When I have time, I enjoy browsing in the new books section at the Carleton University Library in Ottawa. Recently, I came upon After Secularism: Rethinking Religion in Global Politics, written by Erin Wilson, a professor in the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Wilson begins with a critique of the limitations of secularization theory, where, as she says, “religion was considered to be dying out and not relevant for understanding politics in developed secularized states such as those in the West.” Post-Enlightenment thinkers such as Marx, Durkheim and others thought that religion was a retrograde and irrational force that would wither away as societies evolved into a more enlightened phase of existence. This has been, by far, the dominant way in which Western academics have viewed their own societies.
Religion has political influence
Those thinkers are only partly right. Religion has certainly not died out as a force in most parts of the world and Wilson argues that it also has much more of an influence on politics and public life in the West than most scholars are prepared to admit. She understands “the West” to include Europe, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the U.S. She says that even those Western scholars who admit to the influence of religion in other countries, particularly Islamist ones, have underestimated the impact that religion has had, and continues to have, upon Western societies. She uses the U.S. as a case study of a Western country steeped in Judeo-Christian values, tradition and language – and finally she offers an analysis of Presidential State of the Union addresses as one way to make her point (I will comment on those speeches in my next blog posting).
You might well ask: Who cares and does it matter? Madeleine Albright, the former U.S. Secretary of State, thinks it matters. In her book, The Mighty and the Almighty, Albright offers a sobering analysis from the political trenches. She writes that American international affairs scholars and intelligence actors were blind to the implications of growing Muslim fundamentalism (because it did not fall within their intellectual framework) and as a result the U.S. was unprepared for the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Wilson says that many Western scholars are hindered by their “lack of critical self-reflection.” They simply cannot believe that religion might be an important actor in the secular West. They are hindered, as well, by a lack of historical knowledge and curiousity about the political role of religion in their own countries.
What about Canada?
Wilson does not talk about Canada in her analysis but during the years that I was involved in politics (several times as a candidate and for a time as an NDP Member of Parliament), I was surprised by how many of my contemporaries did not know about the historical role played by religion and the social gospel in creating the CCF, the NDP’s predecessor party. How many people know much about the role played in that movement and party by Tommy Douglas, or know about Protestant preachers William Aberhart and Ernest Manning, who were involved in right wing populism in Alberta? Each of these three pastors became a premier and Manning and Douglas served as such until the 1960s before moving to federal politics.
It is worth saying that Wilson approaches her topic as a scholar. She is not proselytizing or saying that religion should necessarily have more influence in politics. She is saying that it has had, and does have, more influence than most Western scholars have been prepared to admit and she attempts to describe that reality.
Wilson goes on to say that most thought and scholarship about the role of religion in Western society begins from a “dualistic” premise that religion belongs to the private realm, “permanently separated from politics and thus of little relevance to International Relations analysis, particularly with regards to ‘secular’ western states.”
In attempting to describe the role of religion in politics, Wilson, says, scholars illustrate a limited, narrow definition of religion “focused on the role of religious institutions, the beliefs of individuals in key positions of power, the decline in the practice of religion by individuals within society as an indication of secularization, and religion’s influence on conflict and violence.”
Wilson argues that this approach overlooks important things, including the “influence of religious ideas and doctrines, imagery and narratives, religion’s role in shaping community identities, and an acknowledgement of religion’s more rational components, particularly in Western contexts…”
Religion not static
She points to the important role that “religious ideas, actors and events” in the West have played in developing the rule of law, sovereignty, democracy, freedom – and secularism itself. She writes, “I suggest that religion is not static and is not permanently separated from politics through the public/private divide as is generally assumed, implicitly or explicitly in International Relations scholarship.”
Finally, Wilson attempts to offer a way of rethinking religion in order to move beyond the secularist bias. She calls her approach “relational dialogism” and says that it owes something to feminist scholarship and historical sociology. “Throughout the book,” she writes, “I emphasize that religion influences politics in various ways through values, norms, identities and narratives told about the US and the West more broadly, as well as stories told about other states and the international community as a whole.”
Then Wilson turns her attention to her American case study — State of the Union addresses from six American presidents. She says a discourse analysis of those speeches illustrates her point. I will write about that in my next blog post.