From Publishers Weekly
Given the continuing discussion of religious values and secular ideals in American life (most recently in "the war on Christmas"), as well as the international crises brought by the perversion of faith into political ideology and of politics into religious fanaticism, this first in a two-volume work is most timely. In a masterful survey of European history, British historian Burleigh (The Third Reich
) demonstrates that religion and politics are rarely directly opposed, but instead influence, shape and feed off each other in complex ways. Thus, the violent secularist ideologies of Jacobinism, communism and Nazism, he says, were actually surrogate religions that worshipped nation, class and race, while some 19th-century churches involved themselves in the radical politics engendered by industrialization and dispensed with the belief in a literal Hell and Day of Judgment. Burleigh's lengthy introduction is perhaps not the best place to start (with, for example, a discussion of the phrase "immanentizing of the eschaton"), but readers who persist will find this a fascinating, enjoyable and beautifully written book, whose planned sequel, on the tumultuous religious-political conflicts of the 20th century, should be eagerly anticipated. 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW
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Burleigh, a historian of the Third Reich, says that he originally intended to write an account of "political religions," such as Bolshevism. But he came to feel that a study of the intertwining of politics and religionspecifically, Christianityin Europe, from the French Revolution through the First World War, was a necessary preface. He argues that the influence of the Enlightenment has been overrated, and that religion has thoroughly informed even such avowedly secular movements as the Jacobins' "civic cults" and "eschatological" Marxism. Burleigh intends his book as a corrective to what he sees as our risky forgetfulness about "the ways in which Christianity permeates our culture" and has shaped European civic values. As an intellectual history, the book is digressive but compelling, with sudden detours for the novelist Mary Ward's financial problems or Dostoyevsky's gambling, but its definition of Christian influence is often uselessly broadmust every appeal to transcendence, brotherhood, or national martyrdom hark back to the Bible?
Copyright © 2006 The New Yorker