01: The tensions and cooperation between religion and politics are as relevant as ever, and not only due to the highlighted concerns about developments in the Muslim world and its relations with the West.
As Paul Griffiths writes in one of the essays in The Sacred and the Sovereign: Religion and International Politics (Georgetown University Press, $26.95), the tension is inherent, since religious allegiance tends to perceive itself as unsurpassable. “The sacred” has both legitimized and limited state power, notes J. Bryan Hehir in his own essay. All this has consequences not only for national, but for international politics as well.
The volume, edited by John Carlson and Erik Owens, is the result of a conference which took place in October 2000, but the contributions were revised in light of the events of 9/11. The subtitle of the book is misleading: as much as a book analyzing the role of religion in international politics today, it is a work of political philosophy. Several chapters deal with the implications of the concept of just war or humanitarian intervention and several others with issues of human rights.
Contributors argue that it is important to consider the current implications of non state actors — including religious organizations — for the nation states. True, transnationalism is not a new feature in the field of religion, but what is new is that state sovereignty faces a number of challenges today. Yet there is the continuing need of statehood in order to ensure some level of justice, since international organizations have not reached the point of becoming substitute for state power when action is required (Erik Owens).
Other authors ask if it is wise to set human rights above all other values and to pursue dreams of universal justice in an unperfect world. The acknowledgement that the final judgement belongs to God may help to temper yearnings toward “universal punishment.” The concept of “limited justice” (leaving final judgement for another time) might be more realistic and constructive, especially since so many cases will never be fully assessed (while still upholding the universality of the principles of moral law), observes John Carlson in an insightful chapter on crimes against humanity.
But there are competing readings of history and visions of justice: the conceptions of bin Ladin and his associates are not those of the USA; but one could still insist that all sides respect standards of justice in conducting war, writes John Kelsay, who sees in bin Ladin’s arguments a break with the tradition of Islamic political thought.
Even if “organized religion in general has a mixed record in the defense of human rights” (R. Scott Appleby), religious traditions have a long tradition of reflecting on related issues. The editors acknowledgement that the role of religion should be recognised “as an imperative conversation partner for politics” is an argument that most RW readers are aware of, but for a long time this was not the case among most political scientists. This book is one more piece of evidence on the importance given today to the religious dimensions both in the forefront and in the background of international politics.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer