Thursday, February 9, 2017

Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, from the Great War to the War on Terror

Burleigh, Michael. Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, from the Great War to the War on Terror. New York: Harper Collins, 2007.

Michael Burleigh sets out to discuss the relationship between religion and politics in modern Europe.  He provides a comprehensive look at how totalitarian regimes at both ends of the political spectrum strove to become a state religion through propaganda and ceremonial means that is critical to understanding how the Bolsheviks, Nazis, and Italian Fascists moved to consolidate control of their respective states by establishing state cults and attacking religious institutions that stood in their way.  Part of his goal is to bolster the anti-Fascist credentials of the Catholic Church in the face of a traditional narrative that Pope Pius XII aided and abetted the Nazis during and after their rise to power.  While Burleigh’s research in this area is excellent, his level of invective against ideological or religious opponents is problematic because it creates questions about his use of evidence. 

One example of this is his use of Graham Greene to illustrate anticlericalism in action in Mexico and Spain.  While dismissing Greene’s work as being all of a type that focused on washed up characters in hot, humid, and dirty environments, he uses his work describe how leftist movements launched systematic attacks on the Catholic Church and its clergy.  He attributes these acts solely to the Republicans in Spain while glossing over Nationalist atrocities against educators during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.  Despite criticizing the Nazis for attacks on Catholics and Jews, in this case Franco’s Fascists get a pass for their political violence.

Burleigh’s bias is evident in other subtle and not so subtle ways.  When discussing the Nazi cooption of pagan ceremonies for their own purposes, he mentions the adoption of a Yule Light during Christmas celebrations, he claims without providing support that this imagery was more appropriate to Halloween.  He makes this claim without providing any supporting explanation or evidence, ignoring the long tradition of Yule celebrations in pagan tradition before the adoption of Christianity by Europeans.  Burleigh also omits the clear connection between the Yule logs of paganism and the European and North American Christian Christmas tradition of the Christmas tree.  The misrepresentation calls into question Burleigh’s use of evidence.

Readers put on edge by Burleigh’s polemicism and sometimes unusual use of evidence may be further put on edge if also know that Burleigh is both on the advisory board of, and contributor to, the conservative British magazine Standpoint, which claims as its mission the celebration of western civilization at a time when it is under threat from non-Western influences.  Standpoint’s post-September 11th goal to create a broad center-right coalition to defend Western ideals against encroaching Islam in Europe (termed Eurabia by Burleigh) creates questions about Burleigh’s accuracy related to issues of multiculturalism in Europe.

This raises a critical point for historians.  While none of us are free from bias, and our work is informed by political, religious, and cultural influences, Burleigh’s obvious bias detracts from the legitimate aspects of his argument.  This is a warning for academic historians not to allow their ideological goals and objective to infiltrate their academic writing to the extent that it causes criticism of the work.  Even after a career as prestigious as Burliegh’s, the appearance that his work is driven by his political goals rather than historical accuracy causes readers to wonder how seriously they should take his work. 

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