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Why Do Christians Try to Impose Their Beliefs on Our Politics?

Author Ian Buruma Discusses "the political excesses of religion" he's observed over three continents.

Few writers could to pick a theme like the global interplay of democracy and religion and hope to utter the final word on the subject. In his latest book, Ian Buruma, a journalist and historian with over a dozen seminal books to his credit, does something better. The three essays in Taming the Gods each work to unsettle assumptions about the divide between religion and the secular, and to set a new kind of conversation in motion. 

When we met last month in San Francisco, I began our conversation by commenting on the scope of the book. Buruma, best known for his expertise on Japan, told me he’d written partly to contest the idea that religion doesn’t matter in the political life of East Asia. “It’s a different kind of religion,” he explained, “the idea of spiritual authority still plays a big role.” And, while it operates more subtly than the dogmas and conventions of monotheistic religion, this spiritual authority is still a factor in what Buruma calls “the political excesses of religion.”

Buruma’s careful way of making distinctions among things that appear to be similar—or drawing attention to ways in which near cousins are actually worlds apart—seemed to me, after our short meeting, to be a hallmark of his singularly patient mode of intellectual work.

Our conversation ranged among topics from Dutch Calvinism to Texas billboards to the new European culture wars.

The first essay in the Taming the Gods is about America and Europe. Can you talk a little about that?

Well, one of the things that became clearer to me as I did my research is that people like to think that there’s a real divide in Western civilization between the New World and the Old World, the U.S. and Europe, and I felt that, on reflection and reading up on it, that actually the divide is much less wide than people think it is. If there is a divide it’s often between Protestant countries and Catholic countries. Or countries such as the U.S. where the established Protestant churches were swept away a long time ago in favor of new forms of Christianity.

And I think the revolts in Europe (and again it’s something Tocqueville really noticed in the 19th century) were really against the Church as an authoritarian institution—much more than against religion as such. (That revolt in America had already taken place in the 17th century.) There are other differences but they run through the entire Western world. Which is why I compared, for example, the Calvinist politics in 19th century Holland with Christian politics in the U.S.

So I think it’s easy to exaggerate differences.

That’s the thing—once a story gets told it calcifies...

What Europeans don’t quite get about Americans is the nature of Christianity here. In Europe, people (whether they’re believers or not) still associate the church—whether Calvinist or Catholic, or anything else—with clear authority figures. Whereas in America it’s much closer to, well... capitalism.

One thing that struck me, traveling through Texas, was that you look at billboards along the freeways, and the way that the new religions, the evangelicals, promote themselves, is exactly the way that banks do. They talk about “extra interest” from God, and it’s all individuals becoming religious because they think they can get a personal benefit out of it—and the people offering the benefit are making money out of it. So it’s a business.

And that’s very different from the traditional role of the Calvinists, or the Lutherans, or the Anglicans, or the Catholics.