Sunday, February 17, 2008

The threat of religion in politics

TMP Cafe has had a good discussion of E. J. Dionne's new book Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right (which I have unfortunately not had time to read.) As part of that excellent discussion, Brian McLaran makes some very good points that provide some explanation of my attitude towards religion in American politics.

I have a long-time interest in both European history and in Military history, so the history of the European Thirty Years War is familiar to me. Here is what Brian has to say about the Thirty Years War:
I’ve been thinking about how we who are deeply and un-secretly religious can tell the story of our nervous-about-religion colleagues in a more sympathetic light, following Dionne’s example.

One way would be to go all the way back to the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), which arguably set the stage for the idea of secular government, separation of church and state, and a “naked public square.” The complex war pitted the Protestant League against the Holy Roman Empire, while Protestant Germans and Catholic Germans fought a bloody civil war. The protracted Christian-versus-Christian warfare was brutal enough to cast today’s Sunni-Shiite conflicts in a new light. Scholars estimate that at least 15 to 20% of the German population was killed either through direct combat or war-related famine and disease; many estimate the figure closer to 30%, and in some areas, it was closer to 60%. The conflict in Germany threatened to spread south to France, which played no small part in producing the anxiety that inspired Rene Descartes to right his Discourse on Method in 1637, which in turn became a seminal document in the development of the Enlightenment… the intellectual foment in which our own Constitution was forged.

In light of this history, I’m suggesting, my atheist and agnostic friends who find all this talk of faith and politics very disturbing have good reason for their concern: they carry on the tradition which remembers the brutality of “holy wars” in the so-called “Christian West.” They oppose religion in the public sphere not because they hate God and goodness, but because they love peace and civility, and they remember the violence, bigotry, and division that have been so often associated with religion across history. Until religious people can demonstrate an ability to bring their faith into politics in a responsible, respectful, civil, unifying, and charitable way, they have every right to be suspicious.
The highlighted sentence above describes exactly my fear of religious beliefs which are enacted by government fiat and which have behind them the power of the Army, the police and the courts.

I would also include the history of the religious strife in England between Catholics and Protestants from Elizabethan times through the English Civil War which were finally resolved by the Glorios Revolution of 1688. The Glorious Revolution (also known as the Bloodless Revolution) occurred when the English Parliament declared itself superior to the King of England, removed King James II of England because of his efforts to reignite the English Civil War and install Catholicism as the state religion of England. The Parliament replaced King James with William and Mary and introduced the Constitutional idea that the Parliament was the supreme political entity in the English democracy with the power to remove any monarch it did not approve of.

The new political arrangements brought an end to the two centuries of religious wars, and were very much in the minds of the writers of the U.S. Constitution only a century later. They, too, wanted peace and civility.

The recent actions of Judge Roy Moore to install the Ten Commandments in the Alabama Supreme Court and to claim the Bible as the source of American law is representative of a clear effort to destroy the three century old accommodation between religion and government. The removal of that accommodation can only destroy the peace and stability that arrangement. The U.S. has enshrined the separation of Church and State in the U.S. Constitution, not to eliminate religion, but to do the most basic job of every government, keep the peace.

Oddly enough, while removing the strong separation of Church and State will cause strife and violence to spread through America, it will weaken religion here. It has already brought the competition between the ideas and institutions of fundamentalist Christianity and the mainline protestant religions into the public political sphere where they are being fought out be people who have little understanding of either the theological issues or the political and social issues involved.

Fundamentalist religion exists primarily because it provides a route to peace and safety through unthinking action, directed by apparently knowledgeable leaders. Fundamentalism represents the promise by religious leader that they will show them the way to the resolution of social and political problems that most of its adherents do not understand and do not wish to study. Fundamentalism everywhere is inherently authoritarian and works in part by isolating its followers from competing ideas. The efforts by the Discovery Institute to replace the teaching of Evolution in public schools with the Biblical narrative of Creationism is an example of how such isolation from competing ideas works.

Brian McLaren's discussion of E. J. Dionne's book also points out why there is such a political movement in recent years to make government subordinate to Evangelical and fundamentalist religion. The Evangelicals and Fundamentalists felt thoroughly threatened by the clear opposition to their form of Christianity that came out of the 60's and the 70's.
as Dionne suggests (in Chapter 8, for example), the anti-religious bias of late modernity has been one of the primary stimulants for the resurgence of religious fundamentalism: after all, any community under threat tends to be energized by fear and thrust into a defensive posture.

Which may explain the anxious tone and negative comments of some nonreligous folk. Just as religious folk fear being marginalized by secularists, secular folk may fear (with more statistical reason, it should be noted) being marginalized by the religious; just as religious folk fear the negative social consequences of materialism and atheism, nonreligious folk fear the negative social consequences of religiosity.
That "defensive posture" in religious terms is the essence of Fundamentalism. This is true not only in Christianity, but also in Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

Having grown up an Anglican and lived all my life in the conservative Southern Baptist theocracy of Texas I can recognize the feeling of being marginalized for my beliefs. Our local Anglican Bishop, The Rt. Rev. Jack Leo Iker Bishop of Fort Worth, has resolved the tension between being an Anglican leader in fundamentalist Texas by adopting the fundamentalist view of Christianity. He has filled all the local parishes with Priests who agree with his views, and has rejected the elevation of a gay man to the level of Episcopal Bishop. He has also rejected the authority of the first woman, Katharine Jefferts Schori, D.D., Ph.D, ever to become Presiding Bishop of the American Episcopal Church. At the moment he is attempting to remove his Diocese from the control of the American Episcopal Church and join with like-minded Bishops in Africa. So because of his fears that his views of religion are not being respected within his own denomination, he is prepared to destroy the American Episcopal Church.

It is this extremist reaction to feeling marginalized for his beliefs that is the hallmark of all fundamentalist religions, and is the core threat the bringing such religious ideas into the political realm and giving their leaders the power to control the police, courts, prisons and the Army that leads me to my own belief that such religious ideas and leaders are dangerous to the peace and stability of our society.

Am I afraid of fundamentalists? Of course. Are they reacting to fear of being marginalized in society? Certainly. So fear begets fear, and if the resulting conflict is brought into government the outcome will be civil strife. Not "maybe." It WILL happen. That has always been true in history, and there is no reason for it to change today. That's why the accommodation between religion and government that grew out of the Thirty Years War, The English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution in 1688 remains our greatest protection today.

That's the biggest threat of bringing religion into politics.

Can the reaction of increasing fear on both sides of the conflict be avoided? That's apparently what E. J. Dionne has written his book about. I find it helpful to recognize how fundamentalists have felt themselves marginalized by the mass media culture of the 60's and 70's. Since I have felt a similar marginalization in the Southern Baptist Theocracy of Texas all my life, it makes sense to me. Can they see how very threatening they are to people like me? The efforts to force the teaching of creationism instead of science in public schools, the rejection and demonization of homosexuality for no rational reason, and the clearly idiotic idea that somehow the narratives in the Bible are to be read word for word literally as an instruction book in science and history does not give me much hope in their openness to my views. I hope E. J. Dionne is right.

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