Let’s Talk About God and World Politics, by Mika Luoma-aho

God and world politics: these two are scarcely found in a single sentence, would you not agree? To talk about religion and international relations is constant, books coming out right left & center, especially in post-911 academic International Relations (IR). But writing a book for that audience with God on its title is, I well understand, an unconventional move and one that might raise a few eyebrows. While there are a number of people doing professional IR while holding a theistic worldview, talking about God “in the shop” is risking your stake in the scientific establishment. But I am past the point of caring and I do really think that in order to “get” religion IR needs to talk a bit about Him.

The story of God and International Relations: Christian Theology and World Politics (Continuum 2012) I ended up writing began from Carl Schmitt’s famous thesis articulated in his Political Theology — “[a]ll significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts — and an observation I made while working on my doctoral dissertation at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. After Alexander Wendt published his Social Theory of International Politics IR began, once again, to think and talk about the “person-hood” of state. This is not something Wendt came up with, but rather a tradition of understanding the political institution of the state that goes back millennia, but Wendt did give it a new lease of life and rehabilitated the metaphor of the state-as-person into IR “canon”.

Now everybody knows that states — The United States of America, China, Sweden, Germany, et al — are not really people, or even like people, but this is nevertheless how we think and talk about them, not only in academic IR, but on the front pages and in the coffee-shops. Like there was a society of “big people” out there in the world, acting out global politics in our name. And this is not merely a flight of fancy: we must believe that these entities exist and have power over us — if we do not we can expect to clash with them sooner or later. But, having said that, no-one has ever seen a state, witnessed a single one: we either believe that they are there or just play along. This is what I would call the modern (or contemporary) political imagination.

How do we commonly identify worldviews which are built on systematic application of human-like models to non-human (and human) phenomenon, like IR does with the person-hood of state? Stewart Elliott Guthrie concludes in his Faces in the Clouds that they are typical religions. This is the first of the two main arguments I make in God and International Relations: that IR is a form of religion with the state as its god.

The second argument I make is that contemporary practice and study of international relations is permeated by Christian theology. This is not a historical argument — we already know that Christian religion played its part in the Peace of Westphalia, which has since been made a symbol of contemporary international relations — but concerns the ways in which we think and talk about world politics today. This is exhibited especially in international organisations such as the United Nations and universal notions such human rights. These are not only political but moral institutions and the question we need to ask is whether or not they have a meta-ethical foundation. The answer to this question can be one of these two: either there are no moral duties and obligations in international relations; or there is transcendental source of morality above the idol of the state. This is a case for the theistic worldview more than the God of Christian theism.

Furthermore: I will question the post-Westphalian myth of the state as a “peacemaker”, which lingers on despite glaring historical and ongoing evidence to the contrary, all over the globe. According to the classical account of state sovereignty we have surrendered our right of self-protection to our state on the condition that they protect us at home and abroad. While there are states that do something to this effect, there are many that do not, and an alarming number of states that do anything but protect their (or anyone else’s) citizens.

God and International Relations makes IR a bedfellow of theology. If people somewhere have even the slightest impression that this project of ours is serious science — serious as in labcoats, hadron colliders, and cure for cancer — then it is our responsibility to be quite clear that what we do is far far from it. What IR needs to do is take a good look at all the things we take on faith before we make “religion” an object of our analysis.

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Mika Luoma-aho (PhD in politics, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, 2002) is a senior lecturer in political studies at the University of Lapland, Finland. He is an executive committee member of the International Research Network on Religion and Democracy (IRNRD) and board member of the Religion and Politics Research Committee 43 of International Political Science Association (IPSA/AISP).

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