God is back, or so the pundits say. The real question, though, is not whether or not God is back, by why we ever thought he went away.
The secularization thesis was premature, though not impossible. It didn't just get the empirical data wrong, but it was based on a wrong-headed slate of assumptions. The most significant poor assumption is that secularism implies a morally and ontologically neutral way of understanding the world.
This is where the postmodern and postcolonial canon gets it right. Inscribed in the liberal moral order, in things like statehood and citizenship, are understandings of self, the world, and God which are not neutral. Charles Taylor calls this the modern social imaginary. William Cavanaugh goes one step further, saying that the modern state is a new sacred order, one to which the divine authority of violence was transferred in the post-Westphalian world.
So, then, I beg the question: is all foreign policy, all extension of statehood and state interests, really a kind of missiological projection of liberal moral order? Is liberal state building—schools, roads, markets—a work of conversion? Is, in fact, the work of secular foreign policy really not so secular at all, but a kind of evangelical mission to defend and transform the world into a Westphalian moral order?
Maybe God never went away, he just took a new name and got more subtle public relations?
There's a booming academic industry in the self-flagellation of the West and its imperial attitudes, not just economically but culturally and—stretching the term uncomfortably—religiously. And if Taylor and Cavanaugh are right, then that is at least one insight that academic postmoderns might have for us: the question is no longer if Western foreign policy is inscribed with weighty ontological assumptions, but what they are and whether we might just stand behind them anyway.
Scott Thomas argues in his responding chapter in God and Global Order that what we are witnessing is a clash of rival apostasies, a struggle for the soul of the twenty-first century. The battle isn't a mundane rivalry of material and military power, but is a fight to establish the boundaries between the secular and the sacred, between rival constructions of self, the world, and God. It's about what gods or goods define the means and ends of the good society.
Martin Wight called Western order an apostasy of Christendom, a sentiment which followers of Stanley Hauerwas and William Cavanaugh would recognize. Yet Wight was not calling for retreat to the catacombs, but rather for the renewal of configurations of the secular and the sacred in a post-secular, postmodern world. Wight's task—our task?—was not the easy dismissal of a hegemonic modern moral order, but rather the careful, often dirty work of weighing its claims—audacious and controversial as they may be—and offering them anew as the best we've managed so far.
But whether modernity and its institutions are baby or bathwater, one thing Thomas, Wight, Taylor, and Cavanaugh get right: foreign policy is missiology. The future of North American foreign relations is as religious as its past.