Politics and Religion

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					                                            Nelson, AKC Lecture 18 January 2007           1

Politics and Religion
Public history:
popular conceptions deal with the past in ways that resonate with present concerns.

Modernity and secularism - the demystification of the world
Machiavelli as the first modern political thinker: the amoral Machiavellian Prince.
  The interests of state provide their own legitimation: politics without religion.
   BUT in The Discourses on Titus Livy II, 11-15, Machiavelli admires Roman
religion as cementing political unity, fostering patriotism and inducing confidence.
How to resolve this paradox? The right sort of religion sustains the state; the wrong
sort of religion is that of the Roman Church which has the opposite effect: „its power
is not great enough for it to be the leader of Italy, but it is not so weak that it was
unable to call on an [outside] power to defend an Italian state that had become too
powerful‟ (Disc II,12).
The Middle Ages as the age of faith, when religion weakened the state; ancient Rome
the model of religion strengthening it.
Machiavelli was deeply ambiguous on religion – like many contemporaries.

The Middle Ages:
I Charlemagne (ruled 768-814), king of the the Franks, crowned emperor by the
pope, Xmas Day 800
Charlemagne‟s father, the founder of the Carolingian monarchy, consecrated by the
pope. Did this mean religion dominated the medieval state? A Church-State?
Or a State-Church?
Modern myths about Charlemagne, „the father of Europe‟, example for an EU
conceived as a Christian union – in 1950s and in 21st century.
Charlemagne used religion; at the same time he was a sincere believer and reformer.
Failures attributed to God‟s anger; Christianity was an ethical religion of fidelity to
God… and King. In correcting corrupt clergy, Charlemagne invoked the New
Testament against the Old.
How far did Christianity set Charlemagne‟s agenda?
Two test cases: Charlemagne and Islam
711 Muslim armies from N Africa conquered Spain; the amir is based at Cordoba.
777 Muslim notables from north-east Spain come to Charlemagne to ask for support
against the amir.
778 Charlemagne responds. The campaign ends with the Frankish rearguard led by
Roland being ambushed in the Pyrenees by Basques and killed.
In the 790s and early 800s, Frankish armies conquer Catalonia, with some help from
dissident Muslim notables: e.g. 799 Hassan governor of Huesca sends Charlemagne
the keys to the city.
798 envoys sent to Calif Harun al-Rashid at Baghdad
801-2 the envoys return with rich gifts including an elephant
806-7 an embassy from Baghdad, more gifts including a water-clock.
Charlemagne and the Saxons
Franks and Saxons share a frontier: „If a Frank is your neighbour, he‟s certainly not
your friend‟.
772 Charlemagne attacks the Saxons, destroys their sanctuary and takes away much
gold and silver. Wars continue intermittently until 804.
Were these wars of religion? Charlemagne‟s jihad?
                                           Nelson, AKC Lecture 18 January 2007           2

Brutal legislation against Saxon pagan practices needs to be set in context of Frankish
military humiliation in 782, also, ore positively, of Frankish dealings with Muslims,
with pagan Slavs and with pagan Avars – a lot of accommodation going on.

II The Crusades
First Crusade preached by pope at Clermont, central France, in November 1095 – was
the response evoked by politics or religion?
God‟s War in the Holy Land: blood and guts, „utopianism armed with myopia‟,
Tyerman, p. 920. Deus le volt! Contradictions.
The story of Outremer in the 12th century: varied attitudes of pullani and newcomers.

The long aftermath: why crusading looms large in medieval Europe‟s imagination.
But „evidence of medieval public opinion is never neutral: to ignore the crusade‟s
adherents is as absurd as to discount its critics‟, Tyerman, p. 918.
Did modernity and secularisation kill the crusade? „Islam‟s holy war, the lesser jihad
remains a modern phenomenon, the Christian crusade… does not‟, Tyerman, p. 920.
Was crusading ideology inherent in Christianity?

III Religion and empire 1700-1914
Did the creation of the British Empire use Christianity to sustain political control?
Were missionaries willing tools?
Settler land rights vs indigenous ones a hot question.
Some contexts „impressed on missionaries [by c.1830] the impossibility of
detachment from politics and government‟, Porter, p. 89.
Dr John Philip, London Missionary Society, 1828: „while our missionaries are
everywhere scattering the seeds of civilization…they are, by the most
unexceptionable means, extending British interests, British influence and the British
Empire. Wherever the missionary placed his standard among a savage tribe, their
prejudices against the colonial government give way.‟ (Quoted Porter, p. 116)

BUT Modern debate points to contradictions: imperial officials often lukewarm about
mission; missionaries often lukewarm about empire (“Do not intermeddle with
politics”, Porter, p. 86.) Apocalyptic theology uncongenial to empire and vice versa.

Mid-19th century diminishing returns, waning confidence, bring shift in relations
between mission and empire. From expedient alliance to divergence: missions were
„among the weakest agents of “cultural imperialism”‟, Porter, p. 322. By 1920s, a
missionary can see the Bible as „a truly Eastern book… written by Easterners‟ (Porter,
p. 329).

Conclusions: „modernisation‟ and „secularisation‟, „politics‟ and „religion‟ need to be
handled with care. Politics and religion interact. Ambiguities and contradictions are
ever-present in that mutual adaptation.

J.L. Nelson, „Go away and learn‟, London Review of Books April, 2004, pp. 23-5.
Y. Hen, „Charlemagne‟s jihad‟, Viator 37 (2006), pp. 33-51.
C.J. Tyerman, God’s War. A New History of the Crusades (London 2006)
A.N. Porter, Religion versus empire? British Protestant missionaries and overseas
expansion, 1700-1914 (Manchester 2004)