Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents

Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents

Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents

Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents


For eight years the president of the United States was a born-again Christian, backed by well-organized evangelicals who often seemed intent on erasing the church-state divide. In Europe, the increasing number of radicalized Muslims is creating widespread fear that Islam is undermining Western-style liberal democracy. And even in polytheistic Asia, the development of democracy has been hindered in some countries, particularly China, by a long history in which religion was tightly linked to the state.

Ian Buruma is the first writer to provide a sharp-eyed look at the tensions between religion and politics on three continents. Drawing on many contemporary and historical examples, he argues that the violent passions inspired by religion must be tamed in order to make democracy work.

Comparing the United States and Europe, Buruma asks why so many Americans--and so few Europeans--see religion as a help to democracy. Turning to China and Japan, he disputes the notion that only monotheistic religions pose problems for secular politics. Finally, he reconsiders the story of radical Islam in contemporary Europe, from the case of Salman Rushdie to the murder of Theo van Gogh. Sparing no one, Buruma exposes the follies of the current culture war between defenders of "Western values" and "multiculturalists," and explains that the creation of a democratic European Islam is not only possible, but necessary.

Presenting a challenge to dogmatic believers and dogmatic secularists alike, Taming the Gods powerfully argues that religion and democracy can be compatible--but only if religious and secular authorities are kept firmly apart.


The fact that religion is back is more newsworthy in Europe than in the United States, where religion was never supposed to have been away. But even in the United States, for about half a century between the 1920s and the 1970s, organized religion had not been a major politi- cal force. It was always there, especially outside the urban areas, as a social phenomenon. And it impinged on poli- tics. John F. Kennedy, not an especially pious man, had to reassure the voters that he would never take orders from the Vatican. It would have been impossible for a candidate who openly professed disbelief to become president of the United States, and it still is. But Jimmy Garter's compul- sion to spread the good news of his born-again faith was something of an anomaly. He was a political liberal, how- ever, who never allowed religious authority to interfere with his politics. Since then, the influence of evangelical Christianity in the political arena has grown, mainly but not exclusively as a right-wing, socially conservative force.

Especially during the eight years of George W. Bush's ad- ministration, it was a commonplace in Europe to contrast the secular nature of the Old World to the religiosity of the United States. When the ideological positions that had hitched Western Europe and the United States together during the cold war became redundant after 1989, people . . .

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