Religion and World Order

By: Thomas Banchoff

September 24, 2015

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In advance of a workshop on religion and world order held at the Berkley Center on September 18, 2015, Center director Tom Banchoff circulated a discussion paper that served as a starting point for debate. His main argument is excerpted below, along with a range of responses. The workshop, co-sponsored by the Chumir Ethics Foundation, was convened in the run up to the Congress of Vienna 2015, a gathering of global thought leaders to discuss and develop principles for a stable and just world.

“In the name of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity…” 

So began the General Treaty of the Congress of Vienna two centuries ago.

The role of religion in world order has changed markedly since. The forces that dominate international affairs today—nation-states, market economies, and international institutions—interact outside of any religious frame. The recent 109-page nuclear accord with the Islamic Republic of Iran, for example, is free of religious language.

It does not follow that religion plays no role in world politics. In fact its domestic salience has grown over the past several decades. Examples include the Religious Right in the United States and Israel, Hindu and Buddhist nationalism in Asia, and political Islam across parts of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Even in Europe, a bastion of secularism, a growing religious pluralism is impacting the political scene. 

Nevertheless, religion’s influence continues to be felt within an international system that remains strikingly secular. 

For most of human history political legitimacy has rested on some sacred foundation. The Mandate of Heaven in China, the caliphate within Islam, the Divine Right of Kings in the West—all are examples of rule legitimated in terms of some supernatural, transcendent, or timeless foundation. This religious frame also applied to external affairs. Relations among empires, kingdoms, and principalities—the closest analog to today’s international relations—unfolded within a higher, cosmic or sacred order. For most of recorded history it was routine to invoke God, or gods, in both the conduct of war and the negotiation of peace. The Congress of Vienna participated to a considerable degree in this age-old tradition. 

By 1815, however, the religious frame was beginning to fade. The emergence of states out of the ruins of the Holy Roman Empire, the waning of ecclesial power and the Reformation, and the end of the religious wars in the Peace of Westphalia (1648) were critical milestones. The democratic and nationalist ideologies advanced by the American and French revolutions at the turn of the nineteenth century reinforced the secularizing trend. Against this backdrop the Holy Alliance that followed on the Congress of Vienna appears as a failed effort to revive the idea of Christendom—to forge a Europe of God-fearing rulers committed to “justice, love and peace.” 

The world order that eventually emerged after two cataclysmic world wars, the onset of the Cold War, and decolonization was deeply secular in its foundations. The United Nations system has been built upon the principles of national sovereignty, national self-determination, and non-interference in the affairs of other states. It does not invoke God, gods, or any particular religious tradition. Today interstate diplomacy, transnational trade and finance, and international law have largely remained a realm of material interests and secular rules and norms. 

This is not, of course, to argue that the institutions, rules, and norms that constitute the international system have nothing to do with religion. As recent scholarship has shown, principles of sovereignty and norms of human rights and humanitarianism have a considerable historical debt to religious ideas and practices. It does not follow, however, that those institutions are religious today in any meaningful sense. International leaders in politics, business, and civil society, are able to think, talk, and act across a range of transnational issues without reference to God or any particular religious tradition. That represents a significant historical break, the outcome of a centuries-long evolution. 

There is no guarantee that this configuration will persist into the future. One can imagine a transformative turn in globalization—long awaited by many—that will take us beyond the nation-state to a global civil society, in which religious and other social and political forces can somehow forge a world polity. A more global civil society and emergent global polity would certainly allow more of a role for religion in the (re)construction of world order. Whether the result would ultimately be more harmony or more conflict is a matter for speculation. 

Another, opposed set of changes to the international system would also allow a potentially transformative role for religion—not the formation and integration of a global polity but varieties of global disintegration. One can envision a range of transregional catastrophes, ranging from wars and pandemics to ecological disaster, that might have the double effect of unraveling the existing international system and generating large-scale religious awakenings. It is not hard to imagine that the intolerant and violent currents within those traditions would flourish in such apocalyptic scenarios. 

The specter of such disasters, perhaps more real than often acknowledged, is reason enough to encourage a positive role for religion in the reform of world order today and in decades to come. The overlapping ethical principles of peace, justice, and solidarity articulated across major religious traditions will always be in some tension with norms of state sovereignty and economic self-interest that now ground the international system. Given that tension, one can imagine the emergence of a powerful, transnational coalition of religious and secular forces mobilized around ethical principles that works through governments, markets, and international organizations to advance basic civil, political, economic, and social rights, and peace on a global level. Such a development might gradually transform our existing world order from within—and for the better.

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