Five Best Books on Religion and Politics


These literary works excel in their depiction of religion and politics.

1. Antigones by George Steiner (Oxford, 1984).

The myth of Antigone has captured the imaginations of political philosophers, rhetoricians and artists for more than 2,000 years. And small wonder, for her conflict with King Creon over the remains of her brother pits individual conscience against law, woman against man, youth against age, and respect for the dead against concern for the living. To some, her insistence on burying the traitorous Polynices in defiance of Theban law makes her a paragon of piety and family loyalty. Others, however, have viewed Antigone as selfishly indifferent to the common good and Creon as its virtuous protector. Although George Steiner does not wear his learning lightly, his erudition does enable him to produce a fascinating study of how the myth has been interpreted and re-interpreted in different cultural settings. Through Steiner's lens, various Antigones have much to reveal about the societies that produced them and "the tragic partiality, the fatal interestedness, of even the noblest deed."

2. Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope (1857).

Anthony Trollope is the Magellan of mixed motives, exploring the countless ways that greed and self-deception get jumbled up with the high-minded inclinations of public servants, clergymen and lovers. It is hard to put down a book that begins with an elderly bishop on his deathbed while his devoted son and would-be successor agonizes in the knowledge that, if his father lingers much longer, the incoming liberal government will appoint a far more progressive churchman to the see of Barchester. The poor chap hardly knows what to pray for. It's not that he has his heart set on a sinecure. Rather, he longs for the opportunity of service. And, yes, the honor of a seat in the House of Lords: "He did desire, if the truth must out, to be called 'my Lord' by his reverend brethren." The goings-on in Barchester Towers—political, romantic and ecclesial—can still make one wince or smile with recognition.

3. The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001).

Trollope might regard politics, sex and religion as the stuff of high comedy, but they are also at the dark heart of Mario Vargas Llosa's portrayal of the last days of the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic. This brilliant study of tyranny is not for the squeamish. Yet the sickening detail enables one to grasp how terror combined with corruption can paralyze an entire society, stifling the merest impulse toward resistance. The novel's account of the dictator's increasingly brutal efforts to hold power alternates with the story of one of his victims, a young girl whose father delivered her to "the goat" for deflowering in hopes of regaining political favor. What lifts The Feast of the Goat into the front rank of political novels is the author's depiction of how, against all odds, probabilities were finally shifted in the direction of democracy. In Vargas Llosa's telling, a few courageous priests and sisters stand out as forces for decency, and a crucial turning point occurs when all five Dominican bishops issue a pastoral letter condemning the regime.

4. Sugar Street by Naguib Mahfouz (Doubleday, 1992).

Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) draws one so deeply into the sights, sounds, smells and turmoil of a city in the throes of modernization that one is almost disoriented on emerging from its pages. Sugar Street is the last and most political novel in the 1988 Nobel Prize winner's Cairo Trilogy, a saga that follows the members of a large Muslim family from the Egyptian struggle against British occupation to the political upheavals that led to the overthrow of King Farouk in 1952. Each of the patriarch's five children reacts differently to the crumbling of traditional society: One brother plunges more deeply into Islam, another withdraws into secular philosophy, while another embraces militant Marxism. The two daughters cannot imagine living the cloistered existence that their mother endured, but in the late 1940s they find no clear alternatives. In this portrayal of a postcolonial society where traditional religion is deteriorating and nationalism is on the rise, one glimpses the tangled roots of tragedies that were to come.

5. Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres by Henry Adams (Houghton Mifflin, 1981).

Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres remains the single most informative and entertaining introduction to the statecraft, philosophy and religious spirit of the Middle Ages. Henry Adams (1838-1918) takes the reader, along with his ideal companion—an imaginary niece with a Kodak camera—on a trip to France that becomes a voyage back in time. We begin with the austere 11th-century Abbey on the Norman coast where the Archangel Michael presides, masculine and militant. Our principal destination, however, is the great cathedral at Chartres and the culmination of "the moment when society was turning from worship of its military idea, Saint Michael, to worship of its social ideal, the Virgin." Along the way, kindly, learned Uncle Henry brings to life the poems, politics, theology and philosophy of feudal society.


Mary Ann Glendon. "Five Best Books on Religion and Politics." The Wall Street Journal (September 1, 2007).

Reprinted by permission of the Wall Street Journal and the author, Mary Ann Glendon.


Mary Ann Glendon is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University. She writes and teaches in the fields of human rights, comparative law, constitutional law, and legal theory. In March 2004, Mary Ann Glendon was appointed by Pope John Paul II to head the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences which guides the Catholic Church's social policies. She is the author of A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Random House, 2001), A Nation Under Lawyers: How the Crisis in the Legal Profession is Transforming American Society (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994), Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse (Free Press, 1991), and (edited with David Blankenhorn) Seedbeds of Virtue: Sources of Competence, Character, and Citizenship in American Society (Madison Books, 1995). Mary Ann Glendon is winner of the Order of the Coif Prize, the legal academy's highest award for scholarship. She lives in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.

Copyright © 2007 Wall Street Journal

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