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Religion and Empire: People, Power, and the Life of the Spirit.

Religion and Empire: People, Power, and the Life of the Spirit. By Richard A. Horsley. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003. ix and 151 pages. Paper. $6.00.

In this short yet fascinating book, Richard Horsley, Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and the Study of Religion at the University of Massachusetts, looks at the relationship between political power and religion. Horsley's intention appears modest--"to raise some theoretical issues in ... relations between imperial power and religion"--yet the cases he examines raise deep and potentially disturbing questions, especially for those of us in the United States, on the imperial side of power relations.

The book is divided into three sections, each of which looks at a "pattern of relations," examining modern and historical examples.

1. "Cultural elites" in the dominant society, suffering from spiritual malaise, adopt and construct a subject people's religion. Here Horsley looks at Buddhism, which, divorced from its ritual aspects, has been widely adopted as a rational philosophy by Western intellectuals. In the ancient world, a similar pattern occurred as Roman elites constructed the cult of Isis from Egyptian religious practices.

2. People subjected to foreign domination renew their own religious traditions as a means of resisting imperial power. Horsley focuses on the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Cutting close to home, he examines the history of the United States' involvement in Iran prior to the 1979 revolution and how resistance to U.S. imperialism became centered in a renewed form of Islam. Renewal and resistance movements against Roman power in Judea are the parallel ancient pattern.

3. Those in the dominant society develop an "imperial religion" that comes to characterize those imperial power relations. In this last section, Horsley begins with the Roman emperor cult, then turns to an examination of Christmas, the "festival of consumer capitalism," as the modern example of imperial religion. Horsley's own position shows most clearly in this chapter as he critiques Western consumer culture where capitalism, hiding under a religious facade, has in fact become the new imperial religion being marketed to the world.

Whether one agrees with Horsley's critique of the United States and its imperial role in the world, the reader cannot help but be stimulated by this book and its evaluation of the relationship between imperial power and religion. In light of the United States' present involvement in the Middle East, this book is must reading for any thinking American. It would be especially appropriate for adult discussion groups.

Elizabeth A. Leeper

Wartburg Theological Seminary
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Author:Leeper, Elizabeth A.
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Date:Apr 1, 2007
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