Philpott’s work highlights the importance of religion for global affairs
Daniel Philpott, professor of political science at Notre Dame, received the Distinguished Scholar Award from the Religion Section of the International Studies Association in April 2021. The award recognizes Philpott’s significant contributions incorporating religion into the study of global affairs. Philpott is renowned for his work in international relations and his service to peace in unstable regions, focusing on religion as a solution rather than a problem.
Attitudes of elites towards global affairs after World War II, especially in academia, were highly influenced by secularism. According to Philpott, elites saw religion as an “irrational and divisive activism … headed for extinction. … By the 1950s and 1960s, secularization thinking dominated the social sciences and humanities.”
A 1966 cover of Time Magazine proclaimed, “Is God Dead?” as academics predicted the collapse of religion. In 1968, sociologist Peter Berger stated in a New York Times article, “In the 21st century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture.”
However, growing unrest in the Middle East during and after the Gulf War demanded a reassessment that had not yet been processed by the intelligentsia. “When I wrote … in the early 1990s … I had not the remotest idea or intention that 30 years later there would be a robust and vital field of religion and global politics,” Philpott said.
He further explained how the narrowness of this view impacted U.S. foreign policy, “In 1979, a CIA analyst named Ernest Olney drew attention to the growing power of Islam in Iran. His colleagues ridiculed him as ‘Mullah Ernie’ and dismissed the idea of religion influencing politics.” Later that year the Shah was indeed overthrown, leading to one of the worst U.S. foreign policy crises in decades and costing President Jimmy Carter the 1979 election.
Towards the turn of the millennium, the study of religious impact in global affairs began to grow. This was due in part to the failure of eastern regimes to impose secularization on cultures deeply ingrained with religion, such as Jawaharlal Nehru in India, Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, and Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia.
In 2000, Philpott participated in a research group led by various Harvard scholars, including Samuel Huntington. In Huntington’s 1993 Foreign Affairs article, “The Clash of Civilizations,” he predicted that religion would become the main fault line for conflict after the Cold War. The article was panned at the time, and when Philpott joined, the group still had difficulty gaining recognition and funding.
The ultimate wakeup call came on the morning of September 11, 2001, says Philpott. After 9/11 and in the era of the War on Terror, funding was granted not only to the Harvard group, but many foundations and universities also became eager to fund the topic. In the coming years there was a major emphasis on what Philpott had worked to advocate throughout the 1990s.
Today, it is hard to find detractors of religion’s role in global affairs. But, the debate continues over how religion will be restorative in troubled regions. God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics, co-authored by Philpott, focuses on regions where religion has promoted “people power” to overthrow dictatorships such as in Poland, the Philippines, Indonesia, Tunisia, and Ukraine.
Philpott has also worked with organizations in Kashmir and the Great Lakes region of Africa towards diplomatic peacebuilding. Philpott is also a member of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic lay organization that helps broker peace in countries around the world. Most recently they have worked in Mozambique and South Sudan. Philpott also pointed to examples of the Church advocating and brokering peace, such as John Paul II’s writings and Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s work in South Africa.
As America ends its longest armed conflict with the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Philpott offers some takeaways . He summarizes Carter Malkasian’s article “What America Didn’t Understand About Its Longest War” in Politico: “The Taliban proved persistent, endured in its will to fight, and garnered loyalty among a portion of the population – on account of its religious beliefs. A U.S. foreign policy establishment that is still too secularized underestimated these qualities.”
Philpott said that this award gave him a chance to reflect on his career so far and he was grateful to the International Studies Association. He also wanted to thank those who made this award possible: “Scholarship is a solitary undertaking, yet it is made possible by relationships.”
Nathan C. Desautels is a freshman theology major. He enjoys reading Chesterton with a cup of Irish Tea. Contact him at email@example.com.
Photo credit: University of Notre Dame, Department of Political Science