Image credit: Casa Rosada (Argentina Presidency of the Nation) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
One of the questions posed to invitees of this forum is “What epoch is this we are entering or have entered?” It is a timely question given Donald Trump’s presidency, Brexit, and, more generally, a global populist turn that is undoing traditional political divisions and alliances. How does the relationship between religion and politics relate to the changing political constellations we are now seeing, especially given the concerns and contributions of this website?

One way to answer the question would be to put forward a heuristic model concerning the relationship between religion, politics, and modernity during the Cold War. Such a model is no doubt limited but perhaps can shed light on the question of, “Is this all there is?” For the sake of argument, then, let us assume that social scientists and elites of the mid-twentieth century paradoxically viewed both Christianity and Islam as sites of resistance against Communism yet also as dying relics of a secular age. Meanwhile, human rights and religious freedom increasingly provided the key legal strategies and political rallying cries to combat looming totalitarian threats. As the works of Samuel Moyn and James Chappel show, prior to the 1930s, Catholics in Europe proved hostile to human rights and religious freedom since such notions were associated with the secular Enlightenment. But with the church’s existence under threat by Communism and National Socialism, these rights-based doctrines proved useful for resisting the threat of totalitarianism.

After the fall of Communism, this rather contradictory ideological system is slowly beginning to unravel. In their disdain of the liberal state, many scholars on the political Left began to see human rights and religious freedom as constituting nothing more than conservative holdovers of a bygone era. They have been joined by a chorus of scholars of Islamic studies, anthropologists, and postcolonial scholars, such as Saba Mahmood and Mayanthi Fernando, who view secularism critically through the lenses of state power and imperial overreach. At the same time, leading Anglo-Catholic thinkers of the post–Cold War era, such as John Milbank, began to argue that the churches had erred during the Cold War by partnering with the liberal state, which such thinkers viewed through the lens of heresy. They have instead argued for a return to Christendom.

What we are ultimately seeing is the slow overturning of a Cold War patchwork job between religion and politics that no longer speaks to our age. This overturning will ultimately lead to new ideological systems involving reconfigured understandings of religion and politics, possibly making past enemies friends and former friends enemies.

In this regard, plenty of attention has been given to the recent emergence of right-wing populist parties in the United States and Europe, so I will leave them to one side. Instead I want to highlight the formation of a new political realignment that has received far less attention. I describe it as the new ecumenism, which is marked by a commitment to accepting refugees and refusing Islamophobia, along with a strident critique of capitalism and environmental degradation.

The new ecumenism I have in mind entails not simply interfaith alliances, but coalitions between religious groups and secular organizations—once opposed to each other—who are now joining forces to fight the rising tide of exclusivist nationalism. One such example of the new ecumenism is found in the pontificate of Pope Francis. It is interesting that some of Pope Francis’s biggest fans are on the Left and many of them are atheists and Marxists. Consider the fact that Verso Press, which heralds itself as the largest radical publishing house in the English-speaking world, published Francis’s Encyclical on Capitalism and Inequality. Moreover, Pope Francis recruited Naomi Klein to participate in a conference last year at the Vatican devoted to climate change. Klein’s response to the invitation: “Surprised but delighted.” It is no wonder that Francis is seen by certain Catholic traditionalists as a Marxist who is “single handedly” destroying the Church.

What I am describing as new ecumenism involves people of all faiths and worldviews who are rejecting the turn to nationalism and are terrified over the ills of capitalism, environmental change, and Islamophobia. The secular versus religious divide that has long split these groups is being put aside due to common existential concerns over the precarious state of the world. Perhaps if these concerns are mitigated the old ideological differences between these groups will return. But the new ecumenism is willing to put aside such differences for challenges far more pressing than debates over religion versus secularism that marked the politics of the Cold War era.