Hasidic Jewish Man

Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions

In 2015, highly esteemed Princeton political philosopher Michael Walzer published The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions. The title itself immediately arrested me, as it crystallized a current intuition of mine.

I believe the United States and several other countries are currently experiencing religious counterrevolutions to the cultural and moral (often labeled “secular”) revolutions that exploded in the 1960s — revolutions related to gender, sexuality, marriage, race, immigration, patriotism, war, abortion, assisted suicide and so on. These religious counterrevolutions are significant in themselves; they also sometimes display anti-democratic tendencies, which I am exploring for a current book project. My suspicion is that threats to democracy today are intimately related to the reality of secular revolution and religious counterrevolution.

Let’s spend some time unpacking Walzer’s argument.

Secular states challenged by militant religion

The Paradox of Liberation, which began as Walzer’s Henry L. Stimson Lectures at Yale University in 2013, addresses secular revolutions in the period of 1947 to 1962 and religious counterrevolutions that followed. Walzer’s case studies focus on Israel, India and Algeria. He argues that in each case, the anti-colonial revolutionary movements that won independence for these countries were intentionally and explicitly secular, but that in later generations power shifted to religious parties and movements.

The details differ, of course, and the differences matter. But Walzer summarizes the overall story in this striking quote:

Initially, at least, this (national liberation) is a success story: the three nations were indeed liberated from foreign rule. At the same time, however, the states that now exist are not the states envisioned by the original leaders and intellectuals of the national liberation movements, and the moral/political culture of these states, their inner life, so to speak, is not at all what their founders expected. … All three movements were secular, committed, indeed, to an explicitly secular project, and yet in the states that they created a politics rooted in what we can loosely call fundamentalist religion is today very powerful. In three different countries, with three different religions, the timetable was remarkably similar: roughly 20 to 30 years after independence, the secular state was challenged by a militant religious movement.

Michael Walzer

The most familiar case to me, and probably to Walzer himself, who is Jewish, is the example of modern Israel. Its remarkable evolution is worthy of extended consideration.

The modern Zionist movement was born in Europe in the late 19th century as an explicitly secular project. This movement rejected much of Jewish religiosity as it had developed over many centuries of exile, persecution and political homelessness. Walzer shows that the politics of Jewish life in the Diaspora — think especially of Jews scattered and routinely abused in “Christian Europe” — was a politics of “deference” to the Gentiles and “deferred hope for divine redemption.”

The early European Zionists argued that national independence for the Jewish people could only happen through the “negation of the exile” and an end to this Diaspora Jewish political culture of deference and deferred hope. But because exilic Judaism had woven political theology, liturgy and practice around this exilic experience, the Zionist project was understood to require “the creation of (Jewish) people who were hostile to Judaism … ending (exile) would be impossible without first ‘negating’ the cultural predispositions and habits, the mentality, of the exile.”

“Traditional Judaism would have to be sidelined for political Zionism to succeed in its goal of creating a modern Jewish state.”

In this sense, traditional Judaism would have to be sidelined for political Zionism to succeed in its goal of creating a modern Jewish state.

The Zionists were serious about this vision. It predominated the nation-building efforts of the dominant Labor Zionist party both before independence in 1948 and in the early years of newborn modern Israel. They sought to build a new country, modeled on the secular democratic politics of other nations — including, ironically, the Western European nations from which many Zionists had migrated (or fled). They meanwhile sought to build a culture of national pride, military service, physical vigor, attachment to the land through labor, equality between the sexes, engagement with the world, and an end to fear of and distance from non-Jews. To the extent that Jewish sources were deemed relevant, it was the biblical “kings, warriors, and prophets” that offered inspiration, not the tradition of Torah study under rabbinic leadership.

Arab prisoners are guarded within barbed wire in Jerusalem, Aug. 31, 1967. (AP Photo)

Those who know the more recent history of Israel are aware that the religious counterrevolution long ago arrived, in the form of “Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews, the Haredim, the most rapidly growing sector of the population.” While the politics of the Haredim can take various forms, here is Walzer’s biting analysis:

(They) do not really think of the state as their own. Some of them are fierce nationalists … but they don’t have the sense that citizens are supposed to have of being responsible for the whole; they don’t recognize a ‘good’ that is common to themselves and all other Israelis. They retain a view of the state typical of a stateless people, who are always outsiders, always vulnerable; they are political opportunists, seeking to seize whatever benefits the state provides and escape its burdens. The fellowship of democratic citizens and the freewheeling debates of democratic politics are largely alien to them; they participate in an older fellowship, accept as authoritative the rulings of their rabbis, and vote as a bloc.

‘Messianic militancy’

But there is another wing to the recent religious counterrevolution, says Walzer. It is partly amalgamated with the Haredim vision and partly separate from it. This is found in the “messianic militancy” of the settler movement, a movement that grew in the period after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. This war ended in a shocking Israeli military triumph that left Israel in control of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza Strip, a situation understood by the United Nations and almost the whole of the world community to be a temporary occupation of Palestinian land, subject to future peace negotiations.

The east Jerusalem Israeli settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev, seen with a neighbouring Palestinian neighborhood,Thursday, May 12, 2022. Israel advanced plans for the construction of more than 4,000 settler homes in the occupied West Bank on Thursday, a rights group said, a day after the military demolished homes in an area where hundreds of Palestinians face the threat of expulsion. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Various Israeli governments, however, began building settlements in these territories. Depending on who is doing the counting, there are around 400,000 settlers now living in the West Bank, with another 200,000 in East Jerusalem, in scores of post-1967 communities whose existence is considered a violation of international law. The settlers themselves are the vanguard of this project, the nature of which perhaps helps explain the peculiar sensibility that has developed among many of them.

Walzer: “They are more than ready to use military force … a kind of thuggishness exists on the margins of the settler movement, tolerated and even encouraged by some of its central figures … nothing more clearly distinguishes the Judaism of the revival from the Judaism of the exile.”

One factor affecting both parts of the religious counterrevolution in modern Israel is the fact that, of course, modern Israel was built on part of the same revered Holy Land as is described in the ancient biblical texts. If “Israel” had been built in part of Uganda, as Zionist founder Theodor Herzl seriously considered, there would have been no religious resonance or connection to ancient biblical faith.

“If ‘Israel’ had been built in part of Uganda, as Zionist founder Theodor Herzl seriously considered, there would have been no religious resonance or connection to ancient biblical faith.”

But Israel in 1948 was established in (part of) the ancestral, biblical, homeland. And so, especially after victory in the 1967 war, which added control of much more of the territory identified with ancient Israel, it became more plausible to see modern Israel as the fulfillment of religiously fulsome messianic hopes rather than just another newborn state in the post-World War II world. Modern statecraft in Israel became much more vulnerable to giving way to ancient religion. In turn, modern democracy itself began to be questioned by some. Notes Walzer:

For the settler militants, the nation-state as it exists today is simply an instrument for promoting God’s politics — but not a very reliable instrument. They look forward to a time, as the editor of the settler magazine Nekudah argued more than a decade ago, when democracy (an alien Western form of government) will be replaced by an authentically Jewish religious regime that will lead Jews back to a life based on the Torah.

Relation to U.S.

Now I want to make the turn to our current moment in the United States. Reading Walzer’s account of “secular revolutions and religious counterrevolutions,” I cannot help but see our country. Of course, there are profound differences between our situation and that of modern Israel and the other countries that he explores, but I do propose the following potential parallels:

  • Many U.S. religious conservatives understand the social changes that erupted in the 1960s and have carried forward to this day as something like a secular revolution. (Many of the rest of us do not look at most events since the 1960s in that way, but that issue is my subject most other days.) Powerful groups within conservative U.S. religious communities have been organizing explicitly for counterrevolution since the 1960s, and the narrative of cultural decline/secular revolution dominates many politically active conservative religious movements here.
  • Working within the democratic process at all levels of our federalized system, U.S. religious conservatives have experienced both wins and losses in creating their religious counterrevolution over the last 50-plus years. The potential overturning of the 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion decision — so much in the news now based on the shocking Supreme Court leak — would be, by far, the most notable victory ever achieved for the religious counterrevolution.
  • Messianic militancy connected with retaking control of a land believed to be holy, leading to the possibility of imposing a conservative religious vision from the center of political power, is not a bad thumbnail sketch of some parts of what we used to call the U.S. Christian Right and is now often called Christian nationalism. The similarity is really quite striking. (An added conceptual benefit here is that this parallel also might help to explain the obvious sympathy of this part of the U.S. Christian community with settler Zionism in Israel.)
  • Conservative religious support for Donald Trump makes more sense within this framework. Trump gained U.S. religious conservatives’ hearts in large part because he sent every possible signal that he would wield his power relentlessly to achieve the religious counterrevolution they have desired for so long. This is not about the man’s actual beliefs or character. It’s about his promise and then partial delivery of the political power needed to stage a religious counterrevolution. In this sense, Trump delivered, far more than any Republican president since the 1960s.
  • The Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, with its sizable Christian (or “Christianist”) presence, together with the acquiescence, “prayerful support,” and even participation of conservative Christians in numerous frankly anti-democratic efforts to overturn the November 2020 presidential election, reveals at least a substantial fringe of conservative U.S. religious folks slipping free of the constraints of our democratic system and the rule of law.

And now the main takeaway of this long post: When you are fighting a religious-cultural-ideological war for ultimate stakes, democracy is fine as long as you win. But if you do not win, democracy may not be a matter of ultimate loyalty. Making sure your vision prevails may matter more.

This way of thinking can infect the left or the right. I believe we are seeing it more often on the right, and most notably the conservative Christian right. To the extent that it is spreading, it threatens the very survival of democratic politics.

This article first appeared on Baptist News Global.

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