Home / Articles / The Myth of the Secular: Religion, War, and Politics in the Twentieth Century
On December 31, 1977, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi hosted Jimmy Carter at a state dinner in Tehran.
The President took the occasion to laud Iran, a reliable U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf and the greater Middle East, as “an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world. . . . This is a great tribute to you, your majesty, and to your leadership and to the respect and the admiration and love which your people give to you.”
Just a few weeks later, strikes and protests erupted, which metastasized over the coming year into a revolution led by Shi’ite Muslims loyal to their exiled Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Khomeini. Nobody saw it coming, least of all the Central Intelligence Agency, but just thirteen months after Carter’s visit the Shah was in exile and his regime replaced by a theocratic Islamic Republic, whose leaders denounced the United States as the Great Satan.
Why did it come as a terrible shock? The revival of religious influences on international politics was already evident in the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian, Indian-Pakistani, and Northern Irish conflicts. Indeed, Carter himself made an ecumenical appeal for peace when the devout Southern Baptist brokered the 1978 Camp Accords between Israel and Egypt. Events in the subsequent decade repeatedly underscored the growing role of faith-based movements.
For instance, the Afghan mujaheddin who defied the Red Army were also Muslim jihadis who cried “Allah O Akbar” as they shot down Soviet helicopters with Stinger missiles. The Filipino Catholic Church was instrumental in the popular overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos regime. Liberation Theology, a volatile mix of Catholic social thought and Marxist analysis, inspired left-wing politics in Latin America. The Polish labor leader Lech Walesa and Pope John Paul II prayed to the Black Madonna of Czestochowa for divine protection over the Solidarity movement’s defiance of their Communist government. Lutheran churches encouraged the East German protests that toppled the Berlin Wall in 1989. Two years later, Russian Orthodox clergy and faithful babushkas shamed soldiers in Moscow into disobeying the orders of the Communist coup-plotters trying to save the Soviet Union. In 1994, Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu and penitent clergy in the Dutch Reformed Church were among the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. In fact, religious actors played important roles in the democratization of 48 countries between 1972 and 2009. But the dark side of the force was just as apparent in that Iranian Revolution, genocidal wars in the former Yugoslavia, the Al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001, and the insurgency following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which belatedly educated Americans about the ancient schism between Sunnis and Shi’ites.
During those decades, scholars in the field of international relations were obliged to admit that seemingly atavistic religious motivations still mattered a great deal after all. Hence the appearance of publications with such titles as “Religion: The Missing Dimension of Statecraft”; “Faith and Diplomacy in the International System”; “Religion and Security: The New Nexus in International Relations”; “Nations Under God: The Geopolitics of Faith in the Twenty-first Century”; “A ‘Turn to Religion’ in International Relations?”; “The Sacred and the Sovereign: Religion and International Politics”; “The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations”; “War, Religion, and Empire”; and “Religion in International Relations.”
Several distinguished political scientists acknowledged the prior shortcomings of their discipline. Jack Snyder wrote, “And yet the main canonical works of international relations theory, which continue to shape much empirical academic work, hardly mention religion. . . . The foundational statements of the three leading paradigms – by Kenneth Waltz for realism, Michael Doyle and Robert Keohane for liberalism, and Alexander Wendt for constructivism – offer no explicit guidance on how to do this, and in some cases imply that a role for religion may not be allowable within the logics of their paradigms.”
Likewise, Robert Jervis wrote, “Terrorism grounded in religion poses special problems for modern social science, which has paid little attention to religion, perhaps because most social scientists find this subject uninteresting if not embarrassing.”
Likewise, Edward Luttwak observed that “astonishingly persistent, Enlightenment prejudice has remained amply manifest in the contemporary professional analysis of foreign affairs. Policymakers, diplomats, journalists, and scholars who are ready to over-interpret economic causality, who are apt to dissect social differentiations most finely, and who will minutely categorize political affiliations, are still in the habit of disregarding the role of religion, religious institutions, and religious motivations in explaining politics and conflict.”
Even today, four decades after the Iranian revolution and two decades since 9/11, theorists in international relations have made little progress toward some new general theory in which religious motivations or institutions are treated as independent variables. What academics have mostly accomplished is to compile tedious lists of truisms that should have been obvious all along. For instance:
“Religion is relevant to all conflict, as it concerns life and death.
Religious conflicts tend to have higher levels of intensity.
Wars are longer in duration when religion is a major factor.
Over half of all contemporary conflicts have a significant religious dimension.
Religious leaders emerge as primary authority figures under conditions of state failure.
Religious factors are invariably related to ethnic group identity.
Religious factors are an essential component of effective conflict management.”
Or else social scientists have displayed their worst tendency, which is to generate gobbledygook. Try to parse this: “The neo-Weberian and other dialogical, ethics-based approaches, in turn, point to the internal workings and tensions as well as internal-external interactions of religious traditions in their contexts. In a similar vein, we assert that studies of religion in international relations, in order to avoid bad-good, problematic-beneficial, conflict prone-peaceful dichotomies, should instead treat religion as socially constructed practice and discourse.”
Why have scholars of international relations been so blind to the role of religion both before and after the 1970s?
At least five causes of that blindness leap immediately to mind. First, the scarcity of good literature on the subject is simple due to the paucity of academics and practitioners who display expertise in both fields. Those with a deep understanding of one or more religious traditions usually lack knowledge in—or experience of—the rough and tumble of politics. Those who are wise in the ways of statecraft are often out of their depth in spiritual matters. Second, a profound disconnect hampers analyses of the phenomenon simply because diplomacy is immanent—an arena of power with discernible material stakes—while religion is transcendent—an arena of faith in which motives and outcomes are unpredictable and immeasurable. The impact of charismatic individuals, not to mention divine Providence, is thus an unwelcome intruder confounding rational models of world politics based on balance of power, or economic self-interest, or comparative sociology. Scholars cannot make sense of occasions when worldly groups of people behave according to precepts not of this world.
A third source of blindness is the tendency of Western intellectuals to think in dichotomies. They set realism and idealism, or secular and religious, against each other as if they were mutually exclusive. In fact, the most profound Christian students of moral theology from Thomas Aquinas to Reinhold Niebuhr have understood that whatever is “unrealistic” (meaning contrary to natural law) cannot by definition be moral. In statecraft that would imply that the (utopian) pursuit of moral perfection through diplomacy or war is perversely to invite immoral results. To be sure, courage—perhaps born of religious faith—can sometimes expand the bounds of the possible, but politics remains, in Otto von Bismarck’s aphorism, the art of the possible. Hence, a genuinely moral statecraft accepts human nature as flawed, pursues limited aims, and acknowledges the contingency of all human creations. A genuinely moral statecraft upholds international order, hopes for peace but prepares in extremis to fight, practices proportionality of force, tempers justice with mercy, and is always prudent about ends and means. Unfortunately, the binary biases of most Western thought inhibits such subtle balance.
A fourth source of the blindness has been the unwarranted assumption since the late 19th century that a decline of religion is the inevitable byproduct of modernization. Hence, the followers of Max Weber, who coined the term Entzauberung (disenchantment), have made the same mistake as the followers of Karl Marx, who dismissed religion as the opiate of the masses. What sociologists failed to realize is that opiates are addictive (and can be therapeutic). That is why homo economicus or homo faber (the tool-maker) has always been homo religiosus as well. It took that eminent social scientist Ayatollah Khomeini to state the obvious in 1978: “The masses are naturally drawn to religion.” Max Weber was surely right to observe that industrial management, modern science, secular schools, and government agencies were taking over the epistemological, psychological, and social duties previously performed by religious institutions. So in functional terms modern societies seemed no longer to have use for religion. Moreover, American proponents of modernization theory such as Walt Rostow argued during the 1950s and ‘60s that since the conditions for economic take-off were the same for all countries, the processes of secularization would be similar for all countries. Of course, Rostow has been proven wrong. Not only did religion survive in the Third World, it has even survived in America. Ever since then, theorists have tried to account for the persistence of religious belief by imagining so many exceptions, counter-trends, and special cases that have come to resemble the cycles and epicycles of Ptolemy’s terracentric solar system.
Other scholars have made room for religion only as a dependent variable. For instance, “world system” theorists such as Immanuel Wallerstein have described the uneven effects that turbulent, inequitable capitalist markets have on locales and interpreted occasional religious revivals as psychological expressions of helplessness. That seems plausible, but if such structuralism is universalized it leaves no room at all for cult and culture as genuine inspirations for human behavior. The Frankfurt School of “critical theorists” focused instead on cultural evolution, but only within the context of socio-economic change. During the era of high industrialization, he observed, more advanced societies had displayed the expected retreat of religion. But in what Jürgen Habermas called the postmodern era, advanced societies have shifted their focus from productivity and distribution to “quality of life” issues such as the environment and expressive individualism. Hence, the renewed interest, not in religion per se, but spirituality in all its New Age manifestations. While largely true for Europe and North America, that shift in focus does not begin to explain Muslim fundamentalism, which is—if anything—in open rebellion against the postmodern West. Nevertheless, the Frankfurt School predicts this latest phase is sure to give way in time to universal humanism based on reason rather than superstition.
There is, however, a fifth source of the embarrassing blindness towards religion in world affairs: the hoary Enlightenment myth about the birth of the modern international system. According to that myth, the system sprang to life—like Athena from the head of Zeus—in the year 1648 when the Peace of Westphalia brought the curtain down on the age of the Religious Wars. According to that myth, 120 years of international and civil wars between Protestants and Catholics had been so destructive that Europe’s monarchs cried “Never again” and abruptly converted to secular principles such as state sovereignty, raison d’état, and the balance of power. But the truth was that myth had to be ruthlessly imposed, as Edward Luttwak observed: “Enlightenment publicists and philosophers wielded none of the torture instruments of the Catholic inquisitions, nor did they burn dissenters under some Protestant dispensation. But when it came to religion in all its aspects, they strangled free inquiry just as effectively by the commanding force of the fashion they imposed.” Ever since then, scholars of diplomatic history, political theory, and international law have perpetuated that myth so relentlessly that the recent literature about diplomacy and religion still parrots it.
Thus did the authoritative Oxford Encyclopedia on International Relations state in 2016 that IR theorists trace the system of sovereign states back to the Peace of Westphalia when temporal and spiritual authority were severed. Henceforth, religion played no role at all in Great Power politics except as a fig leaf cloaking “real motives” rooted in power and economics. Flip through almost any work of IR theory and you will find some version of this postulate: “The treaties of Westphalia . . . established political realism and raison d’état as the main principles of statecraft by replacing religion. . . . It can be argued that the Westphalian settlement established a political theology for modern international relations.” And again: “The Westphalian principles of nonintervention and domestic jurisdiction . . . which codified national sovereignty as the core premise of the nation-state system – served as the polestar that guided international relations and limited interstate conflict for several centuries, including the cold war years.”
That sentence from a 2003 book called The Sacred and the Sovereign is appallingly ignorant: how could its author possibly imagine the Napoleonic Wars and World Wars of the 20th century as examples of the limitation of conflict? But the author begins with the ritual bow to Westphalia as fons et origo of modern diplomacy, and goes on to describe the historic sea-change as follows. Prior to Westphalia, we read, the Medieval Archetype, or Res Publica Christiana, established four principles. First, faith and reason or religion and politics were not antagonistic, but ideally cooperative. Second, all authority vested in church and state derived from God. Third, temporal political and legal rule was an intermingling of overlapping authorities and jurisdictions: in short, the feudal system. And fourth, civilization was coextensive with Christendom. But the Reformation fractured the Medieval Archetype and replaced it with a Modern Archetype derived from Protestant theology and resting on four different principles. First, faith and reason are not cooperative because religion is viewed as divisive and destructive. Second, authority is no longer derived solely from God. Third, temporal political and legal rule is rigidly confined to sovereign states. And fourth, religious affinity is now tethered to the territorial state rather than a transnational church hierarchy. And if proof is needed, write the authors, that Westphalia worked such a revolution, one need only quote Pope Innocent X’s anathema to the effect that the Westphalian treaties were “null, void, invalid, iniquitous, unjust, damnable, reprobate, and inane, empty of meaning and effect for all time.”
My purpose is not to be condescending. Political scientists tend to be lumpers whereas historians tend to be splitters. Lumpers look for the patterns in human behavior and propose theories to account for the similarities they discern across space and time. Splitters look for what is unique in each historical context in order to account for the diversities they discern across space and time. Both methods have their place. But too often political scientists tend to stipulate some oversimplified version of past events which historians have long since challenged.
That is why the question must now be asked: what was the Peace of Westphalia anyway?
It was the collective term applied to three treaties negotiated in the northwestern German towns of Osnabrück and Münster in 1648. They brought to an end the Thirty Years War in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation as well as the Eighty Years War for Dutch independence from the king of Spain. (But so fractured was the Holy Roman Empire and so complex the shifting alliances in the long war that no less than 109 diplomatic delegations were sent to Westphalia!) Now, the Holy Roman Empire dated from the year 843 when the Treaty of Verdun divided Charlemagne’s realm among his three grandsons. Each got a kingdom but only one could inherit the imperial title and it turned out to be Otto the German. Throughout the Medieval era, therefore, Germany’s rulers had universal pretensions and the most powerful of them expanded the imperial boundaries into the Low Countries and Italy, where the imperial power rivaled that of the papacy. Emperors often tried to centralize their rule as well, which brought them into conflict with their own vassals, the lesser princes of Germany.
In the year 1356, the princes got the upper hand and issued the so-called Golden Bull, which regularized the procedure by which emperors were chosen. Seven princes—four secular and three clerical—were made Electors and in the ensuing centuries habitually exploited their leverage to extract concessions from their habitual choices, the Habsburg dukes of Austria. But over those centuries the Habsburgs also acquired so many kingdoms and provinces—including Spain and its New World empire—as to wield nearly hegemonic power. Thus, when Martin Luther launched the Reformation in 1517 and various north German princes turned Protestant, the mighty Emperor Charles V resisted in the name of Catholic universalism and imperial unity. But the Lutherans managed to weather those Wars of the Schmalkaldic League until 1555 when Charles acquiesced in the Peace of Augsburg that established the principle of cuius regio eius religio—“whose realm, his religion” throughout the empire.
Three of the electors—the rulers of Brandenburg, Saxony, and the Palatinate—were now Protestant, but the Catholic majority held until the year 1618 when Bohemia’s nobility dared to elect a Calvinist as their own king. Since that would tip future imperial elections against them the Habsburgs went to war against the “Winter King” and crushed the Czechs at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620. But that proved to be just the beginning because Protestants both German and foreign intervened, while the emperor escalated the stakes by trying to forge a centralized empire. Three decades of war ensued during which large swaths of Germany were repeatedly ravaged and a third of its population perished. The Protestant Danes, Swedes, and Dutch entered the war at various phases, and, in 1642, Cardinal Richelieu brought in Catholic France as well, but—and here’s the kicker—on the Protestant side! Why? Because the French monarchy had long since followed the allegedly modern strategy of balance of power with respect to the Habsburg Empire—and the French kings had long since functioned as sovereigns just as kings of England, Scotland, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, and Russia had done. The notion that state sovereignty was invented by the Westphalian treaties is fanciful. What did triumph there was sovereignty for the princes of the Holy Roman Empire, whose control over most—not all—state functions was now recognized by the emperor. Otherwise, the Augsburg formula of cuius region eius religio—now over a century old—was reconfirmed and extended to Calvinists, while the rights of minorities to worship in private were upheld.
The Peace of Westphalia was an important watershed. But it is nonsense to suggest that it ushered in a wholly new era of statecraft whether in spirit or praxis. As early as 1536, French King Francis I made a close alliance with Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, so they might coordinate their attacks on the Habsburgs. A century later, when Richelieu allied with Germany’s Protestants, France was simultaneously waging a war against Catholic Spain that would drag on until 1659. Other European monarchs routinely fought wars against fellow Catholics and for reasons that had nothing to do with religion, such as the famous Hundred Years’ War between England and France. For that matter, even the so-called Wars of Religion were driven by powerful secular motives, not least the desire of Protestant princes to seize the Catholic church’s vast accumulations of land and wealth. Likewise, the French Wars of Religion—another thirty years conflict that ended in 1598—were civil conflicts over the throne and the ultimate victor, the Protestant Henri de Bourbon, happily converted back to Catholicism to placate the majority of his subjects! He then issued the Edict of Nantes tolerating the Protestant Huguenots. The party of French nobility who brokered this settlement literally called themselves “les Politiques,” meaning pragmatic politicians rather than sectarian zealots. Likewise, the Dutch rebellion against Spain was waged as much for political and economic freedom as religious freedom and numerous Dutch Catholics joined the patriotic Protestant side. The English Civil War from 1642 to 1660 might have been a Presbyterian crusade under Oliver Cromwell, but it began and ended as a political quarrel between Parliament and a would-be absolute monarch. All sides in those conflicts stoked religious fervor, often with savage results. But none was a crusade in the Medieval sense.
As for the myth that Westphalia ended the power of the church, the fact that Innocent X cursed the treaties was as laughable then as it is now. By the mid-17th century, papal power had been in eclipse for some two hundred years. During the late Middle Ages, it fell under the thumb of secular rulers, suffering first the so-called Babylonian Captivity when the French kings removed the Holy See to Avignon. Then, a schism between rival popes backed respectively by France and the Empire made a mockery of their spiritual authority. Then, the church reached its nadir with the notorious worldly corruption of the 15th century Renaissance popes. To be sure, the prestige of the Vatican recovered under the great reforms of the Counter-Reformation begun at the Council of Trent, but the popes had long ceased to influence Europe’s Great Powers. The Spanish Inquisition, for instance, was just that – Spanish, not papal – and was created by Ferdinand and Isabella to root out Muslims and Jews because the monarchs assumed that religious dissidents were likely to become political dissidents.
Turning now from the era that preceded Westphalia to the era that followed, is it possible to discern a striking new emphasis on respect for sovereignty, raison d’état, and the balance of power? Certainly, the great founders of international law such as Hugo Grotius, Samuel Pufendorf, and Immanuel Kant hoped it would. But the reality was often otherwise. In 1685, Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes declared by his grandfather and drove nearly a million prosperous, but Calvinist Huguenots out of his kingdom in violation of his own raison d’état because that only strengthened the rivals who welcomed the Huguenots, including Prussia, England, and her American colonies. But Louis believed, like the Spaniards of the pre-Westphalian era, that religious affiliation was a powerful indicator of political loyalty. That was certainly the belief of the English Whig conspirators who exiled James II in the Glorious Revolution in 1688 in large part because he had reverted to Catholicism! So just as religion did not dominate European politics before 1648, neither did it disappear after 1648.
It is fair to say religious sectarianism did retreat during the High Enlightenment of the 18th century. But the hyperbolic French Revolution carried the tyranny of reason to such extremes that Europeans elsewhere rallied behind their traditional thrones and altars which zealously revived the rhetoric of holy war. Austrian, Prussian, Russian, and British propaganda routinely depicted the radical French Republic as godless and Napoleon as the Antichrist. Over that quarter-century of revolution and war, a new movement arose called Romanticism and a Christian romantic spirit permeated the diplomacy of the so-called Restoration Era.
Following Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Tsar Alexander I bade his brother monarchs join a mystical Holy Alliance, which bound the Orthodox Russian monarch to Prussia’s Lutheran king and Austria’s Catholic emperor in a Christian covenant of brotherhood. In France, the monarchy and church were restored to their former power and Romantic philosophers such as Robert de Lammenais and François-Réné de Chateaubriand imagined a new politics derived from the “genius of Christianity.” England produced a host of Christian Romantics, most famously Samuel Coleridge, while the piety of the Victorian Era became a cliché. Nicholas II proclaimed Orthodoxy the bedrock of his regime and later blundered into the Crimean War mistakenly thinking the other European powers would take up the Christian cause against the Muslim Turks. Louis Napoleon came to power during the Revolutions of 1848-49, but one of his first acts was to dispatch a French army to Rome to serve as the Pope’s bodyguard against revolution.
The era of German unification in the 1860s and ‘70s is considered the heyday of Realpolitik, yet its principal practitioner Otto von Bismarck was an adult convert to faith and insisted he was a Christian statesman. To be sure, a Prussian liberal quipped that Bismarck’s God “has the remarkable faculty of always agreeing with him,” but he never doubted that by serving his king he also served God. Bismarck’s contemporary Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, by contrast, tried scrupulously to conform his foreign policies to Biblical morality and as a result made a series of well-meaning blunders. That did not dissuade young Woodrow Wilson from naming Gladstone his beau idéal.
During those decades, the United States was emerging as a world power, and, in 1898, the Cuban revolt against Spain tempted Americans to intervene. President William McKinley resisted the clamor for war until the Congress, the Navy, and public opinion forced his hand. So did myriad Protestant clergy who longed for a crusade to slay the Catholic dragon and save the Cuban damsel in distress. In its wake, McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson presided over a wholesale Reformation of the original American Civil Religion dating back to George Washington and John Quincy Adams. Their updated, 20th century theology about America’s role in the world amounted to a Progressive heresy that justified war and imperialism in terms of the Protestant Social Gospel and exhorted Americans to take up the White Man’s Burden in imitation of Europe’s imperial powers.
That brings us chronologically to perhaps the most counterintuitive example of the mix between religion and statecraft: the catastrophe nearly all historians and political scientists have traced to nationalism, imperialism, militarism, and economics, and hubris. For it turns out, even the Great War of 1914-1918 was a clash of the religions, if now mostly civil religions, of the belligerent powers.
Most people think that war did not become a religious crusade—a war to end war—until President Wilson led the United States into battle in 1917. But Kaiser Wilhelm II himself expressed his own nation’s creed when he proclaimed to the Reichstag at the start of the war: “So now I commend you to God. Go into your churches, kneel before God, and implore his help for our brave army.” Lutheran pastor Johann Kessler was just one of many Germans whose wartime bestsellers argued that theirs was the holy cause. “We believe in the ‘world calling’ of our nation. A nation that God has equipped with such gifts of the spirit and such depths of mind that He called it to bear the gospel in the days of the Reformation, that he chose it in the War of Liberation <against Napoleon> to be the harbinger of a new era, a nation to which God has given a Luther and Lessing, a Goethe and Schiller, a Kant and Bismarck – this nation cannot be cast aside. God has great things in store for such a nation that could defy a world of enemies and still prevail.” Liberal pastor Adolf von Harnack wrote speeches for the Kaiser that even justified Germany’s brutal attack on Belgium. And German soldiers famously marched into battle with “Gott mit uns” on their belts and the war cry “Gott strafe England!” on their lips.
Tsar Nicholas II famously rallied his soldiers with reverent displays of holy icons. The Church of England’s bishops presented the war from its very inception as one between good and evil, even God and the Devil, instructed their parishs to sing martial hymns (e.g., “Onward Christian Soldiers”), described as martyrs those dead in battle, and led by King George V sponsored regular days of prayer. (In the 1914 Battle of Mons British, soldiers even claimed to have visions of angels resisting the German advance.) All the monarchs and the leaders of their national churches, and their chaplains, and—to judge from their letters—many soldiers in the trenches prayed for God’s blessing in a war all believed was being fought in self-defense against a demonic enemy. But not until 2014 did historian Philip Jenkins publish a book called The Great and Holy War, which marshaled the evidence for this startling hypothesis: “The First World War was a thoroughly religious event, in the sense that overwhelmingly Christian nations fought each other in what many viewed as a holy war, a spiritual conflict. Religion is essential to understanding the war, to understanding why people went to war, what they hoped to achieve through war, and why they stayed at war. Not in the Medieval or Reformation times but in the age of aircraft and machine guns, the majority of the world’s Christians were indeed engaged in a holy war that claimed more than ten million lives.” His book shows, moreover, how the war transformed Judaism and Islam as well, and in effect redrew the religious map of the world.
How was it that 266 years after the Peace of Westphalia Europeans and their descendants around the world went to war in the service of their God as well as their country? Why did they remain in the trenches long after it became obvious that this war was a bloody, muddy war of attrition whose cost far exceeded any conceivable fruits of victory? The second question answers itself. The sacrifices proved so great that only victory could redeem them; the enemy was so evil that no truce or compromise was conceivable; and the cause for which they were fighting was so sacred it could not be abandoned. But as to the first question—why the various clergies urged their flocks to enlist or otherwise do their patriotic duty—the answer can only be that they had long since made their peace with the modern secular state. During the long 19th century, nationalist ideologies had gradually spread across the whole continent, while the established state churches in England, Germany, and Russia obediently perceived no difference between rendering unto God and rendering unto Caesar.
To be sure, the popes had repeatedly denounced nationalism along with capitalism and socialism, for instance in the famous encyclicals Syllabus of Errors (1864), Rerum Novarum (1891), and Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae (1899). But the Vatican also compromised by making concordats with the Austrian and German governments, while, in 1892, Leo XIII even instructed French Catholics in the anti-clerical Third Republic to obey their secular authorities. By 1914, it had become unthinkable for any significant Christian authority to stand athwart its nation’s war effort.
As a result, the war was catastrophic for churches because millions of Europeans emerged from it deeply disillusioned by clergy who had turned the cross into a bayonet and baptized its bloody work. But the war did not turn Europeans into atheists. Jenkins puts it this way: “Condemnations of the mainline churches are never hard to find in this era, but they should not mislead us into imagining a wholesale abandonment of religious ideas. However we label them – esoteric, occult, mystical or merely superstitious – supernatural themes not only survived the war but flourished.” For mainstream churches and governments, the problem was not that Europeans were abandoning spirituality, but embraced passionate, heterodox, messianic movements that quickly took secular forms.
Left in a state of anomie, or emptiness after an apocalyptic war that had raised such millennial expectations, many Europeans fled to political religions, such as fascism, communism, and national socialism, all of which exploited twisted versions of Christian iconography, doctrine, and liturgy. By the 1930s, the Catholic church was on the defensive, the Protestant churches were hollowed out, and the Orthodox church had been crucified by the Bolsheviks. So if secularization triumphed in the end it was not because of modernization, but because of the Great War waged with the collusion of the churches themselves. As the Reformed theologian Leonhard Ragaz observed from neutral Switzerland, the Kingdom of Heaven is always “hindered less by the world than by a Christianity that has bound itself to this world.”
Less well known, but just as tectonic, were the earthquakes triggered by the war in the Middle East. For there, the mosque was recruited in the service of the Ottoman war effort even though the Turkish government was now led by secular modernizers called the Young Turks. When the Empire joined the war on Germany’s side in the Fall of 1914, Sultan Mehmed V, assuming his role as Caliph of all Islam, solemnly proclaimed a jihad. “Right and loyalty are on our side, and hatred and tyranny on the side of our enemies, and therefore there is no doubt that the Divine help and assistance of the just God and the moral support of our glorious Prophet will be on our side to encourage us…. Let those of you who are to die a martyr’s death be messengers of victory to those who have gone before us, and let the victory be sacred and the sword be sharp of those of you who are to remain in life.”
The Ottoman army, stiffened by German advisers, defeated the British Empire’s 1915 Gallipoli invasion, by which Winston Churchill had hoped to capture Constantinople.
By 1917, however, British forces in Egypt were stirring up Arab revolts against Turkish rule and General Edmund Allenby was preparing to invade the sanjak, or province, of Jerusalem. A mystic of sorts himself, Allenby imagined his campaign to liberate the Holy Land was the culmination of the Medieval crusades. It certainly excited English and American Protestants, especially Christian Zionists. One image celebrated the beginning of Chanukah by depicting two heroes in parallel: Judas Maccabeus entering Jerusalem in 165 BCE and General Allenby in 1917 beneath a caption drawn from chapter 59 of the prophet Isaiah: “And there will come for Zion a Redeemer.” Indeed, the blessed event occurred just a month after Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour assured Lord Rothschild and the Zionist Federation that “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people….” After the war, the British would rule Palestine as a League of Nations mandate, which meant a Jewish return to the Promised Land was now a palpable possibility. But at the same time, the collapse of the Ottoman dynasty brought with it the end of the Caliphate, the fracture of the ummat al-Islām, the worldwide Muslim community, and the rise of radical, often violent Arab religious movements. The concatenation of all those events presaged both the exodus of European Jews to the Holy Land and the resistance they would face from Arabs and periodically from the British themselves.
Zionism predated the Great War, as did modern anti-Semitism. But the war’s social and psychological stress caused a tremendous upsurge of anti-Semitism in all the belligerent powers in spite of the fact that their often well-assimilated Jewish communities were making great contributions to the war efforts both in uniform and in the fields of science, industry, medicine, and finance. Under such circumstances, both Zionism and anti-Semitism grew hyperbolically, marking the start of a stunning demographic redistribution. In 1900, no less than 80 percent of the world’s Jews resided in Europe. Today, in 2019, 80 percent of the world’s Jews reside in Israel and the United States. Already between 1919 and 1930, some 120,000 Jews moved to the British mandate and became one-sixth of its whole population. Arab resistance movements, including the suicidal fedayeen, sprang up as early as 1920. During the interwar decades, a modicum of order was imposed on the Middle East because the British and French patronized Arab chiefs and policed their mandates. But leaders like Ibn Saud—who captured Mecca in 1924, declared himself king of Saudi Arabia in 1932, and became a principal promoter of the Muslim Wahhabi sect—had their own agendas apart from the colonial powers. Due to the First World War, therefore, the modern Middle East was already in gestation well before the Nazi holocaust to come.
The Great War brought immediate holocausts to Christians in the Ottoman Empire. Armenians and Anatolian Greeks, who were among the oldest of Christian communities, had lived more or less peaceably under the Turks’ tolerant millet system for centuries. Constantinople itself was 50 percent Christian and 5 percent Jewish in 1914. But the Sultan gambled his Empire’s future on a war alliance with Germany, and the regime turned on minorities of dubious loyalty. The forced relocation of Armenians, a byproduct of the Turks’ Caucasian front against Russia, quickly escalated into genocide. Over a six-month period in 1915, an estimated 1.2 million people were systematically driven, hanged, shot, starved, drowned, or burned to death. According to a U.S. consul who caught glimpses of the horrors, material destruction was as complete as the human: “The Mohammedans in their fanaticism seemed determined not only to exterminate the Christian population but to remove all traces of their religion and civilization.”
When the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 enabled a secular nationalist movement under Kemal Atatürk to gain power, it was the turn of the Anatolian Greeks to suffer extinction. To be sure, Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who encouraged him deserve much of the blame. They hoped to exploit the collapse of the Ottomans to forge a Greater Greece, a sort of neo-Byzantine empire, in western Anatolia. Atatürk’s Nationalists fought back ferociously and over three years pried the British out, defeated the Greek armies, and forced 1.3 million Christians to choose between death and exile.
So the real watershed in the relation between religion and international politics would appear to be World War I, not the Peace of Westphalia. For that was the moment when Christian churches, compromised by their national civil religions, heartily endorsed total war. But, of course, that could not happen twice because Europeans emerged from the trenches utterly disillusioned.
Hence, when the Second World War erupted in Europe, it took the form of a profane, not sacred, slugfest among secular ideologies. Not so World War II in the Pacific. For the only nations that emerged from the 1914-1918 war with their civil religions intact were those that had suffered least and gained the most from the 1914-1918 war: Imperial Japan and the United States. Hence, when the Second World War erupted in the Pacifi,c it did take the form of another holy war between civil religions. At its end, only national God was left standing, the American one, which is what enabled the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy administrations to invoke American civil religion during their “long twilight struggle” against godless Communism.
The presidents even made explicit prophecies that so long as Americans gritted their teeth and stayed the course in the Cold War, Communism would someday collapse and all the nations would embrace peace, democracy, and free markets: in effect, the American Dream. That “the end of history” was famously celebrated in 1989 by Francis Fukuyama.
What have we witnessed over the thirty years since? Backlashes against American-led globalization on the part of Muslim terrorists, Communist holdouts, and revisionist powers such as Russia, China, and Iran. Samuel Huntington saw some of that coming when he presciently wrote in 1993 that a “clash of civilizations” would be the defining feature of world politics now that the Cold War’s clash of ideologies had come to an end. But just a year later, Huntington’s former student (and FPRI scholar) James Kurth was even more prescient when he imagined “the real clash” would not be between the West and the Rest, but within Western Civilization and especially its core, the United States.
Kurth described how Americans had invented the concept of Western Civilization during the World War I era and identified it with the values expressed by the Reformation, Enlightenment, Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, and liberal government—all most perfectly realized in the United States. Wilson’s wartime propaganda summarized all that as The American Creed, which went on to legitimize American power throughout its “heroic age” from 1917 to 1991. But by the end of the Cold War, society had passed through a wrenching transition. The national industrial economy had surrendered the commanding heights to a global financial economy, which devalued masculinity and empowered women. The nuclear families that had characterized the industrial age split like atoms, releasing explosive energy, just as the split-up of extended families had done at the end of the agricultural age.
Kurth explained that successive generations beginning with baby boomers in the 1960s and culminating in the millennials had ceased to think of the United States as the core or even as a member of a civilization in which they had ceased to believe. Kurth imagined the younger generations, having redefied Euro-American history in terms of imperialism, militarism, racism, and sexism, no longer promoted assimilation for legal immigrants and instead promoted multiculturalism for illegal ones. He anticipated the coming tyranny of expressive individualism, political correctness, deconstruction of gender, and intersectionality in American politics. So thorough has been the loss of faith on the part of progressives in the rule of law, free markets, and old-style liberalism, that Kurth wondered in conclusion how many Americans would be willing to fight in Huntington’s clash of civilizations?
If that was a chilling observation 25 years ago, then what is the prognosis today? In 2015, a political scientist provided a breakdown of the basic relationships, or dynamics, between religions and regimes. The first is the dynamic of collision in which the state permits religion, but only of an approved sort that is subordinate to the state. That is the norm which today functions most blatantly in authoritarian China or Russia. The second is the dynamic of collusion in which church and state join forces, promote civic values, and serve jointly as a source of social capital. That is the norm in nations with robust civil religions. The third is the dynamic of coercion in which the state purges the public square of religious believers and institutions, if necessary by force. That is the norm in “hard” totalitarian countries like Cuba and North Korea, but is perhaps becoming a model in “soft” totalitarianism regimes that imposed intolerant codes of political correctness. The fourth is the dynamic of co-option, in which the political culture itself is derived from the theology, institutions, and laws of a single religion. Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Indonesia fall into this category, and India under the Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party displays similar aspirations.
Note that the author has no category for regimes that permit genuine free exercise of religion. Does he mean to suggest that the relationship between God and Caesar can never be benign except insofar as religion has been sufficiently tamed as to become civil? Nor is there a category for ecumenism, whose time has surely passed. For if all those 20th century ecumenical palavers taught anything, it is that people has no incentive at all to obey some humanist ethical code cooked up by a committee and stripped of its divinity. What then of missionary work across cultural lines? Do any world religions display the potential to make serious inroads into other civilizations? Here, the answer is demonstrably yes. Christianity and Islam are both transportable, evangelical faiths and are in fact racing for conversions in sub-Saharan Africa. But Christianity is no longer promoted by any Great Powers, while the Muslim states compete fiercely with each other across sectarian, strategic, and political lines.
Yet, one has cause to speculate that one other “faith” does have widespread appeal, does have a Great Power champion, and may have potential to become the first trans-cultural Civil Religion. That is faith in what Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew called Asian values, but are more precisely called Chinese values derived from Confucianism, Taoism, and Han Buddhism.
China—whether imperial, national, or communist—has never “had” an articulated civil religion because China “is” a civil religion. People are born into it and nurtured by it. They worship their ancestors and are worshiped in turn after their death. Moreover, the fetching values China espouses include hierarchy, authority, family loyalty, communal and national solidarity, elevation of social stability over personal freedom, thrift, education, and a relentless work ethic. Those Asian values eloquently express realities of human nature as opposed to the defiance of reality that in the West has smothered Judaeo-Christian values in the name of expressive individualism. Those Asian values are not tethered to any theological doctrines, holy scriptures, or specific commandments, hence they are adaptable across a wide variety of socio-economic and political conditions. Finally, although Asian values date back to the Qin Empire in the third century BCE, they appear to be quite compatible with cutting-edge technologies of the 21st century, including artificial intelligence, big data, 5G telecommunications networks, total surveillance including facial recognition, and a social credit system that rewards mutuality and punishes individuality. Asian values are what Xi Jinping’s regime currently advertises through its world-wide web of Confucius Institutes, and is exporting through its “Made in China 2025” program and Belt and Road Initiative, which spans all of Asia and has begun to penetrate Europe, Oceania, and even Latin America.
Today, it is customary for American pundits to declare that we are on the cusp of “a new Cold War” as if Deng Xaioping had not predicted exactly that three decades ago. And if that is indeed the case, then the civilization formerly known as Western will find itself in serious trouble. For the civil religion that inspired Americans throughout their first Cold War effort has today ceased to exist at the very conjuncture when the United States must confront, for the first time in its brief history, a post-humiliation, post-Maoist, imperial, and authentic China.
Eliot Abrams, The Influence of Faith: Religious Groups and U.S. Foreign Policy. Lanham, Md.:
Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.
Madeleine Albright, The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.
Scott Appleby, The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.
Talal Asad, Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.
Herbert Butterfield, Christianity, Diplomacy, and War. New York: Abingdon
John Carlson and Erik Owens, eds., The Sacred and the Sovereign: Religion and International Politics. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University, 2003.
José Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
José Casanova, “The Problem of Religion and the Anxieties of European Secular Democracy,” in T. A. Byrnes and P. J. Katzenstein, eds., Religion and Democracy in Contemporary Europe. London: Alliance Publishing, 2008.
Giuliana Chamedes, A Twentieth-Century Crusade: The Vatican’s Battle to Remake Christian
Europe. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019.
Gordon A. Craig and Alexander L. George, Force and Statecraft: Diplomatic Problems of Our Time. New York: Oxford University, 1983.
Christopher Dawson, Dynamics of World History. Wilmington, Del.: ISI, 2002.
J. Dionne, et al., eds., Liberty and Power: A Dialogue on Religion and U.S. Foreign Policy in an Unjust World. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2004.
Foreign Policy Research Institute, Templeton Lectures on Religion and World Affairs (1996-2018): https://www.fpri.org/event-lecture-series/templeton/
Jonathan Fox and Shmuel Sandler, Bringing Religion into International Relations. New York:
Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Jeremy Gunn, Spiritual Weapons: The Cold War and the Forging of an American National Religion. Westport, Ct.: Praeger Press, 2009.
Samuel Helfont, Compulsion in Religion: Saddam Hussein, Islam, and the Roots of Insurgencies
in Iraq. New York: Oxford University, 2014.
Luke M. Herrington, et al., eds. Nations Under God: The Geopolitics of Faith in the Twenty-first Century. Bristol, Eng.: E-International Relations, 2015.
Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs 72, no.3 (1993): 22-49.
Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, “International Politics After Secularism,” Review of International Studies 38, no. 5 (2012): 943-61.
William Imboden, Religion and American Foreign Policy: The Soul of Containment. New York: Cambridge University, 2008.
Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. New York: Oxford University, 2007.
Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade. New York: HarperCollins, 2014.
Douglas Johnson and Cynthia Sampson, Religion: The Missing Dimension of Statecraft. New York: Oxford University, 1994.
John B. Judis, “The Chosen Nation: The Influence of Religion on U.S. Foreign Policy,” Carnegie Endowment Policy Brief, no. 37 (March 2005): https://carnegieendowment.org/files/PB37.judis.FINAL.pdf
Mark Juergensmeyer, The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, 4th ed. Berkeley: University of California, 2017.
Vendulka Kubalkova, “A ‘Turn to Religion’ in International Relations?” Institute of
International Relations Perspectives 17, no. 2 (2009): 13-41:
Gaddis Smith, Morality, Reason, and Power: American Diplomacy in the Carter Years (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986), p. 188, noted pithily that “President Carter inherited an impossible situation and he and his advisers made the worst of it.”
 David Steele, “At the Front Lines of the Revolution: East Germany’s Churches Give Sanctuary and Succor to the Purveyors of Change,” in Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson, eds., Religion: the Missing Dimension of Statecraft (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 119-52.
James H. Billington, “The West’s Stake in Russia’s Future,” Orbis 41, no. 4 (1997): 545-53.
 Monica Toft, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Shah, God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011), pp. 82-120 (chart p. 196)
 See the Selected Bibliography at the end of this essay.
 Jack Snyder, ed., Religion and International Relations Theory (New York: Columbia University, 2011), pp. 2-3.
 Vendulka Kubalkova, “A ‘Turn to Religion’ in International Relations?” Institute of International Relations Perspectives 17, no. 2 (2009), p. 31.
 Douglas Johnson and Cynthia Sampson, Religion: The Missing Dimension of Statecraft (New York: Oxford University, 1994), p. 9.
 Pauletta Otis in Robert A. Seiple and Dennis R. Hoover, eds., Religion and Security: The New Nexus in International Relations (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), pp. 15-16.
 Tanya B. Schwarz and Cecelia Lynch, “Religion in International Relations,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia on International Relations (Nov. 2016), p. 13.
 Johnson and Sampson, Religion: The Missing Dimension, p. 22.
 Indeed, my own research on the deformation of American Civil Religion from George Washington’s Classical ACR to the Progressive and Neo-Progressive ACRs of the World War eras, to the Millennial ACR of the post-Cold War era led me to a similar conclusion. The American empire gave birth to globalization, which is hastening the erosion of the nation-state and will, sometime this century, inspire the first Global Civil Religion. See The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How American Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest (New Haven, Ct.: Yale University, 2016).
 Edward Luttwak, “The Missing Dimension,” in Johnson and Sampson, Religion: The Missing Dimension, p. 8
 Schwarz and Lynch, Oxford Research Encyclopedia on International Relations.
Scott Thomas, The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations in the Twenty-first Century (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), pp. 54-55.
 John D. Carlson and Erik C. Owens, eds., The Sacred and the Sovereign: Religion and International Politics (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University, 2003), p. 4.
 Derek Croxton, “The Peace of Westphalia of 1648 and the Origins of Sovereignty,”
The International History Review 21, no. 3 (Sep., 1999), pp. 570-71.
 Gordon A. Craig and Alexander L. George, Force and Statecraft: Diplomatic Problems of Our Time (New York: Oxford University, 1983), pp. 255-68.
 Walter A. McDougall, Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter With the World Since 1776 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), and The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How American Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest (New Haven, Ct.: Yale University, 2016, provide abundant evidence for the central role played by civil religion in American history.
 Arlie J. Hoover, The Gospel of Nationalism: German Patriotic Preaching From Napoleon to Versailles (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1986), pp. 45-55. German civil religion, like the American, contended with a large minority of Catholics, but wartime publicity succeeded in rallying them against their apostate foreign enemies that included the decadent, sensuous French, greedy and philistine English, and semi-Asiatic Russian barbarians.
 Toft, Philpott, and Shah, God’s Century, pp. 31-32.
 Stuart Bell, “Church of England,” 1914/1918 Online, The International Encyclopedia of the First World War: https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/church_of_england
 Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), pp. 4-5.
 Jenkins, Great and Holy War, p. 134.
 A new book by Giuliana Chamedes, A Twentieth-Century Crusade: The Vatican’s Battle to Remake Christian Europe (2019) recounts the serious efforts by serial popes to denounce the Great War and warn Europeans of its totalitarian spawn in Soviet Russia., Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany. But during the interwar years Catholic values prevailed only in second-tier authoritarian states such as Poland, Austria, Portugal, and Franco’s Spain.
 Jenkins, Great and Holy War, p. 217.
 Jenkins, Great and Holy War, p. 8.
 For instance, Herbert Samuel and Edwin Montagu played large roles Britain’ Liberal cabinet early in the war and chemist Chaim Weizmann developed techniques that enabled British industry to increase production of artillery shells. The slogan of the Jewish community was “England has been all could be to Jews, <and> Jews will be all they can be to England.” In Germany, Fritz Haber pioneered chlorine gas manufacture and tactics and Walther Rathenau served as industrial czar of the German war economy. In 1914 philosopher Hermann Cohen even argued in Deutschtum und Judentum that the spirits of the two were identical.
 One of the most foremost advocates of Jewish settlement was Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, an Orthodox Jew from Palestine who became a rabbi in London in 1916. He interpreted the wholesale slaughter of the Great War as the Lord’s judgement on apostate Europe, a deceptive and poisonous civilization. But he prophesied that out of its ruins would rise a new world order in which truth under God would be established.
 Jenkins, Great and Holy War, pp. 234–67.
 Jenkins, Great and Holy War, p. 302.
 James Kurth, “The Real Clash,” The National Interest, no. 37 (1994): 3-15.
 John A. Rees, “Four Religions of Foreign Policy,” in Luke M. Herrington, et al., eds. Nations Under God: The Geopolitics of Faith in the Twenty-first Century (Bristol, Eng.:
E-International Relations Publishing, 2015).
 In 1900 the 200-220 Muslims comprised 12 or 13% of humanity compared to 22.5% today and a projected 27% by 2050. Christians in 1900 outnumbered them by 2.8 to 1. Today the figure is 1.5 to 1 and by 2050 will be 1.3 to 1. In Africa, Xns go from 9.2 percent in 1900 to 48.8 percent today. See Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. New York: Oxford University, 2007, p. 203.