The 21st century announces itself as an era of backlash and paradox. This owes much to an uneasily shifting equilibrium between religion and politics, a disturbed equilibrium that was on display this week in capitals as dissimilar as Rome, Baghdad, Jerusalem and Washington.
Often a source of advancement throughout history, religion in its many forms has become a primary force of political backlash in the era of globalization. As social and economic change becomes more dramatic, intrusive and unpredictable, people seek out seemingly eternal certainties.
Backlash is an engine of paradox. It is easy to confound reaction with action -- to mistake a loud gasp of despair for a rallying cry, or to confuse the chicken and the egg. This could be particularly true for Americans trained to compartmentalize religion and politics but who confront global trends going in the other direction.
Militant Islam responds to the increasing secularization of Muslim societies with a jihad against all things modern, and it appears to be on an advancing march. Christian evangelicals lash out against the undeniable spread of profane and vulgar behavior and speech in American public life and are pilloried for making religion and "moral values" the center of U.S. politics.
Pope John Paul II lay in state at the Vatican this week to be venerated across Europe, even as churches on that continent continue to lose regular worshipers or already stand empty. The pope was mourned, rightfully, as one of the past century's most consequential political figures while being denounced by many for religious orthodoxy.
In Israel, religious zealots profaned with graffiti the tombs of Yitzhak Rabin and other Israeli political leaders over the weekend, apparently to manifest opposition to Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza. In Baghdad, Iraqi clerics maneuvered to enshrine a privileged position for Islam in a new Iraqi constitution, even as Sunni extremists waged a barely disguised religious war on their Shiite brethren.
Religion has long played a major role in politics in most societies, even if unacknowledged. But that role is changing today in many places -- and especially in the Middle East -- where religion has become politics to a great extent. To be more precise, religion is filling a vacuum left by the failure of state politics to explain, moderate or accommodate the forces of change unleashed in the superconnected and superstimulated world of globalization.
One of the essential functions of politics in modern societies is to mediate between the religious and the secular -- to offer a peaceful, consensual method for redrawing boundaries as local and national codes of social behavior evolve and church hierarchies do not.
This process has often been one of "defining out," of lawmakers withdrawing the monopoly that organized religions claim over prohibited or prescribed behavior by redefining that behavior as a matter primarily of civil concern.
In the rural American South of my childhood, segregation was spuriously portrayed by many whites and their clergy as a religious duty. Political leadership was needed to consign racism to legal and secular realms. Today's struggles over abortion and gay marriage in this country are contentious examples of defining issues out of one sphere into another.
But such intermediation is difficult where Islam or any other religion functions as both a faith and a code of conduct for all aspects of life. The political realm withers as increased communication brings home to more people the inadequacies and essential unfairness, if not corruption, of those who rule them.
Far from bringing Orwell's "1984," the intrusiveness of modern technology and media into daily life undermines the power of, and respect for, the state and by extension politics everywhere, argues historian John Lukacs in his provocative 2002 essay "At the End of an Age."
Paradox rules in this time of enduring "dualities" and stubborn "coexistence between continuity and change," writes Lukacs.
The world has never had more communication and yet produced so little understanding and wisdom. In advanced manufacturing societies, Lukacs notes, "the production of consumption has become more important than the production of goods." While "constitutions and courts have extended lawfulness to private acts of all kinds . . . fewer and fewer people appreciate or are able to cultivate privacy."
Lukacs concludes this literate survey of the seeming contradictions of the new age that he sees upon us by explaining his own continuing deep religious faith. Agree with Lukacs or not on that point, as you will. But his work provides a valuable framework for understanding the consequences of change that reorders the world and our perceptions of it.