Church Against State?

Ian Buruma writes about politics and culture for a variety of major publications—most frequently for The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Corriere della Sera, The Financial Times, and The Guardian. He has served as cultural editor of The Far Eastern Economic Review and Foreign Editor of The Spectator, and in 2008 he was awarded the Erasmus Prize for his "especially important contribution to culture, society or social science in Europe." He is currently the Henry R. Luce Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College. His most recent book, "Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents" was published by Princeton university Press in March, 2010.
  • Transcript


Question: Could the U.S. division between church and state crumble in the near future?

Ian Buruma:  I’m not so sure.  I think it’s… the system is fairly robust and… but it has always been contested as far back as Jefferson, and he was accused by Christians of being a man of Satan who was not recognizing that the United States was a Christian country, whereas he of course saw it as the State, as a secular state, so it has been contested from the beginning.

Is religion in any way a threat to democracy?

Ian Buruma:  I think you can’t really answer that question by yes or no because it depends on what kind of religion, under what circumstances and so on.  It’s not necessarily a threat to democracy.  What is a threat to democracy is if the authority of organized religion starts to… gets mixed up in what should be secular politics.

How religious are you?

Ian Buruma:  Well I never had a religion.  Neither of my parents were religious, so I grew up with no religion at all, so I suppose I’m an agnostic in the sense that I’m not an aggressive atheist who has a deep belief in the nonexistence of God.  I’m indifferent to it, which also means I don’t really have an axe to grind and it doesn’t fill me with rage because I don’t have childhood memories to rebel against, but nor am I particularly attracted by any kind of religion.

Question: Is that why you chose to take a scholarly look at religion?

Ian Buruma:  It may have given me a relatively…  It may have enabled me to take a fairly dispassionate view of the problem, but no, that is not the reason I decided to write it.  The book by the way, is based on three lectures that I gave at Princeton and the reason I chose the subjects is because clearly in one form or another people see religion as a challenge again to liberalism and democracy, which wasn’t true for a while.  In Europe people thought that this was a problem that had been successfully licked. But Islam is now seen as a challenge.  The mobilization of the religious right in the United States is seen as a challenge and there have been acts of religious-inspired violence in places like Japan and so on. And so it’s an issue.

Recorded April 21, 2010