Religion and Politics

A volatile mix!  Yet, maybe a natural, even necessary one?

The draft of a short essay I’ve been writing.  Sure, it’s a long post, but I’m guessing you may have the time to read right now!

Political Religion and Religious Politics

Given the extraordinary relationship between Religion and Politics in our current world, especially in the American political sphere, I present a few brief comments based on my years as a religious professional involved in politically-sensitive work on a local level as well as my background in teaching world religion and wisdom literature.

An editor once cautioned me to avoid bringing politics into my writings on subjects pertaining to religion and faith. The intent was not to “censor” me, he insisted, but to stay with the subject at hand: religion. I complied without argument, yet with inner reservations. Having studied and taught religious thought for many years, I question whether the subject can be taught competently or fairly without engaging Religion’s eternal wrestling with the arena of Politics. Indeed, most religions were born in that struggle, shaped by it, and grew directly from critical interactions with political powers.

There is a certain naïveté and perhaps ignorance among those who hold the view that “Religion and Politics don’t (or shouldn’t) mix.” They do mix, but the mixture can certainly be volatile, contentious, dangerous or potentially positive and transformative. The rub is that we see very few leaders who have a good grasp of the healthiest ways religion can serve the polis (city-state) since a free society can never serve religion.

Again, I think it could be fairly stated that no religion has emerged without a direct relationship—positive or negative—with political power, a relationship characterized by open hands or clenched fists.

Mahatma Gandhi described his first book, Indian Home Rule thusly: “It teaches the gospel of love in place of that of hate. It replaces violence with self-sacrifice. It pits soul-force against brute-force.” He went on to place this philosophy in explicitly political terms: “If India adopted the doctrine of love as an active part of her religion and introduced it in her politics [self-rule] would descend upon India from heaven.”

Heavenly intervention aside, Gandhi’s grounding in radical faith/love helped create a powerful political force toward the liberation of his country. As we know, Martin Luther King, Jr. was deeply influenced by Gandhi and easily meshed his own Christian social agitation with his Indian mentor’s philosophy of soul-force. Confronting injustice was, for King, a calling, a ministry in itself.

These are only two modern examples of 1) the blending of religious-political philosophies across traditional lines, and 2) the reality that religious beliefs can and do—and perhaps must, on some level—influence and guide political activity. I should add that these religious belief systems must also include humanistic/naturalistic worldviews and, importantly, include secular freethinking that would assert essential non-theistic ethical perspectives to contribute to discussions and decisions within the political arena.

Put simply, I don’t see how we can get beyond the obvious fact that every (or nearly every) world religion emerged out of the tension, or accommodation, of political contexts. My editor was a person of faith, yet was apparently unaware (nor was it his job to be aware) that Religion has a very long history of “being political” in many ways. In some sense, as I will explain, it is not possible to understand Religion (institutional or even theological) without acknowledging its intensely agitating relationship with Politics.

Consider the following overview of that relation in religious history:

Abraham (and Sarah)—became a wandering visionary who encountered a tribal deity unlike the gods worshipped by other Near Eastern tribes. His covenant agreement with this desert deity assured him that he and his tribe would inherit land currently inhabited by other tribes, setting up rival conflicts, some of which continue to this day.

Moses (and Zipporah)—born under an oppressive regime, his challenge to the highest political power in the land (Pharaoh) created the conflict that led to the Exodus from his homeland of Egypt. He was a political/military leader who emerged as a primary religious leader as well.

Jesus of Nazareth—his birth posed a threat to political powers, his teachings challenged all authorities, and his death was a result of his radical political organizing. For better or worse, Christianity/Christendom has been a political agitator and institutional powerhouse for centuries.

Hindu Sages (gods and goddesses)—Indian scriptures from the Vedas, Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita offer instructions for both personal and political responsibility in the context of a universal philosophy that understood the divine as permeating all spheres of human life. The Gita itself is the story of a deity (Krishna) incarnating in the middle of a political battle.

Lao Tzu—the legendary teacher of Taoist philosophy presented the Way (Tao) as a balancing path for good leadership that would serve as an example of universal relationships: individual … family … community … nation … world … universe.

Confucius (Qiguan)—served in political positions and focused much of his instruction on being proper citizens under just and compassionate rulers. His religious philosophy was anything but otherworldly.

Muhammad (Khadijah)—his visionary leadership brought him into direct conflict with tribal society where, as with Moses, he grew to be a powerful military/political/religious figure.

We could mention many other newer faiths such as Joseph Smith’s Latter Day Saints with their perpetual “revelations” directly challenging traditional, dominant Christianity; these new “authorities” create an array of political tensions that exist today.

Suffice it to say, the American Founders were predominantly people of faith (many not strictly “Christian” by modern standards). That they formed a consolidated union built on the foundation of a secular Constitution offers undeniable evidence that Religion is welcome to be freely active at all levels of the nation, provided leaders with faith consistently keep in mind they are serving a pluralistic constituency living under a secular Constitution. The “more perfect union” rests on the assumption that citizens of all faiths and no faith have equal access to leadership at all levels of government.

This assumption of equal representation is, of course, seriously threatened in our day, with over 90% of Congress identifying as Christian and a White House teeming with conservative Christians. It is not partisan to make this factual observation (nor does it reflect an anti-Christian view), especially since those representatives, though they do not ostensibly represent other faiths or secular citizens, are standing members of respective parties.

This short sketch is simply a way to contextualize the often contentious relationship between Religion and Politics—a long history of cross-the-fence struggle, when there is a fence at all.

I am a strong defender of the separation of religion and state. What I’m suggesting is that it’s time to re-visit the “wall” separating the two in a secular society, since the fact is that much of that wall is more porous or pliable, especially in our day.

Put another way, there is an essential “fence” between Religion and Government in the United States where both “sides” line up to draw battle-lines. Yet, perhaps ironically, that barrier may not be as “set in stone” as much as thick, transparent glass or maybe better seen as a leafy hedge. It would help if more would take the time to see the other side with a clearer perspective.

My question remains: what kind of fence, wall, barrier or boundary do we most need now? That last word, boundary, may be the most helpful if we are to proceed with any forward progression. The image I have is one of vigilant observers who insure that those who cross over the boundary (or see through it) from private life to public service understand they can be guided by their beliefs but cannot legislate those beliefs. Their voice must be representative of the highest ideals and intentions of the nation, making room for all those voices to be heard without any one voice given exclusive. privileged position or power.

In summary, there are forms of political religion that reflect the history of religion from the time of its founders. And there are religious politics that can reflect either a Gandhian/King form of ethical consciousness-raising or, on the other hand, a dominating, bullying form of theocratic faith, when religious leaders forget they have a voice in civic society but not the loudest or only voice.

Faith can be a guiding principle for anyone active in politics, but cannot be the primary principle which is: protecting and cultivating common ground with reasonable, even flexible, boundaries.

With this in mind, those of us who are strong defenders of the “wall of separation” (the leafy hedge) can relax our defensiveness a little, try to view the fence as transparent and somewhat flexible, while we continue to be vigilant to guard the open, secular ground alongside those people of faith who are willing to stand beside us, watching, nurturing the common good.

Chris Highland


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