Review of Monica Duffy Toft, Daniel Philpott, Timothy Samuel Shah, God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 18, No. 3, September 2012

Review of Monica Duffy Toft, Daniel Philpott, Timothy Samuel Shah, God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2011), 276 Pp.

By Steven Schroeder, University of the Fraser Valley

Proponents of the secularization thesis have long-asserted that religion has been sequestered to the private realm, but the authors of God’s Century claim this view is outdated. Drawing on a plethora of events spanning the last few decades, the authors argue that “major religious actors throughout the world enjoy greater capacity for political influence today than at any time in modern history – and perhaps ever” (49). The authors set out to explain the resurgence of religiously-fuelled political action on the world stage by examining what is behind the phenomenon: the religious actors; their beliefs; and, the ramifications of actions.

Political scientists Monica Toft, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Shah provide the necessary historical backdrop for their study, which also problematizes succinctly the oversimplified narratives that portray religion exclusively as friend, or foe, of democracy and peace. Moving on to foreground the global impact of religion in today’s world, the authors’ two central arguments are that religion has played an increasingly significant role on the world stage during the last forty years, and that this increase is due to shifts in political theology and the mutual independence of political and religious actors (9-10). They argue that the onset of religion’s resurgence in global politics began in the 1960s. Aided by modern communications, religious actors have made good use of their independence in creating “transnational civil societies,” (24) resulting in their increased strength in the political realm (81).

The measured increase in significance of political actors is based nearly exclusively on data gathered by the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House, which examined the ties between religion and democratization during the last four decades. In numerous cases involving Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, the data reveals a significant relationship between religion and democratization, which the authors measure according to specific criteria (e.g., open opposition to authoritarian regimes, supporting resistance groups, brokering mediation between combatants). Generally, they determined that “the democratization role of religious actors between 1972 and 2009 was massive,” (93) due to the liberal, democratic political theology—and independent action—of the religious actors (112).

To be sure, many examples of religion fuelling terrorism and war are also found in the world during this same period. Chapters five and six deal directly with the violence inherent in various political theologies, and how certain conditions render plausible the outbreak of this religiously-inspired violence. Citing numerous cases as evidence, the authors utilize their categorical approach to conclude that religious actors are more likely to use violence to alter the status quo when they are “not privileged by the state [and hold] political theology that runs counter to the interests of the state” (132). States that privilege one religious group over others (i.e., integrated states) often witness violence and even civil war, which is evident in recent conflicts in Sudan, Chechnya, Algeria, Tajikistan, and Iraq. Radical domestic and international terrorist groups (e.g., Al Qaeda) broaden this thinking to the point that a specific state—or the world, generally—is seen as ignoring or threatening their cause. Terrorist actions result when this view is fused with a political theology that endorses violence for the “right” cause.

The authors conclude the book with two chapters that focus on religion’s positive potential to promote peace in the world, and on prescriptive measures for us to apply in light of their discoveries. Religious actors can serve and even lead the way in peacebuilding they argue, but again this depends on the actors’ political theology and their relationship to state actors, and the belligerents in the conflict. The most effective peacebuilders are religious actors who: act independent from the state and from warring factions; are popular leaders; and, hold a political theology of justice, peace, and reconciliation (206). The authors identify peaceful components in the respective religious traditions and highlight many cases of religious actors brokering peace. Here, Catholic organizations (and mainly the lay organization, Sant’Egidio) get the most attention. Additional cases involving NGOs rooted in other traditions like the Muslim-based Afghan Institute of Learning, discussed in chapter seven, would have broadened the scope and strengthened the points of this section. Nevertheless, when the essential components are present together, religious actors—at times “with fervor equal to the religiously violent” (176)—are shown to advance peace through work in mediation, transitional justice, and reconciliation.

The prescriptive conclusion first reiterates the central role of religion in contemporary politics, and then suggests ten ways to address this role. “God’s partisans are back, they are setting the political agenda, and they are not going away,” (207) say the authors, and the best way to deal with this reality is to acknowledge and embrace it, and allow for religious freedom and autonomy. Conversely, the state will encounter significant problems—even violence—if it privileges one religion and excludes others, if it represses religious actors, or, if it doesn’t take religious actors seriously. Essentially, the authors recommend that educators and government leaders inform themselves of the role of religion in local and global politics so that political actors will learn to “treat their religious citizens in a way that promotes their best civic, democratic, productive and peaceful energies” (222).

The authors have done well in highlighting numerous cases from all parts of the globe. Additional details for some cases would have rendered clarity to numerous assertions and strengthened their conclusions. The study’s categorical approach serves to illuminate general tendencies and trends, but it is insufficient for a deeper understanding of the respective cases highlighted in the book. For example, Soviet and East German church leaders are portrayed as having been completely subservient to their respective governments, but no time frame or details of the church-state relationships are provided to explain these assertions. The limitations of the study’s main approach also became evident. Partly due to the Freedom House’s categorization of Israel as a “free” nation, the authors concluded that “Judaism has lacked the demographic opportunity…to mount serious pro-democratic activism in politically volatile and dynamic parts of the world” (104). To be sure, also identified in the book is the need to address seriously the “motivations” including “sociopolitical factors” of Palestinian suicide bombers (145). The clarity of other cases presented (e.g., Iran, Mozambique, and Guatemala) was excellent, and the authors did well to maintain their necessary, though ambitious, global approach throughout the book.

God’s Century is a compelling overview of a complex phenomenon that will be of great interest to a wide readership. The book’s focal points resonate in contemporary headlines that reveal religion as a powerful force in the world, a force that shows no sign of retreat. (For example, religious actors have had some role in the events of the Arab Spring, which the book pre-dates.) The numerous ways that religion can be employed for good or ill are handled in a balanced manner and reveal what is at stake in the relationship between religious and political actors. The authors conclude that religious actors serve democratic peacebuilding best when they enjoy independence from political authorities, and hold a political theology centered on impartial, peaceful activism. Fostering these qualities in ongoing, constructive engagement between political and religious actors seems to be the best way forward for those who want to see democracy and peace furthered in the 21st century.