Article Note: Manuel Borutta, “Genealogie der Säkularisierungstheorie. Zur Historisierung einer großen Erzählung der Moderne,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 36 (2010): 347-76

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 18, No. 2, June 2012

Article Note: Manuel Borutta, “Genealogie der Säkularisierungstheorie. Zur Historisierung einer großen Erzählung der Moderne,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 36 (2010): 347-76.

By Heath Spencer, Seattle University

Many assume that secularization is a fundamental aspect of modernity and that religion is – or at least should be – a private matter, best kept separate from other spheres like politics, economics, and scientific inquiry. Manuel Borutta is among a growing number of scholars who raise questions about such assumptions and explore their origins. Borutta, of Ruhr-Universität Bochum, specializes in anti-Catholicism, culture wars, and secularization theory and is the author of Antikatholizismus. Deutschland und Italien im Zeitalter der Europäischen Kulturkämpfe (2010) and Religion und Zivilgesellschaft. Zur Theorie und Geschichte ihrer Beziehung (2005). His recent article in Geschichte und Gesellschaft historicizes secularization theory, arguing that it was invented by European liberals in the midst of the culture wars of the nineteenth-century. Liberals of this era demanded “eine Differenzierung von Politik und Religion, eine Privatisierung der Religion, eine Unterordnung der Kirche unter den Staat” (351), and they asserted that their own vision of the proper role of religion in society was nothing less than a fundamental law of modernity.

Borutta analyzes the writings of politicians and academics like Johann Caspar Bluntschli, Heinrich von Sybel, and Heinrich von Treitschke as well as images and articles in Berliner Wespen, Kladderadatsch, and Die Gartenlaube. In these sources, religious institutions and expressions of popular piety (especially Catholic) were often represented as relics of an age that had passed, or as brief flare-ups of medievalism in the midst of otherwise modern cultures. Anything that elevated faith above science or challenged the notion of autonomous spheres for religion and civil society was incompatible with the modern world and therefore illegitimate. Borutta also draws attention to the gendering of church and state that was common in liberal discourse. It was essential for the state to be “Herr im eigenen Hause” (359). However, rather than a separation of church and state, most liberals imagined a properly ordered marriage of church and state, one that was both complementary and hierarchical. The church (feminine, nurturing, emotional, partial) was to be confined to the private, domestic sphere, whereas the state (masculine, rational, scientific, universal) would oversee both the public and private spheres. In the end, liberal culture-warriors fashioned a master narrative in which modernity conformed to their own ideals. Beginning with Max Weber and Émile Durkheim, this model was institutionalized in the sociology of religion, and only recently has it faced serious challenge.

Although Borutta takes note of the transnational and transconfessional character of Europe’s culture wars, most of his examples are drawn from Germany and Switzerland. However, within this limited scope, his article raises awareness of the extent to which current conceptions of ‘modern Western society’ draw their inspiration from the conflicts of this era. It also makes an important contribution to recent scholarship that explores how narratives about religion and even definitions of ‘religion’ can privilege certain cultural preferences and configurations of power, as in works like William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (2009).