Secular Britain was shocked last weekend when Prime Minister Tony Blair said that God would be his judge over the war in Iraq. Similarly, President George W. Bush has often used God to justify the war on terror as a religiously blessed and righteous campaign against “evil doers.” Predictably, those who oppose the war view themselves as secular progressives untainted by religious fundamentalism and the madness it produces.
Unfortunately for liberals, the origins of Bush’s and Blair’s religious convictions lie not within Christianity but rather within the history of Western modernization and, most important, within contemporary liberalism itself.
Religious fundamentalism has often been used to justify extreme political ideologies. Currently both sides of the war on terror legitimate their actions by perverted theological reasoning.
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The neo-cons and their acolytes have launched a unilateral pre-emptive conflict, masquerading as a “just war,” with horrendous consequences. In the name of good versus evil, people are being killed, imprisoned and tortured with impunity. Likewise, in a quest to rebuild and expand the imperial Caliphate, Al Qaeda and its henchmen are engaged in a modern variant of jihad: They have removed all traditional Islamic limits on warfare, propagating instead mass civilian death via the suicide of their followers.
The usurpation of the great faiths by secular ideology is not usually recognized. This process has a historical and a contemporary dimension. For all the major monotheistic faiths, their primary historical distortion lies with their utilization for the purposes of state formation and nationalism.
Both Judaism and Islam suffer from being religions that are synonymous with the construction of states and political power. This was recognized within Judaism by a constant tension between the prophets and the kings, with the former always calling the latter back to a true righteousness untouched by the corruption of power and avarice.
Islam had a not dissimilar distinction, with the imams often limiting the political ambit of the caliphs, directing them to a properly configured vision of an Islamic polity. It is disastrous that both of these critical religious legacies have been lost to a secular politics that now has no limits.
Christianity had a better start. For almost three centuries it avoided capture by the logic of the state, and was able to form human beings into a community that transcended class, race and geography. This tradition was eclipsed in A.D. 325, when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Since states put a premium on conformity and political allegiance, religion became a primary way to ensure mass compliance with state authority.
This dubious historical legacy was further compromised when, in the so-called wars of religion of the 16th century, European princes competed for power. Notions of race and nation were deployed alongside religion to formulate political identities that were ethnically and culturally exclusive. Historically speaking, secular nationalism and racism undermined religion’s universal claims and tied faith to state power.
Contemporary liberalism has championed the secularization of both religion and politics. In the name of tolerance and pluralism, secular liberals relegated religion to the private sphere. By denying religion any public import, this hitherto shared realm became drained of any objective moral beliefs. Society was atomized and culture surrendered to relativism.
Paradoxically, by privatizing religion, secular settlements produced religious fundamentalism. Confined to the personal sphere, religion is deprived of civic engagement that would mitigate fanaticism and foster moderation, and faith answers to no authority other than subjective inner conscience.
Indeed, this is why Blair thinks the invasion of Iraq is consonant with his Christian beliefs: On television he explained, “The only way you can take a decision like that is to do the right thing according to your conscience.” The trouble is that once liberalism has surrendered any belief in objective truths, all personal subjective beliefs become true. Once all things are equally valid, the only way to attain supremacy is through war and power. Thus does liberalism make fundamentalists out of us all.
Hence, convinced of their own self-righteousness, Blair and Bush are blind to the reality of their actions. With religious zeal, they pursue their shared project to make Western hegemony irreversible. In so doing, they have embraced a profoundly secular logic – the destruction of traditional religion at home and abroad and the merciless expansion of market democracies across the globe. Blair and Bush seek to create a brave new world in the image of their faith, a vision that just happens to be irreconcilable with Christianity.
(Phillip Blond lectures in philosophy and religion at St. Martin’s College, Lancaster. Adrian Pabst is a doctoral candidate at Peterhouse, Cambridge University, and a research fellow at the Luxembourg Institute for European and International Studies.)