Shortly after the late Omar Suleiman, the Hosni Mubarak era head of Egypt’s military intelligence, had been appointed vice president in a belated attempt to appease Egyptian protesters, he gave an infamous interview to Christiane Amanpour, in which he declared that the Egyptian people were not ready for democracy. While his remarks were rightly dismissed at the time as a self-serving declaration intended to justify why the regime was not moving faster to respond to the demands of the protesters, it certainly invites one to ask why Egyptians have had such a difficult time building a viable democracy. A popular theory, invoked by many Egyptian liberal democrats and supported by the military’s ouster of Egypt’s first democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsi, is that there exists a fundamental incompatibility between Islamist politics and democracy, or at least between the Islamist politics of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and democratic politics. (Ironically, that was precisely one of Suleiman’s claims in that interview—that elections would only empower what he derisively called the “Islamic current.”)
Posts Tagged ‘democracy’
On July 3, 2013, after four days of intense public protests, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was removed, by force, from elected office.
The Unintended Reformation is an unusual work of history in deliberately focusing as much on the present as on the past, and in emphasizing the ongoing importance of the Reformation era for understanding the Western world today. Having considered issues related to the book’s genre, method, and assumptions in the first part of my response and others related to its historical arguments and omissions in the second part, the principal focus here will be the reactions of the forum participants to my description and assessment of the present. I will also take up speculation about my supposed agenda, and the book’s lack of ideas for solving contemporary problems.
On May 22-23, 2014, John Cabot University, as part of its Summer Institute for Religion and Global Politics will host an international conference entitled “Rethinking Political Catholicism: Empirical and Normative Perspectives.”
As a scholar working and living in the Netherlands, I apparently live in a state of affairs in which disinterested moral disorder reigns: “Whatever the particular country in which they happen to reside, all Westerners now live in the Kingdom of Whatever.” According to Brad Gregory, our present is the endpoint of a process through which we have come to lose “any shared or even convergent view about what ‘we’ think.” The result is a condition in which the grounds for morality might altogether disappear. Or, in more colloquial terms, this lack of a moral framework leads to an attitude of disinterest: “Whatever.”
I suspect that in Gregory’s view the Netherlands must be a prime example of the Kingdom of Whatever. The influence of the Reformation has nestled itself so deep in the soul of the country that Calvinist capitalist frugality and boundless moral liberalism have well-nigh become synonymous with Dutch national character.
Or at least, so the narrative goes.
Recent years have seen the resurgence of “metahistories” that seek to provide a single complex narrative of seemingly disparate events and developments. Among the most prominent contemporary accounts are Marcel Gauchet’s La condition historique (2005), Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007) and Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution (2011). In different ways, all three offer an overarching story of how the distant past—whether the emergence of the modern state or the rise of secular unbelief as a default position or cultural capacities driving religious development—continues to shape the present. Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation is another such ambitious attempt, charting the way in which Protestantism unwittingly invented the capitalism and secular liberalism that together constitute our current condition.
Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation is noteworthy for its readiness to tread upon questions of morality and metaphysics that most historians would consider forbidden terrain. It is a common characteristic of historical scholarship as it is practiced in the modern university today that it abstains from grand philosophical themes and fastens its attention upon a narrow set of questions in an empiricist mode. This is perhaps due in part to the way that a highly administered society that is bound with ever-increasing intensity to technocratic norms is inclined to make a fetish of academic specialization. It is no doubt also due to an accumulation of historical knowledge and a professional imperative to keep abreast of the published work within one’s field. Because the drive to produce in the corporate university cannot exempt itself from the largely quantitative assessment of a scholar’s value, the sheer mass of information to be absorbed increases as the range of academic expertise narrows. Despite the new vogue for “global” history and high sales for books that extol the apparent superiority of Western civilization, most historians are humble creatures who prefer the domesticity of the local and the precise.
Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation is an expansively ambitious work. Indeed, its aim is to provide nothing less than an “explanation of why the Western world today is as it is.” In this regard it sits comfortably alongside Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, with whose neo-Thomist structure, content, and purpose it has much in common. Both writers mix their Thomism with Hegelianism, treating the secular world as the form in which man confronts his own alienated or sublimated religious impulse. Lying behind this philosophical-historical theory of secularization is a conception of the world as the space in which its transcendent creator manifests himself sacramentally
The long-term consequences of the Reformation have been a subject of heated debate for many decades. Most accounts have taken one of two forms. On the one hand, in the wake of Weber’s magisteral Protestant Ethic, many historians have wondered about the relationship between Protestantism and capitalist development (R.H. Tawney and E.P. Thompson the most famous among them). On the other hand, many historians, philosophers, and theologians, writing from a Catholic perspective, have seen Luther’s Reformation as the blow that shattered the glorious unity of medieval Christendom. Brad Gregory is clearly of the latter camp, and he boldly revives this largely forgotten axis of “modernity critique” (even figures like Alasdair MacIntyre, to whom Gregory owes so much, pay comparatively little attention to the Reformation). In this exhaustive, and exhausting, tome, Gregory seeks to show how the little monk of Wittenberg is behind all of the most disquieting aspects of the modern condition. Although this is largely hidden by Gregory’s immense erudition and soothing style, The Unintended Reformation is a frightening and deeply anti-democratic work, both in its methods and in its findings.