The Global Politics of Jesus:
A Christian Case for Church-State Separation
By Nilay Saiya
Oxford, pp. 356, $34.95
As an Amazon Associate,
Review by Andrew S. Gilmour
Scholarship on the intersection of religion and international affairs has seen impressive growth since the end of the Cold War and particularly within the last decade. The fading of U.S.-Soviet global competition over secular forms of governance lifted a lid on religious ideas, motivations, and goals globally, spurring a reconsideration of the importance of religion in global affairs. The once dominant secularization thesis predicting the inevitable demise of religion under the triumphal march of science, reason, and technology has faltered in the face of a persistent and widespread religiosity. Homo Religiosus is back, though never having left.
Groundbreaking work by scholars such as Scott Appleby, Philip Jenkins, and Karen Armstrong has put discussion of religion back into the mainstream discourse of secular foreign policy elites, a trend that accelerated in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001. Other scholars — notably Monica Duffy Toft and Timothy Shah — have significantly added to the flowering religious-political discussion with further analysis of religion’s relevance to violence, human rights, civil wars, and humanitarian aid.
In The Global Politics of Jesus: A Christian Case for Church-State Separation, the Notre Dame-educated scholar Nilay Saiya has built on these mostly sociopolitical, historical, and anthropological approaches to offer a theological perspective on the future of Christianity in today’s religiously plural world.
As a professor of public policy and global affairs at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of Weapon of Peace: How Religious Liberty Combats Terrorism (2018), Saiya brings readers a carefully reasoned and globally conceived argument for how best to foster a vital Christianity that is relevant to a secular state and society but independent of both.
The crucial variable in Saiya’s analysis of Christianity’s past, present, and future is the degree to which Christians are able to eschew the temptations of political privilege bestowed by the state. Christian-state collaboration began in fourth-century Constantinople, was presumed to have ended in 17th-century Europe with the peace of Westphalia, but remains a persistent aspiration of a considerable number of Christians.
Political privilege for Christians leads to bad outcomes for states that risk becoming more intolerant, authoritarian, and even violent as they privilege one religious expression of Christianity over other religious expressions. Political privilege, however, also leads to an undermining and corruption of the ability of Christians to bear witness to the gospel’s transcendent ethic of love, reconciliation, and peacebuilding as Christians become entangled with the logic of state power.
The Kingdom of the Cross and the kingdoms of the world are forever at cross-purposes and motivated by different aspirations and ethics. Christians seeking to achieve the aims of the gospel through the political privileges of close ties to the state — a doomed fusion that Saiya calls “Christianism” — overlook this basic incompatibility of the kingdoms.
Christians, instead of yielding to the temptations of state-conferred power and privilege, must have a political theology grounded exclusively in the teachings of Christ as recorded in Scripture and in the witness of early Christians. Similarly, a theology of detachment is also unacceptable because Christians must still bring the gospel message to the public square through what Saiya calls “prophetic witness.”
Saiya seeks to show with data and a global geographic scope that where Christians have opted for political privilege they have declined in number and appeal. Western Europe — especially the Scandinavian countries — demonstrates, in Saiya’s view, the risks of a state monopoly over religion that fosters a less competitive marketplace of religious ideas and a less vital state-embraced Christian witness. The growth of Christianity in the developing world, by contrast, is attributed largely to the independence of Christians engaging in prophetic witness in the public square.
Saiya’s command of the full scope of Christian history, his grasp of religious trends in the developing world, and his understanding of how Christians have influenced global politics in recent years make for learned and engaging reading that builds creatively on the work of recent scholars. The rise of Christianity in the Global South, however, is not discussed as a potential function of political and economic insecurity.
Instead, the correlation between vibrant Christianity and independence from the state is presented implicitly as a causal relation without sufficient evidence. The idea of prophetic witness that is central to Saiya’s proposed political theology also lacks definition, leaving to the reader to speculate where the line between witnessing before the state and partnership with the state is drawn.
Perhaps the most important contribution Saiya has made in his impressive book is to stimulate a deeper consideration of how the ideals of Christian witness can unfold in a world where states seek to co-opt Christian identity for political ends and where Christians are often tempted to go along with the bargain.
Andrew Gilmour is a senior scholar in residence at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at the Catholic University of America.