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What the French call la revanche de Dieu is now so firmly established in the canon of international relations and the politics of the day-to-day that it can be somewhat taken for granted. Religion is back, not as “epiphenomenal,” not as a catalyst for other, more real, underlying material concerns, but as a motivator and meaning maker itself. But, as the word “revenge” implies, this is not a universally celebrated reversal. If the social science has settled that religion is back, that it matters, that it is a power in its own right, it is anything but decided upon how it matters, whether this is good or bad, and – indeed – whether, as Talal Assad’s disciples like Saba Mahmood and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd argue,1 we know what it is we are talking about when we say “religion” anyway. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of Samuel P. Huntington’s much debated thesis on the “clash of civilizations” in Foreign Affairs in 1993, which this issue of The Christian Scholars Review considers (“celebrates” might be a bit strong), I therefore revisit how Huntington himself proposed for us to think about religion and global politics. Several things stand out, in this analysis. First, Huntington did not think of religion merely as one of a perhaps-forgotten list of causal factors in international relations. Religion was not, for Huntington, like other sorts of factors that could be simply recalled, catalogued, and fit into existing paradigms of politics. In fact, I argue in this article that religion was not a simple causal factor at all; it was constitutive of international order. That is, to miss religion, as those like Daniel Philpott say we have done (only perhaps to find it again)2 is not simply to be out a set of important variables; it is to have the wrong formulas. This is because religion is a defining, constitutive category of political communities, a fundamental marker that sets out the terms and conditions upon which we even engage in politics. To even define, for example, the religious and the secular, and how these relate to political legitimacy, is a religious but also political statement. 3 Thus, Huntington says that religion, culture, and language are the fundamental material out of which world civilizations arise. Civilizations do not produce religion, language, and culture; rather, out of religion, language, and culture civilizations arise. Says Huntington, quoting Christopher Dawson, “the great religions are the foundations on which the great civilizations rest.” 4

This, I argue, is an important recovery of a tradition of Christian social thought on the nature of the religious, one which Huntington rightly finds in historians like Dawson, but I think can most effectively be drawn out through an engagement with Abraham Kuyper (1873-1920). Kuyper shows both how original and important this “religious” insight of Huntington’s is, but he will also showcase a second, critical problem with Huntington’s thesis: the problem of political pluralism. To say, as Huntington does, that civilizations are founded in religion, culture, and language creates a special problem for plural societies, or indeed for plural religions (as is often pointed out about “political Islam”). If, indeed, the integrity and vitality of a civilization depends on being deeply in touch with its religious, cultural, and linguistic roots, as Huntington does, the subsequent conclusion that the real problem with societies like America is multiculturalism (that is, a loss of such cohesion and vitality), which he also does, is not hard to reach. And so, we come to the heart of the one of the enduring criticisms of Huntington’s proposal, not a kind of fussing around with how he draws civilizational boundaries, or what coheres “Africa” and so on, but a fundamental problem from which can spring a hive of nationalism, racism, xenophobia, and more: the problem of pluralism in civilizations defined by common religion, language, and culture. This is a challenge for which Huntington’s proposal is less well equipped, but again in dialogue with Kuyper and the English School, I propose a way to salvage his core insight into the religious foundation of civilizations, while attaching to it a more pluralist politics, an attachment which may remedy both Huntington’s sometimes slippery nationalism, and his occasionally rough generalizations of inter/intra-civilizational diversity. These, I think, are key insights which update Huntington’s arguments in such a way as to offer, especially the Christian thinker, a helpful way to navigate the politics of the global resurgence of religion.

Many, many problems have been made of Huntington’s clash thesis. Musharraf purportedly blamed the world’s attention on Christian-Muslim rivalry on him. Recalled by Jeffrey Goldberg, “Well, you know this is all Sam Huntington’s fault. Before this book, no one ever talked about Islam and Christianity in competition. So, it really goes back to Samuel Huntington!” 5 Though a bit overstated, Musharraf’s criticisms echo a large swath of academic literature on Huntington’s clash thesis, especially the way he deals with religion, and most especially the way he talks about Islam. This clash thesis, between Huntington’s pessimistic perspective on Islam and his somewhat rosier perspective on the Christian West, became so influential, hardly a person could take a podium, presidents included, without needing to repudiate it on some level. Jeffrey Haynes boils it down to this: there is a “synergy between Christianity and liberal democracy, key foundations of a normatively desirable global order built on individualistic, liberal values.” Huntington contrasts this with what he calls Radical Islam (including Islamism, Islamic extremism, Islamic fundamentalism) which he called a fundamentally political movement aimed at anti-democratic religious and cultural changes to global order. 6 Huntington was hardly alone in this argument, and indeed the events of 9/11 fed into his thesis that a militant, fundamentalist Islamism sought systemic transformation of the international system with violent resistance to the West (especially America). The problems with this, however, were many. First, it is one thing to argue that political Islam and Christianity may diverge in their approaches to liberal democracy, but quite another to say that therefore Islam was poised, en masse, to violently challenge or overthrow liberal democracy. Second, it is also unhelpful to the point of a critical error to conflate Islam and political Islam, and the diversity within Islamism and political Islam itself. 7 The atrocities with which the world has become only too familiar in the past several decades on the behest of radical Islamist groups are perpetrated by terrorist organizations which should not be conflated with Islamic party politics in Malaysia, or the crown in Morocco, or Muslim-democrats in Tunisia. Third, logically following from this recognition of deep diversity in the world of political Islam, we might expect rather than finding Islam’s “bloody borders” with other civilizations, that, in fact, bloody politics are often intra-civilizational, that is in spaces like Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and so on. The worst offenders and the worst atrocities of Islamist violence are often against other Muslims, fundamentally challenging Huntington’s prediction that “fault line” conflicts between civilizations would be the major challenges of the future. It is rather fault line conflicts within civilizations that seem to have produced the worst violence. Civil war, not state-state war, is the general rule in the twenty-first century.

All of this amounts to just a little throat clearing even to talk about Huntington’s thesis. These are not insignificant problems for either the explanatory or predictive power of religion in his clash thesis, and the complaint that Huntington’s thesis has contributed to the outsized perception of the radical Islamist threat to the West, versus the more real, urgent threat it poses to Islamic peoples and regimes, has some truth to it. Tragic as the events of New York, Paris, London, Marseilles, and the list goes on, are, they are exceptions and not the rule of the day-to-day tragedies in places like Lahore, Aceh, Mosul, Sana’a, and so on. The people who suffer the worst under the threat of radical Islamism are often other Muslims.

Huntington, in other words, has an Islam problem, and his civilization thesis has some ‘fault lines’ of its own regarding the coherence of its political and cultural units. But does this mean his representation of religion itself is wrong, or that talking about civilizations as rooted in religious, cultural, and linguistic categories is therefore incoherent or untenable? I do not think it does. In fact, I find the model itself for thinking about global politics an especially helpful one for thinking through the power of religion in international relations, not merely as a causal factor (one of many) but as a constitutive factor (fundamental to its structure and order). Here it is worth considering Huntington’s approach in his own words.

Samuel P. Huntington was a student of the great historians, philosophers of history, and even Christian thinkers on the nature of and meaning of this contested word “civilization.” He marked out several broad distinctions that are worth recalling.

First, he said, a distinction exists between civilization “in the singular and civilization in the plural.” 8 The idea of civilization, although dating as far back as the Greek polis or Qin dynasty in China, was a French term which was meant to demarcate a border with “barbarism.” Civilization meant culture, it meant order, society, law, skilled trades, economics, so on. In other words, there were common ordering principles which set it apart from different ordering principles (other civilizations in the plural, the concern of Huntington) or no ordering principles (anarchy).

Second, Huntington referred to civilizations as a “cultural entity,” and both “refer to the overall way of life of a people, and a civilization is a culture writ large.” 9 This includes things like norms, values, institutions, ways of thinking. Quoting Braudel, Wallerstein, Dawson, Durkheim, Maus, Spengler, and more, 227 Huntington calls up to our attention something like what Charles Taylor will come to call a “social imaginary.” By social imaginary Taylor means more than just a theory or intellectual framework, he means the whole way human beings imagine themselves, and the practices that sustain and provide meaning to that imagination. 10 This is not unique to the modern age, although Taylor says there is something special and unique about the modern social imaginary. 11 Writes Taylor, “humans operated with a social imaginary well before they ever got into the business of theorizing about themselves.” 12 I call this a friendly amendment to Huntington’s list of sources on defining civilization, because I believe it gets at the more fundamental character of what Huntington calls “culture.” Indeed, he writes that of the objective elements which define civilizations, “the most important usually is religion.” 13 To a very large degree, writes Huntington the historian, “major civilizations in human history have been closely identified with the world’s great religions.” Ethnicity, language, customs, all of these are important reinforcing factors for the work of civilization, but religion, he argues, is by far the most important, often capable of overcoming barriers in language, race, custom, and so on. This is because religion is fundamental to the kind of world and life view that Taylor calls a “social imaginary;” it arranges the very cognitive furniture we sit and debate upon, it is there before we even begin to theorize about it, and it has powerful, society-shaping, world-changing assumptions built into our politics. Inter-civilizational dialogue is difficult, if not sometimes impossible, for this very reason, as Alasdair MacIntyre argues in the legacy of his own important book, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, because the very context and content of what is considered rationale is sometimes not shared. This is why he argued, with what Huntington is trying to express, that “mythology, in its original sense, is at the heart of things.” 14

Third, civilizations are comprehensive; that is, its many parts cannot be understood apart from or with reference to its broader civilization. Civilization is the “broadest level of identification with which [one] strongly identifies.” They are the “biggest ‘we’ within which we feel culturally at home as distinguished from the other ‘thems’ out there.” 15 A question for Huntington, to which we will attend shortly, is whether such large groupings might not be of states, but rather of people across states: do rural, conservative Catholics in Quebec have more “civilizational” affinity to Catholics in Nigeria, or with their urban, secular Quebecois neighbors 100 miles away in Montreal, with whom they share things like political citizenship? Is it possible, for example, that the pluralism of modern nation-states has reached such a crescendo that Castell’s vision of a “network society” now functions to cohere a minority “civilization” of secular-elites with more affinity between Paris, Tokyo, Dubai, and Sao Paolo, than between the residents of villages and towns just a few miles outside their metropolitan boundary? Given the results of the American election in 2017, it is more than a merely academic question whether significantly different social imaginaries (mythologies in the “original sense”) may now persist in previously presumed homogenous outposts of a civilization.

Fourth, Huntington says that while civilizations are mortal they are also very long lived. This is because civilizations are not simply empires or states; they are a whole way of understanding the world, a way of life, and it takes a truly significant challenge to change or conquer that. And these changes do not usually “end” a civilization, eradicate a whole way of life overnight, but rather shift understandings and practices slowly over decades or centuries. This predicts the complaint of conservative Christians (and many non-Christians) who might argue that calling the United States, or Canada (and so on) Christian states is wrong, since these are in effect secular, or if they are Christian in any way they are a kind of adaptation of Christian ideals, or even what Scott Thomas calls an “apostasy of Christendom.” But we do not need to agree on what true Christian politics are to agree largely that many of the ideals, values, and principles of Western society come by way of the Christian tradition, and that indeed we in the West live among the political legacy of that great religion. The moral and social architecture of western Christianity may be rejected, in disrepair, and so on, but it cannot be erased overnight, anymore than children can “disown” their parents; even their categories of opposition are defined against their lineage.

Fifth, since civilizations are not merely cultural or political entities, they are not usually coterminous with one state or empire. A civilization, says Huntington, “may thus contain one or many political units.” 16 It is here that I often wonder if Huntington would have been clearer if had chosen a slightly different term than “civilization.” The much beloved British term “commonwealth” has an old, even Augustinian history, which does some of the heavy lifting for us conceptually that Huntington must lay out more laboriously. A commonwealth is, by definition, not only one political unit, and it is usually bound together by common culture, understandings, and – to offer the Augustinian point – loves. The historical example of the Byzantine Commonwealth, a favorite phrase of noted historian Dimitri Obolensky, serves us well. 17 Here we could talk about a “core state,” as Huntington does, but one at the center of a commonwealth of nations, some of whom resent, challenge, and even periodically attack the Byzantine state. And yet they share this common Orthodox civilization, not always peaceably, not always coherently, but there are some basic loves, and therefore some common moral and political concepts, to which these plural sometimes enemy societies are pointed. That, I think, gets at what Huntington means when he talks about civilizations as many political units, and this may go some of the distance to recovering from sharp criticism his “Islamic civilization.” The fight to define, redefine, and defend what is meant by a civilization, over against others within it, can be just as bloody, if not bloodier than, that same fight outside. None of this means Islamic societies cannot practice democracy, or capitalism, or liberal human rights and so on, it just means that if they do so it will tend to be for Islamic rather than Christian-secular rationale.

Finally, Huntington lays out his own reading of civilizations in the world today, which is probably the easiest in retrospect to criticize. I will hold my criticisms of his system of 9 Civilizations because I first want to correct more fundamentally how he operationalizes religion. To this point in his argument, Huntington might be considered a student of many of his widely cited historians and historiographers, men like Christopher Dawson or Arnold Toynbee. But when it comes time to talk about what he means by religion and how he categorizes them, we end up with a rather flat perspective. He writes that “a universal religion is only slightly more likely to emerge than a universal language,” and that while we have seen an “intensification of religious consciousness” this has mainly “reinforced the differences among religions.” 18 His data on world religions is a capture of religious adherents showing progression in world population adhering to major religious traditions, including Western Christian, Eastern Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese folk, Tribal, Atheist, and Nonreligious. But where did the world-historical, civilization-shaping, imagination-transforming, society-making power of religion go? Why did it suddenly get transferred into the banal categories of secular twentieth-century social science to be robbed of all its creative, civilization-making energies? If, indeed, by “religion” we come to mean something like an ordering of our loves, a basic cognitive and social orientation that makes sense of the world, a mythology (in its original sense), then these categories do not begin to touch, with the kind of sophistication that, say, A Secular Age does, civilizational imaginaries. In other words, just when we were on the cusp of a kind of architectonic critique, which would endeavour to understand systems, institutions, and societies by their affective, worshipping orientations, we quit the field for a mundane restatement of what secular social science categorizes as “religion.” What about what Bob Goudzwaard would call the presumptive religion of the modern age, “capitalism and progress” or what Christian Smith calls “therapeutic moral Deism?” These, arguably, are as religiously defining of the so-called Christian West than historic Christianity is. And could not the same argument be made for Dubai, or Qatar, whose banks and legislatures are very busy accommodating capitalist logic out from under Islamic laws on finance? Could the bankers of Qatar, though Muslims, have more religious affinity with the Christian hedge fund managers of Wall Street than the Wahabis down the road in Riyadh? These are provoking questions, but they are meant, in a way, to push Huntington on his own logic. The problem for Huntington, I propose, is not that he is too radical in his talk about religion shaping global politics. It is that he is not radical enough.

And, partly for failing to extend this radicalism, Huntington also gets caught in a nationalist trap; by aligning single-coherent states within singlecoherent civilizations, the problem of plural politics is immediately magnified since “multiculturalism carries an inherent danger.” 19 As Huntington puts it, “multiculturalism at home threatens the United States and the West” just as “universalism abroad threatens the West and the World. Both deny the uniqueness of Western culture.” 20 If Western society is a Christian society, or Indian society is a Hindu society, or Russian society is an Orthodox society, then we must be busy both excavating, recovering, and then applying those foundational religious principles. Some in India, Russia, and indeed Western societies, have been very busy doing just that, and the results have been populist nationalism which are very far from the kind of plural politics that most would wish for. In fact, by humbly offering a corrective to Huntington on an otherwise brilliant application of religion as a constitutive rather than simply causal factor, I believe the problem of pluralism itself can be resolved in a less troubling fashion. To do that, I enlist the pastor turned politician, and great theorist of political pluralism, Abraham Kuyper, and key voices from the tradition in which I think Kuyper can be reasonably situated: Christian Realism and the Early English School. 21

Abraham Kuyper and the English School’s Radical Religion and Political Pluralism

If there is one figure to whom we can retreat for a needed religious radicalism and political pluralism, it is surely the tireless man of religion and politics, Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper’s own forays into foreign policy, as I have written at greater length elsewhere, were a nearly comedic routine of failures, 22 but he also contributed, in my opinion, at least two fundamental insights that augment and reorient Huntington’s operationalization of religion in foreign affairs, and might creatively adapt his “civilizational” paradigm for present-day politics. 23 These are his emphases on the inescapably religious nature of nations and how best to consider the problem of pluralism in international law.

At least one common denominator between Kuyper, Butterfield, Dawson, and others that Huntington appreciatively cites, is the work of Augustine. Here we can see a common presumption that the national character of a people is fundamentally derivative of their religion, what they worship, and the truer the form of that worship, the more coherent and resilient their national life. Religion, for both Kuyper and Huntington, is not a by-product of a national life, but it is rather the wellspring from which national life emerges. To even do foreign policy is first, then, to ask the question: what is it my neighbor loves? And how have they arranged their social and national life around the objects of their worship? This is not a purely cognitive or philosophical task of investigating histories, policies, and religious texts. It is a more anthropological task than that, for the organic nature of nations must be observed, and maybe lived, not simply intellectual dissected. True worship springs up, observed in practice, not merely preached from pulpits or delivered in national assemblies.

Like Huntington, Dawson, Kuyper, and Butterfield would have been skeptical of any national project that can be held together by purely secular ideals. Kuyper could, and did, come to terms with Islamic nations, as he did in his journeys around the Mediterranean, 24 but he would find the denial of religious character of any kind baffling and incoherent for a nation. It is, he might wonder, strange that nations should work so diligently to occlude the common objects of their love and worship, and dangerously shallow that religious protagonists should be discouraged from articulating their own rationale for those loves. Indeed, nothing could more assure the installation of some new authoritarian politics than the occlude debate upon its most fundamental questions about who we are, what we love, how that matters – or – to the point of pluralism, why we believe these things. The important point of the Kuyperian tradition of principled pluralism is nations or states are necessarily engaged in robust religious-political debates about what kinds of principles or loves to hold in common, while keeping open by pluralist necessity that we may disagree on why we love them commonly. To collapse any state’s or even civilization’s identity with one purely religious identity is to expose it to not only the worst of radical nationalism, but also anti-pluralism. This was a powerful lesson Kuyper, in his last days, took from the experience of the Great War: that baptizing any nation’s foreign policy with the will of the Lord was a sure recipe for disaster. Certainly, we may say historiographically, “God uses peoples in history,” as he used Rome or Babylon, or Assyria. As Kuyper wrote in Pro Rege:

Therefore, when we consider Christ’s kingship in its relation to the state, we must look not only to Christ’s power over sovereigns and statesmen as individuals, nor only to the spirit that he causes to arise in the law, nor only to the conflicts that he raises in the nations’ hearts through the political system, nor only to the influence he exercises through the colonial possessions of Christian powers and through the awakening of that international orientation. Rather, over and on top of all these things we must consider also the relationships in which the states are placed with respect to each other, and the historical outcome to which the relationships between these states, great and small, will lead. It is from Above that bonds are woven between these states. It is these bonds, which are woven, then untied, and finally rewoven into a new configuration, that produce what we call the history of the nations. 25

But to say that a nation’s identity is divinely ordained as coterminous with Christ’s Kingship itself is to risk the kind of egoistic, Christian imperialism that unseats the sovereignty of God and exchanges it for the idol of the nation. Kuyper concludes the thought:

His [Christ’s] kingdom is not of this world. What he is now realizing is and remains the kingdom of heaven, but the history of the kingdoms of the world must be placed in the service of the coming of that kingdom, and it is our King himself who brings this about. His church is in the world, and not cut off from it. The destiny and future of his church would depend on a power foreign to him, if it were indeed the earth’s kings that determined the course of history in the life of the world. 26

Kuyper saw firsthand the clash of idolatries in the Great War, and we would do well to remember that despite his enduring passion for Calvinistic Christianity as a sure foundation for national life, the simplistic identification of one nation’s life with the will of God was a great and terrible evil from which the world did not soon recover.

International law, for Kuyper, was about recognizing the constraints under which power, even great global power, operates. The laws among nations, then, may be thought of as a kind of functional stewardship of deeper norms, most significantly the norms of Christ and his Kingdom. Kuyper wrote in Pro Rege:

It may seem like everything in history is worked by human beings alone, but in reality the entire theatre of the world is God’s majestic workplace, and the rulers, counselors, and commanders who accomplish those changes are no more than instruments in his hand. 27

This, of course, is where broadly secular theory would demur from Kuyper’s political theology. For law to be law, to be not only binding but also morally 233 coherent, Kuyper believed it must be rooted in the Christian Gospel. Can, for example, laws be made and maintained between Hindu and Muslim countries, Christian and Buddhist nations? Kuyper might have been skeptical. What for him, at the close of the Great War, was the cataclysm of European Christianity did not shake his confidence in the need for the Gospel as the cornerstone of political life. If anything, it retrenched his conviction that the laws among nations had broken down precisely because of the egoistic imperialism which had so blasphemously gripped the people of once-Christian Europe. The Europeans had prostrated themselves before idols, and the consequences of that idolatry were made manifest in the breakdown of international law and the cataclysm of war.

Kuyper then, like Dawson and Butterfield, would unswervingly confess the need to root international law in Christian principles and confessions, but in the here and now he may well have time, patience, and even some fascination with other-religious traditions articulating their own, indigenous rationales for those same principles. I think that for Kuyper there could be no other way of imagining international law in a plural world: for while Christians may well strive for all nations to know the Gospel, as one of those “necessary adjustments to reality” the Christian foreign policy maker must know that it is both impractical and naïve to wait for the new heavens and the new earth to make policy and partnership with non-Christian neighbors and nations. And, further, because of Dawson and Kuyper’s strong emphasis on religion as the ground motive and life force of a civilization, I believe the work of international law, particularly in a post-secular world order, becomes as much inter-religious dialogue as it does politics. There is, in that sense, no set of laws between plural nations that is purely secular. All laws, per Kuyper’s thought, have their root in religion. The key, then, is finding what common cause we may among rival root systems, while never excusing ourselves from confessing that the Calvinistic-root system is the surest and the best. 28

One can imagine, then, a kind of Augustinian correction from the English School to Huntington’s model, that narrower groupings of political communities might have more “commonwealth” affinities (read: more specific loves) which unite them, and broader civilizational groupings would have much narrower, or thinner affinities (perhaps like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). It is about a hierarchy of loves, not all of which can be reasonably shared, but some of which might be, and might provide the basis for things like international law and global order. This also creates a kind of space for the sort of intra-civilization diversity I imply above, where belonging to a larger “we” does not preclude real diversity and debate within, some of which can and will get bloody as groups fight to define and redefine the concepts and practices of their politics and culture.

Conclusion: A Clash of Rival Apostasies?

So how would this English School intervention on the religious character of nations and the interreligious nature of international law adjust Huntington’s civilizational paradigm? At least two such adjustments seem, to me, to be critical from putting Huntington in dialogue with Kuyper.

First, we must accept Huntington’s more radical definition of the religious, as he covers it himself in the opening pages of The Clash of Civilization, as the ground from which world civilizations emerge, as a constitutive rather than only causal factor global affairs. This means that operationalizing religion to construct discrete civilizations is no simple task. Human societies and nations, like human hearts, do not have perfectly ordered interior lives, where it is simple to show in practice that what we love is exactly and in what order we say we do. If the human heart, as John Calvin would be quick to remind us, is an idol factory then international society is an idol industrial complex.

And yet, to say that Russia has an “Orthodox” imprint on its social and political imagination is also not entirely unhelpful. It is not complete, there is quite a lot of social, historical, and theological plurality that have packaged under that one rather generic label, but as a kind of approach we could do worse than to pay attention to the Orthodox religion as constitutive of the moral and social architecture of the Russian state and its sense of self. But to offer Russia the exclusive identity of Orthodox politics seems, to me, to play rather generously into the hand of the nationalist and populist sentiments of Vladimir Putin’s Russkiy Mir and his irredentist arguments for “repossessing” Orthodox religious and cultural peoples back into their ‘natural’ civilization. Putin even used the liberal international doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect for his annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Could it be that Huntington’s unreconstructed civilizational approach dangerously undermines religious and political minorities within a “civilization’s sphere” of influence? No matter what our affinity for Huntington’s thesis, we should never say that one state or even group of states has only “one” social and political heritage, if we mean to safeguard the nature of pluralist democracies. It can be expedient, useful, even insightful to study certain political-theological trajectories (as in Orthodox ones) when doing foreign policy (say in Eastern Europe), but to allow those categories to exhaust those societies puts their minorities in a very dangerous place, and enables a kind of nationalist politics that, at least the convicted Christian, should find very troubling.

What we might find, instead, is that there are majority and minority reports on careful study of political-theological traditions, some of which fade, some of which resurge, and so on. Societies are not one thing, and if we conflate latent worldviews, culture, and religion with the most fashionable or powerful 235 ideologies of the day in a state, we will have missed much history, and be robbed of explaining why and how those societies change (or might change).

Operationalizing religion in this way may also shift categories of what counts as a civilization, as I suggested earlier in the essay. Could it be that modern, technocratic capitalism is as religious a mythology as Hinduism? Bob Goudzwaard certainly thinks so. 29 James Skillen thinks so too, arguing that:

what Huntington missed in his analysis … is that driving motives of earlier state-to-state warfare and ideological crusades were not nonreligious and unrelated to the clash of civilizations. It is just that nineteenth and twentieth century warfare among states in the grip of competing nationalism, socalisms, communism, and liberalism represented clashes within Western civilizations, clashes that were as deeply religious as anything we are witnessing today. 30

And if this is the case then might not a “world civilization” (so religiously defined) be cropping up from under our noses defined, for one of the first times, not along historic geographical boundaries, but along highly networked, high financed, highly travelled urban corridors? This is also Scott Thomas’ argument, that:

There is a clash of civilizations, but it is not between Islam and the West. The real clash is between what Alasdair MacIntyre calls tradition-based modes of rationality and visions of the common good and those modes and visions based on the Enlightenment project. If so, then the real clash is between, on the one hand, orthodox Islam and Christianity, and, on the other, all modern forms of fundamentalism, whether they are faith based or secularist. … The clash of civilizations is really a sibling rivalry since the apostate West and radical global Islamism spring from a similar source of apostasy: post-Enlightenment modernity. 31

Less sensationally, perhaps, we could talk, as Jonathan Fox does, of the increasing (and increasingly violent) “Secular-Religious Competition” in global affairs. 32 What we would be left with, then, is an even stronger case for so-called civilizational diversity within contemporary states, within Huntington’s blocks of civilizations as described them. The problem of cohesion is real, as Huntington himself rightly intuited, but the answer lies probably not in a false and troubling coercive claim to religious, linguistic, and cultural homogeneity within states, but rather in a clearer, bolder, and – yes – even more plural religious expression about the principles or loves around which these states revolve.

Second, as I have already implied above, we must make some adjustments for pluralism both in the form of “inter-civilizational” dialogue abroad and freedom of religion or belief as fundamental to the character of just societies at home. This makes religion more, not less, important in global and domestic affairs, putting it at the forefront of efforts not only to build consensus around issues of significant global concern 33 but also to provide the heavy moral vocabulary 34 around which common action, if not common conviction, can take place. And this is exactly what we would expect to need and find if religion was a constitutive rather than merely causal factor in international relations. That insight remains, in my opinion, one of the most fundamental approaches that Huntington offers. We would not want to adopt his categories wholesale, and we might want to quibble (more than a little) with his uneasy demarcations of states and civilizations with one whole political-theological tradition, but amended and nuanced, his core insight into the challenges that face twenty-first-century politics, and the categories and vocabularies we will use to face them, are as helpful today as they were when he first put pen to paper in 1993.

Cite this article
Robert Joustra, “A Clash of Rival Apostasies? The Religious Problem and the Clash of Civilizations at 25”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 48:3 , 223–236


  1. See Saba Mahmood, Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religious Freedom (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).
  2. Daniel Philpot, “Has the Study of Global Politics Found Religion?,” Annual Review of Political Science 12 (2009): 183-202.
  3. For a longer argument, see Robert Joustra, The Religious Problem with Religious Freedom: Why Foreign Policy Needs Political Theology (London: Routledge, 2017).
  4. Huntington, 47. For an outstanding resource for Christopher Dawson on his historiography and philosophy of history I recommend Dynamics in World History. I have designed and taught an introduction world history (to 1914) around Dawson’s historiography (also C. T. McIntire) for several years.
  5. “Religion, Culture, and International Conflict after September 11: A Conversation with Samuel P. Huntington,” Accessed January 15, 2018.
  6. Jeffrey Haynes, Religion, Politics and International Relations (London: Routledge, 2011), 99.
  7. See a very fine recent book from Shadi Hamid, Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World (St. Martin’s Griffin: New York, 2016) for some helpful distinctions here.
  8. Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011), 40.
  9. Ibid., 41.
  10. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Harvard Belknap Press, 2007), 156.
  11. A conversation for another day, but for which I recommend Robert Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson, How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).
  12. Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 26.
  13. Huntington, 42.
  14. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 216.
  15. Huntington, 43.
  16. Ibid, 44.
  17. Dimitri Obelensky, The Byzantine Commonwealth: Eastern Europe, 500-1453 (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1971).
  18. Huntington, 64.
  19. Jonathan Chaplin and Robert Joustra, eds., God and Global Order (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2010), 10.
  20. Huntington, 318.
  21. Or perhaps “Augustinian Realism,” a term that also fits well for Dawson, Butterfield, and Kuyper. Forthcoming: Robert Joustra, “Postsecular Prophets: Abraham Kuyper, Herbert Butterfield, and the Early English School” in The Routledge Handbook of Postsecularity (Routledge, 2019).
  22. Robert Joustra, “Abraham Kuyper Among the Nations,” Politics & Religion (September 2017).
  23. For a popular summary of this argument, see Robert Joustra, “Globalization and the Kingdom of God: A Christian Perspective on International Relations,” Public Justice Review 5 (2017), which itself is covered in more detail in Robert Joustra, “Abraham Kuyper Among the Nations,” Politics & Religion. Thanks to both Politics & Religion and the Public Justice Review for allowing parts of these arguments to be reproduced here.
  24. A translation of Kuyper’s journeys “Around the Old-World Sea” is currently underway into English. A popular eight-part documentary series, with George Harinck, has, however, already been aired in both Dutch and English. See also Abraham Kuyper, On Islam, James Bratt and Douglas Howard, editors (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2018).
  25. Abraham Kuyper, Pro Rege: Living Under Christ’s Kingship: Volume 3, trans. Albert Gootjes, eds. John Kok and Nelson D. Kloosterman (Bellingham, WA: Lexam Press, 2017), 336.
  26. Ibid., 342.
  27. Ibid., 334.
  28. This would be a “Kuyperian” argument not foremost for utility (that is, Christianity is a kind of socio-economic catalyst), but rather primarily because it is true and that in exercising obedience to truth and the norms latent in creation, social and political benefit may follow.
  29. Bob Goudzwaard, Capitalism and Progress: A Diagnosis of Western Society (Authentic Media, New Edition 1997).
  30. Emphasis added. James W. Skillen, With or Against the World: America’s Role Among the Nations (Lanham: Rowman & Littefield, 2005), 16. See also David T. Koyzis, “Westernization or Clash of Civilizations?,” Comment Magazine (September 2004).
  31. Scott Thomas, “The Clash of Rival Apostasies amidst the Global Resurgence of Religion” in Chaplin and Joustra, God and Global Order, 202-203.
  32. Jonathan Fox, Political Secularism, Religion, and the State: A Time Series Analysis of Worldwide Data (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
  33. See in a special issue, Mariano Barbato and Robert Joustra, eds., “Popes on the Rise: The Modern Papacy in World Affairs,” The Review of Faith & International Affairs 15.4 (2017).
  34. Daniel Philpott, Just and Unjust Peace (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Robert Joustra

Redeemer University College
Robert Joustra is Associate Professor of Politics and International Studies at Redeemer University College.