The Role Religions Continue to Play in World Affairs

This article first appeared on the Hoover Institution site.

The modern world—or the era we blithely have been calling “modern”—has defined itself against religion.

The Treaty of Westphalia, which inaugurated today’s international state system, pushed religion to diplomacy’s margins to avoid, it was hoped, further wars of religion, such as the Thirty Years’ War from 1618–1648.

Gibbon’s 1776 Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire “struck by far the heaviest blow which [Christianity] had yet received from any single hand,” in the words of the Victorian critic Sir Leslie Stephen.

In his epoch-defining brief essay, “What is Enlightenment?” (1784), Immanuel Kant declared that it “is Man’s leaving his self-caused immaturity. Immaturity is the incapacity to use one’s intelligence without the guidance of another…If I have a book which provides meaning for me (i.e. a Bible), a pastor who has conscience for me…I do not have any need to think.”

The Enlightenment would later be labeled “the rise of modern paganism.” Nietzsche’s masterwork, On the Genealogy of Morality, put forth a logic chain: religion invented morality as the weapon by which the weak produced civilization to suppress all that is strong and noble in mankind. Modernity, as civilization’s epitome, is repulsive and must be overturned in order to deny religion its wrongful victory.

Along the way, Karl Marx would declare religion to be “the opiate of the masses,” a solace for those alienated from themselves by bourgeois oppression.

Max Weber, accepting modernity as humanity’s proud achievement, concluded that people everywhere, as they progressively entered the modern world, would inexorably cast aside their religious faith. Thus, to be modern, one must turn away from religion.

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Similar observations proliferated. In poetry, Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” described the sea of faith’s “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.” A century later, John Updike’s most profound novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, depicts an American preacher’s loss of faith as a poignant farewell to the American soul itself, a death-blow to the national character later chronicled in painful detail by Joseph Bottum in an essay for First Things titled, “The Death of Protestant America” —a collapse as sudden and irresistible as that of New England Puritanism described in the nineteenth century by Oliver Wendell Holmes’s “The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay.”

But religion, supposedly relegated to inconsequence by the Treaty of Westphalia, never went away.

BRD-004 A 1998 German postage stamp, designed by Manfred Gottschall to mark the 350th anniversary of the Treaty of Westphalia. Charles Hill writes that the Treaty pushed religion to diplomacy’s margins to avoid, it was hoped, further wars of religion, such as the Thirty Years’ War from 1618–1648. Modern diplomacy’s dismissal of religion as a factor has been a monumental mistake. Bundespost, public domain

Louis XIV, recognizing that the new “modern” state was a highly effective mechanism for raising revenue and mobilizing manpower, made the service of The Mass the social center of his court so that France remained “The Eldest Daughter of the Church.”

Then came the French Revolution, which would not succeed, it was said, “until the last aristocrat was strangled with the entrails of the last Cardinal.” But Napoleon, declaring “I am the Revolution,” crowned himself emperor in a sacred ceremony in the Cathedral of Reims in the presence of Pope Pius VII.

And, after Napoleon’s defeats, the Congress of Vienna (1814) sought to restore legitimacy for the nineteenth century by restoring divine right–authorized royal-imperial households to power in Westphalian-style states, a system which Otto von Bismarck would deconstruct by unifying a Prussian-dominated Germany through complex manipulations of Europe’s Catholic-Protestant rivalries.

The First World War has been reinterpreted persuasively as “the great and holy war” and even a “religious crusade” by the historian Philip Jenkins. And a sweeping narrative of religion in American war and diplomacy, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith, by the historian Andrew Preston, has cast new light on religion’s effect on the U.S. role in the world since the founding of the republic.

But in a triumph of theory over fact, diplomats, mesmerized by the Westphalian decision that claims of religion should not be heard in the corridors of power, cited the absence of major religious wars across the modern period as evidence that modernity was history’s first faith-free, fully secular age.

The reality that religion-driven movements were underway in every part of the world—Shinto in Japan, Buddhism in Vietnam, “Tamil Tigers” in Sri Lanka, Protestant-Catholic clashes in Northern Ireland, Pentecostalism and Liberation Theology in Latin America—made little or no impact on the Department of State.

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When occasionally a briefing or an action memorandum might swim up the stream of command from a junior desk officer calling attention to a religiously motivated factor in foreign relations, it quickly would expire for want of required “clearances” up the line.

This blinkered view of the world meant that diplomatic analysts could not accurately interpret the emergence, rise and growth, in fervor and extent, of a radical Islamist movement determined to restore Muslim political, ideological and theological power that had collapsed in 1924 with the end of the Ottoman Empire and Caliphate.

The sudden violent shift by many supporters of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s goal of a “democratic socialist secular state” toward an extreme Islamist outcome was misinterpreted as no more than further evidence of actions carried out for strictly political purposes by people who had no other avenues of expression.

When the Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 revolution overthrew the Shah to establish the first Islamist rule over a recognized state in the Westphalian international system, U.S. Foreign Service specialists on Iran hurried with assurances that nothing of serious religious significance had occurred and that the U.S. could “do business” with what would be just another pragmatic Middle Eastern regime.

And when Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981, the “political cone” of the U.S. Foreign Service (including this writer) considered it a purely political act carried out in support of the Palestinians.

Not until after the 1993 Islamist bombing of the World Trade Center did a review of the old video tapes of the Sadat assassination enable diplomats to “see” for the first time that the imprisoned perpetrators were openly declaring the religious inspiration behind their actions.

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A revised interpretation of the modern centuries reveals an age assumed to be secular but actually suffused with religious politics and aggressions world-wide—with America as “the Leader of the Free World” acting on an unacknowledged spiritual basis.

A quarter-century ago, Harold Bloom predicted that if we “were intended to be a spirit among the nations of the world, then the twenty-first century will mark a full-scale return to the wars of religion.”

Modern diplomacy’s dismissal of religion as a factor in world affairs thus was a monumental mistake.

Religion is a constant element in the human condition. To Aristotle, “man is the political animal”; to Adam Smith, man is the trading animal. Here we posit man as the religious animal.

If religion is always with us, it is at the same time true that religions are always evolving. Core beliefs and practices may not change, but peripheral concerns may evolve in new directions and departures as religions “learn” over time.

Karl Jaspers discerned that some form of global-scale spiritual development happened during the Eighth to Second Centuries B.C. in China, India, Persia and the Eastern Mediterranean, a move from magical polytheism to religion more as we think of it today.

And the tectonic shift in the early modern matrix of Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment prioritized man ahead of God, and science above all. The chaotic years of this new twenty-first century might summon another such seismic shift.

Some points to consider might include:

  • Almost all of the great religions prescribe peace, harmony and a universalist inclusiveness.

  • At the same time, almost all religions contain exhortations that can incite and provide internal legitimacy to violence against others.

  • Modern experience offers evidence that the post-Westphalian conclusion that all religions are “causes of quarrel” was mistaken and indeed has been misappropriated by some seemingly secular states to support their own international security decisions for war.

If the time for a general reappraisal has come, the task would fall on both state-to-state diplomacy and interfaith relations among religions—and on each with the other. Current international concerns involving freedom of religion would need to be supplemented by transformative movements within religions.

The American approach, traceable to the founding documents of the United States, may offer a way forward internationally. “Freedom of religion” in the United States is not based on a recognition of substantive value in religious belief but on the imperative to prevent any one religion from predominating throughout the land.

This is a procedural, not substantive, approach; its corollaries are pluralism, diversity and the dualities of church and state, public and private, individual and community.

Somehow, improbable as it may seem, all major world religions in their American forms—Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism (even if not exactly a religion), Islam and others—have enabled themselves to adapt and thrive in this New World environment, able to adjust to sharing the public space in mutual respect.

Islam in its own originating realm of Dar Al-Islam most prominently now faces this challenge. A vast civil war is now underway within Islam over whether it will be a member of the established international system or will define itself as adversarial to it, as when Samuel Huntington pointed out some twenty-five years ago, “Islam has bloody borders.”

All across Islam’s fourteen centuries are examples of grand and gracious Muslim polities, and today’s American-Muslim population has provided demonstrations that the faith can be both uniate and multifarious.

Religions are languages, which when learned produce further knowledge. Religions need to learn each other’s languages in contributing both to the rectification of diplomacy’s modern mistake and to yet another advance in the shared consciousness of all peoples.

Charles Hill, a career minister in the US Foreign Service, is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. Hill was executive aide to former US secretary of state George P. Shultz (1985–89) and served as special consultant on policy to the secretary-general of the United Nations (1992–96). He is also the Brady-Johnson Distinguished Fellow in Grand Strategy and a senior lecturer in humanities at Yale.

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