Ethics & International Affairs Volume 25.1 (Spring 2011): Briefly Noted [Full Text]: Briefly Noted

Apr 6, 2011

Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents, Ian Buruma (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010), 132 pp., $19.95 cloth.

In Taming the Gods, Ian Buruma investigates the tensions that exist between organized religion and liberal democracy. Drawing on thinkers as diverse as Tocqueville, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Burke, Jefferson, Voltaire, and Confucius, Buruma explores the history of churchstate relations in different cultures. His focus is on the recent upsurge of evangelical Protestantism in American politics; the appropriation of popular religious sentiment by the political regimes that preceded modern-day democratic Japan and communist China; and the current controversy in Europe regarding Muslim immigration to secular, historically Christian states. The book highlights the deep complexities that characterize national religiosity, and predicts equally complex obstacles for political actors who attempt to manipulate religious fervor to further their own ends. Throughout, Buruma seeks to investigate the required elements that hold democratic societies together and the place of religion among them.

The book's geographic focal points—the United States, Europe, China, and Japan— may seem disparate, but Buruma's argument benefits from an expansive approach. By exploring the historical strains of secularism in each locale, he shows that current challenges to secularism are not a contemporary phenomenon, but a continuation of broader struggles to define secularism in specific, historically religious cultures.

In the United States, Rush Limbaugh is the modern embodiment of Elmer Gantry, the hustling preacher in Sinclair Lewis's famed novel of the same name, and their form of showbiz gospel partly explains the immediate impossibility of a non-Christian U.S. presidency. In China, the imposed veneration of Mao and his Little Red Book recalls, however distortedly, the country's traditional adherence to the Analects of Confucianism, a religion twentieth-century Chinese intellectuals thought undermined "their twin modern ideals, which they called 'Mr. Science' and 'Mr. Democracy.'" In France, the banning of the Islamic veil should be understood in the context of the country's staunch ideological commitment to secularism— itself a product of the revolution's successful overthrow of Catholic authority and the development of the notion of laïcité. All of these places are ostensibly secular, yet Buruma illustrates how each continues its struggle to disentangle political and religious ideologies.

Particularly for European democracies, the author argues that the only common faith required for political success is a strong belief in Enlightenment values and democratic institutions. "As long as people play by the rules of free speech, free expression, independent judiciaries and free elections, they are democratic citizens, whatever they choose to wear on their heads." In order to assuage concerns about changing cultural values, argues Buruma, proponents of secularism need to focus on the long-term cultivation of liberal-democratic principles.

Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, Wendy Brown (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Zone Books, 2010), 168 pp., $25.95 cloth.

What do "border fences" between the United States and Mexico, India and Bangladesh, South Africa and Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and Israel and the Palestinian territories have in common? According to Wendy Brown, these walls and fortifications are reactions to a singularly contemporary phenomenon: the decline of sovereignty in the nation-state due to contending economic and security imperatives.

On the one hand, the globalization of people, goods, and capital demands an unprecedented degree of openness across states and territories—one that, paradoxically, undermines the sovereignty of the very states whose power helps constitute and sustain this world order. On the other hand, the proliferation of (and perhaps overreaction to) transnational and subnational security threats posed by terrorists, drug smugglers, and other criminal networks has brought about a retrenchment at the borders—an attempt by putatively sovereign states to reassert themselves against nontraditional threats that undermine their image as unitary and all-powerful actors within their territory. Thus, in an era of increasing insecurity for the modern nation-state, "the new walls project an image of sovereign jurisdictional power and an aura of the bounded and secure nation that are at the same time undercut by their existence and also by their functional inefficiency."

Brown, a professor of political science at Berkeley, employs diverse modes of investigation to examine the phenomenon of walling. Insights from psychoanalysis (especially Freud père et fille), critical theory (Derrida, Foucault, and Agamben), and political philosophy (Hobbes, Locke, and especially Schmitt) all figure prominently in her argument. Indeed, Walled States brims with keen observations about the current political, economic, and social tensions and pathologies these walls simultaneously instantiate and seek to redress, and provides a vibrant account of a pivotal phenomenon in twenty-first-century international politics.

While the force of Brown's argument is sometimes attenuated by her overreliance on the technical language often employed in critical theory, and her overwhelming focus on the United States and Israel (and subsequent under-theorizing of wall building and fortification in the developing world) appears to be based more on personal preference than rigorous justification, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty will surely appeal to philosophers, sociologists, political scientists, and critical theorists alike.

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