Political theology, religious fundamentalism and modern politics

RP 171 () / Article

In order to define a single and indivisible sovereign political power, Western modernity needed to separate itself from the ecclesiastical power that impeded this unity and indivisibility. Consequently, public expressions of religion were placed under the control of rulers and intimate expressions were relegated to the private realm. This task was broadly supported by the Protestant Reformation, which combated the exteriority and automatism of rites, as well as priests’ mediatory presence between God and the faithful, situating religiosity within the individual conscience. Religion was displaced from public space to private space. From the Enlightenment onward, and the defence of civil and religious liberty (or tolerance), religion began to be seen as an archaic tradition that would be overcome by the march of reason or science.

The belief that the light of reason would immediately suppress religion has meant that modernity has been unable to account for the religious avalanche that smothers contemporary societies. The return to religion is akin to what psychoanalysis refers to as ‘the return of the repressed’, because, society not having known how to deal with it, this suppressed object simply prepared for its return. In The Revenge of God, Gilles Kepel notes that between 1960 and 1976, the so-called ‘three religions of the Book’ – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – were forced to deal with the effects of the Second World War and the Cold War: on the one hand, the political spheres’ decisive conquest of autonomy, and, on the other, the construction of socialism in the East, and the welfare state and the society of consumption in the West. Political autonomy discredited the idea that religion organizes social life, leaving little space to seek from the divine an explanation of the social order. The Cold War in turn imposed an alternative beyond which there could be no salvation; everyone was obliged to struggle for the victory of their side, and faith was gradually subordinated to the realization of earthly ideas. This led to the emergence of Marxist and socialist tendencies in Latin America, the Caribbean, and countries in the Middle East that were linked to Soviet interests.

In the face of this new situation a new religious militancy emerged.

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