Age of Faith?

I wonder how many students emerge from a course on modern Europe knowing that the nineteenth century was one of the most intensely religious periods in European history. Railroads and revolutions, parliaments and parties, changes in suffrage and strategy-these are central themes in most accounts of the nineteenth century. Not much is said about the record number of vocations, the remarkable growth in church construction (five thousand churches and chapels were built in Britain alone between 1800 and 1876), or-most important of all-the extensive missionary activity that transformed Christianity into the world religion it is today. Not enough historians have taken seriously George Kitson Clark’s assessment that “probably in no other century, except the seventeenth and perhaps the twelfth, did the claims of religion occupy so large a part in the nation’s life, or did men speaking in the name of religion contrive to exercise so much power.” Kitson Clark was writing about Victorian England, but his insight applies to the rest of Europe as well.

In the nineteenth century, the process of “secularization” did not destroy religious belief and practice but rather transformed them from universally accepted parts of life into a series of problems. First, and to many contemporaries, the most vexing, was the problem of church and state. How did the international authority claimed by the papacy and the local authority claimed by bishops, priests, and ministers relate to the national state’s increasing insistence on its sovereign independence and monopoly of power? The second problem was the religious version of what many people called “the social question.” How could the traditional structures of religious life respond to urban growth and the demands of industrial workers and their families? And finally there was the cultural problem. What was the relationship between the sacred truths of revealed religion and the new discoveries being made by biblical scholars and natural scientists? Where did religion fit in what the German sociologist Max Weber called a “disenchanted” world?

Michael Burleigh’s book joins a number of recent works that seek to restore these questions to their rightful place on the nineteenth century’s historical landscape. He sets out to explore “the politics of religion, and the religion of politics, broadly construed, in Europe from the Enlightenment to the Great War.” He concentrates his attention on Christianity; except for a chapter on “Sacred Violence in Late-Nineteenth-Century Russia,” he emphasizes developments in Western Europe, especially Britain, France, and Germany. He promises a second, “entirely free-standing volume” on totalitarian political religions in the twentieth century.

After a brief chapter on philosophical and theological controversies during the Enlightenment, Burleigh discusses the central role of religion in the French Revolution, the so-called alliance of throne and altar during the restoration, the complex relationship between religion and nationalism, the competition between religion and other systems of belief, the long-standing and widespread conflict of church and state, the churches’ efforts to address the problems of industrial society, and finally, religious responses to the outbreak of war in 1914. Burleigh is particularly good at providing concise and informative portraits of individual thinkers and politicians. I found chapter 5, titled “Chosen Peoples: Political Messianism and Nationalism,” to be the strongest in the book. As Burleigh compellingly argues, for most people, nationalism was not a substitute religion; more often nationalists borrowed and extended religious loyalties, symbolism, even rituals. As the examples of Ireland and Poland demonstrate, intense religiosity and fervent nationalism could coexist, each sustaining and being sustained by the other.

Occasionally Burleigh allows his material to get away from him. He sometimes tells us more than we need to know-which is, I fear, the historian’s occupational disease. The chapter on sacred violence in Russia does not fit very well. In the final third of the book there are too many long, undigested quotations. The ending is abrupt and inconclusive. Overall, however, this is an interesting, well-informed account of some significant issues. The writing is fluent and unfailingly clear. Throughout the book, the narrative is enlivened by well-chosen anecdotes and seasoned by the author’s willingness to share his opinions, of which he has a generous supply.

The primary lesson of Earthly Powers is that the erosion of religious belief and practice, usually subsumed under the misleading concept of “secularization,” was by no means an even, inexorable process. In fact, the most dramatic decline of European Christianity was not a product of the nineteenth century but of the twentieth, and especially of the period after the Second World War. In 1851, many contemporaries were shocked when the British census revealed that only 5 million out of a population of 18 million regularly attended church; a century and half later, the proportion of practicing Christians in Great Britain was much, much smaller. In 1992, for example, only 14 percent of the population even belonged to a Christian denomination. A few years later, no more than 16 percent said that religion was very important in their lives. In contrast to the United States, where the Christian churches’ political, social, and cultural role is still a vibrant force-and a persistent source of conflict-in public and private life, in most of Europe, Christianity has retreated to the margins and has largely ceased to be a matter of public debate. Instead, as the number of European Muslims expands and their impact on European politics, society, and culture increases, the tension between earthly and heavenly powers has taken new form. Many of the problems discussed in Michael Burleigh’s book, therefore, continue to echo in the very different world of the twenty-first century.

Published in the 2006-05-19 issue: 

James J. Sheehan, a frequent contributor, is Professor Emeritus of History at Stanford University.

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