taming the gods


Reading Ian Buruma makes you feel parochial. In “Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents,” he writes intimately about the relationship between politics and faith in Britain, the Netherlands, France, China, Japan and the United States. And beneath every cliché — about American religious fervor, French intolerance or Japanese godlessness — he uncovers ironies that wreak havoc with popular stereotypes. Buruma shows, for instance, that the trendy, anti-imperial multiculturalism favored in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom actually echoes those countries’ policies of colonial indirect rule, in which native cultures were segregated and preserved so they could be dominated more easily. He suggests that America’s militant Christianity and Europe’s militant secularism stem from parallel anxieties about the pace of cultural change. And he explains why the jihadist fanaticism taking root among some of Europe’s Muslim young is more European than Middle Eastern, more modern than traditional, more political than religious. One can quibble with some of Buruma’s claims about the United States. Dinesh D’Souza notwithstanding, it’s an exaggeration to say that “American Christians . . . sometimes feel more akin to conservative Muslims than to secular liberals.” It would be truer to say that the Christian right moved from an apocalyptic struggle against a godless foe (Communism) to an apocalyptic struggle against a god-fearing one (“Islamofascism”) without missing a beat. Nor is it true, as Buruma claims, that Ronald Reagan “was not very religious.” Reagan may not have attended church much as president, but religion saturated his upbringing; while his faith was at times quirky, it was also deep.

more from Peter Beinart at the NYT here.