The Clash of Public Theologies? Rethinking the Concept of Religion in Global Politics

By Sandal, Nukhet Ahu | Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, February 2012 | Go to article overview

The Clash of Public Theologies? Rethinking the Concept of Religion in Global Politics


Sandal, Nukhet Ahu, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political


Abstract

Religion has been used by many scholars as an analytical category and an independent variable to account for the variances in governance and political violence. Very often, religion is decontex-tuafized, resulting in confusions about the character of specific faith traditions. This article suggests an alternative framework by looking at the conceptualization and possible operationalization of the concept of public theology. In cases where "religion" might be conceptually ambivalent, a public theology framework with substantive, spiritual, spatial, and temporal dimensions can provide a sounder theorization of peaceful/violent or exclusive/inclusive strands of faith traditions and the relationship among them. Focusing on manifestations and public understandings instead of the religion itself, it also relieves political analysis from sensitive questions about what religious texts say and how traditions should be represented.

Keywords

religion, public theology, global governance, international relations, conflict and cooperation

Issues of faith and spirituality were on the backburner of the systematic study of international relations for some time. Scholars believed the era of "religious wars" to be over.' They regarded the violence unleashed during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe as stemming from an irrational obsession with religious ideals. Until recently, "religion" has been treated as a cause of violence and an aberration in politics, not a concept that deserves systematic and in-depth investigation, despite the role it played in establishing the contemporary international system. (2) The study of international relations in the United States, influenced more by positivist traditions rather than philosophy and theology, especially tended to minimize the significance of religion. The priority given to material capabilities during the cold war political investigations further consolidated this trend. Despite the presence of the English School (e.g., Martin Wight and Hedley Bull) and figures like Reinhold Niebuhr, who did take religion into account, it took a long time for most international relations scholars to recognize the importance of faith issues. (3)

With the end of the cold war, many though not all scholars welcomed the shift to "identity" from existing paradigms that prioritized material conceptions of power and alliances. The collapse of communism allowed the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church to reclaim some of their power in the public sphere, and the legacy of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 continued to dramatically influence Islamic movements. Frustrations with modernity and the promises it failed to deliver led to rise of other alternative public agendas, as manifested by the Charismatic Movements, Pentecostalism, and political Islam, among many. The secular nationalism projects of the 1960s and the 1970s were challenged by religious counterparts promising a development trajectory true to faith and spirituality. The advance of new modes of communications made the connections among the like-minded groups easier and provided religious groups with the opportunity to organize more efficiently. In short, although religion has perhaps always been a force in politics, in the 1990s tensions between the religious and the secular in the political sphere became increasingly difficult to ignore. (4) The interest in these tensions doubled after September 11 attacks, which drew more attention to claims about fundamentalism. Accordingly, there has been an increase in the number of studies focusing on religion and its role in international politics. (5)

In the light of this proliferation, this article argues that there are many faith-related issues of public and political interest that cannot always be captured by "religion" as an analytical concept, and it proposes "public theology" as an alternative. Religion has recently been employed by many scholars as an independent variable with high explanatory power and even as a "sufficient condition" that can explain the existence or absence of political phenomena. …

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