‘Reddite quae sunt Caesaris Caesari’: Secularism in international politics

By Andreas Pacher | 29 January 2018

To quote this document: Andreas Pacher, “‘Reddite quae sunt Caesaris Caesari’: Secularism in international politics”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Monday 29 January 2018, http://www.nouvelle-europe.eu/node/2011, displayed on 02 June 2023

The alleged dichotomy between the ‘religious’ and the ‘political’ constitutes a secularist lens which is being increasingly contested as artificial. A leading journal of International Relations traces this division back to the long 19th century – but the intellectual pedigree of secularism dates much deeper back to Antiquity. 

Secularism in the long 19th century

A superficial glance into today’s news suffices to ascertain that religious aspects are deeply entangled with world politics: Accumulating signs of lukewarm diplomatic relations between the Holy See and China; the rise and demise of the Islamic State amidst a conundrum of Islamist counter-movements; flaring fights over the status of Jerusalem; a politicized Hindu nationalism anchoring itself into Indian politics; the visibility of Buddhists depicted as ‘hardliners’ against Muslim Rohingyas; and so forth . . . 

These examples of religious-political linkages all lie outside Europe, but this does not mean that ‘secularism’ has not ‘progressed’ towards these areas yet (as the teleological Secularization Theory would interpret it). The intertwining of official Catholic representation into EU institutions is similarly complex: The COMECE (Commission of the Bishops' Conferences of the European Community) is registered in the EU’s Transparency Register alongside 35 other groups containing “Church” in their name, and orders, congregations and other subgroups which act Europe-wide with Papal approbation regularly involve themselves with religious claims in political matters. They include so heterogenous institutions such as Caritas Europa, the Jesuit European Social Centre, or the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, each of which have their descending regional networks in various EU member states and beyond. 

How many political scientists have undertaken a rigorous analysis of these contemporary entanglements between the ‘religious’ and the ‘political’? Almost none, and the reason for this is a secularism deeply rooted in the 19th century-intellectual origins of political science – at least according to a paper published in the European Journal of International Relations, one of the leading intellectual journals on world politics. In fact, the very distinction between the ‘religious’ and the ‘political’ is one, according to that paper, which was only substantiated by the secular lens of the ‘long 19th century’ (i.e. the period between 1789 to 1914).

As Jonathan C. Agensky, the author of the paper (who holds a PhD from Cambridge and who is now an Assistant Professor at the University of Ohio), writes, “IR’s [International Relations’] misrecognition of religion is part of a broader epistemic condition” (9). To him, religion and politics are not separate, but mutually co-constituted through historical processes embodied in practices, discourses and analyses. He thus cites the famous dictum that religion itself was merely an invention of liberal modernity.

Quickly bypassing the preceding millennia human history, Agensky provides an overview of the ‘long 19th century’, a period understood to be the birth of the modern world: The age of revolutions in the U.S. and in France, the European upheavals of 1848, the Crimean War originating in petty quarrels from Ottoman Palestine, the growth of the Atlantic powers’ financial and political clout, the rebellions in colonial India and in humiliated China – all these events, he argues, testify to the growing interconnectedness of the world. Moreover, “[a] principal feature of this period was the expansion of European power across Africa, Asia, and the Americas” (p. 12), a colonialist undertaking which caused uniformities among global state institutions, economy and ideologies.

The author then outlines how Western societies went on to secularize the public sphere all around the world. Colonial endeavors, he writes, were not only “predatory”, but “also social – a site of encounter between various types of actors” (p. 14). He argues that imperialists observed and enacted top-down interactions with natives whose local religions were categorized, standardized, sometimes eradicated, often under the guise of collecting “‘usable knowledge’ for the purposes of government”, a process which gradually “shaped the epistemic spaces of empire” (p. 14). The natives’ beliefs from colonial settings were also used as lessons for the imperialists’ own social order at home, which usually ended up in naturally claiming a superiority of Christianity against the counter-examples of the local religions.

According to the author, these practices and discourses were not disrupted with the end of the long 19th century, i.e. with the First World War; but it rather continues to live in contemporary dynamics today: Our current “aid and security arrangements; [the] increasingly networked and globalized modes of collective religious action; and the frameworks in which these developments are described” (p. 16) – all these contemporary political processes are inhabited by the secular-colonialist traces of the long 19th century. This is particularly illustrated in our artificial dichotomy between the sphere of religion (which is allegedly individual, ideational, irrational) and that of politics (allegedly public, material, and rational).  

Theological origins of International Relations

Certainly, Agensky’s paper is highly laudable: It takes the long-neglected role of religion in international politics seriously. Well until the second half of the 20th century, the beginnings of the discipline of IR took place in a rich dialogue between Christian theologians and political jurists. Classical works included titles such as Herbert Butterfield’s Christianity and History (1949), Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), or John C. Bennett’s Christian Realism (1941).This period witnessed a ‘Christian revival’ inspired by St. Augustine’s reflections on the degree to which transcendental values cherished should and can be invested into the day-to-day politics of the Roman Empire (cf. Epp 1991). The whole discipline of IR as we know it today was deeply shaped by this so-called ‘Augustinian moment’ (Guilhot 2010, 227). The influential political thinker Carl Schmitt, from whom whole genealogies of dominant IR theories spawn, had once pointed out that “[a]ll significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts” (Schmitt 1922 [2005], p. 36).

However, Carl Schmitt and his political theology became an untenable referent point after 1945 due to his Nazi past. The eminent scholar on IR, Hans J. Morgenthau, translated some of Schmitt’s politico-religious concepts into a secularized language, and IR slowly turned blind towards the dialogic potential of theology (Kubálková 2000). This secularizing, rigorously positivist development culminated in Kenneth Waltz’s overly rational and semi-mechanistic theory of IR (1959), which “signaled the end of the theological moment” (Guilhot 2010, 225). It decoupled the metaphysical underpinnings of IR – giving rise to ‘scientific’ trends embodied in quantitative positivism and formalistic modeling techniques devoid of any respect for the place of values which lies “at the heart of human experience” (Kubálková 2006, 149). It was only after the fateful events of 9/11 and thereafter that serious castigations about IR’s inability to understand religion’s impact on politics emerged (Keohane 2002), which then gave rise to studies about the connection between religion and violence (mostly centering around Islamist terrorism), and only in the very fringes do examinations of other aspects of religion’s role in IR slowly emerge (e.g. Chong & Troy 2011). 

Another reason for complimenting the paper is that such a historical approach to IR uncovers path-dependent biases of scholarship.  “[M]odern social science is only 200 years old, and IR only half that age” (Kubalkova 148). This timeline already indicates that (international) political science indeed owes its origin to the ‘long 19th century’, and others have made these roots very clear – such as by tracing various thinkers’, including Henry Kissinger’s, intellectual origin in the Bismarckian age of the post-Kantian and post-Nietzschean German Kulturpessimismus (Gismondi 2004). 

From Plato to Pope Francis

While Agensky’s efforts are highly welcome, it would be even more welcome to obtain a greater historical picture of the origins of secularism. The paper frames the long 19th century as an ample treasure providing us with the whole response to our current (mis-)understanding of religion and politics. Our secularist lens is said to be ‘rooted’ in precisely that period, and, as Agensky repeatedly contends, it is also a ‘Eurocentric’ and ‘Western’ perspective. However, even a partial look at philosophical genealogies reveal us that the intellectual pedigrees of concepts often date back centuries, if not millennia. The same is true with our current secular understanding of religion, which has its origins not only in the 19th century, but rather in former centuries of Scholastic theologians based on reflections of Antiquity. And the more one digs into the genesis of such concepts, the more will one notice that the terms ‘Eurocentric’ and ‘Western’ are as questionable as the term ‘secular’, ‘political’ or ‘religious’.

Regarding the first point, while – as Agensky rightly points out – the long 19th century has done much to institutionalize and spread secularist thoughts over various continents, the roots of the religious-politics-divide is much older (Dulles 2007). It at least starts with Plato’s allegory of the cave when unbodily ideas were professed to hold greater values than worldly material entities. Jesus’ famous words “reddite igitur quae sunt Caesaris Caesari et quae sunt Dei Deo” (“render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's”, Mk 12,17) presaged a turbulent reception of this dichotomy. St. Ambrose (d. 397 AD) struggled with the degree to which he, as a cleric, could criticize a profane Byzantine leader. Pope Gelasius (d. 496 AD) alleged that there were two ‘swords’, one temporal and one spiritual, followed by later Popes’ affirmation of spiritual reign’s supremacy. The investiture controversy between the Popes (imperium sacerdotium) and the Emperors (imperium regnum), revolving around the question of who was eligible to appoint bishops, disembogued into the Concordat of Worms (1122) which legally fixed the differentiation between royal and spiritual powers. Papalists (such as St. Bernard of Clairvaux, d. 1153) postulated the primacy of the spiritual realm, while others such as Marsilius of Padua (1342) claimed the opposite. During the Counter-Reformation, Robert Bellarmine (d. 1621) and Francisco Suárez (d. 1617) again tackled St. Augustine’s question, this time advocating a separation between Church and State, but granting the Pope an indirect power to interfere in temporal affairs. The debate intensified during the ‘Roman Question’ (1870-1929), when the Pope was divested of his temporal territories in Italy. Some main documents which arose from the Second Vaticanum (1962-1965), such as Gaudium et spes, or Sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarum (a motu proprio regulating Papal diplomacy), indirectly upheld a secularist dichotomy, while recent encyclicals such as Pope Benedict XVI.’s Caritas in veritate (2009) or Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ (2015) seem to become more assertive in terms of Papal political involvement in human-centered politics. What this small overview demonstrates is that secularism is certainly not something born in the 19th century.  

In addition, the oft-used assertion that secularism is ‘Eurocentric’ and ‘Western’ employs unclear terms. Kwame Anthony Appiah’s ‘There is no such thing as western civilisation’ discloses the questionable background of the term ‘Western’, and emphasizes how the perennial global intellectual flows do not allow a clear distinction between ‘West’ and ‘East’ and similar denominations. Such terms make sense in polemical settings which seek to divide one alleged group from the other, but do not withstand deeper critiques.

Agensky’s endeavor of bringing back religion into international politics is worthy to be noticed and taken seriously within the field of IR (May et al. 2014). It is necessary to go beyond the state-centric vision of international politics in which political entities are only attributed with a hunger for power or survival. The undercurrents of Papal diplomacy or of Pan-Islamism and of many other issues with religious aspects crave for a thoughtful analysis, not only since 9/11. Agensky’s second impetus of understanding contemporary politics through a historic lens is likewise needed. But what would be more desirable is a deeper ‘sensus historicus’ reaching down into the profound depths of philosophical history, and on a more reconciliatory path far away from a misleading West-East-discourse.




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