The End of Secularism?

When the end of ideology was celebrated – first in the 1950’s and then, more emphatically still, in the 1990’s – no one foresaw that religion, the bane of politics in the first half of the twentieth century, would return to that role with a vengeance. Daniel Bell and Raymond Aron wrote about the end of fascist and communist ideology in the hope that we would enter an age of pragmatism in which politics would be a subject of argument and debate, not belief and total worldviews. Karl Popper’s approach to politics, one of reason and critical discourse, had come to prevail. And when, after the collapse of communism, the end of history seemed near, ideological politics was thought to have vanished forever.

But history does not end, and it is forever full of surprises. Francis Fukuyama’s End of History and Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations appeared within a mere three years of each other in the 1990’s, and a decade later the return of religion to politics is visible for all to see – and for many to suffer.

Those books are not just academic discourse, but mirror real developments. By the time the false religions of totalitarian ideologies were defeated, real religions – so it seemed – had long passed from the political scene. In some countries, formal allegiance to religious faith was symbolized by gestures and rites. Yet no one thought much about it when American presidents of different faiths swore their oath of office to God and country. In Westminster, every parliamentary sitting begins with Christian prayers presided over by Speakers who could be Christians or Jews or non-believers. Not all democracies were as strict as France in their formal secularism but all were secular: the law is made by the sovereign people and not by some superhuman being or agency.

Suddenly, however, this secular commitment is no longer so clear. Religious fundamentalists claim that the law must be anchored in the belief in a supreme being, or even be based on revelation. Christian fundamentalism in the United States has come to dominate large segments of the Republican Party. In Europe, the Vatican lobbied for acknowledgement of God in the preamble to the proposed European Constitutional Treaty. Israel has long avoided drafting a constitution, because its secular citizens fear that orthodox Jews would impose their values on them.