Tom Cerber, back in the blogging saddle after a bit of an absence, notes this book review in todays NYT. Cerber notes one of the smartest passages from Mark Lillas review of Michael Burleighs Earthly Powers, which covers the history of religion and politics in Europe during the long 19th century. Heres the less satisfying conclusion:
The West as a whole, and not just Europe, faces a double political challenge from religion today. One is to realize that the world is full of peoples whose genuine faith in the divine gives them a precise, revealed blueprint for political life, which means that for the foreseeable future they will not enter into the family of liberal democratic nations. Only if we give up the fantasy of a universal historical process driving all nations toward a secular modernity can we face this fact squarely and humanely.
The other challenge is to learn how to distinguish between those whose political programs are inspired by genuine faith, and those whose defense of religion is inspired by a reactionary utopianism having less to do with God than with redirecting the faulty course of history. In radical Islam we find both phenomena today, authentic faith and antimodern fanaticism, shaken together into an explosive cocktail.
And even in the United States we are witnessing the instrumentalization of religion by those who evidently care less about our souls, or even their own, than about reversing the flow of American history since the "apocalypse" of the 60s. Michael Burleighs book shows how difficult it was for Europe to cope with both these challenges as recently as the 19th century. It is no easier for us today.
What Lilla doesnt tell us is whether its possible for there to be authentic religion in a liberal democracy, whether the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberal democracy are potentially complementary or necessarily at odds. This interesting inquiry is short-circuited by the need to take a swipe at some fellow citizens he dislikes.