Religion and Narratives of International Relations

October 21, 2008 - Robert Joustra

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, The Politics of Secularism in International Relations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008) 264 pp. $22.95.

Religion is a problem, writes Elizabeth Shakman Hurd in her recent book, The Politics of Secularism in International Relations. She certainly isn’t the first person to notice. Religion has been a thorn in the side of social scientists for decades and especially following the events of September 11. God is back on the international scene, and his inconvenient reappearance has vexed policy analysts, academics, and populists alike.

According to Hurd, there are two reasons for this quandary. First, academics seem unable or unwilling to accommodate the “global resurgence of religion” in their international relations (IR) paradigms. The dominant theories of foreign policy and IR can’t easily consider religion as more than a narrow veneer for more traditional materialist or Machiavellian explanations. Taking religion “on its own terms” is a prospect that is both confusing and borderline heresy in orthodox IR.

The second reason religion poses an indelible problem is because foreign policy has proceeded from IR’s religiously illiterate theories. Foreign policies are struggling to adapt to an international climate that now requires sophisticated, articulate, and shockingly rapid responses to God’s perceived resurgence. Hurd deftly illustrates how religion’s implications for global politics transcend armchair foreign policy analysis. Religious illiteracy is a root factor behind treaty failures, diplomatic posturing, and the application of international force. The politics of secularism may have helped forge a new global order, but such politics have their limits. According to Hurd, our secularist chickens are coming home to roost.

Hurd’s central question is, “How, why, and in what ways does secular political authority form part of the foundation of contemporary international relations theory and practice, and what are the political consequences of this authority in international relations?”(1). She provides a three-part answer. First, the secularist division between religion and politics is not fixed but rather socially and historically constructed. Second, the failure to recognize this explains why students of IR have been unable to properly recognize the power of religion in global politics. And third, overcoming this problem allows for a better understanding of crucial empirical puzzles in international relations, evidenced by contemporary case studies, including Iran and Turkey.

Hurd’s introductory chapters and her insightful deconstruction of the secularist narrative in IR theory are the most valuable portions of The Politics of Secularism. She writes that secularism “refers to a public settlement of the relationship between politics and religion” (12). This settlement, she argues convincingly, constitutes the political culture of international relations. Of course, even this settlement is too unstable to remain fixed. Referencing the work of William Connolly, Charles Taylor, Jose Casanova, and Talal Asad, she usefully differentiates between two basic trajectories of secularism. These are the laicist trajectory, in which “religion is seen as an adversary and an impediment to modern politics” (23); and the Judeo-Christian secularist trajectory, in which “religion is seen as a source of unity and identity that generates conflict in modern international politics” (23).

This distinction carves out a careful history of secularism in IR, presenting us with a picture of religion as a privatized force separate from what is public and secular. It is Hurd’s ambition to denaturalize this reification of sacred and secular and expose these distinctions as being socially and political constituted. The demarcation of the secular and the sacred is more than a movement of pragmatic politics; it is an intentional theological position. Secularism is not the opposite of theological discourse; it is itself “a particular kind of theological discourse in its own right” (35).

Understanding secularism as a type of theological narrative is certainly one of Hurd’s most powerful ideas. She insists that various metaphysical perspectives should inform international relations and foreign policy. Accordingly, she examines Islam and secularism in Turkey and Iran, flagging ill-fated policy orientations which ignore or contest the place of alternative political theologies. Conversations staking out the supremacy and inalienability of Enlightenment secularism stand little chance of success in a world surging with religion’s devotees.

Yet while Hurd creates a compelling argument for including alternative political theologies in international relations, it is difficult to determine how this inclusion could occur. If the traditions of secularism are socially constituted, then they are also subject to modification. But what kinds of modifications should or can be made to international relations theory to rectify this exclusion?

In her conclusion, Hurd suggests briefly that one such option might be William Connolly’s kind of agonistic democracy, perhaps mixed with her own approach based on Stephen K. White’s weak ontology. Such an agonistic democracy could “elicit or seek out public expression of contending views of religion and its relationship to the political” (147). Quoting Connolly she writes, “a democracy infused with a spirit of agonism is one in which divergent orientations to the mysteries of existence find overt expression in public life” (147). Agonistic democracy would encourage contestation and interrupt any attempt to impose final or static solutions on the relationship between politics and religion. The need, she concludes, is to rewrite secularism to pursue an ethos of engagement among a plurality of controversial metaphysical perspectives.

Though this is a promising idea, it falls short of an agenda for modifying traditional theories of international relations to better “explain and understand” global politics. Hurd argues convincingly that overcoming the “secularist problem” will make for better theory and practice, but exactly how or in what ways this transcendence might proceed is murky at best. The deconstruction of IR’s secularist history is laudable, but the task of policy making abhors the academic luxury of stopping half-way.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd has made an exceptional contribution to the conversation, a critical initial step toward understanding religion in international relations. At the conclusion of her eighth chapter she hints that she believes as much herself. She writes, “How to think productively, on a case-by-case basis, about these contestants or resurgents in their own terms and outside the binaries produced and maintained by secularist rigid authority is the next challenge” (146). As such this book is more accurately the introduction to a much larger project to be undertaken on a global and historical scale—the contestation and conversation over the secular and the sacred, between religion and politics, and ultimately the relationship between what we believe and how we live.

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Originally Published

date: October 8, 2008
publisher: Council on Faith & International Affairs