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Jesuit Father Michael Kelly is a media professional with 40 years of experience in writing and reporting, editing and publishing, TV and broadcast radio production in Asia and Australia. For 10 years he led Asia’s leading Church media organization - UCA News. Currently, he is the English language publisher of the respected Jesuit periodical La Civilta Cattolica.
Jesuit Father Michael Kelly

Asia

Religion takes center stage in politics again

Reactivated religious alignments are gaining ground across the world

Published: October 22, 2021 10:36 AM GMT

Updated: October 22, 2021 10:37 AM GMT

Religion takes center stage in politics again

The St. Bartholomew's Day massacre in 1572 saw a wave of Catholic mob violence directed against the Huguenots (French Calvinist Protestants) during the French Wars of Religion. (Image: Wikipedia)

Time once was when no one gave a tinker’s curse about the religious convictions of people in public life. And few took candidates’ religious convictions and allegiances as indicators of political sympathies.

In most of Europe since World War II and across much of the USA, the dominant Christian, mostly Protestant, religious consensus has been such that so much of our religious divisions went unremarked and were taken for granted. The religious convictions of people in public life were more a matter for prejudice and disdain than for factoring in what impact they might have on the flow of events in the public square that they have had a hand in.

Not anymore, reflecting a mood swing internationally.

Reactivated religious alignments are not only of significance in religiously oddly constructed polities like the USA. Even in previously irreligious or actively atheistic states like Russia and its communist satellites, religion is taken deadly seriously by political actors of all stripes.

But things have changed in many other parts of the world away from Europe, with movements owing their origins to parts of all the great religions as well as Christianity — Buddhism, Hinduism and most notably Islam — having an impact on the public and international stage not seen for much of the last century.

The persecution of Muslim Uyghurs in the People’s Republic of China is one well-known instance. But there is a renewed focus on the significance of religion in China as the Communist Party recognizes how Christianity stands as an alternative to the dominance of Chinese minds that the party wants itself to have but struggles to assert. It is estimated that China will develop over the next five decades as the country with the largest number of baptized Christians.

Islam, Christianity and Buddhism are all growing in countries as whole populations of nations at war with themselves seek the dominance of one religion or another

And then, of course, on the global canvas, every shade of religion has the biggest part to play in defining the terms and boundaries of the political and cultural contest everywhere in the world in a way not seen for centuries.

Islam, Christianity and Buddhism are all growing in countries as whole populations of nations at war with themselves seek the dominance of one religion or another. In India, a militant form of Hinduism goes virtually unchallenged through the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his massively Hindu-favoring Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Or look at Myanmar, the Philippines and Indonesia, to name just a few in Asia, and Burkina Faso and Nigeria in Africa.

What intensifies the challenge of what we are to make of these developments from the point of view of the wider world is the functional illiteracy of too many media commentators. They often assess religious movements and players in various parts of the world in superficial ways demonstrating the commentators’ functional ignorance.  

For example, how should we expect any new alignments in Afghanistan to measure up with or against each other? Which groups will meld with which? What will they share in the beliefs and purposes animating them?

This, of course, is not new. But it’s not getting any better. When the Americans started the first Gulf War, they didn’t know the difference, let alone the history of conflict, between Sunni and Shia Muslims. According to a US commander-in-chief in the Iraq region and later head of the CIA, General David Petraeus, the knowledge of such basic facts was absent.

This is the equivalent of not understanding the difference between Catholics and Protestants in the outbreak and conduct of what became the most destructive war in European history in terms of people killed relative to total population: the 30 years of the French Wars of Religion between the Catholics and the Huguenots.

One could be forgiven for thinking that what is going on in the Middle East between different threads of Islam is just the Protestant Reformation all over again, but this time for Muslims. But that is much too simplistic. What isn’t simplistic is to reckon with this conflict in our times as having the same significance and even, relatively speaking, the same lethal reach of those wars of religion in the 17th century.

The Wars of Religion drew the European world into a conflict with implications and consequences for everyone. Then began the demise of the old order finally buried in the French Revolution; they finally ended “Christendom” as secular constitutional nation states developed; and through developing colonialism, they fed economic development and trading arrangements that shaped the world as we know it today.

Now that’s what we have in the 21st century: a conflict that is intense and violent, with a reach right through Africa and Asia and that has been evident in different parts of Europe over recent decades. It has impacts on every continent except the Antarctic, from the level of international incidents to very local acts of violence at village and suburban level.

Frequently, what happens is that religions are reduced to the level of competing ideologies. Human communities are quite experienced in making ideologies the trigger for conflicts.

And what we face today is a new way in which conflicts and hostilities are triggered — competing frameworks among religions that often are worse than political ideologies because they make fake appeals to absolutes and appear to invoke the Deity to bolster their claim for our attention to absolutes and submission to the demands of those absolutes.

But deep and never-ending as the conflicts appear, it is then that religion can be brought in to provide some suggestions about how we can resolve these outstanding conflicts

These descend to conflicts that infect local communities and their effects have had and will have impacts for years, maybe decades, and show no sign of relenting in their effects.

It’s completely naive and utterly misleading if what is seen as a “religious” division and conflict is not immediately examined so that the economic and other inequalities that provide the basis to a conflict are not immediately sought and addressed.

For example, the gridlock that rendered the six counties of Ulster under British rule in Ireland, and today still contaminates life in Northern Ireland, leaving it a bleeding sore, had more to do with jobs and the economy than anything else. It was not for religious reasons that the conflict remained so drawn out.

What triggered the conflict was a Catholic minority left impoverished and the slight majority of Protestants ascendant through education that brought a share in the prosperity provided by the British government.

But deep and never-ending as the conflicts appear, it is then that religion can be brought in to provide some suggestions about how we can resolve these outstanding conflicts and challenges and find reconciliation.

For that to happen, what the human community needs is more religion, not less. Or better-informed religion than we currently have. This doesn’t require conversions but understanding which can then be the basis of the acceptance of difference.

And that can bring peaceful change, as the recent experience of extending tolerance and acceptance to gays around the world has shown we can do. Despite centuries of hostile opposition to even the mention of gay marriage, many parts of the world now accept gay marriage which, only a few short years ago, would have ended in prison terms or worse in the very same jurisdictions that now legitimize such unions.

Change is possible! And the return of religion to the public square in so many parts of the world does not mean the end of tolerance and respect for differences or a return to ignorance and barbarity.

* The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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