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Book Review

God and Global Order

October 21, 2010 - Paul S. Rowe

God and Global Order

God and Global Order
Jonathan Chaplin with Robert Joustra

REVIEW BY Paul S. Rowe

It does not seem so long ago that I entered graduate school deliberately intending to pursue studies in religion and politics, only to find that most mainstream texts and journals in political science paid very little attention to the subject. For people outside the discipline of political science, the combination of religion and politics seemed obvious. When I indicated that very few people actually studied the intersection of religion and politics, such people were incredulous. Inside the discipline, materialism and the demands of methodological rigour made religion anathema. In a memorable exchange with one of my instructors, I was astonished to learn that the name Calvin conjured up nothing more to him than a character in a popular comic strip. Religion was passé. It was boring. It was derivative.

In the late 1990s, a number of scholars like me entered the academy looking to bring religion back into the study of politics, and more specifically, the study of international relations. The constructivist turn that came to international relations theory around the turn of the century, arising from the British school of realism, provided a promising entrée. Constructivists accepted that a variety of influences helped to create our notions and ideas about the world, which in turn helped to frame the international system. Religion might count as one of these.

But one can’t help but assume that the attempt to include religion in the study of politics would have been an uphill struggle had it not been for the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Within weeks of the wanton acts of violence that took place on that day, some questioned whether political scientists, among others, had missed a primary motivator. Amidst all the studies of ethnicity and nationalism, of postcolonial resistance movements, of dominant and alternative blocs, there was little reference to the stunning power of ideas in the hands of religious extremists, much less the importance of religion to the construction of local, national, and global institutions.

Over the past decade, political science has noticed religion. Still, there is a lingering tendency to understand religious movements as epiphenomenal. Old habits die hard, and political scientists trained in institutionalism, neo-Marxism, or behaviouralism still want to know how religious movements arise out of the work of the state, of dominant social forces, or as a creation of the media and political entrepreneurs. For many of these social scientists trained to use measurable, cut-and-dried concepts, religion sits uneasily as an independent variable.

Jonathan Chaplin and Robert Joustra’s book is one of the products of a decade of early attempts to “bring religion back in.” Chaplin is director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, based in Cambridge, and Joustra is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Bath as well as a staff researcher with Cardus. Their book contributes to a growing literature which demands that political analysts take religion seriously as a motivator and cause of the phenomena that we observe in international politics and foreign policy. Among the contributors are some of the primary advocates of religion in international relations theory—most notably Daniel Philpott and Scott M. Thomas. There are also practitioners and public intellectuals who have been at the forefront of bringing religion to the minds of political decision-makers, such as Paul Marshall, James Skillen, and Thomas F. Farr.

The collection of essays in this volume is eclectic, but all of the contributions coalesce around a few key themes. One is the desire to bring religion into the mainstream of foreign policy analysis and international relations theory. A second is the insistence not only that religion should be included as a topic of significance, but that it is taken seriously. Religious contentions are raised and considered as important causal factors, not simply quaint ideas held by old-fashioned or marginal characters. What is more, if religion is to be taken seriously, then all scholars cannot escape the baggage of their own religious background. Therefore, a third unifying feature is that the collection comes out of a self-consciously Christian worldview, albeit one that welcomes insights from those of other conscious faith traditions or those who are conscious of no faith tradition at all.

The authors lay out an extensive review of the recent literature on religion and politics in the introduction. Their scope is indeed thorough, indicating a deep grounding in contemporary scholarship on the topic. The introduction identifies three general audiences at whom the book is targeted: Christian academics and practitioners, scholars of religion and politics interested in engaging religious perspectives on the topic, and practitioners and scholars from other religious perspectives (2). However, the scholarly tone of the introduction might scare off non-academics, which would be unfortunate, since there is much to commend the book to practitioners in various foreign policy fields.

The four chapters in the first section of the book cluster around the theme of “taking religion seriously.” In this case, each of four chapters demands that religion be taken more seriously in the study and practice of U.S. foreign policy. Andrew Preston sketches out the way in which historians of U.S. foreign policy have largely ignored religion as a causal factor. The title of Thomas Farr’s chapter incongruously seeks to “bring religion into international religious freedom policy,” the obviousness of which only serves to underscore the muddy thinking that goes into foreign policy with regard to the subject of religion. Paul Marshall’s article stresses that the actions of contemporary radical Islamists are first rooted in the peculiar jihadist theology held by Osama bin Laden and his coterie. Finally, James W. Skillen articulates three Zionisms that resonate in US foreign policy: one that sees the U.S. as a new Zion, one that sought the political restoration of the Jewish nation to the land of Israel, and one that mobilizes Christian support for the Jewish project.

In the second section of the book, contributors write under the heading of “enlisting religion diplomatically.” Thomas Albert Howard seeks out the roots of European anti-Americanism in the reactionary conservative movements of the nineteenth century, arguing that the divergence in U.S. and European worldviews and foreign policy behaviour is a broader and more enduring theme than is widely understood. John A. Bernbaum asserts that a general myopia about the religious and cultural poverty of the Soviet Union contributed to a misunderstanding of its collapse and reconstruction in the pivotal period of the 1980s and 1990s. J. Daryl Charles defends the Just War tradition as an ethical guide to the practice of humanitarian intervention. Daniel Philpott presents a case for a religiously-inspired reconciliation strategy in Iraq. Finally, Scott Thomas formulates a critical set of responses, taking aim at the secular assumption in international relations theory as a flawed foundation for an international system that includes people of faith from numerous different backgrounds.

Several authors make a general complaint that returns to a theme: religion has been largely forgotten in international relations both by practitioners and scholars. At times, this can seem a little petulant. This is unfortunate since the authors are communicating a legitimate concern that arises from the way religious perspectives have been castigated and marginalized in the academy. Andrew Preston remarks that the attachment of a person to a specific kind of viewpoint, “labeling someone as ‘ideological’—or ‘religious’—is akin to calling them ‘radical’ because the term often implies a certain lack of reasonableness, detachment, objectivity, or rationality” (28). 

Indeed, the religious academy (including my own institution) has been subject to significant broadsides leveled by self-appointed defenders of a secular viewpoint in recent years, on the assumption that a religious commitment is a threat to academic freedom. Such views are built on a foundation that appears to equate Afghan madrassas with Notre Dame. In such an environment, there is an extent to which the scholars writing in the book are still speaking out of exile. They demand respect for a category that continues to be maligned in the same way that critical assessments of class, race, and gender have arisen out of the marginalization of scholars of the past. Thomas Farr’s rebuke of U.S. religious freedom policy thus demands a nuance from the reader that may be difficult for a secularist to comprehend. Simple rhetorical commitment to religious freedom is not sufficient:  instead, foreign policy must recognize the deep-seated threats that emanate from both irreligious and other religious sectors. This would require consistent and even-handed analysis of religious and irreligious traditions unlikely to come from those who have little respect for religious traditions in the first place.

Even so, the fact that religion may be as threatening as irreligion is inconsistently recognized by several of the contributors. Though both Christian and non-Christian analysts believe that religion has a positive role to play that is widely misunderstood, it is important to understand what R. Scott Appleby calls the “ambivalence of the sacred.” That is that while religion is a deep-seated motivating force behind the greatest accomplishments and successes of civilization, religious passions may also inspire great inhumanity.

Clearly Paul Marshall recognizes the destructive power of religion in the hands of radicals when he contends that the language used by Osama bin Laden is rooted in a particular religious view of history. James Skillen also notes the power of misappropriated Biblical imagery in defending American and Israeli exceptionalism. However, John Bernbaum’s more rosy depiction of Christian contributions to the recovery of the expansion of liberty in Russia ignores the real threats to religious freedom that have come from the dominant Russian Orthodox Church and the government in recent years. One might equally wonder if Daniel Philpott is painting an overly simplistic picture of the way in which Judeo-Christian notions of reconciliation might be applied in a majority Muslim state such as Iraq. Application of general religious freedom also suffers from this ambivalence.

That America is a land of unprecedented religious tolerance is certainly clear. But it is increasingly difficult to project a consistent policy of religious freedom abroad when voices of intolerance rise up in America against the construction of Muslim houses of worship, or clergy provocatively threaten to desecrate the religious scriptures of other faiths, as we have seen over the past year. Farr’s assertion that “America’s policy of advancing regimes of religious freedom must be mainstreamed within U.S. diplomacy” (69) might be extended to the American media, educational institutions, and civil society as well.

Religion remains an elastic category. For some, it implies a worldview or system of thinking that creates a social fact. This in turn helps to inform wider societal or civilizational ethics and norms at the macro-level. On the other hand, religion might be conceived at the micro-level as an individual choice about ultimate values or meanings. Religion might be narrowly confined to the traditional Oxford English Dictionary’s “belief in a superhuman controlling power, esp. in a personal God or gods entitled to obedience and worship.” It might also be understood as a species of general worldview or philosophy. The contributors to this book find themselves in various places on the definitional map, which leads inevitably to some theoretical drift. This is not so much a weakness of the book as it is an indication of the slipperiness of religion as an analytical concept.

For example, it might be somewhat difficult for the reader to discern the necessity of religion in the development of just war thinking in Daryl Charles’s chapter on just war and humanitarian intervention. While there are somewhat oblique references to the relationship between religious ethics and the development of a just war case for intervention, Charles’s argument summons up a more general normative point that “the community of nations (inclusive of the West) lacks the political and moral will to prevent what, at least in theory, should be noncontroversial” (164). One is left wondering how essential religion is in this analysis, since Charles is suggesting that everyone knows implicitly that the gross abuses that motivate humanitarian intervention are essentially evil. Elsewhere, religion serves different roles: as a sort of civil religion in Skillen’s essay on the three Zionisms, as a foundation of ethical norms in the work of Philpott and Bernbaum, as an informer of cultural tastes for Howard, or as a theoretical muse for Thomas.

On that note, it is Scott M. Thomas’s essay reflecting on the implications of religious critiques for international relations theory that seems most likely to garner controversy. Thomas follows through upon the general criticism leveled by the contributors against the dominant place of secularism in foreign policy and international relations theory. Several contributors harness the critical assessment of secular theorizing reflected in the work of Elizabeth Shakman Hurd. Thomas pursues this line of reasoning to deconstruct the secular as little more than a dogma, a “mythos of salvation history which has shaped the standard representations of international politics and political actors.” (192) His use of British theorist Martin Wight’s analysis that pits the benevolent religious forces of authentic spirituality against the antichrist of post-Enlightenment modernism is a provocative way to challenge the abuse of religion in today’s world. It will likely be too radical a criticism for many readers to take seriously, though it builds upon reflectivist criticisms that have circulated in critical theory for many years. Robert Cox famously wrote that “theory is always for someone and for some purpose.” If this is the case, the dominance of the secular mindset in international relations may well have been established by a secular academy for the purpose of marginalizing the sacred.  It is only critical theoretical reflections developed out of scholars in exile that are likely to challenge such dominant paradigms. If they appear radical, it may be in part because they challenge truisms that have been accepted for far too long.

This is precisely where the editors leave us at the end of this work, concluding unapologetically that “stirring up controversy may actually be a sign of a return to Christian authenticity and a proper rejection of uncritical accommodation to the politics or secular modernity.” (214)  It seems an appropriate assertion, given the challenge that each scholar gives to the secular assumption throughout the book. However, I wonder if the editors and contributors alike are ready to accept that Christendom, if not Christianity, has at least had some role to play in constructing the secularism that serves as the book’s foil. It seems a little disingenuous for Christians to disavow any responsibility for the way in which separation of church and state has evolved to justify any and all exclusion of the sacred. But such a debate goes beyond the contours of a book on religion and U.S. foreign policy.

Reflecting upon the fullness of this collection, there is one topic that seems underdeveloped, despite its mention by Howard as a vehicle of European anti-Americanism. Since its foundation, the United States has been markedly different from other societies in the power of its self-organized groups and social networks. The contributions of these “little platoons” (in Burkean phraseology) to American public life have been a focus of observers of American politics from Tocqueville to Putnam. What is often lost is the impact that the numerous religious contributions to civil society have had in extending the American project abroad as an unofficial arm of U.S. foreign policy. Travel to any part of the world and you will find American missions, churches, religious development agencies, and educational institutions involved in cooperative projects and contributing to a growing transnational public life. Over the past decade, these groups have spearheaded American efforts to address HIV and AIDS in Africa, restore the global environment, combat human trafficking, and tackle the problems of worldwide debt and poverty and achieve the millennium development goals. The potency of these efforts in extending U.S. foreign policy are rarely highlighted in the news or even noticed by academics, but to me, these forms of religious outreach and partnership are the real champions of the normative promise of American foreign policy.

I have made some critical observations here, but I must emphasize that the editors of this work deserve congratulations for putting together an excellent contribution to the growing number of works exploring the nexus of religion and politics in the twenty-first century. Among the book’s strengths are its interdisciplinarity, its mixture of applied and theoretical insights, and the cohesiveness of its unifying thesis that religion be taken seriously in spite of the historical rigidity of secularism in international politics. It is gratifying to see that the field of religion and politics has already come a long way in the decade since my entry into graduate school.

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This Article Belongs To ...

  1. October 2010: Hill Lecture 2010
    CPIP - Hill Lecture 2010 This issue of CPIP covers the 2010 Hill Lecture. It includes keynote speaker Dr. John von Heyking's address, along with two responses. It also features articles by Senior Fellows Jonathan Wellum and Eleanor Clitheroe-Bell, the latest LexView, a review of God and Global Order and the quarterly CPIP Canadian Think Tank Index.

    Download the PDF.