Matt Tomlinson and Debra McDougall (eds.), Christian Politics in Oceania, New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2013.
In his 1843 book review, ‘On The Jewish Question’, Marx argues that while the liberal state claims to liberate people from religious constraints by giving them rights as citizens, it in fact replaces one constraint with another by only recognising their political rights as self-interested individuals. Liberalism presupposes that people’s religious identities only exist in their private lives so that it can claim it overcomes these divisions in the public sphere.
The vexed position of Christianity in Western liberalism comes to mind as one reads the chapters of this edited collection on Christian denominations, religious identity and religious politics in Fiji, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea. Each of them explores how the relationship between church and state is being worked out in unique ways in these postcolonial societies. Since their independence, these states have often relied upon Christianity as a symbolic basis for defining their populations as modern political subjects. In different ways, these states have professed tolerance and neutrality yet shied away from secularism, all the while explicitly linking Western Christian morality to their goals of modern development. Local Christian communities also use church institutions and practices to make possible new kinds of belonging, and thus also new kinds of public politics, taking the form of denominationalism and social movements. While the authors see Christianity as a potent social force, they are mostly skeptical of the classical Weberian theory of a Christian basis for modern liberal individualism. Instead they see Christianity as a discursive regime, apparatus or praxis which produces individual subjects. In these respects, the collection takes up the arguments of many anthropologists of Christianity and extends them to new areas.