TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Religion, Politics, and Some Questions about Secularization

Time was when standard accounts of modernity and modernization involved the claim of pervasive secularization. Progress meant the disappearance of religion, clearing the way for the unchallenged reign of reason and science. Yet if anything has become clear in world politics in the past decade or two, it is the durability of religion and, especially, the mobilization of religion in political processes. At the same time, it has become apparent how complex and multiform the connection between religion and politics can become and how religion continues to pose new questions to the secularization thesis.

Telos has been addressing religion—to the consternation of some of our dogmatic secularist friends—for quite sometime, most recently in a special issue on Religion and the Critique of Modernity. Meanwhile Telos editorial associate Marcia Pally has been exploring aspects of American evangelical politics in fascinating detail. According to Pally, the Republican primary process has shown that the evangelical vote is far from monolithic, nor is it even consistently conservative. Evangelical youth in particular show attitudes toward issues such as environmentalism that are otherwise (mis)perceived to be the monopoly of the progressive left.

This disjunction between Christian evangelical politics and conservative positions poses the question as to what kind of larger systemic discrepancy might exist between Christian-defined politics and conventional conservatism. Are “Christian Democratic” parties necessarily of the Center-Right? Pally’s work suggests some instability in this traditional alliance—a line of thinking that might be transposed across the Atlantic, to Germany: is Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, for example, a conservative party? Some critics would say no.

Meanwhile in Germany, the contradictions of secularism have come to the fore in the debate over a campaign promoted by the Cologne salafist preacher Abu Nagie to distribute millions of German-language copies of the Koran at information stands placed prominently in center city pedestrian zones. While most political parties concede that the freedom of religion in Germany would protect such missionary activity—and it is missionary activity, since the Koran distribution is linked online to a conversion program—there is considerable public anxiety that the hidden agenda involves recruitment into a salafist network characterized by radical hostility to liberal democratic norms. Some German converts to Islam have been involved in terrorist plots, critics point out: is that the point of the conversion program, or is it only a matter of extreme exceptions?

At stake then is the question to secularism: can it define a border between legitimate religious practices, which need to be defended in the name of freedom and civil rights, and manipulative recruitment with ulterior motives? Can Germany permit space for Muslim missionary activity in pedestrian zones? Is this problem analogous to the U.S. debate over the Tennessee law to allow space for creationism in science class? Whatever the specific legislative or judicial outcomes, secular modernity continues to have problems with religion, not sure whether to ban it altogether from the public sphere.

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