A review of Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe, from the French Revolution to the Great War, by Michael Burleigh

Eve aima le fruit nouveau
C'est la faute de Rousseau

Cain tua son frère
C'est la faute de Voltaire.

Eve ate the apple,
Rousseau was to blame,

Cain killed his brother,
Voltaire's is the shame.


Wth earthly powers, Michael Burleigh has written a serious, ambitious survey of the complex ways religion and politics interacted in Europe from the French Revolution to the Great War. He wants to remind readers of Christianity's profound influence on the West and to demonstrate that the ideals of the Enlightenment were imperfectly realized by regimes that invoked them. Aghast at the modern record of human cruelty, the British historian thinks religious beliefs and practices make people kinder and less bloody-minded. Of course, religious convictions can and do inform civic conduct, often to noble purpose, but churches themselves are earthly powers, too, supported, organized, and administered by earthly creatures. Burleigh is free to prefer persons who claim supernatural justifications, but he does not demonstrate that they behave better than those who do not.

Throughout the book, he indulges his disdain for the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. By beginning in 1789, Burleigh conveniently omits Henry VIII, Thomas and Oliver Cromwell, and Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot. Thus, for example, he condemns the French seizure of Church lands without considering whether this redistribution—which in England arguably favored a market economy and representative government—had the same effect in France. And if not, why not?

In discussing the Revolution, he grievously slights Alexis de Tocqueville, mentioning him only to evoke al-Qaeda. In a chapter in The Old Regime and the Revolution on the universal rights of man, Tocqueville does, in passing, compare the revolutionary armies with the Islamic armies, but a few pages earlier, he had written that the memory of the Revolution will forever trouble the sleep of tyrants. Burleigh says nothing of Tocqueville's belief that liberty delivers individuals from moral isolation and teaches them to regard others as familiars, as semblables. Nor does he report Tocqueville's conviction, based on his American travels, that religion flourishes when freed from state sponsorship.

Burleigh recounts the struggles and accommodations of the papacy with Napoleon and successive French governments, as well as with the Risorgimento whose importunities pain him, and with the countries that would become, in 1914, the Central Powers. He does not conceal or question the Vatican's willingness to produce an Imperial Catechism and several subsequent catechisms enjoining submission to the prevailing regime. He reports the dismay with which some of the faithful met the Syllabus of Errors and the proclamation of infallibility, but he never criticizes any pope as he does secular leaders. And so, in his account of the Dreyfus case, Leo XIII had "reservations" about the officer's guilt which led him to tell Le Figaro, "Happy the victim whom God recognizes as just enough to join with His own Son in sacrifice." Kindly meant, no doubt, but little comfort to a Jew on Devil's Island. Burleigh insists that whatever the virulently anti-Semitic Assumptionists had to say, "it was not said with the pope's approval." But would clerics in holy orders have acted with his disapproval?

Burleigh is better on Britain and Germany. He sees that England had an established church but de facto religious pluralism, in keeping with competing reforms offered by Tories and Whigs. The Methodist Revival prevented revolution by promising joy in the next world to the poor, as well as by teaching them to address public meetings, form national organizations, and become the Labour Party at prayer. No religion in Britain could plausibly claim a monopoly on truth or charity, inasmuch as countless voluntary associations undertook good works.

He also understands judiciously the peril of Gott mit uns nationalism. "The authorities of Imperial Germany were not the Gestapo," he acknowledges. But unlike England's cleavages, Germany's divisions did not serve it well. The "marriage of iron and rye" between industrial and rural elites prevented competition for working class allies. Protestants and Catholics, let alone Jews and secular socialists, were in many ways alien to each other. Burleigh recounts that when the Kulturkampfabated, the Center Party—the Catholic party in the Reichstag— "voted for the extension of the defense budget," but he does not explain the significance. Bismarck wanted to dispense with a yearly vote on military appropriations, and the Catholics supported him. They could not or would not make common cause with liberals and socialists to constrain the executive through the power of the purse. Of course, virtually all parties sought boons from the Chancellor rather than coalitions in the Reichstag, but Burleigh finds no ominous signs here. Yet in March 1933, the Center Party voted en bloc for the Enabling Act, allowing Hitler to rule by decree. In neither case could Catholics alone have thwarted the Chancellor, but Burleigh's overall argument for the unqualified superiority of Christian over civic virtue again fails to persuade.

* * *

His moral imagination is too limited. Burleigh respects secular ethics in England and Germany, but not in France. He recognizes that many Victorians felt a sense of duty distinct from religion. He honors the Wilhelmine bourgeoisie's Kantian scruples and even the "high moral purpose" of German socialists. But he has nothing but contempt for French republicans'pur et dur stoicism or for French socialists, like Jean Jaurès, who saw the rights of man as not diversionary but essential to their purpose. Burleigh judges the French separation of church and state in 1905 to be wholly amoral, writing that "the new law denied that the state existed for other than material goods." Yet this is simply untrue, as even contemporary Catholics attested. For Charles Péguy, a Catholic dreyfusard, Christianity venerated saints, and republicanism honored heroes, but both traditions could inspire self-sacrifice and love of others.

The Russian sections of the book are its weakest. Burleigh relies heavily on Dostoyevsky rather than on social or economic evidence. Moreover, he finds it "breathtaking" that Alexander II abolished serfdom in 1861—as if poverty or servility could be eliminated by fiat. He contrasts the Tsar's action favorably with efforts in America, where "slavery, and then racial segregation, lingered…into the 1960s." He is unaware that a French radical from the Vendée predicted Reconstruction would fail. Georges Clemenceau, in exile in the United States during the Second Empire, reported to incredulous French readers that "all land has been left in the hands of the former rebels."

Curiously, too, despite his preference for piety, Burleigh seems uninterested in examinations of religious experience. He dismisses The Protestant Ethic as "self-congratulation," although Max Weber was genuinely curious about ways in which religion shaped conduct—in this case, why belief in predestination encouraged effort, not passivity. And from Emile Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, a remarkable effort to ground logical and moral categories in shared social experience, Burleigh plucks one word, "effervescence," "out of which Fascism and Nazism would flow." He does not see the essential Burkeanism in Durkheim's idea of a polity where common beliefs are "the result of an immense cooperation" through time and space, in which "a multitude of minds have associated."

Ending with 1914, Burleigh utters portentous warnings about "political religion" and the slippery slope from the Jacobins to Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism, which he promises to take up in a second volume. In it, one hopes, the author will not overlook the means through which Hitler and Stalin seized and consolidated power. Germany did not succumb to Hitler from an excess of Aufklärung. Nor is Stalin best understood as a zealot for human perfectibility. The Bolsheviks inherited a vast oppressive apparatus from the Tsars whom Burleigh admires, and the Nazis rose through a series of political deals, including accommodations with Catholics. To ignore such continuities would be bad history.

However well-intentioned, Michael Burleigh fails to see that democratic politics is based in large measure on citizens' shared principles and memories, which they may interpret differently but which are accessible to all. People may hold religious traditions in common as part of this, but democracies cannot defer to revelation, nor does Burleigh provide any convincing reason that they should.