Is God Back? The Enduring Presence of Religion in Global Politics

Adrian Pabst, Lecturer in Politics at the University of Kent, UK, Visiting Professor at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Lille (Sciences Po) and at IBS Moscow

Dr Adrian Pabst, Senior Lecturer in Politics, School of Politics and IR, University of Kent; Visiting Professor, Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Lille (Sciences Po), specially for

It has become fashionable of late to claim that ‘God is back’ and that religion has ‘returned’ to global politics.[i] But such and similar assertions do not so much reflect contemporary reality as they confirm deeply ingrained misconceptions about the world. The idea of God’s re-emergence is linked to the argument that God is dead (Friedrich Nietzsche) and that history has seen the positivist passage from revelation via metaphysics to science (Auguste Comte). The ensuing disenchantment of the world (Max Weber) has marginalised revealed religion in favour of instrumental rationality and the maximising of economic utility or hedonistic happiness. Crucially, the return of God in international relations assumes that the linear process of modern secularisation has been reversed by a similarly linear process of post-modern de-secularisation and that the world has moved from a secular to a post-secular phase of history.

However, a closer investigation of the global religious resurgence suggests a far more paradoxical evolution. Just as it is true that secularism has been the dominant modern ideology and reality, so too it is the case that religion never went away and that it can regain public, political prominence – even in the secular societies of Northern Europe. Associated with this general paradox is a series of specific, paradoxical phenomena that have not been properly described and explained by academic analysis or mainstream commentary alike.

First of all, religious revival as a distinctly modern phenomenon that coincides with modernisation is nothing new at all. For example, popular religious practice and the public influence of faith rose steadily and often quite spectacularly in North America throughout a period of accelerating modernisation from approximately 1800 to 1950 – the Great Awakening that still structures America’s social imaginary to this day. Similarly, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century imperial Britain featured a moral economy underpinned by the modernising creed of Methodism that was common to elite and populace alike.

Of course this modern renaissance of religion has dark sides too, as mass religious fervour played a key role in fostering nineteenth- and twentieth-century nationalism (not least since the end of the Cold War).[ii] However, the point is that the contemporary discourse on God’s return fails to explains the coincidence of religious resurgence with rapid modernisation in countries with varying degrees of socio-economic development. In other words, Weber was wrong to suggest that the forces of progress would sweep way traditional belief and religious practice.

Second, religion has not ‘returned’ to international relations because it never ‘went away’. Long before the events of 9/11, world faiths such as Christianity and Islam were an integral part of nineteenth- and twentieth-century politics, both locally and globally. For instance, American Protestant theologians and religious figures played a decisive role in creating the League of Nations after 1919 and the United Nations in 1946. European Christian Democrats from Italy, Germany, the Benelux countries and even France led the way in setting up the project for European integration and enlargement in the 1950s. Today Europe remains a vestigially Christian polity that has preserved the legacy of fusing Greco-Roman philosophy with biblical revelation.[iii]

Likewise, Islam was the dominant political and social force in the wider Middle East and beyond until late nineteenth-century colonialism and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1922. Thereafter ‘underground’ movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood were key players. (As a result of persecution and a lack of civic mediation, many such movements have become radicalised, as the unfolding events in Tunisia and Egypt suggest. The Arab Spring is fast turning into a chilling winter for Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East and North Africa).

Even where secularising modernisation was adopted, the elites struggled to remake popular society in the image of their own secular values – as evinced by cases as varied as China, Russia, Turkey, much of Latin America and most parts of eastern (and even western) Europe. Since the Second World War, the influence of religion on international affairs has been visible and real around the world: the anti-colonial struggles from Algeria to Indonesia; the growing tensions between pan-Arab secular nationalism and political Islam in the Middle East and elsewhere; the impact of Liberation theology on politics in Latin America and beyond; the global rise of Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity; the role of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy in the collapse of state communism in Central and Eastern Europe as well as Russia and Eurasia. What needs to be better understood is not just the fall and rise of religion but also its enduring presence in national politics and international affairs.

Third, one can suggest that the twentieth century encapsulates the bifurcation between a dominant secularism, on the one hand, and the enduring presence of religion in international relations, on the other hand. Arguably the clash of secular ideologies with unprecedented levels of violence represented an exception to the persistence of faith in politics. Even Communism, Fascism and National-Socialism were characterised by a peculiar form of secular messianism that used specifically religious language and imagery – a quasi-holy mission entrusted to a divinely elected leader and/or nation, with a new class of high priests preaching a new creed that worships false idols. If the twentieth century was the ‘first and last truly modern, secular century’, then the global religious resurgence marks the return to a more ‘normal’ presence of religion in international relations.

Linked to this is the fact that the contemporary religious revival occurs at a time of accelerating cultural and social secularisation. Among the dominant trends is the decline of traditional religious beliefs and practices as well as the rise of secular values and lifestyles with the approval and connivance of modernising creeds (mostly variants of evangelicalism in Christianity, Islam, and other world religions). As such, there is a coincidence of continuous (in some places relentless) secularisation, on the one hand, and periodic religious resurgence that is global and affects all areas of public political life, on the other hand. So far we lack proper theories and concepts to make sense of how and why religion either persists in the public sphere or returns to political influence or else mutates itself into a secularising force.

Fourth, the widespread claim that the current global resurgence of religion is driven by modernising creeds, which are connected with forms of religious revivalism such as evangelical or Pentecostal movements, is only in part correct. What is missed by most analysts is that evangelicalism within and across different faith traditions involves both religious and secular forces. For example, Olivier Roy is right to emphasise the influence of ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘charismatic’ movements and to argue that “[f]undamentalism is the religious form that is most suited to globalization, because it accepts its own deculturation and makes it the instrument of its claim to universality”.[iv] However, Roy is wrong to equate traditional, orthodox Catholicism or Judaism with this sort of fundamentalism, which is modern in origin and secular in nature. For it denies any natural or cultural mediation of revealed truths and views faith in terms of a direct, personal relationship between believers and God based on will and power.

Moreover, revivalist movements exhibit a series of strikingly paradoxical tensions such as central authority and personal participation, formal patriarchy and informal matriarchy, work discipline and crass consumerism or group solidarity and individual wealth. The latter is linked to the idea of a gospel of the immaterial spirit that consecrates the pursuit of material wealth. As such, evangelicalism in general and Pentecostalism in particular are a harbinger of global secular modernity, though they nonetheless reject key elements of modern secularism – including the total privatisation of religious practice, the absolute individualisation of belief or the complete separation of spiritual inwardness from an outward orientation to the material world. Thus, we need to conceptualise the phenomenon of ‘secular religion’ and its role in international affairs.

Fifth, by contrast with these modernising creeds, more traditional faiths (such as the dominant traditions in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, some strands of Sufi, Shia and Sunni Islam as well as certain movements in Hinduism and Buddhism) are intellectually revivified – if not as yet culturally and numerically – and leading the way against the hegemony of modern, Western secularism.[v] Of course, the contemporary resurgence of traditional movements in Islam, Buddhism and certain episcopally-based Christian churches could represent but a short-lived phase prior to strong secularisation – religion in death throes and faith’s last gasp (as militant atheists would have it).

But leaving aside their current intellectual revival, strong demographic dynamics suggest that traditional, orthodox faiths will continue to grow – and not just modernising creeds (either more liberal or more fundamentalist). Indeed, sustained population growth in developing countries produces many more religious people than those lost to secularism elsewhere. The world is growing more religious even as the parts of the elite and the new middle classes in economically developed countries and emerging markets are becoming more secular. Believers already outnumber nonbelievers by about five to one, even though believing differs from belonging and practising (i.e. affiliation and attendance).[vi]

Since the extremes tend to resemble and reinforce each other, the future will largely depend on whether more traditional faiths are able to transform the shared modern, secular foundations of both religious fundamentalism and secular extremism – a dynamic that is largely ignored by academic analysis and public discourse.

Sixth, the greater perception and visibility of religion in international affairs contrasts sharply with the continuous secularisation of both politics and culture as well as a growing lack of knowledge, concepts and vocabulary that are necessary to grasp the specificities of religious faith precisely when it is coming to the fore of public, political debate and even policy-making. At a time when the universalist Western secular liberal register fails to reflect the global multi-faith audience to whom religion is of central concern, both societies and political systems have lost the ability to think and speak about faith just when they need it most. Hence there is an urgent need for academic analysts, commentators, and policy- and decision-makers to engage with religion on non-secularist terms. With more religious believers in absolute numbers and as a proportion of the world population, never before has ‘public theology’ been as important as it is now.

In conclusion, one can suggest that public, ‘political religion’ never went away but instead held sway for much of the modern age. Secularisation concerned mainly institutions and elites, and much less so populations and political cultures that until recently remained profoundly shaped by religious beliefs and practices. Thus, modernisation – far from being a single, monolithic force – is perhaps best described as a dialectical process that oscillates between a dominant secularism (and a variety of denominational subcultures, which are positively linked to secularisation), on the one hand, and the revival of traditional, non-modern faiths that seek to transform the secular orientation of modernisation, on the other hand. In order to understand the paradoxical nature of the secularising process of modernisation and to rethink religion in international relations, we need new concepts that the secular social sciences and humanities cannot provide.

[i] Cf. John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, God Is Back: How the Global Rise of Faith Is Changing the World (London: Allen Lane, 2009)

[ii] Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983); Mark Juergensmeyer, New Cold War?; A. Hastings, The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion and Nationalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); A. W. Marx, Faith in Nation: Exclusionary Origins of Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003); Anthony D. Smith, Chosen People: Sacred Sources of National Identity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)

[iii] Cf. Adrian Pabst, ‘The Western Paradox: Why the United States is more Religious but less Christian than Europe’, in Lucian Leustean (ed.), Representing Religion in the European Union: Does God Matter? (London: Routledge, 2012), chap. 10, in press.

[iv]Olivier Roy, ‘Religious Revivals as a Product and Tool of Globalization’, Quaderni di Relazioni Internazionali, 12:2 (2010), pp. 22-34, (quote at pp. 25-6).

[v] Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); Kepel, The Revenge of God; Olivier Roy, Globalised Islam: The Search for a New Ummah (London: Hurst, 2004); Charles S. Prebish and Martin Baumann (eds), Westward Dharma: Buddhism beyond Asia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002)

[vi] Eric Kaufmann, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century (London: Profile Books, 2010)