When I think about the link between politics and religion, I think diachronically and synchronically, historically and contemporaneously.
I’ll address the historical first. Although I am not a historian or a political scientist, my reading of history intimately connects the two. I can interpret this connection only from the Christian point of view, because I have more or less been raised as a Christian. I have read the narrative of Abraham, the transition from polytheism to monotheism, and concomitantly, a heavy to a light god, from one who doesn’t to one who travels well.
In this narrative, I have seen warring cultures defending their rights to dominate other cultures through religious appeals. God is with me, not you. We are the true believers; you are the idolators. As the true followers of God, we have the right to enslave you, rape your women, take your lands. This is a tribal-based story extensively documented in the Old Testament, the portions of the Bible that those who imagine the Bible as God’s Word tend to ignore.
Within this narrative, however, some counter-narratives emerged: religious figures who almost rose above politics. Jesus seems to have been one of these characters.
An historical tour through the 12th through the 16th century will reveal to any half-awake observer the links between politics and religion. One simply should review the era of Henry VIII. Cromwell, the Puritans. Lord.
There’s a bit of the chicken and egg here: did politics begat religion, or did religion begat politics? I tend to go the former. Religions were invented to organize culture, increasingly in favor of the rich, the people who scraped surplus off the offering table.
At any rate, it seems self-evident that political entities cannot survive without religion. The ruling party tends to use religious mythology to support its legitimacy. It could perhaps be said that Marxism added Marx and Mao to its list of prophets, if one takes an expansive view of what constitutes religion.
My general point: political parties or autocrats use religion to support their claims to power. Who doesn’t get that? It takes an extraordinary politician not to call upon his or her faith in God to confirm his or her claim to political power. What atheist has run successfully for President? Maybe Eugene Debs, and he didn’t make it. Or Thomas Jefferson, a deist (a slant atheist), who did.
Where does that insight leave believers and non-believers, both of good faith?
From the believer’s point of view, I can guess. At least some Christians, for example, have closely read accounts of Jesus’ life, recognizing Jesus as a radical socialist. Jesus was tolerant, and he shared his bread. He was furious about the money-lenders in the temple. But his radical rebellion was also about politics, resisting the colonialism of the Romans, the urbanization of agricultural labor.
Our founders, one of whom was Jefferson, were sensitive to the interplay of religion and politics, to the ways in which the wealthy and powerful claimed their right to power and wealth (ironically) through God. Some of our founders tried to separate church and states, but such gestures don’t last long. People who are trying to grab power claim God is on their side. An atheist has to go without the illusion of God. They usually don’t get elected because people want to believe in a God. They want to believe that they will live on after they die and that they will meet their loved ones on the other side.
Although I would love to see Sarah again, I shake my head at beliefs that imagine Sarah and I will see each other again. Do these people who go for God know anything about the extent and construction of the known universe? Do they imagine God is keeping his or her eye on this little spec in space, let alone the spec within the spec?
I would like to entertain the other side of the question: that there is a religion that transcends politics, religious figures who in their lives moved beyond narrow political concepts, mostly grounded in battles over who gets power and the consequent fruits of corruption.
I am far from a religious scholar, but I have paid some attention to remarkable religious figures: Jesus, Buddha, Mohammad, Ghandi. The bedrock of their beliefs seemed to transcend politics, but most of them were helplessly embroiled in politics. I find as I’m writing that I’m trying to discover some part of religion that transcends politics, like love for the world outside oneself, but I find myself pulled back into the political contexts for these religious figures.
Maybe I have to move away from historical considerations and back to my own religious gestures.
Here I hit a brick wall. Like Jefferson, I slant toward atheism. I don’t want to rehearse the logic for my disbelief because I think arguments supporting my position negatively reflect on people who are convinced there is a God who grants life after death and prefers one religion (the religion of the people in power) over all others. I find that in order to move toward an intelligent discussion, I have to leave the question of belief behind. People who link politics and religion while imagining them as separate think in a fog.
I don’t imagine that I think clearly. But I can leave these other considerations behind and try to explain what I think about the question. I’m going to try to get to a narrow band of my personal disbelief: The notion of a male, bearded, white God touching the finger of Adam is simply too silly to consider. I don’t understand otherwise intelligent people imagining a personified God reconstructed in our male image. I am astonished by how long this personal vision has lasted – and that some people who are my friends still hold to it.
My best guess is chaos theory, but the notions of chaos, probability, and string theory are wild guesses. They tell us nothing about what lies beyond what lies beyond what lies beyond. My best guess is near-total ignorance. In general, I think we think we’re thinking, but we’re not. We’re the proverbial infinite number of monkeys punching keys on an infinite number of typewriters for an infinite amount of time and at some point, one monkey will write All’s Well that Ends Well.
I might be a nihilist, a person who believes in nothing. My nihilism does not stop me from leaning toward religious conceptions. From personal experience, I believe that working for others rather than for oneself is both wise and moves one toward personal peace. Working in the opposite direction, for oneself while pretending to be concerned for others, is diabolical. I don’t believe in hell, but these people are bad news.
I hope love animates the universe. I have no way of supporting this claim. I have loved my mother, my wife, my children, my grandchildren and a wide group of people I have worked with to leave a better world behind than the one that our parents left to us. This love and this commitment to environmental justice cannot to my mind be supported by argument. It just feels good.
In some way, this primal belief in love connects with politics. Any political stance that focuses on people caring for others seems religious. I might even say, Christian. A political stance that focuses on what’s in it for me seems diabolical, or perhaps oriented toward the tribalism of the Old Testament while glossing over the socialism implied in the New.
I have mostly imagined myself as a communitarian, a label that has been twisted into a variety of meanings. By communitarian, I mean, caring about the people around you and giving some of your labor and time to promote their well-being. The opposite of the communitarian are Ayn Rand personas who believe in their superiority and the fruits their performances should bring to them. To be fair: John Galt doesn’t care about wealth; wealth is simply the consequence of his superior vision. He is simply trying to make the world work more efficiently. His wealth is merely the byproduct of his vision.
I think we’re in a conundrum. We tangle ourselves up when we imagine that our religious or anti-religious positiions can be held apart from politics. When you say you welcome people who have radically different religious views from the ones you hold, you are aligning yourself politically.
We might start listening to other people’s beliefs and respecting the worlds within which those belief systems are held. With a little luck, if we start listening to them, they might start listening to us. A lot of luck.
[A friend recommended a companion piece written by a traditional Christian clearing a space for non-traditional Christians (people who don’t believe in the Biblical God) like me. It’s a short read: Social Justice Christian Tradition.]