Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Our Religious Problem: The Thesis of the Two Fundamentalisms and How It's Hurting Our Foreign Policy

Although James Ceaser teaches American Government at the University of Virginia, the current conventional boundaries of political science are inadequate for categorizing him. This unusual student of parties and the presidency now gives us a framework with which to think about religion and politics in the Middle East, observing that most Western intellectuals, preoccupied with the role of religion in Western societies, have proved incapable of honestly assessing the political changes in the region.

First of all, Ceaser notes that religion hasn't exactly been hostile to elections in Iraq. The Dawa party's victory in the first Iraqi elections in January 2005 reflected the importance of Islam in local political cultures, and the cooperation of religious elements with other parts of Iraqi society "were. . . . instrumental in navigating the long process that ended the other week in securing adoption of a new democratic constitution."

Of course, things do not always go so smoothly with religion. Ceaser quotes David Hume's remark, "[f]or as each sect is positive that its own faith and worship are entirely acceptable to the deity, the several sects fall naturally into animosity and mutually discharge on each other that sacred zeal and rancour, the most furious of an implacable of all human passions." As a result, many in the West fear that opening the door to democracy means allowing populist religious fundamentalism to establish a theocracy. This fear has perpetuated a situation of autocratic regimes (which seem preferable to theocratic ones) "shaking down Western nations for money or concessions" -- and of hypocritical Western intellectuals and journalists attacking America simultaneously both for its cynicism in overlooking the abuses of the autocracies and for its naivete in supporting supposedly democratic reform.

Unfortunately, sophisticated Western observers have also taken to equating religious fundamentalism in the U.S. with Islamic fundamentalism and blame the West for provoking the attacks of 9/11. Accordingly, intellectuals think that the most important question or dichotomy they confront is not the one between liberal democracy and its enemies, but between religious fundamentalists (both Christian and Muslim) and secularists. Extending the argument from his book Reconstructing America, Ceaser maintains that the word "Bush" is a trope with metaphysical content that stands for something like religious fundamentalism or a worldview alien to postmodern Europe.

This new understanding of America is in marked contrast to an older view propounded by the sociologist Max Weber, who described America as boring, a place where the tedious tasks of moneymaking dominated people's lives and religion was weak. America was a modern juggernaut that destroyed tradition, according to Weber. Martin Heidegger extended this view, arguing that Americanism and Bolshevism represented "the same dreary technological frenzy and the same unrestricted organization of the average man."

So now Europe thinks that it is leading the way to the future and that it is unfortunately squeezed between two antiquated, idiotic fundamentalisms. Its criticisms of America are not so much that America is too modern, too destructive of tradition, but that it's not modern, secular, or post-religious enough. The new dichotomy is between postmodern, post-religious Europe, which represents a more expansive kind of universalism than America, and the backward, "dogmatic universalism" of America, which is (somehow) religiously-based.

This is the worldview that informs sophisticated commentary on foreign affairs, and its mistakes are crippling how we think about and how we conduct foreign policy. The West is roughly divided between religious people and those advocating a more postmodern, post-religious ethos, but this split doesn't provide any meaningful framework for understanding foreign policy. As Ceaser puts it, "Constructing the international situation on this basis is a strategy calculated more to promote the domestic project of Western opponents of religion than to assist in understanding the problems we confront."

The thesis of the two fundamentalisms allows opponents of religion in the West to satisfy themselves that religion must also be the cause of our foreign policy difficulties. But this facile conclusion does us enormous political damage because it forces us to deny the possibility of democracy in the Middle East. If American Christians aren't liberal and democratic, after all, the possibility cannot exist for Middle Eastern Muslims to be liberal and democratic either. Ceaser contends that we're avoiding thinking about the special challenges Islam poses to democracy and the competing traditions within Islam when we simply bow to the politically correct notion that all religion is hostile to liberal democracy. We cannot deal with the religious problem in the Middle East before we deal with our inability to think more clearly about religion in the West.

Ceaser concludes with an excerpt from a speech he gave in Turkey as a guest of the State Department. The speech was about many aspects of America, but his audience was most interested in the part dealing with religious freedom. Impressed with the discussion that this part of his speech generated, Ceaser remarks that "the religious in other societies who are beginning to be involved in the democratic process are naturally more interested in entering into a dialogue with those in the West who have religious concerns than with those who are devoted to postmodern philosophy." Our best chance at encouraging democracy entails subduing our sectarian conflicts when it comes to thinking about foreign policy and understating that the religious component of contemporary America can be as helpful an asset as the secular component.

From a theoretical perspective not unsympathetic to Ceaser's, one could say that the postmodernists have a point and that there is a greater tension between religion and liberal democracy than he acknowledges. It deals a serious blow to religion, after all, to argue that we once lived like animals in a state of nature, that that condition reveals that we have natural rights, and that the purpose of government is, therefore, not to engage in the formation of our character but to protect those rights. But Ceaser might reply that political science can't simply dwell in theoretical constructs.


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