March 11, 2007


Defender of the Faith: a review of SACRED CAUSES: The Clash of Religion and Politics, From the Great War to the War on Terror By Michael Burleigh (TONY JUDT, NY Times Book Review)

This is a depressing and unpleasant book. To be sure, any story that starts with the rise of fascism and ends with Al Qaeda is unlikely to be uplifting. And Michael Burleigh's catalog of delusion and violence, much of it in the name of higher causes and transcendent faiths, casts the 20th century in a distinctly unflattering light. But what makes his latest book a truly grim read is the relentlessly mean-spirited tone, together with some of the more troubling interpretations and asides.

The book's purposes are twofold and clearly stated. Burleigh believes that the pernicious ideologies that shaped our age -- Communism and fascism above all -- are best understood as political religions. They come complete with narratives of suffering and redemption, and Burleigh writes well about the woolly, messianic religiosity of Nazism in particular. Whether right or left, these political faiths -- like the Freemasonry they sometimes resemble -- are religion substitutes. This is hardly a new insight -- that Communism and fascism were political religions was already clear to Eric Voegelin, Raymond Aron and others in the 1940s, as Burleigh acknowledges. But it bears restatement.

Burleigh's second, related objective is to redeem modern history from what he characteristically calls the "intellectually dishonest'" Stalin-like attempts "to airbrush Christianity out of the historical record." Actually he doesn't mean Christianity but rather the Roman Catholic Church; and this is where the problems begin. Burleigh seems truly to believe that there is a longstanding liberal historians' conspiracy to ignore or slander "the 'Catholic Church,' about which any number of crude and stereotypical prejudices seem to be acceptable among people who spend most of their time denouncing prejudice." And so he has set out to seek redress.

Read B. Netanyahu on the Inquisition and Ronald J. Rychlak on Pope Pius XII and no other conclusion is possible, though one can hardly blame Mr. Judt for reflexively defending the murderous opiate of the intellectuals.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 11, 2007 11:08 AM
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