A view of the gap between the godly and government

Politics and Religion

January 7, 2005

Some books promise more than they deliver. Here is one that delivers more than it promises.

The main part of the book does exactly what it tells us on the back cover: drawing on material from "all over the world" it "explores the complex links between religion and politics". It is organised by topic and has chapters on religion and "Empire", "Nation", "Party", "Protest" and "Control" (state control of religion).

Steve Bruce not only illustrates these themes but offers a wide-ranging survey that moves deftly through history and across the globe. We hear, among many other things, of the Ottoman Empire's treatment of Jews and Christians; the Bharatiya Janta Party's bid for political power in India; Communist China's attempt to control the selection of the next Dalai Lama; 19th-century evangelical reforms; the complex religio-political history of the Baltic states; the relations between the Christian churches and fascism - even how Moscow Cathedral ended up as a swimming pool.

Such a mass of detailed information can become wearisome - even when presented with the incisive clarity that characterises Bruce's writing. A strong line of argument is needed to make sense of it all and carry the reader along. This is offered in the last chapter, where Bruce considers whether it is possible to generalise about the political effects of religion. His answer is bold and provocative. Religion, he maintains, is more than an epiphenomenon of wider forces, and often has an independent impact in the political sphere. There are clear links between religion and regimes, with all religions serving as an obstacle to the development of democracy and human rights, but some religions, notably Islam, acting as more of an obstacle than others, notably Protestant Christianity.

Bruce highlights a number of features of religion that help determine its relationship to political regimes. He attributes its resistance to democratic arrangements to a constitutive conviction that the faithful stand in a closer relationship to God's truth than anyone else. Degree of resistance to democracy is determined by a number of variables: conception of the divine (monotheism being less tolerant than polytheism), "reach" of a religion (expansive missionary religions being most likely to have large-scale political consequences), stress on orthodoxy or orthopraxy (with orthoprax religions being less tolerant), and a religion's ideological preference for allying itself with political power rather than poverty and powerlessness.

Bruce attributes even Protestant Christianity's apparent link with democratic regimes to largely inadvertent consequences, namely its unwitting encouragement of affluence, pluralism, liberalism and individualism. By contrast, the more "communalist" and anti-individualist bias of Catholic Christianity helps explain its tendency to ally itself with hierarchical and non-democratic political regimes.

It is a pity that these interesting arguments are not woven more closely into the texture of the book as a whole. Politics and Religion contains wonderful discussions of Christian and Islamic forms of fundamentalism that cut across common wisdom by showing how difficult it has been for the new Christian Right to make much impact on US politics, and just how difficult it will be for conservative Islam to resist the acids of increased affluence, individualism and pluralism. It would have been fascinating if Bruce had also applied his analysis of religion's political affinities to the other religions he discusses, including the religions of Asia.

It would have strengthened his argument if he had paid more attention to apparent cases of religious support for human dignity and human rights such as Spanish "Second Scholasticism", which developed a doctrine of human rights based on a Thomistic foundation. It may be only a small caveat against Bruce's overall thesis, but his dismissal of liberal and humanistic strands in several of the world religions as marginal reforming movements, perhaps underestimates their cultural and political influence.

It would be unfair, however, to complain too much about lack of integration between information and analysis in Politics and Religion . The result is that we get two for the price of one: a wide-ranging survey that will serve as a useful teaching tool, plus a bold, clear-thinking and plain-speaking analysis.

Linda Woodhead is senior lecturer in Christian studies, Lancaster University.

Politics and Religion

Author - Steve Bruce
Publisher - Polity
Pages - 292
Price - £50.00 and £15.99
ISBN - 0 7456 2819 2 and 2820 6

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