May 2023: Book Reviews

The Rise and Rise of Political Religion
TP O’Mahony

Veritas Publications, 2023
9781 80097 040 3 • pp 176

‘Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is’.

Attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, this quotation encapsulates the principal argument and overarching raison d’etre of TP O’Mahony’s latest offering, The Politics of God: The Rise and Rise of Political Religion. Immersed in both the minutiae and the grand sweep of ecclesiastical politics both at home in Ireland and abroad for more than fifty years, the now retired distinguished journalist and commentator on religious affairs is uniquely positioned to speak authoritatively on the importance of religion in shaping political and moral attitudes of people on a worldwide basis. In this noteworthy and relevant critique, the author interrogates the complex interaction between religion and politics and according to the back cover blurb provides ‘a timely analysis of political religion and its capacity to do great good but also great harm’.

This book’s genesis dates back to the cataclysmic events of 9/11. The enormous geopolitical consequences of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon demanded a radical reappraisal of the role of religion in the global world order and an exploration of what political religion really means in modern times. However, TP abandoned that project until a chance discovery in 2010 of Madeleine Albright’s book, The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God and World Affairs, reignited his passion and interest in the topic. The resultant work, The Politics of God: The Rise and Rise of Political Religion, offers a comprehensive and insightful analysis of the historical, social, and political factors that have contributed to the emergence of political religion in various parts of the world and explores the implications of this phenomenon for democracy, human rights, and peace. It is an engaging and provocative analysis of religion and politics which, as Dr Mary McAleese argues in her powerfully crafted Foreword, deserves close attention by those on both sides of the debates that currently trouble our political institutions and churches.

Writing for a broad audience, O’Mahony does not delve too deeply into the technical hermeneutical and theological issues around religion, politics and holy war. Instead, he provides a wide-ranging narrative that encompasses world concerns such as Islamism, the Ukrainian conflict, Liberation theology and nationalism that is interspersed with some searing commentary on well-known religious and/or political leaders and events. Theologically perceptive and politically shrewd, the author gifts the reader the benefit of his extensive experience observing, participating and analysing the shifting sands of global modern discourse and the age-old human foibles and follies that can afflict even the most eminent churchmen and high-ranking political figures and regimes.

TP O’Mahony’s 176 page book is thought-provoking and rich in personalities and comment. The twenty three relatively short and pithy chapters are akin to essays or discrete articles; each one may be read as a satisfying independent and informative whole. Covering a wide range of religious traditions, from Islam and Christianity to Judaism and Hinduism, the author highlights the ways in which each has been co-opted for political purposes. He contends that political religion tends to be anti-democratic and demonstrates, with examples from Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia, how it often leads to the suppression of individual freedoms. Ever the professional journalist with a weather-eye on reaching as wide a readership as possible, O’Mahony seamlessly weaves the more abstract realities of religious/political constructs alongside an assessment of well-known personalities, whilst keeping the language accessible and the interest level high.

In chapter 12 entitled Mixed Doubles the author, quoting Eliza Filby, ‘The religious faith of leaders is not to be underestimated. It can drive some to war, others to peace; some left, some right’, introduces a four-chapter series of focused profiles: eight major religious and/or political figures are chosen and paired as being representative of the very embodiment of political religion – Francis Spellman/John Charles McQuaid; Ian Paisley/Karol Wojtyla; Martin Luther/Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Dorothy Day/Margaret Thatcher. O’Mahony is unsparing in his analysis of the authoritarian and ruthless use – and abuse – of power by Spellman and McQuaid, two ‘consummate ecclesiastical politicians’. Most startling too is the acerbic characterisation of Pope St. John Paul as a narcissistic dictator-pope, and his pairing with the virulently anti-Catholic Ian Paisley who ‘harnessed religion to the political ideology of hard-line fundamentalist unionism’ may cause some disquiet among certain readers.

However, that swipe of a caustic pen administered by a veteran committed commentator on religious affairs may be a fitting response to documented historical events. After all, some Catholic apologists would claim that the survival of the Christian Church for over 2000 years, despite its being governed by corruptible men, is proof of its divine institution! And for balance, extreme Islamism, worldwide religious zealotry and denial of religious liberty are all similarly castigated and exposed. Desmond Tutu once wisely remarked ‘When people say that religion and politics don’t mix, I wonder which Bible it is they are reading’ – a vindication of TP O’Mahony’s perspective if, indeed, such validation is deemed necessary.

– Reviewer: Mary Adamson, Bryanstown, Drogheda
Intercom, May 2023