The former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, himself a committed Christian, remarked in the late 1970s: “You can't run a country by the Sermon on the Mount.” Yet, referring to the fraught situation in the Middle East, with its continual demonisation of the enemy and endless tit-for-tat killings, my German colleague Heinz-Günther Stobbe observed around the same time: “The Sermon on the Mount is the most realistic text in the New Testament.” The two comments neatly sum up the dilemma of religions in the public arena: the case could be made that their idealism, their promise of transforming society by transcending it, is indispensable to public morality and good government. Yet when such aspirations are turned into a programme, suspicions arise: in India the dharma is being proposed in the form of the Hindutva ideology as the only viable basis of the state, while some Muslims claim that only the implementation of the Sharia can establish a just polity. ‘Political religion’, then, is a term loaded with ambiguities: should religion be instrumentalised by politics, or should it be kept separate from the political sphere? Or alternatively, is it the case that religions of whatever type are constitutively political in their different ways, such that their political orientation will always come to light in the public sphere (May, 1999)? And if any of this is true, how can a social scientist study it?
We would therefore do well to be cautious about addressing the topic of ‘political religion’, whether in the context of Religious Studies, which some see as an illegitimate child of Christian theology, or International Relations, which might be characterised as extending the study of the political institutions of nation states to include the relations between states themselves. The inherited presupposition of both disciplines is that the secularisation and consequent privatisation of religion are fundamental to modernity, that any deviation from this canonical view represents a threat to the normative principles of liberal democracies, and that the politicisation of religion, its re-entry into civil society as a public actor, is some kind of distortion or anomaly whose study can safely be left to those whose interests run to social deviation and sectarianism.
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