Are international relations theorists about to awake from their long secular slumber and discover that the world has had, has, and always will have a religious dimension? There is clearly a growing interest in religion, much of it driven by its presumed association with various forms of collective violence. Yet so far international relations theorists have spent little time wondering how religion in global life might implicate their existing theories of international relations or how existing theories of international relations might help us better understand the shape, forms, and consequences of religion in world affairs.

Along these lines, IR scholars could follow the lead of sociologists of religion and consider the causes and consequences, and the varieties and vagaries, of the secularization of the world. One formulation of the secularization thesis, though, should be resisted: the assumption that the world can be neatly categorized into binaries such as religious and secular and that the ascendance of one comes at the immediate expense of the other. Treating these spheres as distinct, indeed as rivals for supremacy, risks neglecting how the two can be co-constitutive and discursively related, how the secular might create the religious, how the religious might underpin the secular, and how our liberal international order has a religious dimension.

In order to ground my thoughts I draw selectively from the relationship between religion, humanitarianism, and world order. The history of humanitarianism very quickly challenges the current association of religion with conflict, violence, and instability. Religion is frequently portrayed in IR scholarship as the source of considerable evil – and secularism as its great antidote. The discipline’s founding historical moment is when the wars of religion in Europe are pacified by the presumed separation of the Church and the State and the creation of a secularized sovereignty in 1648. Today the mere mention of religion is likely to connote religious fanatics creating protective barricades and producing suicide bombers. Yet religious discourses have their “kinder, gentler” dimensions, nicely captured by the history of humanitarianism. Religious beliefs and organizations, most notably those influenced by Christian theology and ethics, helped to create modern humanitarianism in the early nineteenth century and have shaped its expanding scale, scope, and significance ever since. Today faith-based agencies are scattered throughout the world and involved in various kinds of projects, enterprises, and programs; evangelicals from megachurches in California are running HIV/AIDS treatments centers in Rwanda and Islamic agencies based in London are running pediatric clinics in Egypt. A presumption in the literature on humanitarianism is that faith matters, yet exactly how, and how would we know? Exploring how faith matters reveals some of the challenges that IR scholars will and should confront as they try to identify how religion matters in world affairs.

I want to explore further the necessity of following these epistemological do’s and don’t’s in the context of faith-based humanitarianism. The assumption, of course, is that the modifier matters. Yet exactly how? Many of the today’s faith-based agencies are shadows of their former, religious, selves. In the nineteenth century many religious agencies, especially those with a missionary component, desired to save souls; by the end of the century, though, some downplayed this dimension in preference of saving lives and changing societies. Therefore, although many view missionaries as the most vivid example of the relationship between the secular and the religious in the creation of the modern world order, faith-based action also was instrumental in creating the very international institutions, law, and ethics that are frequently treated, at least today by those in the West, as quintessentially secular.

Consider the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The founders of the ICRC initially saw themselves as part of a civilizing mission – but one that worked within the existing boundaries of civilized society, that is, Christian Europe. As John Hutchinson writes in Champions of Charity, the ICRC reflected “the religious and moral assumptions of the nineteenth century European bourgeoisie…They had naturally assumed that mercy and compassion were uniquely Christian values. The first task for the Red Cross, they believed, was to propagate these virtues more widely within Christendom itself, especially among the common people whose weak moral sense seemed to them to need careful nurture.” The issue was not simply a matter of getting their priorities right – it also concerned whether and how these laws of war might apply to those outside of Europe. Consistent with the variegated notions of humanity that prevailed at the time, the ICRC believed that while European Christians could comprehend and honor the Red Cross principles, those outside these boundaries probably could not. ICRC was surprised, therefore, when in 1865 the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire communicated his willingness to accept the Geneva conventions; it could not believe that the Ottoman Empire, a Muslim state, understood or was prepared to honor these conventions. The controversy continued when the Ottoman Empire notified Geneva that it would not adopt the symbol of the cross. While it is quite likely that the delegates to the Congress had selected the cross because of its association with Christian charity and aspirations for a universal, enlightened humanitarianism (and not as a tribute to Switzerland), they nevertheless treated the symbol as sectarian and could not imagine how it gave offense. After considerable discussion, though, ICRC authorized the Ottoman Empire to use the Islamic-based crescent.

This episode caused the ICRC to rethink its mission and entertain the possibility of a civilizing mission beyond its borders. As one founder stated in a newsletter in 1873 in the context of ICRC’s discussions with Japan: While it would be “puerile” to expect “the savages and barbarians, who are still singularly numerous on the face of the globe, to follow this example” [of Japan], there is the possibility that there are “races which possess a civilization, albeit one different from ours” that desire closer relations with Europe and might be brought into civilized society through the Red Cross societies. Red Cross societies began to expand across the globe. As ICRC looked at the speed in which they did, it imagined not only the universalization of the laws of war but also the expansion of Christian notions of charity.

The contemporary association of the ICRC with international humanitarian and human rights law – and indeed, this organization’s representation of a universalized humanity – raises the possibility that the contemporary liberal order has a religious dimension. For many this is impossible because of the binary of religious/secular and the presumption that the liberal is secular. But there are three important reasons to raise this possibility – reasons that hint that modern liberalism might be religious. The first reason is offered by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, who provocatively and persuasively argues that the modern secular order itself rests on a religious foundation. She argues that there are “two trajectories of secularism, or two strategies for managing the relationship between religion and politics.” The first is laicism, “a separatist narrative in which religion is expelled from politics.” The second is Judeo-Christian secularism, which is an accommodationist narrative to the extent that the Judeo-Christian tradition does not attempt to expel religion but rather sees it as very much part of cultural life and, in fact, can help to constitute modern secular life. Citing Samuel Huntington, Hurd argues that in this strategy religion is the common ground for Western democracy. Secularism, therefore, is a core value of a Judeo-Christian order and basic liberal institutions are themselves shaped by, if not made possible by, Christian-Judeo values. In this view, then, religion becomes either an element of the Western secularism or makes Western secularism possible; in either case, the religious is part of the secular.

A second possibility is offered by Charles Taylor. One of the critical distinctions he offers for understanding religion in our secular age is between the immanent and transcendent:

The great invention of the West was that of an immanent order in Nature, whose working could be systematically understood and explained on its own terms, leaving open the question whether this whole order had a deeper significance, and whether, if it did, we should infer a transcendent Creator beyond it. This notion of the “immanent” involved denying – or at least isolating and perhaps problematizing – any form of interpenetration between the things of Nature, on the one hand, and the “supernatural” on the other, be this understood in terms of the one transcendent God or of Gods or spirits, or magic forces or whatever.

For Taylor, then, the question is whether individuals seek or recognize “something beyond or transcendent to their lives.” Religion, then, becomes a belief in the transcendent. It can become attached to meanings and activities that extend beyond “human flourishing” to include an attempt to understand humanity in relationship to something that, quite literally, transcends and gives meaning to human existence.

Consequently, according to Taylor, there can be a much more complex, multilayered, and co-constitutive relationship between the immanent and the transcendental in our secular age. Taylor finds evidence of the transcendental in the immanent in various areas of life. British and American patriotism always projected a sense of the divine, or at least operated under the belief that they were helping to further a civilizing process that was part of God’s plan:

The sense of superiority, originally religious in essence, can and does undergo a “secularization,” as the sense of civilizational superiority becomes detached from Providence, and attributed to race, or Enlightenment, or even some combination of the two. But the point of identifying here this sense of order is that it provides another niche, as it were, in which God can be present in our lives, or in our social imaginary; not just as the author of the Design which defines our political identity, but also of the Design which defines civilizational order.

He also writes of our secular world:

[This] new ethic of order could be detached from its theistic anchoring. It could be inscribed in nature (Jacobins), and then later as what our instincts and intuitions as they have developed in civilization suggest to us. … Even today, our sense of this liberal order of equality, rights, and democracy is sustained by what Rawls called an “overlapping consensus,” in which people support the same principles for a host of different reasons, Kantian, utilitarian, but also theological…[On] our (modern liberal) side of the river, “political theology” has never been wholly absent, and has often been very prominent.

Taylor is positing, in other words, that there might not only be an elective affinity of the secular and the religious but also a sense in which secular and liberal discourses are constituted in part by specific religious discourses.

In the context of a discussion of Taylor’s A Secular Age, Craig Calhoun further develops the concept of an association of the religious with the transcendental that need not pivot around God. There is, he argues, a notion of transcendence that is built into the very idea of self-transformation. Following directly on Taylor’s argument in his The Sources of Self, Calhoun argues that we can want to remake ourselves as we attempt to achieve a higher good; in other words, the aspiration is to transcend the condition as we found it and in the process transform ourselves. This notion of transcendence is particularly prominent in various meanings associated with humanity and the very possibility that we might transform ourselves through noninstrumental social relationships.

Hurd, Taylor, and Calhoun are suggesting that some the preferred forms of the secular have a religious dimension, though only if we are willing to suspend our traditional distinction between the religious and the secular. For Hurd, what makes possible the secular might be a Judeo-Christian order that (at least in the modern age) privileges liberalism, and a Christianity that had an immense influence on the emergence of a sovereign and consenting self. Taylor is properly suggesting that modern liberalism can have a transcendental character; liberalism is not merely about individualism, as so many IR theorists would have it, but rather has a social dimension that is closely interconnected to the transcendental. Modern day liberalism, this secularized liberalism, has a religious content because of its relationship to the transcendental. (For more on this theme, visit Nicholas Guilhot’s and Hurd’s posts.) If Hurd and Taylor are correct, then our modern liberal international order is not about the triumph of secularism, as most IR theorists would understand it, but rather the ascendance of a particular brand of secularism that itself has a strong religious content. And, following Calhoun’s lead, much of modern international ethics has a religious dimension to the extent that it is involved in some form of the transcendental, at least as understood by those who are actively engaged in the attempt to remake the world.

This resituating of the religious and the secular in our modern liberal international order recasts the origins and evolution of modern international ethics. The international ethics of protection and the relief of suffering might have an interdenominational and intercultural foundation, but there are reasons to treat this as a socially constructed development that is intimately related to a hazy distinction between the secular and the religious. Various kinds of campaigns to relieve suffering, from slavery to poverty, might have been triggered by religiously-motivated individuals and faith-based organizations, but these ethics now have a secular appearance (at least to those in the West) even as they project a transcendental character. There is ample evidence that those individuals who staff “secular” aid and rights agencies do so to enact a politics of emancipation that is tied to a concept of the cosmopolitan and the transcendental. For analysts to treat these ethics as part of the secular might mean severing their fundamental transcendental, that is, religious, character.

Yet we also should beware that these international ethics that appear to have a transcendental dimension are not nearly as universal as they seem. Consider, once again, humanitarianism. The idea of humanitarianism – the attempt to ameliorate the suffering of distant strangers – might appear to have an unambiguously universal character. Both Christian and Islamic aid agencies are inspired by religious commitments to help the poor and the suffering. Yet these different faith traditions also can understand the purpose and principles of humanitarianism in fundamentally different ways and tie them to very different understandings of a transcendental world order. For many Christian aid agencies, it has been practically impossible to spread Christianity without also directly or indirectly transforming various aspects of social relationships and creating new kinds of transnational relations. The same is true for many Islamic aid agencies. In other words, the desire to relieve suffering, presumably a universal good and the purest expression of a transcendental ethic, is itself reflective of the particular understanding of order.

This essay represents my developing thoughts on these issues, and as such, I would appreciate any critical commentary that readers could provide.