Robert Mixa, Research Assistant at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, reviews Michael Burleigh's two books,
Earthly Powers and
Sacred Causes, which provide a well-documented look at the historical conflict between religion and politics from the French Revolution to the present day.
Prior to making judgments on any issue, it is essential to know the history of it. Unfortunately, many do not do this, especially when it comes to the relationship between religion and politics. Simple narratives are much more comfortable than the complexities of reality for they allow us to feel a hint of justification. However, history does not afford us the pleasure of black and white narratives. Nor does it permit us to squeeze it into any ideology. History is much more opaque and resistant to any quick, ready-made explanations. Our challenge is to bracket off any prior judgments we may have and let the historical data speak for itself. Although it is demanding to the monkey mind, stifling to our baser desires and something we can never see completely, consideration of all sides of “the story” is our duty. We all know that a relentless pursuit of the truth is not the one thing motivating all historians. Frequently, self-interest, popularity, and the refusal to rethink assumptions warp their reading of the past. But if one were to accuse Michael Burleigh of this, he/she would be mistaken. He is the rare historian who is daring to present historical data without packaging it up in culturally acceptable terms and mythologies. In Earthly Powers and Sacred Causes, Burleigh analyzes of the clash between religion and politics from the French Revolution to the War on Terror showing that many of our narratives are either false and/or willfully distorted. Casting light on an unsettling past, these books show us that the religious nature of human beings is fundamental and that the religious vacuum created by the enlightenment has not liberated us but has enslaved us to the silly, and often violent, religious surrogates of the modern era.
Although awash with complexities, modern politics has continually violated the first commandment. In both Earthly Powers and Sacred Causes, Michael Burleigh argues that what we have designated as the political ideologies of the left and the right are not so much political ideologies, but surrogate religions. Paul Tillich, a Lutheran theologian of the twentieth-century, defined faith as ultimate concern. Because of our finitude and thirst for the infinite we experience a fundamental existential anxiety. To calm this anxiety we often latch our ultimate concern onto something, but that grasping never satisfies. St. Augustine speaks to this when he said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” So faith in some-thing never will quench the transcendental desires of our hearts. Only the God who is not a thing but simply is will satisfy. Modern political history is a paradigm case of people placing their faith in some-thing, failing to concern themselves with that which deserves their ultimate concern. This failure is not a trivial matter, for the worship of idols has dire consequences; it leads people to violently grasp for control of things beyond their control. No wonder it is no accident that false worship and violence go hand in hand.
The argument that religion causes violence is incomplete if by religion we mean something that is ancillary to the human person. In Earthly Powers and Sacred Causes, Burleigh demonstrates by numerous examples that religion is at the core of the human person pervading everything marked by humanity. The success of many political forms in uniting people in community has been its ability to hijack religious sentiment and language for its purposes. Although many factors contributed to this, religious hijacking was made possible due to the extensive de-Christianization of Europe during the nineteenth century. European hearts continued to pump religious blood, but their hearts became attached to foolish things that caused them to pump religious rage when the possession of those things became tenuous. The Jacobins of the French Revolution attempted to unite people in their Cult of Reason. The Bolsheviks of Russia did so through Communism. The Fascists and National Socialists used race and nationalism. All of these groups used massive violence to accomplish their goals. However, all of these utopian projects have failed. Why is that? Was it bad timing and/or poor strategy? Did they give up and not eliminate the ‘parasites’? As mentioned earlier, a better explanation is that these religious surrogates were missing the one thing necessary: God. But Christians acted violently as well. Does that mean that Christianity should be placed in the category of violent totalitarianism? Christians who enmesh God with their own idols do not worship the God who says, “I Am who I Am” (Exod. 3:14) and dies on a cross. Here is a God beyond the finitude that we can fully know and control, and one who absorbs violence instead of perpetuating it. Most of the time, our ultimate concern is latched onto some-thing that is selectively chosen by the self or people seeking power over the masses. These gods are not universal to humanity but particular to oneself or a cultural construct– Aryan, proletariat, republican, American, Christian, and Muslim -, thus excluding others. Worship that is not directed to the God who merits our ultimate concern and desires true peace among all people is the worship of an idol.
Although many aspire to base their lives entirely on fact, Burleigh recognizes that humans have a need to believe in something. Earthly Powers and Sacred Causes are warnings of what happens when that need is directed towards the wrong thing. Also, they remind us of the espousal of simple narratives used to legitimize self-righteousness, especially in the case of the State congratulating itself as the progenitor of peaceful society. Burleigh does not spare criticism for all sides, and his books are a corrective to the narratives of self-righteousness.
These books are a must read for anyone interested in the clash between religion and politics since the French Revolution. Wonderfully written and full of detail, they show us the darkness of the Enlightenment and its aftermath. But it must be emphasized that Burleigh does not write as an apologist for either the right or the left. Rather, he is a gadfly for both sides. If you are looking for an honest portrayal of the past two centuries, read these books.