SACRED CAUSES: The Clash of Religion and Politics From the Great War to the War on Terror by Michael Burleigh

SACRED CAUSES:The Clash of Religion and Politics
From the Great War to the War on Terror,

by Michael Burleigh

HarperCollins Canada: Toronto, ON.
2007. 557 pages. Hardcover. $34.95 Cdn.
ISBN #978-0-06058-0957.

By Wayne A. Holst

In his first volume of two studies on the coupling of europeanculture and faith covering the late eighteenth century to moderntimes, the encyclopedic and masterful British scholar MichaelBurleigh laid down a basic theory to ground his work:

“The more things change, the more they remain the same.”

In other words, the tides of history roll out, but they also return.Faith may seem to disappear, but in fact it does not. (see my reviewof Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe, fromthe French Revolution to the Great War; Catholic Register, October29th, 2006.)

Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics From the Great Warto the War on Terror – the book under consideration, reaffirms thispivotall principle as Burleigh completes his project; conveying usthrough the last three-quarters of the twentieth century and intothe early twenty-first..

A second foundational principle of Burleigh’s work, more evidentin this second volume, could be summed up by Winston Churchillwho once said:

“You leave out God and you substitue the devil.”

Bereft of religion, humanity invariably proceeds to invent otherdeities. Mortal attempts to devise substitutes for God – whetherthey be based on science, politics or something else – invariablyend in failure and disillusionment.

In this volumne, Burleigh cleverly combines both principles to provethe constancy of faith in God amid the vagaries of history. Here, hefocuses on the “pseudo-religious” pathogies of fascism, communism andcapitalistic materialism – all founded on philosophical atheism.

For the author, the end-result of the pursuit of Godlessness is despair.To counter such pursuits Burleigh traces the responses of the churches,nationally and internationally, to european political developments. Healso describes the “interventions” of the churches in post-war politics.

Much of Europe’s history during the last century, the author believes,illustrates “the seculariszation of relgion” and the “sacrilization ofpolitics.” At times, the blend was positive, but usually it failedmiserably.

Modern european secularism, therefore, is not the first godlesschallenge to european Christianity over the past two millennia.Nor will it be the last. The tides of faith roll out, but they alsoprovide an opportunity for a good return; even though that recoveredCore may express itself in new ways.

“Christianity’s historical achievements deserve more notice than theycustomarily receive,” Burleigh writes in his preface. He rejects hiscolleagues’ tendancies to ignore the contribution of faith to Europe’slong and tortuous evolution. The influence of faith permeates andultimately redeems even the darkest of times. He describes whathappened to the “big players” like Germany, Italy, France, Britain,Spain and Russia. But he enriches our awarness of developments inthese countries by contributing insightful reports from other nationslike Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, as well as the “smallerplayers” like Ireland, Holland, Austria and Roumania.

Burleigh’s attempt to integrate relgion and politics is a nobleachievement and he is quite successful in performing it. But heoccasionally offers opinions from which even his most supportivereaders will detract.

A case in point is his take on terroism in Northern Ireland overthe past forty years. Burleigh assumes a narrowly conservativeBritish suspicion of the peacemaking efforts there. Afterrehearsing many stories of IRA atrocities in that land of the”Troubles” he offers little hope for true political change.This, in spite of the amazing changes currently taking placein Ulster. I hope recent developments will prove him wrong.

Another glaring omission beyond a passing reference is theauthor’s silence on the contribution of the Lutheran DietrichBonheoffer who emerged as a shining example of faith speakingtruth to power during Nazi Germany ‘s most evil days.

Burleigh is quite transparent about the kind of Christianityhe prefers. While attempting to maintain a certain scholarlyobjectivity, he displays a strong admiration for Roman Catholic Christianityin many of the countries he covers. The author is clearly supportiveof traditionalist popes such as Pius XII, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.His testimony is a rarity in the secular academy and deserves specialmention; no matter if one cannot always agree with him.

Readers will be immensely aided in their understanding of the national contexts thatshaped the lives of the most recent popes (Poland and Austria/Germany).

The last chapter of the book introduces a new phenomenon not previouslyencountered by Europe until the dreadful world-changing event known as 9/11.

Burleigh introduces debate on both the internationalizationof terror and the concept of “Eurabia” – the possibileIslamification of a continent traditionally identifiedwith Chrisitianity.

Burleigh ends his study in a spirit of “qualified optimism.”He believes that Chrisitan faith has not only survived theseverest of testing, but that it can, with Core in tact,evolve in new and dynamic ways.

Why read a book about religion and politics in modern Europe?Canadians can learn from that history in spite of our NorthAmerican distinctives. This holds particularly true as wecontinue to define ourselves in relation to our neighbourto the south. We are still influenced by Europe. We continueto reflect the best and worst european and american values.

Dr. Wayne A. Holst teaches religion and culture atthe University of Calgary and helps facilitate adult spiritualdevelopment at St. David’s United Church, Calgary.

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