Faith and Politics in the Public Sphere

The Gülen Movement and the Mormon Church

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Etga Ugur
Religion and Politics
  • Syracuse, NY: 
    Syracuse University Press
    , July
     2019.
     336 pages.
     $70.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780815636298.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Rather than treating religion as an independent causa sui (self-caused) phenomenon, a social movement approach to religion suggests that the particular form and course that any religious enterprise takes will be a product of both internal and external factors. In Faith and Politics in the Public Sphere, Etga Ugur tests and verifies this hypothesis by comparing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon or LDS Church) and the Turkey-based Gülen movement, asking specifically, “Given the similarities in terms of fellowship ties, the emphasis on conservative social values, and religious doctrine concerning political neutrality, why do the LDS Church and the Gülen movement act differently in the public sphere?” To be more precise, “why is Mormonism more self-assertive in the American public sphere and the Gülen movement less direct in its participation in the Turkish public sphere?” (6). Even posing the question in this way identifies the variable—the social and political environment—at issue, and Ugur offers the not-at-all surprising analysis that differences in the “public sphere”account  for the variance.

In the first chapter Ugur differentiates between two styles of political and civil society and their relations to the state. The republican style views the public sphere as “the domain of public virtue” (31), a “state-supervised site of citizen socialization” in which “the state tries to promote public virtues by assuming a regulatory role in order to enlighten the masses with republican ideals” (33). Naturally, he associates this political-civil attitude with Turkey. The liberal style, in contrast, “puts the individual—rather than the public—at the center of its analysis;” instead of focusing on the formation of virtuous citizens, it is “rights centered” (33), providing more freedom for individuals and groups to act and compete. The United States stands at the opposite end from Turkey on this republican-liberal axis. The author also contends that each system also generates its own problems and contradictions: “As the chief vulnerability of the American system has been populism from the right and the left, the Turkish polity has suffered from an authoritarian state and a weak society” (37).

Ugur’s thesis is difficult to dispute—that whether the political-civil society is republican style or liberal style will affect the religion. The real value of the book, then, is the wealth of information on Mormonism and Gülen that he marshals to build his case. The remainder of the book is divided into three parts—Religion and the State, Religion and Politics, and Religion and Civil Society—each of which features two chapters, one on each of the two religious organizations. The first part compares what the author calls the “state tutelage” of the public sphere in Turkey with the comparatively state-free space of “religious dissent” in the United States. This project involves a description of Ottoman and Kemalist statism in Turkey and the official secularism of the latter, followed by a history of American constitutional liberalism, religious disestablishment and revivalism, and “the frontier conditions of the territorial expansion” (86) of the country in which movements like Mormonism flourished.

The second part situates the two religious enterprises in their respective political contexts, tracing for each “the stages of the movement’s development in parallel to its forms of engagement with politics, and conclude[s] with an account of the impact of the structure of the public sphere over the movement’s evolving public strategy” (115). Predictably, according to the author, in a state-dominated milieu, the Gülen movement has chosen to be more discreet and politically neutral, not even identifying itself as a religion or a church but as a loose affiliation of educational and economic undertakings. Fascinatingly, the Gülen network represents a quite self-conscious form of Islamic modernism. However, despite the fact that the movement has tried to stay out of politics, it has inevitably and problematically been drawn into Turkish politics in recent years. In liberal America, the LDS has been more open, indeed more confrontational, in the public sphere, as Ugur’s chronicle of the four stages of Mormon public identity reveals. Yet, Mormonism, too, has assimilated to its ambient political culture, first fleeing westward, then abandoning polygamy, and subsequently embracing mainstream conservative respectability when keeping officially out of everyday political controversies.

The comparison in the third and final part sets the formal public activism of the two movements against each other. For the Gülen movement, this means an exploration of its Journalists and Writers Foundation and its Abant Platform. Typically working through schools and promoting interfaith dialogue, the Gülen project seeks “the empowerment of the civil society vis-à-vis the state” (215), which necessarily puts it in collision with an increasingly populist and authoritarian state. And while the LDS “officially adheres to a directly articulated policy of political neutrality” (221), Ugur finds that its Public Affairs Department plays a key role in maintaining the church’s stance of moral issues, its image to the wider American society, and in some cases its political goals.

Perhaps precisely because of their varying situational opportunities and challenges, the modernist and accommodationist Gülen movement eventually “became the enemy of the state and lost its popularity,” whereas the LDS with its stronger identity and institutionalization “survived social and political adversity and is now much better integrated into the American polity” (257). Faith and Politics in the Public Sphere is not a paean to American liberalism, but it potentially illustrates that liberalism is more effective at taming and absorbing novel and rival political-civil systems, while republicanism must perceive such movements as threats that it cannot really allow. One of the most compelling bits of evidence in the book is that Mormonism acts more discreetly and indirectly in republican-type settings and that Gülen has developed more overt and institutional forms in liberal contexts. As Ugur concludes, for religion like all other domains of culture, “political context matters” (49).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jack David Eller is Associate Professor of Anthropology (retired) at the Community College of Denver.

Date of Review: 
August 14, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Etga Ugur is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Washington, Tacoma.

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