The Wilson Quarterly

Religion is visibly influential in the realms of domestic politics and international relations: the rise of Islamism across the Middle East, the spread of Pentecostalism and fundamentalist Christianity in South America and Africa, hotly contested votes within the Anglican Church that allowed women to become bishops in the United Kingdom — the list goes on.

This very visible factor, though, has been downplayed by international relations scholars of the past half-century; in a recent article in Politics, Religion & Ideology, Samantha May, Erin K. Wilson, Claudia Baumgart-Ochse, and Faiz Sheikh term this phenomenon “secular bias,” defined by “the unquestioned acceptance of the secularist division between religion and politics.” May (et al) seek to understand whether the world is indeed experiencing an overall “religious revival,” or if we are simply better at recognizing, in our increasingly globalized and interconnected world, religio-political undercurrents that have always been present.

The idea of an inevitable secularization process is uniquely European, rooted in the official separation of church and state in Christian countries over the last 400 years. The authors argue that this prevents contemporary Western IR scholars from taking into account the ways religion and politics are intermingled in Western, supposedly secular, nations — and allows experts to exclude religion as an important factor in Western, particularly Western European, politics. In fact, “non-Western states are more likely to recognize the European process of ‘secularization’ for what it truly was… a particular Christian and post-Christian historical process, and not, as Europeans like to think, a general universal process of human or societal development.”

The assumption that secularism is value neutral, while religion is value charged, is also being called into question, and scholars increasingly see in secularism a collection of values that are a direct result of the Treaty of Westphalia, drawn up in 1648 to put an end to inter-country and civil wars between European Catholics and Protestants. Built into the Westphalian system is the assumption that religion is inherently violent, and without the separation of church and state there can only be chaos; any fervent religio-political activity, then, is seen as an attack on the system of state sovereignty. This idea has remained politically salient despite the progression of European nations from monarchies to constitutional monarchies to democratic republics.

The fact that the secularization model is founded on post-Christian European historical processes is problematic for several reasons. “European exceptionalism, which elevates European ideals over others, functions to create hierarchies between religions so that secularization is a process of disseminating the ethos, ethics, cosmology, and quotidian practices of hegemonic religions across secular societies, not simply sequestering religion.” All religions become “Protestantized” in the European mind, making it difficult to assess accurately the true natures of other belief systems: “All religions that do not fit neatly into what religion ‘ought to be’ become subordinate and problematic.” Western governments, for example, often attempt to separate public life and private belief, which may make sense in a Protestant-Christian context, but is not always possible with other faiths. Not all religions have the public-private distinction built in to Christian orthodoxy, and religions like Islam and Judaism often focus on orthopraxy instead, where “outward behavior and norms not only signify internal belief, but are necessary in constituting them through performative actions.”

But what should the secularization model be replaced with? Many academics lean toward a “post-secular” model, which would be used to “account for the resilience of religion in the modern industrial era.” Others believe that religion never faded from view in the 20th century, and was merely understood and academically categorized in a different way in terms of its place in public life. When used in this sense, “post-secularism” refutes the validity of the entire concept of linear “secularization”, rather than representing a transition from a secular to a post-secular age.

The 1648 Treaty of Westphalia ushered in a commitment to early forms of church-state separation. However, official state religions still existed; it was the idea of religious tolerance that allowed subjects to (theoretically) privately practice whatever religion they chose, but it also kick-started the relegation of religion to the private sphere. It brought freedom but also official marginalization. “The re-placing of religion into the private sphere has not only theoretically separated religion from politics, but also devalued it, in that the public sphere is seen as politically superior to the private.” Some scholars argue that the world is currently undergoing a “deprivatization” of religion, meaning that religions are rejecting this marginalization, accounting for their increased public activity, but this is perhaps not globally applicable. In fact, over the course of the 20th century, religious belief and activity either increased or remained stable everywhere in the world except Western Europe.

When examining religion, mainstream secularization scholarship has often focused on the political within the religious; new scholarship tends to focus more on non-state actors and forms of religion-state interaction in which the state is not automatically assumed to be superior and public, and religion inferior and private. This is leading to a better, more accurate understanding of what global religious activity means for both nation-states and supra-national entities like the European Union and international organizations like the United Nations.

Ultimately, the authors call for an academic reassessment of secularization as an inevitable and linear process. The theory has defined religion as something private, personal, and completely based on internal beliefs, and scholars are increasingly aware of the fact that this is not an accurate definition of religion. Religions signify a lot more to their adherents than belief in the supernatural, and they are certainly not static or incapable of innovation and development, as theories of secularization often imply. Certain religions have gained in political strength and reach over the last century precisely because of their ability to change and remain relevant in peoples’ everyday lives. “Through symbolism, rhetoric, images, narratives, histories, myths, values, and experiences, religious ideas and influences continue to intervene in, and unsettle, the supposedly ordered rational nature of secular politics.”

It is increasingly clear that the delineation of the public and private areas of life as represented by the secularization model is no longer — and perhaps never was — an accurate depiction of the reality of life anywhere in the world. The authors, and indeed many up-and-coming IR scholars, advocate for a “post-secularist” understanding of interactions between religion and politics, and acknowledge that the two cannot be neatly separated. “Many Western theorists presuppose secularism for the nation-state framework… [which] may not in reality be a necessary component for the nation-state model.”

This idea has radical implications for the conduct of Western foreign policy and the way it attempts to — or refrains from — attempting to rebuild failed or unstable states, or encouraging democratization. “If the discipline is capable of understanding religion in its own language, without the need to ‘translate’ it into secular discourse,” the authors write, “IR can attribute a structural dimension to religion.”

* * *

The Source: “The Religious as Political and the Political as Religious: Globalization, Post-Secularism and the Shifting Boundaries of the Sacred” by Samantha May, Erin K. Wilson, Claudia Baumgart-Ochse, Faiz Sheikh, Politics, Religion & Ideology, 2014.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Ben McLeod

Read Next

How Democrats and Republicans (Mostly) Flipped on Education