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by Walter A. McDougall

What Has Been Ventured So Far

If getting the history right, or at least confronting its ambiguities,

is critical, so too is correctly identifying the mysteries and paradoxes

of contemporary religious influences on international politics. Happily,

we do not start from scratch. The American Academy of Arts and

Sciences devoted the summer1991 number of its journal Daedalus

to “Religion and Politics,” and three years later a book naming religion

“the missing dimension” explored a number of recent case studies.2

Their authors and editors expended much energy just to persuade

readers of the salience of their subject. That, we trust, is no longer

needed. But they also introduced many substantive themes and findings,

a review of which is the best way to introduce the [Orbis*] volume.

began by recalling that sociological theories of the 1950s and 1960s made an implicit assumption to the effect that as material forces of progress worked their magic around the world, cultural divides would erode and the First, Second, and Third Worlds would increasingly resemble each other. But “memory and tradition, in fact, are not so easily erased,” and “if the world is a village today—a dubious proposition at best—the village is too little known.” The most embarrassing prediction from Karl Marx onward was that religion was an atavism from which science and material progress would liberate mankind, and Robert Wuthnow’s lead article pinpointed the shortcomings of the theories that belittled the role of religion in world affairs. The first, modernization theory, built on Max Weber’s observations about the Entzauberung (disenchantment, or profanation) of modern life as science, medicine, and state bureaucracies took over the epistemological, psychic, and social duties previously performed by religious institutions. In functional terms, modern society had no “use” anymore for religion, hence it was bound to disappear as the democratization and secularization that inevitably flowed from industrialization and urbanization spread from Europe and America to Third World countries. Perversely, religion did not disappear, not even (or especially) in the United States, the most “modern” nation of all.

A second school accounted for the persistence of religion by making it a dependent variable. These “world system” theorists criticized modernizationists for treating countries as discrete units when in fact the trend of capitalism has been to meld all countries into a single world economy. Neo-Marxist in their approach, historians such as Immanuel Wallerstein described the traumatic effects that the turbulent and inequitable capitalist marketplace has on locales, and interpreted occasional outbursts of millenarianism and folk revivals to psychological needs borne of a sense of helplessness. That sounded plausible, but still posited a structuralism that left no room for culture, free will, and genuine religiosity as independent factors in history.

The so-called Frankfurt School of “critical theorists” offered a third theory meant to account for the survival of religion. Led by Jurgen Habermas, it focused on cultural evolution, and invented the notion of the “postmodern” era. In the merely modern industrial era, advanced societies did display the expected retreat of religious influence on politics. But in the postmodern era, precisely because of the alienation brought on by capitalism and bureaucratization, people direct their attention to “quality of life” issues such as the environment and human potential. Thus, a renewed interest in spirituality, whether in traditional or New Age manifestations, is a predictable phase in the evolution of culture—but, the Frankfurt theorists confidently concluded, a phase that is bound to give way over time to a universal humanism based on reason, not superstition.

Wuthnow dismisses these theories because they all share the flawed Enlightenment assumption to the effect that human behavior can be rationally explained, rendered predictable, and ultimately controlled. They permit no role for spirituality as expressed through the charisma of religious leaders or followers, because anyone who purports to act out of religious conviction is ipso facto fooling himself. The alternative, Wuthnow suggests, is to bow to the empirical evidence that religious communities react to scientific and socioeconomic change, by adjusting, not abandoning, their traditions “because these traditions carry intrinsic meaning.” Thus, dramatic shifts in the politics of Iran or the United States may be partly explained as effects of religious restructuring. One need only contemplate the degree to which the revival called the First Great Awakening helped to inspire the American Revolution, or the Second Awakening the Abolitionist movement, to imagine how a prima facie case can be made.

If tectonic shifts in a people’s religious sensibilities help to explain political change, then it would appear that the United States is not unique, in spite of its separation of church and state. That is what N.J. Demerath argues in Daedalus. Every society, he writes, is an “enterprise of faith” of one sort of another, be it hierocratic, theocratic, or caesaropapist. But the notion of an “official” religion and complete “separation” of church and state are both ideal types. Indeed, religious hierarchies that enjoy “established” status almost always suffer as a result of their identification with the state, while virulently secular states invariably provoke the very religious expression they hope to suppress. Countries with the most religious liberty and diversity, such as the United States, tend to develop ecumenical “civic religions,” betraying yet another anomaly. Their politics oblige leaders to pay lip service to religious conviction by way of legitimating their claim to high office, but also to spurn religious agendas once in office since sectarianism of any sort can be a liability when it comes to governing a diverse population. That is a phenomenon the so-called “Christian Right” in America quadrennially rues.

The other Daedalus articles examine specific countries, but some findings have universal validity. For instance, religious people of any tradition cling by definition to concepts of right and wrong that may transcend the laws of their state. Senator William Henry Seward invoked that concept (“There is a higher law . . .”) when he spoke out against the extension of slavery in the 1850s, as do opponents of abortion today. Strikingly, Islamist parties of North Africa made the same sort of appeal in 1990-91 when they opposed their governments’ support for Kuwait and Saudi Arabia against the predations of Saddam Hussein. “For the ordinary citizen of North Africa, the challenge by ostensibly ‘revolutionary’ Iraq to the notoriously arrogant, selfish, and inequitable Kuwaiti government was a compelling dramatization of their own grievances against unresponsive, corrupt, and arbitrary rulers.” In Islam, as in Christianity, a believer is called to obey God’s law and not to conform to the world. In the words of Turkish poet Ismet Ozel, a Marxist convert to Islam: “I did not consider myself a part of the society I was in—but as a candidate for the courageous and uncompromising defense of the cause of the just.” A pope, imam, and rabbi might applaud that sentiment—but few statesmen struggling to resolve disputes through diplomacy would welcome having to take into account the “cause of the just” as defined in the bazaar.

In sum, individuals and religious communities who dare to follow a higher calling may have been responsible for some of the most sublime (as well as most sordid) achievements in history. But insofar as they are out of control they not only complicate statecraft, but puncture the modern state’s pretense of being the ultimate arbiter of justice and best provider of human needs. Not for nothing is Turkey’s fundamentalist movement today called the Welfare Party.

The authors of Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft, have a different mission altogether, which is to argue the case for the positive role religious belief can play in resolving political conflicts. Jimmy Carter recalls how he appealed to the common precepts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in order to win Menachem Begin and Anwar el-Sadat to the Camp David Accords, and he urges religious spokesmen to “exercise their moral authority and mobilize the vast human resources of their communities in the service of peacemaking.”

The Carter method, as expressed by editor Douglas Johnston, is not to approach mediation of international disputes with a shrewd eye to the conflicting interests that need to be reconciled, but rather with “an understanding of the emotional stakes of the parties.” It is at least as important, he writes, to ask of contesting parties how they feel as what they want. A wizened statesman might laugh at such a proposition—imagine “getting in touch with the feelings” of a Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong-il—and Johnston admits that with the exception of Christians, who are clearly admonished to be peacemakers, it is difficult to find cases in which religiously inspired mediators have helped to resolve conflicts. But he has a point when he urges diplomats to pay more attention to the “human dimensions” of conflicts rooted as much in history and culture as in power and wealth.

Edward Luttwak, whom none would accuse of romanticism, provides the title essay. He begins by mocking the Enlightenment’s dismissal of religion as “barbarism” (in Gibbon’s word), and accuses rational social science of prejudice as extreme as that displayed by premodern churches. He then draws on Max Weber’s distinction between society and community (Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft), noting that even as capitalism and the modern state produce unprecedented wealth they tend to undermine a people’s sense of community. That in turn can delegitimize the market and state inasmuch as people are unlikely to welcome new increments to their material well-being at the cost of further erosion of the cultural traditions that give meaning to life. That is a fancy way of saying that “man doth not live by bread alone,” or, as the Ayatollah Khomeini put it, the masses are naturally drawn to religion not because it is an opiate, but because it is a medicine for mortal, suffering, souls.

Religion, therefore, is a perennial, but Luttwak shrewdly observes that its utility in international affairs is problematical. For rulers who enlist the religious convictions of their people in a political struggle sacrifice their freedom to maneuver, negotiate, and compromise. On the other hand, Luttwak observes, religiously motivated mediators may succeed in “introducing the authority of religion into the negotiating equation” and thereby win conflicting parties to concessions they could not otherwise make for the reason that the parties would be acceding, not to their enemies, but to some divine principle their people can understand.

Here Luttwak places his finger on the crucial dilemma regarding religion and politics. Tapping religious fervor may be a powerful tactic for a leader embroiled in a conflict, but that very fervor ties his hands when it comes to reaching a settlement. On the other hand, if the leader pursues an apparently amoral realpolitik so as not to incite a “religious war,” he risks losing legitimacy in the eyes of his own people. Luttwak concludes that third-party negotiators, whether sectarian or ecumenical/secular (e.g., the United Nations) can theoretically be effective insofar as they introduce a higher authority to which two warring sides may defer without losing face. But the conditions for such interventions are rare and delicate.

A final conundrum lies in the “clash of civilizations” manner of perceiving the impact of religion on politics. We tend to assume that theological cleavages are what prevent Christians, Confucians, Muslims, et al., from seeing eye to eye, hence the heavy investment made in the ecumenical movement. If only the world’s religions could merge, or at least celebrate the humane principles common to all, then peace might break out. One hero of the ecumenical movement was Gandhi, whose ethic of nonviolent civil disobedience seemed to be a model for a spiritual, but effective and universally applicable politics. What is more, Gandhi was open to all wisdom, whether derived from the Upanishads, Bible, Quran, or Tao, and acted on the Hindu principles that “what appears to be divided is at some level essentially one, and that conflict lies at the level of perception, not of reality.”

But the ecumenical movement has failed, not least because its proponents consistently err in separating precept from authority. Perhaps all major religions do teach a variant of the Golden Rule, but if the World Council of Churches, for instance, preaches the moral injunctions taught by religions while jettisoning the supernatural authority behind them, it robs people of the main reason they might be inclined to obey them. What many ecumenicists peddle is really a watered-down humanitarianism that is not religious at all.

Gandhi understood. This proselytizing, he said, “will mean no peace in the world,” for what the human race needs is not a syncretic religion, but rather that “Hindus become better Hindus and Mussulmans become better Mussulmans and Christians become better Christians.” God, not Man, must occupy the center if any politics of decency is to survive. G.K. Chesterton, pondering the roots of American democracy, made the same point: “The Declaration of Independence dogmatically bases all rights on the fact that God created all men equal; and it is right; for if they were not created equal, they were certainly evolved unequal.”3

The bottom line, it would seem, is that religions will neither disappear nor merge, cannot be drained out of politics, and ought not to be drained lest the world be rendered defenseless against far more destructive secular totalitarianisms. But insofar as religions remain distinct and inspire obedience, they will continue to make warriors of zealots and martyrs of peacemakers. 

* The other Orbis articles on Faith and Statecraft are: James Kurth, ”The Protestant Deformation and U. S. foreign Policy”; Harvey Sicherman, ”Judaism and the World”; Emmanuel Sivan, ”The Holy War Tradition in Islam”; John Langan, S. J., ”The Catholic vision of World Affairs”; Arthur Waldron, ”Religious Revivals in China”; Michael Ardu, ”The Burden of Eastern Orthodoxy”; G. Cameron Hurst III, ”The Enigmatic Japanese Spirit”; and Edward Lynch, ”Reform and Religion in Latin America.”

2. Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson, eds., Religion: the Missing Dimension of Statecraft (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994)
3. G. K. Chesterton, What I Saw in America (1922; reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1968), p. 305 (italics added).

Republished by permission of Foreign Policy Research Institute, 1528 Walnut Street, Suite 610, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19102-3684, telephone (215) 732-3774.



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