Joining Hands: Politics and Religion Together for Social Change

Roger S. Gottlieb, Joining Hands: Politics and Religion Together for Social Change (Cambridge, Mass.: Westview Press, 2002)

Joining Hands presents an outstanding and critical analysis of the issues of politics and religion, and examines their existing and possible modes of interface in order to enhance “the full openness of religion and politics to each other’s insights.” The author is a professor of philosophy at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts; he has written several books on Marxism, environmentalism, and spirituality.

Political progressives in the region I come from-influenced both by secular world views and epistemologies, and by the bloody history of religious conflict and nation building-often to tend to negate any role for religious entities in public affairs or in working together with political organizations for peace, conflict resolution, and justice. This is despite the very obvious failure of ‘secular’ state, quasi-state, and autonomous bodies in stemming bloody religious conflicts and politics of hatred let loose by vested interests. Despite some reservations then, Gottlieb’s book is timely in re-looking at traditional debates from fresh perspectives, opposing the wide-spread view that politics should be separated from religion, critiquing both liberals and conservatives, the secular and the religious, and drawing from a wide range of theoretical perspectives, narratives, experiences, and historical events.

The book is easy to read, sitting comfortably on immense scholarship that is quite amazing in the sweep of personalities from whom ideas are borrowed (Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Reinhold Niebuhr, Dalai Lama, and other great leaders, theologians, activists, theorists, and political commentators), issues which give us insights about the interactions between religion and politics (civil rights movement, feminism, environment and breast cancer), and diverse regions from which illustrations and ideas are drawn.

The first half of the book consists of four chapters wherein Gottlieb presents his main argument as well as a critical analysis of several ethicists. The chapters are very even-handed in assessing the strengths and weaknesses of each author. Gottlieb critiques each perspective with respect to its theoretical/ideological moorings, using objective, verifiable data. He identifies religion and politics as “two ways of world making,” and explains why it is necessary, and how it is possible, for politics and religion to “teach” each other, using illustrations from many different religions. He argues that “profound shifts in economics, political culture, technology and political life” create imperatives that make it necessary for religion and politics to come together to remake the world, in a shared vision.

The second section of the book has chapters on Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, environ- mental movements, and the struggles against and around breast cancer. Each chapter brings out limitations in the strategies of some major protagonists, linked to incomplete syntheses of religion and politics. For instance, Gottlieb argues that Martin Luther King’s victories might have been greater if he had identified less with “religious virtue” and made his movement more political. The discussion compels us to think in new ways about the political role of religion and about adding a spiritual component to politics.

Gottlieb’s main argument, well summarized in the last chapter, is that authentic religion requires an activist, transformative presence in the political world, and that the moral and ethical values provided by religion are indispensable resources in political struggles for human rights, gender equity and environmental sustainability. The strength of spiritual belief, he says, is an important asset to progressive political movements, while the social visions that drive political movements have much to teach religions.

It is difficult to quarrel with a book that is so well-written, so steeped in scholarship, and so good at anticipating and answering criticisms. Still, as a political progressive who believes to some extent in the progressive potential of religion, I have some reservations. One can appreciate Gottlieb’s statements about the political errors of sectarianism and violence, which are present in both religious and secular organizations and movements. But we also need to ask questions about the historical context of sectarianism, intolerance, and hatred of the other, questions about dominance, hegemony and exploitation, ideological sources of deviation, the role of individuals and cliques, and the evolution of political structure. In particular, larger political economy issues, such as mobilization of the religious right by imperialist interests and reactions to this particularly in the form of religiously inspired terrorism, do not seem to be well thought out in the book. Again, while the author is aware of the role of religion in providing identities, the role of identity politics in transforming religion and making it more violent needs more attention.

The criticism of secular progressives is bang on target as is that of religious progressives. Gottlieb even accepts that the ethical and moral values that he urges political progressives to take on are not necessarily derived from specific religions. However this doesn’t quite address the issues raised by those who have rejected religion in defining a humanistic vision for the world. The work of Karl Marx is most notable here. Nor does it adequately explain movements and organizations which prefer to work with ethics and values derived from a non-religious, rationally-based vision of social justice and peace. Sections of the environmental, feminist, and peace movements have been strongly inspired by the socialist ideal, and it would be difficult to attribute their failures simply to a lack of interest in borrowing from religion, especially when strategic problems, forcible suppression, and opposition from more powerful interests are also significant factors.

Also, while it is possible to argue for religion and politics to join hands on the basis of shared values and visions, it is important to remember that religious beliefs are motivated by idealism, tradition, and affective ties, and as such are subject to manipulation. While this may also be true for secular movements, wouldn’t the best solution be to promote reason-based development of ethics, values and shared visions?

Despite these questions, the book is highly recommended for all those who are optimistic about and wish to participate in whatever way towards shaping alternative visions and strategies for human progress. Religious movements need to be engaged with and not excluded on secular grounds, if only to provide an opportunity for religions to reform, and promote internal impetuses for change. Isolation will tend to stultify, ossify traditions, make them static, and ultimately lead to the takeover of traditions by specific interests, be they patriarchal, state, or capitalist. To end with a quote from the last chapter of the book:

To remake the world we need simultaneously to remake ourselves, and we stand little chance at remaking our selves without at least the attempt to remake the world.

Reviewed by D. Parthasarathy
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay

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