Beginning with the chaotic post–World War I landscape in which religious belief was one way of reordering a world knocked off its axis, Sacred Causes is a penetrating critique of how religion has often been camouflaged by politics. All the bloody regimes and movements of the 20th century are masterfully captured here, from Stalin's Soviet Union, Hitler's Germany, Mussolini's Italy, and Franco's Spain to the war on terror. With style and sophistication, Michael Burleigh shows how the churches, in their various guises, have been swayed by–and contributed to–conflicting secular currents. Sacred Causes brilliantly exposes the way in which fears of socialist movements tempered the churches' response to the threat of totalitarian regimes.
Burleigh combines an authoritative survey of history with a timely reminder of the dangers of radical secularism. He asks why no one foresaw the religious implications of massive Third World immigration. And he deftly investigates what is now driving calls for a civic religion to counter the terrorist threats that have so shocked the West.
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Michael Burleigh is the author of Earthly Powers, Sacred Causes, and The Third Reich: A New History, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction. He is married and lives in London.From The Washington Post:
Reviewed by Mark Mazower
Perhaps in the United States, with its high rate of churchgoing, the importance of religion is obvious. But in Europe, the impact of faith on public life was, until recently, widely assumed to be in decline. Of course, episodes such as the Roman Catholic Church's alliance with Poland's Solidarity movement in the 1980s highlighted the oddity of thinking that religion was a medieval phenomenon, not a modern one. Yet for decades, theorists of progress predicted that the more societies modernized, the weaker the grip of religion would become: What lay at the end of the road was the inevitable triumph of secularism.
Quite rightly, Michael Burleigh wants none of this. His Sacred Causes -- a sprawling, uneven and irascible book -- argues that religion never went away. Not only did churches play a role in the resistance (and accommodation) to 20th-century totalitarianism of the Right and Left, but, in Burleigh's view, those ideologies were in fact political religions that borrowed their trappings, rhetoric, dogmatism and fervor from the church. There was, however, a key difference between religious leaders engaging in politics and political leaders demanding religion-like devotion. Christianity, Burleigh says, contributed to Europe's political culture by carving out a space beyond the power of the state. Stalin and Hitler, on the other hand, extended state power into previously private realms. Lethal, fake religions triumphed -- for a time -- over real, humane ones.
Burleigh defends the Catholic Church in particular. He claims its upper echelons, although inclined to authoritarianism, were more opposed to Hitler than people tend to think. There's no doubt where Burleigh's sympathies lie: Only when he comes to the liberation theology of Latin America, which views Jesus as a liberator of the oppressed, does his anti-Marxism temporarily trump his appreciation for the clergy. But this book is really about Europe. It is silent on political Hinduism in India, Sinhala Buddhist fundamentalism in Asia, evangelical missionaries in Africa and contemporary forms of Jewish nationalism in the Middle East. On Islam, it reproduces the apocalyptic slurs of post-9/11 punditry. While Burleigh does have plenty to say about the battle between religion and secularism on the Old Continent after 1945, little of it is positive. The Protestant churches -- full of their German hand-wringers and English do-gooders -- do not generally elicit from him the same understanding as the papacy, and in his account the sufferings of Orthodox Christianity under communism are counterbalanced by the fascist sympathies of the Romanian clergy. Northern Ireland is portrayed in the spirit of a plague on both houses.
One notices these things because Burleigh is nothing if not opinionated. He despises "sneering secularists" but is a considerable sneerer himself. Targets include "humanist radical eggheads," "tenured radicals" who take a "vampiric interest in female students," the "horde of bodgers and shysters" in the English construction trades and "dingy Irish theme pubs" with their "relentless, mindless gabbling." As the book moves on, jibes and bile clog the writing, and one has the sinking feeling of being cornered by the pub bore, ranting on about '60s swingers, the threat to European civilization, terrorists and trade unions -- pretty much everything and everyone except the pope, Ronald Reagan and Mrs. Thatcher. I would like to think that the old Burleigh, the fine historian who wrote some superb works on Nazism, is not gone. Maybe this lament for the disappearing "Christian Constitution of Britain" is really a tasteless spoof designed to show the reader where a certain kind of religious despair can leave you. Or perhaps it is simply what he thinks.
Copyright 2007, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
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