Sunday, April 24, 2016

Sacred Causes --of war - A Book Review

Can a look back help predict the future of religious influence?


The Clash of Religion and Politics 
from the Great War to the
War on Terror

By Michael Burleigh

Reviewed by
Geoffrey W. Sutton


News of the recent church-state skirmishes rippling across the Southern Christian U.S. States reminded me of Burleigh’s work, which I reviewed a few years ago. Additionally, the brutality of the identified Islamic state ripping heads from bodies, destroying women and children, exploding ancient sites, and pushing vulnerable noncombatants into the Mediterranean makes the author’s analysis even more worthy of a second look.

What I find useful to the present church and state issues is Burleigh’s consideration of the role of the church in the various conflicts beginning with World War I and extending into the 21st Century. During the past hundred years, the primary European church was of course the Church of Rome—still claiming the largest percentage of the world’s largest religion. Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant branches of Christianity fared unevenly under communist and fascist regimes. Clearly, limitations on religious freedom curbed influence. But there was some influence.

It’s how the church might influence state politics under restrictions of religious freedom that seems relevant today. On the one hand, the western democracies struggle to deal with aggressive tribes who link their violence to Islam—mostly in the Middle East and Europe. Because the Islamist warriors target Christians along with secularists, semi-Christianized nations are in a quasi-religious war. Western states are coping unevenly with warriors committed to a religiously informed purpose-driven death.

On the other hand, secular forces within the western democracies are pushing back against the influence of the church on religiously-informed laws and regulations. Not only are secular forces removing Christian faith-linked laws governing marriage and constraints on ending pregnancies but new laws and court decisions compel Christians to violate their religiously informed conscience. Exemptions have been granted as evident in the "Hobby Lobby" case of 2015 and the special considerations for religious groups objecting to provisions of the Affordable Care Act (though aspects of the ACA are still contentious).

For those interested in the link between religious belief and behavior as well as the shifting balance of influence between churches and states, Burleigh offers an interesting perspective.

A free copy of my academic review can be found at Academia and ResearchGate.

Cite this blog post

Sutton, G. W. (2016, April 24. Sacred causes of war. [Web log post]. Retrieved from 

The book

Burleigh, M. (2007). Sacred causes: The clash of religion and politics, from the great war to the war on terror. New York: Harper Collins


Twitter  @GeoffWSutton 

For a related but different focus on morality and Christian cultures see A House Divided.

Also, A House Divided Website

For additional free book reviews and articles

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