracy itself as ungodly and take up weapons. That would be political theology.

Hobbes looked upon the blasted landscape and saw that it was bad. He conceived what Lilla calls the “Great Separation” between religion and politics. Instead of asking how God wants us to live together and getting into political theology, Hobbes dodged the subject and asked only how we can live together so that our lives aren’t, in his most famous phrase, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

On an intellectual level, the Great Separation allowed people to think of religions anthropologically rather than as the truth versus the infidel. On a political level it was a necessary prerequisite to the successful experiment with separation of church and state. However you look at it, the Great Separation was a notion unique to European culture, and even there it was slow to take root.

Later thinkers, including Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel, considered Hobbes a bit hard. Surely religion isn’t just the product of fear and ignorance, they thought. It also grows out of human curiosity, conscience, hope, and despair. And surely this part of human nature can be domesticated, pruned of dogmatic notions of truth or falsehood, and harmlessly reintroduced into political debates.

As these ideas made their way down through the years—I am both oversimplifying and speeding up the tape—we came to Hegel, who identified the German Protestant state as the summit of human history. (Only those who’ve never sung “God Bless America” can snicker here.) This kind of complacent liberal religion is what Lilla calls “the stillborn god,” because it idolizes the existing order and can’t offer the excitement or idealism or salvation people crave. As Lilla writes with uncharacteristic snark, “The god of the Old Testament moved mysteriously over the face of the deep and called the nations to repentance; the liberal God shuffled methodically through human history, arranging things as he went. The Jesus of the New Testament did not bring peace, but a sword; the liberal Jesus brought books and sheet music.” Political theology, yes, but beyond tame, so who cared?

After the pointless catastrophe of World War I, few could maintain with a straight face that the society that produced it was the best possible one. But the idea of political theology was already loose again, ready to be adopted by the post-liberal, post-WWI crowd in the far less benign environment of Weimar Germany. “The stillborn God of the liberal theologians could never satisfy the messianic longings embedded in biblical faith,” Lilla contends. “So it was inevitable that this idol would be abandoned in favor of a strong redeeming God when the crisis came.”

Lilla treads carefully but makes it clear that, when Hitler came on the scene, political theology based on this “strong redeeming God” offered no direction—it just poured gasoline on both sides’ fires (a point Hitchens would appreciate). On one side, Lutheran theologian Emmanuel Hirsch “welcomed the Nazi seizure of power as the expression of a decisive, suprahuman will, a ‘holy storm’ that has come over us and grasped us.” On the other side, “godless theologian” Ernst Bloch celebrated the Book of Revelation and the Communist Manifesto side by side. Once more religious leaders were “prophesying for rival political messiahs.... It was as if nothing had changed since the seventeenth century, when Thomas Hobbes first sat down to write his Leviathan.”

Lilla’s story ends here; he doesn’t bring it up to the present other than to remark that this is a history few Americans know or understand because we don’t get political theology—we take the Great Separation for granted. Hitchens, a Brit who’s only recently become an American citizen, may also misunderestimate the lurking appeal of the religious impulse that we call prophetic when we agree with it and dangerous when we don’t.

Be careful in times of darkness and confusion, warns Lilla: “When faith in redemption through bourgeois propriety and cultural accommodation collapsed after the Great War, the most daring thinkers of the day instantaneously transformed [that faith] into hope for a redemptive apocalypse.” There is no hymn “Onward Christian Diplomats.”