Skip to main content

Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe, from the French Revolution to the Great War

Michael Burleigh
Published by HarperOne in 2006

Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, from the Great War to the War on Terror

Michael Burleigh
Published by HarperOne in 2008

The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West

Mark Lilla.
Published by Vintage in 2008

A Secular Age

Charles Taylor
Published by Harvard University Press in 2008

Taken together, these four books provide one an opportunity to survey the broad and deep questions that are interwoven with secularization and religion in Western Europe and North America over the past few centuries. Each has a distinct purpose and framework making for a wide-ranging treatment of the many issues they raise. I read all four against the backdrop of Pierre Manent’s The City of Man, published in France in 1994 and four years later in English in the series New French Thought by Princeton University Press.

Manent writes to clarify what Western thought has been doing with the concept of man, what Michel Foucault refers to somewhat dismissively as “that ubiquitous abstraction.” Manent’s book traces some of the trajectories taken by modern philosophy to displace nature (human nature) as defining man with consciousness. His analysis is too detailed to summarize here. At the risk of oversimplifying, he demonstrates how in the past 300 years Western philosophy, breaking definitively from classical and Christian philosophy, gave man a new place in the cosmos, a sovereignty that eclipses all other claims and obligations that might limit, direct, or bind him.

Concepts of law and nature govern much of the argument that Manent unveils. The two are related by a kind of reciprocity until the modern age. Human nature was seen to be lacking in its “natural” form. Law was given by God and by man to deal with what was lacking—to contain propensities to do evil and to direct one toward the good. Law moved toperfect what nature in its raw condition rendered imperfect. This general concept of the relation of human nature to the purpose of law could be accepted widely by Christian and non-Christian alike.

With the modern age, nature gave way to consciousness as the definition of man. Similarly, law redefined its purposes with respect to man. No longer having a nature to be perfected, law was redirected toward rights to be protected. This retooling of the law came to serve both aspirations for freedom and the new, the now, the current moment of history. Law, in essence, came to serve progress and could be judged only in terms of how well or poorly it accomplished that purpose.

Manent adds still another dimension to this progressive reconstitution of man: the development of the sociological viewpoint, a way of viewing man that is commensurate with his new place in the cosmos. The new man and the man of the new must be understood in the same way the rest of the cosmos is understood: as an effect with known or knowable causes.

If man is posited as a cause, he will be the cause of a multitude of possible effects. He will be an undetermined cause…. On the other hand, if one considers man as an effect, everything is different. There is no longer any uncertainty, only a scientific difficulty. It is up to the observer, the spectator, the researcher to designate clearly the cause (60).

As Manent traces the development of the sociological viewpoint, he highlights its tendency to analyze by division and separation, like many of the modern sciences. The result of these divisions, of society from state, of church from state, eventually of church from society is to separate many Europeans from their mores and their religion. “In Europe, for the first time a religion loses strength over a long period of time at the same time that the body politic grows strong, without any new religion appearing to replace the first” (84). It is in this context that the law takes on a more purely political form; it is given over almost exclusively to the state and its purposes, no longer to man and his purposes.

Manent’s book sets the stage for the books under review here by offering a penetrating and provocative analysis of “the city of man.” Now we turn to these recent books on religion and secularization in Europe over the past three centuries.

Mark Lilla’s The Stillborn God relates some of the same story as The City of Man but with a different purpose. Lilla traces the “Great Separation” between a politics and political order nestled originally in a worldview of transcendence but displaced by one of almost absolute immanence. Lilla is interested in demonstrating how internecine warfare in Christendom pressed western political theory toward a politics situated almost exclusively in “the city of man.” He lays out accurately for his reader the contours of Christian political theology deriving from biblical sources and various theological traditions.
In Lilla’s narrative of what Manent calls “the city of man,” one of the most remarkable twists and turns in the birth of a politics rooted in the now, the saeculum, is the reintroduction of a transcendent element or dimension of political thought after Hobbs had formulated a fairly thoroughgoing realistic political theory (Leviathan) in which the state is constructed and its affairs conducted strictly on the basis of needs for security and stability—an elegant functionalism. The problem for political theory following Hobbs was that it was difficult to establish grounds for a common ethic that would provide the very stability the secular state sought to establish. Thus, God was invited back to the city of man to teach ethics and provide a useful communal setting for European societies to inculcate values that promoted the general welfare. Lilla devotes space both to Rousseau’s literary contribution to this end in his Emile and Kant’s more systematic philosophical contribution in Critique of Practical Reason. Both Rousseau and Kant grasped the functionalism of religion in the life of man; it serves human needs and provides a social glue. Its utility, not its truth, gave a place in the city of man.

In a subsequent chapter, Lilla follows this domesticated Christian religion as it is absorbed by Hegel into his philosophy of religion and his philosophy of history. As he works through an exposition of Hegel’s framing of religion’s utility in human affairs and the ways it can be domesticated properly by the state, Lilla puts his readers on a trajectory toward liberal German Protestantism. It is in “Schleiermacher’s revolutionary assumption that the divine could be encountered only by parsing the religious feelings of Christian man himself”(226). In this framework man becomes the measure of theological truth. The city of man now has a theological system worthy of man. God is brought down to earth and now serves human aspirations only. Religion still has a place in Hegel’s absolute state but its form is fundamentally political and social, substantially immanent.

With the post-Hegelian liberal Protestantism of the 19th and early 20th centuries we meet the stillborn God, a vestige of historic Christianity less and less capable of providing the moral and intellectual guidance for European societies, especially those dominated by Protestant state churches. This god without thunder was not up to holding back or challenging the new visions of the state, the society, and the people being hatched a century ago.

Michael Burleigh helps fill in many more dimensions of the ways politics in Europe related itself to religion in the past 250 years. The story he tells is many stories in many settings, each one shaped by national and local histories and following intriguing twists and turns from the 18th through the 20th centuries. The first of his two volumes, Earthly Powers, begins with France in the pre-Revolution period and follows the tensions and conflicts between the Church and the new state through the various stages of the first republic and into the Empire. Burleigh tells of a much more complex relationship between the Church and the French state than the typical history textbook. A substantial portion of the clergy in France was prepared to support some of the measures of the new republic until it became impossible for them to continue to maintain their loyalty to the church. To some extent, one might see that the church was forced into becoming a major anti-revolutionary institution even if it were not predisposed toward that.

The leadership of the Revolution came to see that Rousseau was correct in understanding how some aspect of the religious tradition was necessary for the people if they were to become a cohesive force in the new state. Thus, many elements of Christian faith and practice were appropriated to become part of the new state apparatus: hymns, catechisms, and sacred observances, to name a few. It was not unusual to see theological concepts and other intellectual elements of the Christian tradition transformed in the service of the state as well. The Revolution became a faith and modeled itself, externally at least, on many forms adapted from the Church.

Burleigh’s story moves back and forth between political appropriations of religion and the adaptive or reactive responses of various religious bodies, mostly Christian. Much of what we read in Earthly Powers relates to the many forms of nationalism set loose in Europe following the Revolution. Country by country he surveys how various religious groups moved toward or away from nationalist movements depending upon the contours of the movements and the issues at stake for a particular church or denomination. As was the case with the French Revolution, other nationalisms incorporated from Christianity aspects of transcendence, elements of eschatology, and various rites and observances that came to work effectively, for some, as substitutes for the supplanted Church.

In his second volume of this long and complex story, Sacred Causes, Burleigh takes up the narrative against the backdrop of the disaster and destruction, physical and spiritual, of the Great War. In this period we see there still is some appropriation of religious forms by the Fascist, Socialist, Nazi, and Communist movements as they build new ideologies out of the rubble left by the war. But the story is much more about opposition by the churches to growing threats to themselves and to many segments of the societies in which the new totalitarian regimes were developing. The author provides correctives to many of the distorted historical generalizations about the churches’ relationships with the Fascist regime in Italy and the Nazi regime in Germany. His nuanced and balanced treatment of the Catholic Church in the prewar years shows the difficult but determined stance the church was attempting take as a universal and not national institution. This was particularly challenging in Italy.

Burleigh has a gift for summarizing the complex states of affairs across Europe within particular time periods. He shows this in his first few pages of the chapter dealing with 1939 to 1945. He moves across Europe, highlighting the situation of the churches in each country directly involved in the war waged by Germany, including Germany itself. As a result, we have a well-constructed picture of how Christians across Europe were drawn into the experience of the war as Christians and as members of particular churches.

Charles Taylor, a philosopher, now retired from McGill University, has taken a somewhat different approach to the broad subject we are considering. As a philosopher, he complements the history of thought that structures Lilla’s book and looks carefully at some of the same issues. He treats his subject historically, but with a focus on philosophy and theology rather than on specific nations, a feature that makes Burleigh’s two volumes so historically rich and complex. A Secular Age is offered as an attempt to define secularity in the West and to describe how it came to be. As one sees the manner of its coming into being, one can better grasp its nature.

For Taylor, secularity is not best described as an arrangement such as the separation of church and state nor is it best defined as a decline in a population of the practice of faith, such as church attendance. Both of these are aspects of secularism, to be sure. For him, however, the most important and most interesting question revolves around how a large segment of a society can find, in a particular historical period, that it is almost impossible not to believe in a divine power and in another period find it to be very difficult. “Secularity in this sense is a matter of the whole context of understanding in which our moral, spiritual or religious experience and search takes place” (3).

A premise guiding Taylor ’s examination of the issue is that there is a propensity in man to root some or all aspects of his life in a spiritual framework. Thus, secularism is not a natural or default state. It is, as a matter of fact, an unusual and unique state in the history of mankind. So it is, with a large scope for treating his subject and a commitment to treat secularism as a phenomenon requiring a probing examination, Taylor sets off on a careful conceptual exploration using an historical framework.

Before delving into his historical analysis, he examines what he believes are the conditions of belief more or less universal to human experience. This involves the human self-perception of life having a moral and spiritual shape and that perception being related to an activity or condition characterized by fullness or richness. This fullness is often the source of inspiration or direction in life and has the effect of providing a sense of peace or wholeness.

The author goes on to point out how the sense of fullness is not always the state of one who seeks it. There is also alienation, a sense of distance, absence of the source of wholeness. It is faith of some sort that makes possible living through this state to reconnect with the fullness that can be experienced. This is a reality for most who believe in God. They believe that the God who is there maintains a relationship even in the times where there is a sense of absence on the part of the believer. Fullness, for the believer, depends on an outside relationship. For the unbeliever, fullness depends upon resources within.

All of this leads toward how societies define “human flourishing”—what forms it takes and how can we achieve it. If human flourishing depends upon a relationship between the society as a whole and a divine power, then the characteristics of flourishing will involve matters that are beyond this world (what we might refer to as “temporal”) and will contrast with an understanding that finds its source strictly within human experience and human means.

Taylor sets up a distinction between a Christian form of human flourishing (requiring human flourishing to be defined by a relationship to God and obligations to another order) and what he calls an “exclusive humanism” form. This exclusive humanism finds all the resources and all the means for human flourishing within the “natural” world. It is this that defines our particular secular age. He goes on to trace how this transition from a Christian concept of human flourishing (within an order established by God) gives way to an immanent concept. Exclusive humanism in a sense crept up on us through an intermediate form, Providential Deism; and both the Deism and the humanism were made possible by earlier developments within orthodox Christianity.

Taylor ’s story is told in a mere 750 pages, taking the reader through philosophy, theology, various social and intellectual movements. As he brings his examination to its conclusion, he looks toward the future in the West using two scenarios. The first is what might be assumed by most people looking at trends today: religious belief diminishing further with some pockets of resistance. But Taylor sees a possibly different future: because fullness, human flourishing, does indeed depend upon the transcendent God even if people refuse to recognize that, there will be a continuing need both to define and redefine what is the good and how it can be achieved. Exclusive secularism will not prove to be up to the task of defining to the satisfaction of all people what is the good. There will still be a seeking for what has eluded us and the transcendent likely will break in again on many people in a world they consider to be totally a phenomenon of nature. To those Christians who are reading his book, Taylor issues a call to engage in practices that make possible many ways of engaging the assumptions that make exclusive humanism so compelling.

Taken together and read against the backdrop of Manent’s The City of Man, these four books provide a highly nuanced examination of secularization in the West and Christianity’s multi-faceted struggle to maintain its proper form, function, and calling in the midst of confusion, internal conflict, divided loyalties, and extreme pressure to be transformed by the spirit-of-the-age.

Cite this article
Michael G. Smith, “Earthly Powers, Sacred Causes, The Stillborn God & A Secular Age”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 47:4 , 511-515

Michael G. Smith

Taylor University
Michael G. Smith is a professor in the humanities at Taylor University.