Thursday, November 04, 2004

A couple of observations about religion and politics

"Religion is to theology as astrology is to astronomy: the foolish step-daughter of a wise mother."--Voltaire
Everyone else in blog-land is blogging about politics, it seems, so why not me, too?
First of all, a disclaimer: I'll be speaking here of Christianity, but I don't see why, with the judicious shifting about of words, these remarks couldn't be applicable to the adherents of other religions as well. I happen to think that we here have a difficult time understanding religious fanaticism in part because we as a culture have forgotten what it's like to have a sacred book as a common, well-known text that shapes and informs a culture.
Much is being made these past few days about how the 28% or so who voted said something called "moral values" trumped not just the economy or even war or terrorism as the most important single issue in this country, and that those people voted overwhelmingly in favor of Bush. This upsets those social liberals who have come to equate religion with conservatism; others in the Democratic Party are now talking about how to find common ground with the religious in this country but look at those issues that drew religious conservatives to the polls and, no doubt, wonder how they are going to find common ground with THAT kind of agenda.
Point taken. So, I'd argue, don't debate the agenda per se but the assumptions on which that agenda is based. Yes--a discussion about the message of religion itself, about how what Christians CLAIM their salvation rests on (briefly, the divinity of Christ and the central commandments that we love God and love our neighbor) best manifests itself in the world via government policy. As a moderate-to-liberal Lutheran, I've been distressed for the past 20 years by how the current image of religion's meaning and policital agenda in this country have been shaped (or, in my more cynical moments, hijacked) by the Trinity Broadcast Network and Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell
I'd like to link you to this article by Amy Sullivan posted in Washington Monthly today. She provides, more succinctly and more eloquently than I could, a brief history of the rise of the religious right in this country and a stirring argument that "morals" do not have to be mistaken for "conservative," either in religion or in politics. General Democratic Party principles--defense of the rights of minorities and the socially-disenfranchised, a more equitable access to resources, the ensuring of economic and educational empowerment, the wise stewardship of money and natural resources--are, to my mind, not at all incompatible to Jesus' central messages in the Gospel regarding how people should treat each other. Indeed, He speaks explicitly AGAINST religious law when its enforcement would have the result of keeping a person from judging himself and reforming his life; it's no real stretch to understand those issues that motivate the Religious Right as the sorts of intrusions that actually drive people away from the Church rather than bring them to God.
The above should NOT necessarily lead (and must not lead) to any of the following: a state church or theocracy; public Bible-thumping; a milquetoast Christianity. Regarding the last, I submit that it is much more difficult to love one's neighbor than it is to legislate one's neighbor into legal submission. Regarding the first: Jesus preached the Kingdom of God and the doing of God's will on earth but never advocated revolt against (even) Rome. Indeed, He was much more concerned with revolting against injustices perpetrated and permitted by His own religion's laws. "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar and unto God what is God's" is pretty obviously an argument in favor of a separation of church and state. As for the middle evil to be avoided: No politician who is also a true believer should be afraid of confessing his/her faith. Having said that, though, it seems pretty obvious to me that how some politicians incorporate religion and religious agendas into their politics actually cheapens the very fervent beliefs that some happen to hold dearly regarding those issues.
Democrats need to participate in these discussions, and not just for their sake as a party. They need to do so in order to see (or be reminded) that the civil rights movement in this country, for example) had its origins in the (black) church, that many denominations support the "wall of separation" between church and state, recognizing that a state church actually has less legitimacy as a critic of the government, that "religious freedom" should be cherished but not mistaken for government-mandated intolerance that has its rationale in thinly-disguised religious rhetoric. Government can behave in a Christ-like manner without invoking Christ--its actions become no less legitimate or sincere then. It does not have to cry out Lord, Lord as it serves "the least of these."


jennifer said...

Fantastic post! Cheers from this peanut gallery anyway.
Do check out this article on Christian fundamentalism in the alternative music zine
Also, are you a Kafka fan? If so what would you recommend as a must-read if anything?


John B. said...

Thanks for your comments and for the link. I'll have a look at it directly.
As for Kafka: I am a fan. His most famous work is The Metamorphosis; if I had to choose a truly representative work, though, I'd have to say The Trial. Have "fun"--Kafka is thought-provoking and bleak in equal measure. However, there's the rather odd story of Kafka's reading The Metamorphosis aloud to some friends and laughing uproariously as he did so. Make of that what you will.