The Magazine

Unfree to Be .  .  .

Religious liberty and human rights.

Jan 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 16 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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This book is yet another riposte to the late Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington’s incendiary and much-discussed The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996). Huntington’s book had been itself a response to Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992). Fukuyama had argued that, what with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet empire, the era of political and ideological conflicts (“history”) was over, and the whole world was now lumbering, in an immense metaphorical wagon train, toward Western-style liberal democracy with all its blessings and ills.

Photo of man and woman being hit by a police officer

A Falun Gong pantomime of religious repression in China (2006)


Huntington maintained, contra, that the Soviet implosion merely signaled the reemergence of older cultural and religious conflicts that had long predated Marxism and other ideologies of modernity. The most significant of those resurgent conflicts, Huntington predicted, would be that between Islam and the West, the former invigorated by an exploding population and a resurgence of traditional Muslim religiosity in defiance of the aggressively secularist governments that held sway in many Islamic countries during much of the 20th century.

Huntington believed that the “fault lines” between cultures, whether they lay along political boundaries between countries or within the boundaries of a single country, were and would continue to be loci of violence, especially religiously motivated violence that included the formal and informal persecution of religious minorities. Unlike Fukuyama, who believed that religion was a spent historical force, and that cultures were irrelevant except insofar as they embraced or rejected modernity, Huntington argued that culture and religion were inextricably intertwined and continued to be powerful human motivators. He was thinking of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, but his book did not do a bad job of predicting 9/11 and its geopolitical aftermath that pitted the West against militant forms of Islam. Huntington argued that Western nations needed to recognize that their treasured values and institutions were not universal and that it was necessary to assert and defend them politically and militarily in order to survive in recognizably Western form.

Needless to say, Huntington’s theories came in for much criticism from his fellow academics, especially the progressives among them who had embraced the idea of multiculturalism: the idea that there was nothing inherently superior about Western civilization and that Western nations should accept and even promote a diversity of ethnic and religious cultures within their borders. Multiculturalism appeared to be an especially appealing and tolerant way of dealing with the Muslims who streamed into Western Europe during the last decades of the 20th century, challenging the highly secularized and demographically declining Christian (or more accurately, post-Christian) hegemony there and demanding to be governed by their own mores. The most virulent of Huntington’s critics was the Columbia English professor and Palestinian apologist Edward Said, now also deceased. In a lengthy review of Huntington’s ideas in the leftist magazine the Nation, Said accused Huntington of racism, jingoism, reductionism, Islamophobia, and many other sins. Huntington’s leftist critics tended to attribute rising levels of religious conflict to a surge of “fundamentalism” that equally afflicted Christianity, Judaism, and other faiths.

In The Price of Freedom Denied, Brian J. Grim, a senior researcher at the Pew Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, and Roger Finke, a professor of sociology and religious studies at Penn State, offer a different sort of critique of Huntington—although, as I shall argue, they end up advocating the same sort of multiculturalism as Huntington’s progressive foes. Grim and Finke belong to what they call the “religious economies” school of analysis of religion pioneered during the 1970s and 1980s by the sociologists Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge. It is essentially a free-market and supply-side approach to religious affiliation, arguing that people adhere to specific religions not because those religions are embodied in their cultures but because the religions respond effectively to their individual needs and desires. They cite as an example the sixfold growth of American-style Pentecostal Christianity over the past 20 years in Brazil, a country whose Portuguese culture once made it solidly Roman Catholic. Thus, Grim/Finke argue, it is illogical to hypothesize a “clash of civilizations” as an explanation for religious conflict, although they concede that such clashes do exist.