Holy Wars and Holy Alliance: The Return of Religion to the Global Political Stage
by Manlio Graziano.
Columbia University Press, 2017.
Hardcover, 368 pages, $35.


The liberal world order that we have complacently enjoyed for the last twenty-five years is undergoing a crisis: this much is generally conceded. The chaotic backlash against globalization and migration across the developed world, the shipwreck of established political parties, the unexpected forces that have come bubbling up through the swamps of the Internet—all these have left our intelligentsia so wrong-footed that it feels just to give some time to authors with more unconventional explanations of what is occurring across the world and what is to come. For Manlio Graziano, the geopolitics scholar and author of the eccentric Holy Wars and Holy Alliance: The Return of Religion to the Global Political Stage, today’s convulsions are sweeping the nation-state off the world stage and ushering back on the world’s great religions.

The dazzling success that secular, state-managed capitalism has achieved in the centuries since the Westphalian settlement of 1648 and the bourgeois revolution—above all, in the years since the end of World War II—has blinded us to several key facts, says Graziano. For one thing, the postwar boom was a high point, not a base camp for further ascent. As such, all those “modernization theories” that projected the future history of the world on the basis of developments in the U.S. and Western Europe were fatally flawed. In reality, the creative destruction of capitalism causes such uncertainty and misery that it contains within itself forces not only of secularization but of desecularization too. During the 1970s, Graziano says, two “dark forces” began to undermine the liberal order: the “material failure” of the attempt to implant the democratic capitalist modelin the Third World, and the sputtering of economic progress in the First. In a system legitimized entirely by the expectation of unending material progress, that represents a humiliating reversal apt to provoke disillusionment and populist rage.

Alongside the deterioration of liberalism, Graziano spies a second trend: around the world, “the return of religions has taken place at a rate inversely proportional to the credibility of the state”—a pattern particularly pronounced in rickety developing-world states unable to cope with the pressures of global competition. The civil and secular ideologies that justified twentieth-century states—from liberalism to Maoism—have failed, proving themselves “incapable, over the long term, of competing victoriously against traditional religions.” Where states are unable to provide welfare and wellbeing, people turn to religion—especially in its prosperity-gospel forms. And so desecularization flummoxes the modernization theorists, from Pakistan and Indonesia (whose secular rulers went religious in order to survive), to Iran (where secular revolutionaries ended up inside the tiger of apocalyptic religion) to Afghanistan (where communism was defeated by holy war).

Graziano’s analysis is largely Marxian throughout, in the sense that he sees the world of ideas as interlocked with, but largely subordinate to, relationships of economic production—which is to say power. Religious groups, he bluntly says, only truly participate in the political game to the extent to which they represent economic interests. “Exploitation” is his main paradigm. At no point in this book are religions’ metaphysical—or even ethical—claims about reality considered in any serious way. In fact, Graziano’s view of the substantive content of particular religions is nearly nihilistic. He states outright that religious texts are used so selectively and arbitrarily that they can justify any course of action desired.

In particular, Graziano is at pains to emphasize that Islam, because of its lack of clear distinction between divine and secular law as well as its lack of a hierarchical clergy, is particularly ill-suited to exert independent control over the political sphere. Popular theories that suggest that Islam is locked into a civilizational struggle with a unified Judaeo-Christian (or, alternately, secular) West are dismissed as the ideological excrescences of the declining Euro-Atlantic capitalist core.

Some religions, however, are better equipped to lock horns with the state and to pursue “their own goal, which is to become again a central actor in public life.” One, in particular, is the focus of Graziano’s book: “The centralization, global network, rooted global presence, and, above all, accumulated experience of the Roman Catholic Church make it the only religious body with the potential to achieve this goal—through the instrument of an alliance among all major world religions.”

What are Rome’s advantages? From Graziano’s entirely cynical viewpoint, the Catholic Church’s great strength is its capacity to unilaterally define truth and thus escape from the “vicious circle” of interpretative nihilism. Graziano sees Vatican II as a risky but successful adaptation to modernity, in which the Catholic Church was able to jettison its inconvenient Old Testament and nineteenth-century antiliberal baggage and transform its approach to the Third World and to other religions through a confident ecumenism. Interestingly, like Gilles Kepel, whom he cites heavily, Graziano sees the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council as a time of “disarray,” “centrifugal tendencies,” and near-surrender to the “intellectual fashions of the moment,” a situation which was set aright by the pivotal figure of John Paul II, who accomplished the task of “modernizing Catholicism in order to catholicize modernity.” Today, equipped with the non-fundamentalist “normalizing orthodoxy” bequeathed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI and the controlled ecumenism prompted by the Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate, the Catholic Church is ready to rally the religions of the world to form a common front against secular modernity.

Unfortunately, Graziano’s disinterest in figuring out exactly how traditional religions differ from their secular counterparts, why they continue to command supernatural faith, and why religion motivates people in the first place, leaves him with rather empty and tautological renderings of the “grand strategy” that the Church is supposedly here pursuing. The Vatican’s “geopolitical reflex,” we are told, is to “follow … the guiding star of Catholic interests.” The Catholic Church “will always be favorable to anything that advances the influence of Catholicism in the world.” “Promoting the cause of Christ: this is the action plan that the Catholic Church proposes to the rest of Christianity.” Power and influence are Graziano’s currency.

Graziano’s big theory, albeit somewhat flattering to a Catholic reader, does not live up to the main requirement of big-picture theories, which is to feel intuitively plausible. Do official bodies for interreligious dialogue really “embody a strategic will to make a ‘holy alliance’ among the world’s great religions the key to a long-term geopolitical strategy” rather than embody, say, bureaucracy and wishful thinking? Purely on an organizational level, is the Church really up to the task? On a doctrinal level, has the Church truly overcome the “disarray” of the 1970s? And when it comes to ideas, can we expect natural-law-based ecumenism to triumph in an era and technological environment that rewards the most primitive and tribalistic messages possible? Besides, do our religious leaders show any capacity for confronting transhumanism, artificial reproduction, and artificial intelligence—technologies with far more “secularizing” potential than anything boasted by the twentieth century?

Nevertheless, as the world changes, and not in the ways modernization theorists predicted, the great religions persist, and continue to try to forge the future. Their efforts, successes, and failures will play out during our lifetimes—and promise to be at least as interesting as anything that Graziano has succeeded in cooking up.  

Joshua Dill writes from Washington, DC.