Archive for September, 2012

Religion, Politics and Liberal Democracy

Faith in Politics: Religion and Liberal Democracy by Bryan T. McGraw. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. £14.99, 328pp., ISBN 978 0 521 13042 4

The Political Origins of Religious Liberty by Anthony Gill. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. £19.99, 270pp, ISBN 978 0 521 61273 9

Religion has historically been at the centre of people’s understanding of their lives as well as the world and it has provided divine legitimacy to political authority. The occurrence of religious wars in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, resulted

in the decline of the public and political role of religion in modern society. Modernisation theorists also predicted that, with the advancement of science and technology, religion’s significance in society will decrease, leading to thorough secularisation. The secularization thesis argued for the separation of the church and the state and declared religion as incompatible with the idea of modernity and democracy. However, the recent resurgence of religion in the public and  political spheres and the increasing religious fundamentalism around the world has generated many questions about the role of religion in society and politics. It is in this context that Bryan McGraw’s Faith in Politics and Anthony Gill’s The Political Origins of Religious Liberty provide compelling and original insights on the interaction between religion and politics in modern society.












The central questions in McGraw’s book are: what challenges does the recent religious resurgence pose for liberal democracies around the world? Can liberal democracies accommodate the political demands of diverse religious groups in a peaceful manner? And can these diverse religious groups contribute positively to liberal democracy? It should be noted here that liberalism has always perceived religion as a threat. Scholars have argued that ‘religious nationalists’ (p. 6) pose dangerous threats to liberal and democratic political order. Contrary to this, McGraw argues that religious citizens and political parties can and do positively contribute to liberal democracy.  Following the work of John Tomasi, McGraw has identified three kinds of citizens on the basis of their relationship to liberalism: (1) liberals, who are fully committed to autonomy and individualism; (2) theocrats, who are opposed to liberal democratic claims; and (3) religious integrationists, who accept liberal principles but ‘base their decisions concerning fundamental issues of justice on their religious convictions’ (pp. 16–7). McGraw examines the role played by religious integrationists in relation to democracy. To do this he analysed the activities of religious-based political parties such as Belgium’s Catholic party, the Dutch Anti-revolutionary party, Germany’s Centre party and Austria’s Christian Social party, and he discovered that these parties not only built progressive ‘alternative civil societies’ (p. 46) but also effectively consolidated democratic politics in their respective countries. McGraw’s work establishes that ‘religion can be a boon to democratic government’ (p. 264) and he urges that ‘liberal theorists interested in making their democratic orders more durable should be more welcoming of religion’s political mobilization’ (p. 264).

Despite McGraw’s convincing arguments, however, we cannot deny that the politicisation of religion has led to violence. Ironically, despite decrying the potential threats from religion, liberalism cannot afford to suppress it since ‘religious liberty is a “first liberty” without which no state can reasonably be called liberal or democratic’ (p. 260). It is in this context that Anthony Gill’s book investigates the origins and development of religious liberty in the mundane world of politics. The central question he asks is: what motivates political leaders to create laws providing for greater religious liberty? Following a rational choice theory framework, Gill emphasises that the expansion of religious liberty is primarily contingent upon the ‘interests’ of religious actors and secular rulers, rather than ideas or culture.

Gill, in his discussion of the role of religious actors, points out that leaders of the dominant religion ‘prefer a regulatory regime that discriminates against religious minorities’ whereas ‘religious minorities will favour regulations that make it easier for their clergy and members to openly practice their faith and proselytise’ (p. 8); this ultimately leads to a conflict of interest. The most favourable context for religious freedom to flourish, therefore, is a society that is inhabited by a plurality of denominations. Although religious actors play a role, it is the political leaders who define the regulatory regime for religious freedom. Gill identifies three basic interests that political actors consider while promoting religious liberty: (1) their own political survival; (2) the need to raise government revenue; and (3) the ability to develop the economy (p. 9). Drawing on extensive case studies from colonial British America, Mexico and Latin America, and  Russia and the Baltics, Gill concludes that politics is a game of trade-offs, and regulating (or deregulating) the religious economy will depend on how well such regulation enhances the survival and well-being of politicians (p. 228).

Although McGraw’s analyses lack contemporaneity and Gill’s methodology is limited, these books provide an excellent introduction to the study of religion and politics. Both works depart from the usual abstract exercises in political theory and focus instead on historically oriented empirical research, to present political science as an empirical discipline. Both are intensely argued, theoretically sophisticated and empirically well supported. They are a delight to read and should be recommended to students of religious studies, political sociology and comparative politics.

Sarbeswar Sahoo

(University of Erfurt and Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi)


@ Political Studies Review, Vol.10, No.3, pp.443-44.

‘When History Hurts’: Writing about Violence in History

‘When History Hurts’: Writing about Violence in History

Joy Damousi

University of Melbourne

My chief concern in this paper is to explore the question: in what way does the history of twentieth century violence force us to reflect on the practice of the historian?

What is the most appropriate way to write about, for example, those who find themselves having to take action in the context of violence and atrocity? Is the most appropriate method to write about this question as historians through rational detachment, or by emotional involvement, or a combination of both approaches?  And is the responsibility of the historian to write with attention to morality and ethics, or when it comes to judgments about acts and choices involving violence, is the history discipline itself still grounded within a paradigm that is committed to ascertaining ‘what actually happened’ and largely confined to this question. These are of course century old questions – as old as the discipline of history itself.

I explore these wider questions by focusing on the cataclysmic events of the First and the Second World War.  They both involve the decisions of mothers in particular and the appeal to and by mothers to prevent further violence in war, especially of their children. I discuss the conscription campaigns of 1916 and 1917 in Australia and the predicament of mothers during the Greek Civil War. Both draw on the theme of the specific role of mothers in wartime, the issue of responsible mothering in the violence of war and their moral and ethical responsibilities in war as mothers.


@ Violence Studies Conference 2012, University of Newcastle, Australia