Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents

Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents, by Ian Baruma  $13.57

Amazon:  At least two of Buruma’s three chapters on the fraught relations of religion and government may greatly enlighten most readers. Within a framing sketch of U.S. evangelism based on Sinclair Lewis’ satiric Elmer Gantry, “Full Tents and Empty Cathedrals” synopsizes Western European-American church-state separation. Philosophically, three different political bases for separation stem from Hobbes (enlightened tyranny), Spinoza (democracy), and Hume (traditionalism). Practically, the concept of so-called civil religion, especially in its American and Dutch versions, has facilitated long-term stability. “Oriental Wisdom” dispels many myths about religion and state in China and Japan, demonstrating a greater connection between them in both nations despite the ancient and still powerful secular ethical influence of Confucianism. Perhaps this chapter’s most surprising revelation for modern Westerners is the revolutionary, often democratizing role Christianity has played in the Far East. The concluding chapter on Islam and democracy covers more familiar ground with the considerate moderation Buruma has exemplified all along. Because of Buruma’s clarity and temperance, a most informative primer on systems of church-state rapprochement in the modern era. –Ray Olson

The place of organized religion in the public square is well-trammeled territory; in this brief volume, journalist and Bard College professor Buruma (Murder in Amsterdam) adds to the discussion with political and cultural analyses from the United States, Europe, and Asia. By examining the history of church/state relations in the U.S. and Europe, the role of religion in the politics of China and Japan, and the growing role of Islam in contemporary Europe, Buruma makes an attempt to sort out, in different cultures, how democracies have been affected… by these tensions [between religious and secular authorities]. One of his most provocative investigations involves secular, liberal Europeans, some of whom now find common ground with conservatives in their opposition to Islam out of fear that it will roll back the progressive gains of the past decades. Buruma takes issue with theocrats and strict secularists alike, using the example of Martin Luther King Jr. to argue instead that expressions of religious beliefs in politics are legitimate as long as those beliefs inform positions that are subject to reason. Some readers may have difficulty following the thread of Buruma’s thesis through the dense weave of historical data. (Mar.)
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