The article was originally printed in the September/October 2011 issue of Books and Culture.
"...one of the most important books of the year."
In June, at the University of Toronto's Munk Debates, Henry Kissinger and Niall Ferguson debated whether the 21st century would belong to China. Henry Luce, undoubtedly, would say it will be American like the last one. A few cheeky Canadians at the MacDonald Laurier Institute even said it would belong to them. But few would argue that this century will be God's. Daniel Philpott, Timothy Shah, and Monica Toft's new book God's Century may turn a few heads.
Mere decades ago, everyone (and I do not use that term lightly) was saying that God was dead—not as an idea, but as a practical political force. The latter half of the century was a long funeral dirge for the Almighty. But, not for the first time, God made a spectacular resurrection. Religious people will find the initial premise of God's Century an easy one to warm up to: religion is back.
It signals a mainstream shift when a big, popular press like Norton picks up top scholars like Toft, Philpott, and Shah who take religious resurgence as a given. The shift has been a long, slow, nail-biting revelation. But God's Century moves past it quickly. The meat of the book asks how that resurgence matters. Yes, God is back, but we really have no idea how that matters or if it's a good or bad thing.
The authors argue that two things will accurately predict how resurgent religion will matter in global politics: the political theology of the religion, and the relationship of religious and political authority in its context. Defining political theology is a thorny task. The authors say it is a set of ideas that a given religious community holds about political authority and justice. But if defining political theology is thorny, defining religion is a briar patch. William Cavanaugh, for example, argues in The Myth of Religious Violence that there is no transhistorical, transcultural concept of religion. Charles Taylor fills weighty pages in A Secular Age contending that religion as distinct from politics is an invention of the modern era; in this, he echoes the sentiments of scholars of international relations such as Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Scott Thomas, and Philpott himself.
By contrast, God's Century offers a more traditional definition of religion as that which "seeks understanding of, and harmony with, the widest reaches of transcendent reality." This narrower definition hollows out the cross-cultural utility of terms like political theology. As practiced by people like Oliver O'Donovan (in The Desire of the Nations), "political theology" assumes that in every political society there occurs, implicitly, an act of worship of divine rule, even at the heart of so-called secular regimes.
The authors of God's Century argue that while religion and politics were highly integrated in the pre-modern era—a "friendly merger" as they call it—they were nonetheless historically distinct. While this may be useful for the institutional separation of church and state, it does get confusing for the deeper normative ideas that sustain that very separation. This is why some argue that the notion of a "resurgence of religion" is misleading. Elsewhere, Philpott himself writes that the question "is not why the political influence of religion has returned but why it ever went away. Or, better yet, why anyone ever thought it went away."1
So sweeping statements along the lines of "before the 19th century, religion motivated virtually all terrorist activity" become not only dubious but also somewhat unintelligible. Religion, as opposed to what? For most of the history of humankind, all violence—indeed, all life—was understood as embedded within a cosmic, moral hierarchy. Historical excavation of motivations using dated definitions of religion and politics is an anachronistic business.
This ambiguity means that the authors' call for intelligent political theology, while still important, is less radical and self-critical than it could be. They argue convincingly that religion matters in and of itself, not simply as a veneer for underlying material or ethnic cleavages—that foreign policy wonks should study theology as indispensable to foreign relations in the next century. If it's "God's century," then working in it will mean overcoming secular squeamishness.
The second argument is that the mutual independence of religious and political authority is equally as significant as political theology in determining the play of religious and political actors. If political theology underlies political practice, then it is also true that political practices feed back into political theology. Here the authors do justice to an extensive series of case studies demonstrating that the radicalization of religion often coincides with the political suppression of its public expressions. That is, the less that religious actors feel their voices are heard within a system, the more likely it is that they will trigger extra-political, often violent, reactions.
The lesson here is instructive for fledgling governments abroad as well as our democracies at home: public religion is here to stay. Religious actors who publicly enlist and defend their convictions are growing in number and intensity. The question is not whether but how religious actors will enter public life and shape political outcomes.
And these lessons show that if governments choose to repress or exclude religion from public life, the outcomes will be less than desirable: fragmentation, sectarianism, and, possibly, violence. This wisdom renders statements like those of Britain's David Cameron eerily telling, when he declares the failure of multiculturalism and calls for the cultivation of a "muscular liberalism" in its place. Europe's ailing multicultural policies may well serve America as the canary in the secularist coal mine. If accommodation and engagement are the rule, then those limits are this generation's Gordian knot.
The good news is that religious actors, when permitted autonomy—some call it religious freedom—can serve as a force multiplier for important social and political goods, including democratization, peacemaking, and reconciliation. In short, religion is a public good. Or it can be, if embedded into a political system which recognizes it as a voice to be heard, both in public and in private.
And this is what makes God's Century one of the most important books of the year. The debates and arguments it summarizes are not merely instructive for the strategic success of American foreign policy abroad; they are profoundly important for the renewal of an ailing democratic consensus in the global north. The religious world, even the Christian one, is looking more and more unfamiliar from North American shores, and the principles these scholars provide are no less important as we wrestle with the next Christendom than as we contend with today's Islam.
And yet, even as we urgently need intelligent calls for getting into the guts of religion, we need those calls to be tempered with self-critical recognition that America too, for better or worse, projects its own implicit political theology at home and abroad. We should be encouraged by the call for religion as a public good, but not naïve enough to believe that all religion, even at home, will find clean accommodation. God's century? Maybe. But buyer beware: we may need these tools at home as much as we need them abroad.
1"Has the Study of Global Politics Found Religion?", The Annual Review of Political Science, Vol. 12 (2009), pp.183-202