Politics versus Religion

By Fischel, Jack | Midstream, January-February 2009 | Go to article overview

Politics versus Religion


Fischel, Jack, Midstream


Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics from the Great War to the War on Terror, Michael Burleigh, HarperCollins, 2007, 557 pp., $27.95

In April 2007 the Vatican ambassador to Israel announced that he would skip the official Holocaust Day ceremony at a national museum in Israel to protest the museum's depiction of Pope Pius XII as a largely passive bystander to the Nazi genocide of the Jews during World War II. The controversy over the pope's role during the Holocaust continues to be a point of contention and will remain so until historian's gain access to the Vatican archives covering the war years. Meanwhile the absence of a full record of Pope Pius XII's role during the Holocaust has not prevented historians from engaging in an often bitter and vitriolic debate on the subject.

Michael Burleigh, the author of nine books dealing with contemporary European history, including The Third Reich: A New History, weighs in on this dispute which is one among many controversial issues he undertakes in Sacred Causes, his provocative and comprehensive account of organized Christianity's response (especially the Catholic Church) to many of the major events of the past two centuries. This includes the rise of secular ideologies, such as totalitarianism, and in the aftermath of 9/11, the threat of Islam to a predominant Western Christian culture.

Sacred Causes is a continuation of Burleigh's 2005 work, Earthly Powers, which examined the clash of religion and politics from the French Revolution to World War I. In both works Burleigh argues that the moral and ethical foundations of Western civilization derive from Christianity and that since 1789, the primacy of Christian values has been undermined by the tenets of secular ideas. These include not only Liberalism but also ideologies such as Bolshevism, Fascism, and Nazism that have resulted in the annihilation of millions of innocent people. Ironically, notes Burleigh, Marxism, Fascism and the Nazis borrowed symbols from Christianity to create secular "religions" of their own based on a cult of personality, and a mystic fealty to the state, wherein a Mussolini, Lenin or Hitler, by virtue of their person incorporated the will of the nation. The "priesthood" of this new Church promised earthly salvation in return for support of their messianic mission, be it the thousand year Reich, the classless society, or the restoration of the glories of the Roman Empire. The new secular messianic ideologies, Burleigh argues, owed much to the ideas of the Enlightenment, which challenged Christianity's

hold on the moral and spiritual life of European society, and subordinated the churches to the will of the state.

The new political ideologies were grounded in familiar religious imagery so as to make their claims appealing to the masses. For example, as Burleigh informs us, "What Marx claimed to be scientific predictions were little more than messianic prophecies: giving both prophet and his disciples 'the assurance of things to be hoped for' even though the prophecies have virtually all turned out to be disastrously wrong." When Marxist theory predicts the triumph of the proletariat and the emergence of the classless society, Burleigh understands this as a secular version of the 'Last Judgment,' wherein, according to Marx, society evolves towards the revolutionary end-state and 'a new man' arises to populate the post apocalyptic age. "This vision," states Burleigh, "owed very little to science and much to religious eschatology."

That all of history points to an eschatological judgment day is grounded in the fabric of Western Christian civilization. Bureleigh notes that in the post-Enlightenment age, the expectation of a Messiah, who would redeem mankind from the grip of evil, was not dismissed as superstition but transformed into secularized political credos. During World War I, President Wilson invoked messianic imagery when he declared that the conflict against the Kaiser was a "war to end all wars. …

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