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Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe, from the French Revolution to the Great War Hardcover – February 28, 2006

4.1 out of 5 stars 23 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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. (Mar.)
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From The New Yorker

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 religion—specifically, Christianity—in 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 broad—must every appeal to transcendence, brotherhood, or national martyrdom hark back to the Bible?
Copyright © 2006 The New Yorker

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; First edition (February 28, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060580933
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060580933
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #652,258 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Izaak VanGaalen on May 10, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
While doing his research on the Third Reich, British historian Michael Brurleigh became interested in the religious character of totalitarianism. In "Earthly Powers," he traces the history of European secularization from the French Revolution to the First World War. He finds that the 19th century march toward secularization was not as inexorable as legend would have it. Indeed, Europeans were very ambivalent about secularization. The totalitarianisms of the 20th century - Fascism, Nazism, and Communism - made use of many of the rituals of established religions. They used festivals, spectacles, monuments, statues, loyalty oaths, and so forth to satisfy the religious impulse in societies in which religion had been banished.

In his account of the French Revolution, Burleigh shows how the Jacobin suppression of the church led to the cult of nationalism that followed. The Jacobins were not opposed to religion per se, they were opposed specifically to the Catholic Church for being partner in the throne-and-altar tyranny. They did see the need for a civil religion to garner loyalty to the state. In the process they established various cults and rituals that mimiced religious ceremonies. The Jacobins were the precursors of Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini.

The French Revolution, according to Burleigh, secularized religion. Religion went from "world-transcendent" to "world-immanent," a distinction he borrows from Eric Voegelin, an early 20th century Austrian writer who had written a book called "The Political Religions." The new "creed" was no longer other-worldly, it was the nation-state, and the new god was no longer God, it was the new secular leader.
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Format: Hardcover
The starting point for this book lies in Burleigh's prior work on the Third Reich. In his admirable history of the Third Reich, Burleigh stressed that the phenomenon of Nazism could only be understood by seeing it as a 'political religion', a form of faith with structural features similar to religion with the state and certain secular ideals as the subject of worship. This is hardly a new idea, and as Burleigh acknowledges in the introduction to Earthly Powers, it is one that has been explored previously by a number of scholars. In Earthly Powers, Burleigh set out to explore the phenomena of political religions in the "long 19th century", the period from the outbreak of the French Revolution to WWI. Again, Burleigh isn't doing anything particularly novel. The idea that a variety of ideologies - socialism in its various forms, nationalisms, the Victorian idea of Progress, etc. - had structural features and excited faithful adherents like traditional religions, is hardly new. Burleigh is attempting a work of synthesis drawing on an extensive secondary literature on this topic. At the same time, Burleigh discusses also how traditional religous institutions, notably the Papacy, the Anglican Church, and some other religous movements, responded to what amounted to competition from secular ideologies, and also to the enormous challenges imposed by social change and industrialization during the 19th century. He wishes also to explore the ups and downs of the relation between church and state. This is an extremely ambitious project and Burleigh is only partially successful.

As a work of synthesis and analysis, this book is a failure.
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Format: Hardcover
_Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe from the French Revolution to the Great War_ by British historian Michael Burleigh provides a fascinating history of the conflict which developed between the churches and the modernist political religions. Burleigh, whose previous work has focused on the Third Reich, builds upon the theories of émigré German philosopher Eric Voegelin, who argued that the modern day political religions constituted revivals of the Gnostic heresy. Voegelin was a conservative political philosopher who had escaped the German Third Reich and came to write on the political religions, especially communism and Nazism, the two great totalitarianisms of the Twentieth Century. Burleigh also notes the importance of Raymond Aron, who spoke of the "opium of the intellectuals" in their zeal for totalitarian systems. The use of the term "totalitarian" has proven problematic for many historians, particularly Marxists who seem to believe that communism did not constitute the sort of evil to be found in Nazism (the universal "bad guy"). Burleigh rejects these Marxist notions arguing instead that totalitarianism remains a useful category.

What this book does provide is a fascinating account of the various political conflicts brought about by the coming secularization of the preceding centuries from the French revolution onwards. Burleigh begins by discussing the utopian schemes of Dominican friar Tommaso Campenella as a precursor to his discussion of the coming political religions. This sort of utopian dreaming was to crop up again and again during the coming centuries. Burleigh next turns his attention to the "Age of Reason, Age of Faith", showing the conflict that developed between the Gallican church and the Jesuits.
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