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Why Religion Influences Politics More Now Than 50 Years Ago | Monica Duffy Toft


So religion has become more influential in
global politics, and it really started taking off in the 1970s, Whereas people today, if
you read contemporary newspapers and magazines and journals and stuff, you would think that
it all started in the post-9/11 era—that as a result of 9/11 people started noticing
or thought that’s where it really took off, but it actually really started taking off
in the 1970s. And there’s a threefold story to it. The first is the failure of the postcolonial
regimes in the 1960s and ’70s. So you understand these are states that got
independence after World War II and they were given a chance at sort of directing their
states, as running their states. These were people—you could think about
Gandhi and others who were educated in the West, go back to their countries and bring
ideas, Western sort of ideas, out of the university systems—Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, Tufts—and
tried to implement those ideas at home, and they failed. And so by the 1960s and the 1970s you start
seeing failed and failing states emerging and populations challenging their statesmen
and saying, “Why is it you’re supposed to be the one providing for the basic goods
and services for my society and for me, why are you failing?” And so they started challenging political
authorities and helping them to challenge them were church leaders and religious ideas. Because many religions are based on the idea
of justice and equality, and there were some things that happened: in the 1960s the Catholic
Church started talking about the equality of all people; all people deserve human dignity,
not just Catholics. And so religious actors were there with some
ideas and they were also not fully delegitimated in the way in which mainstream, secular political
actors were, and so they helped to propel a set of ideas and a set of activities that
challenged states. So it was sort of the collapse of the modernization
theory, that this was all going to lead to good: the end of poverty, end of disease,
end of war—it didn’t. And religious actors were there to capitalize
on that, to help; they were there to help—both clergy and bishops but also laypeople who
were part of different churches. And this is across different faith traditions,
it’s not just the Catholic and Christian faith tradition, but also within the Muslim
community. Shia were reinterpreting what it meant to
be Shia among Muslims, that they needed to be more politically active. And this lead to reinterpretation of doctrine
and it culminated in the 1979 revolution where they felt that they had the right, actually
the obligation, to overthrow the Shah, who was a secular leader and bring about Sharia
law within Iran. So it wasn’t just Christians. So that was one: it was the failure of modernization,
and religious actors were there to help the people who were struggling and suffering within
these societies under autocratic regimes. The second is democratization—it’s related
to it—that you do see an increase in the number of countries, globally after the 1970s,
that democratize. So voices and ideas, similar to the religion,
were being voiced and put into power. So democratization helped propel religious
ideas into the global and political arena. And lastly is globalization. Religious actors or transnational actors—their
ideas and their people, their personnel—traveled the globe. Why does the pope travel? The pope travels because his church is made
up of church members; that is what constitutes the church, and he needs to go visit them. When Khomeini was thinking about the revolution
and changing the Iranian government he had digital cassette tapes that he sent from Paris—he
was in exile in Paris in the ’70s—and he sent them back to Tehran. And so as a transnational actor he had ideas
that were flowing across this community. Similar to the Catholic Church: Pope John
Paul the Second was going around Eastern Europe in the 1980s, basically wagging his finger
at these regimes saying, “You need to do better by your people. You have an obligation. These people are relying on you.” And so this globalization of ideas and movement
of people really helped propel religious ideas into the global arena, and it empowered domestic-level
actors to be able to challenge their states and their regimes—and they did. Now it’s 2017 and religious actors are not
going anywhere, and if anything they’re becoming stronger. We now have this fight against ISIS. You can look at votes around the world: people
want religious actors to have a say in politics. They don’t want religion to necessarily
be a private matter, they think that it should be and needs to be part of the public discourse. This is a change. This is a big change from where we were in
the 1960s and ’70s where the idea was secularism: separating religion from the public space. In the public square you were not allowed—and
this was a global phenomenon. And you can think about the Eastern Bloc:
they were atheistic regimes, they cut religion out of the entire system, but then with the
end of the Cold War it came back. And so orthodoxy is now married again with
the Russian state. And then around of the world you’re seeing
this demand to have more and more religious ideas as part of public policy.

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