The God & government problem
by Joe Palmer
[ opinion - september 09 ]
President Obama seems determined to resolve what may be the most momentous issue of our time - the tension between the "Muslim world" and the Judeo-Christian west. It will be an uphill battle, but at least he is armed with a key insight into religious conflicts: they're not about religion. - Robert Wright
The very essence of modernism is that there is no connection between our politics and our assumptions about God and final things.
How are politics and religion connected? Does one underlie the other? No, there is no causal connection, not today, or so we maintain when we speak with pride of our humane, benevolent efforts at running the show. That's how we explain away the nexus when it seems to occur. That's how we explain Hitler and the Pope.
Religion is a feeble excuse we often make for deficiencies of diplomacy. We say the Moslems are the enemy because they reject the divinity of Jesus Christ. That is not true; they are the bad guys because they covet our property, our land and wealth, especially since we, clever Brits, wily French, and perfidious Americans, got it from them by hook and crook in the first place. Religion is incidental to the whole mess.
Today the only real alternative to Western modernism is out-dated political theology in the form of leftover Leninism, that is, the revolutionary nationalism (and salvation) of the poor as it is clung to in North Korea and Cuba, and also "Islamic Fundamentalism." But the lights are out in Pyongyang and Havana, and they have always been dim in Cairo.
The Communist faith must by its true nature devolve into despotism, with the last man standing the winner, whether or not the communized state is a corrupt, dying industrial oligopoly or a bunch of pitiful peasants. According to Lenin, it is always a question of who does what to whom, as if people were entirely selfless and loving of others.
"Islamic Fundamentalism" is merely the boogey-man, the manic insanity displayed by some puritan Moslems, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, for example.
The law and religion were one and the same when we lived in smaller tribes, governed by an elite class who commanded both spiritual authority and political allegiance. Defined by custom, crime and sin were one and the same. We were more or less sinners and criminals in the hands of an angry God, according to the specialists, the witch doctors and sheriffs who judged us.
In the more evolved tribes the head shaman, the minister of God, was also the chief of the tribe, as in Japan, the United Kingdom, and the Vatican today. Sometimes the medicine man, the titular head, was full of mystery and arcane powers because of an affliction to his or her mind or body that made him special in the eyes of the other tribesmen. He was usually crazy, physically weird and out of his mind, and thus able to foretell the future and decide on proper behavior to appease the gods. It is obvious to the unthinking that the gods run this absurd show through the ministrations of madmen who can channel the gods.
Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan (1651) first tried to separate politics from religion using reason as his tool, followed in this quest by John Locke, David Hume, and other dour thinkers, according to Mark Lilla in The Stillborn God (2007).
The God and Government Problem had arisen in Europe when The Holy Roman Empire was created with two leaders instead of one, the emperor and the pope, in 962, when Otto I was crowned emperor. This Janus-headed Holy Roman Empire lasted until Napoleon forced Francis II to abdicate his throne in 1806. The problem then was who was the boss, the emperor as crazy as a fox knowing many things or the pope as crazy as a hedgehog knowing only one big thing.
The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. - Archilocus
We take it for granted that religion informs our political decisions even though we cannot say what religion has to do with politics, even in these days when we do not give religion its due. However we still mix sin and crime, confusing one with the other. Adultery is a crime, for example, in South Carolina and in Saudi Arabia.
The Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe (TCE), commonly referred to as the European Constitution is open to all European States that respect the member states' common values, namely: dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, respect for human and minority rights, a free market, pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity, and equality of the sexes.
Not one word about religion is found in the TCE.
We all know that the US Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, and the European Constitution does not even mention Christianity, Islam, Scientology, or any religion, for that matter.
The Western world had started divorcing government from religion when the English king Henry VIII had said no way am I going to take orders from that priest, Pope Clement VII. Protestantism went hand in hand with the fall of monarchs
Christian fundamentalists in the US used to pursue a pure, simple life away from the sinful world of politics and money. Now they can be organized into a voting bloc of self-righteous individuals, accidental hypocrites who vote as if they were angels thumbing their noses at devils. [Whoever professes a religion should lose the right to vote, I think. JDP].
Political theology is a fine term, a couple of lovely Greek words as referentially incompatible as theological politics. The word political means governmental, civil, administrative, executive, legislative, or judicial management of property, the wealth that people have and keep through the good offices of their armies. Theology means the "science" of God and religious truth. So we have the "armies of God" going into battle to determine, by means of the outcome, who owns the banks. With God on our side we take what we claim to be rightfully ours, giving Almighty God as our source of authority. Of these words, "the science of God and religious truth..." only one, religious, refers to anything we can describe at all. Religious means practically the same as insane. We must treat the religious with special care, at arm's length, the way we treat some madmen.
The other words - science, God, and truth - are simply concepts, illusions, hallucinations, sophistry, something understood and retained in the mind. Religion is madness.
Politics can be described from many points of view, looked at as government, political "science," civics, affairs of state, bloodless war, criminology, law, diplomacy, and especially the social control of property. In fact, politics is simply people keeping their wealth, their property, however they can.
Theology is just words. Theology is two or more people discussing religion. Religion is two or more people discussing theology. Religious truth is an oxymoron; neither term connotes the other in meaning.
The Germans in WWI wrote on their belt buckles: Gott mit Uns (so who in his right mind can be against us?). It was better to be on the backside of the buckle, they thought.
A case in point: Joseph Ellis' American Creation, a book of ironic stories about the Founding Fathers, clearly states the opposition between the concept of political modernity as it was proclaimed at the start of the USA - popularly-elected representatives, free market economies, secular governments, and the legal equality of all people, which is "the global formula for national success," - and religion, which is something to be ignored.
What do we have to fear in Islamic fundamentalism? In Islam sin and crime are one and the same, still confused.
Islam is opposed to the Enlightenment, secularism, democracy, nationalism, Marxism, and relativism. Islam constitutes an ideology that goes far beyond mere praying, and it provides universal principles for all crucial aspects of social life. However, there is no such thing as the concept of Islamic Fundamentalism in the Moslem world. All Islam is fundamental by its very nature.
Westerners think in terms of Bible fundamentalism, the bibliolatry and literal interpretation of the Bible by Protestant sects as essential to Christian life and teaching, contrasted with the traditional national churches' selective reading of the Book. In Islam there is no such division. That is, all Islam is fundamentalist, and so Moslems who drink alcohol or steal are merely hypocrites.
Moslems who cry sin are deluding themselves, for jealousy of Western ways has nothing to do with the religion of Islam as such.
Now, since these oppositions between modernity and religion are seldom stated, but must be vaguely generated in our understanding as some sort of counter to democratic elections, capitalism, anti-clericalism, and fairness as the center and outward edges of the law, we are left with a feeling of confusion. Just what is there about religion that is political, or about politics that is religious? Is "religion" a general and vague term meaning the sacred, and a tool for making everyone do what you will? Are we trained to unthinkingly, automatically regard and accept "religion" as beyond reproach, criticism, or disdain? Yes, I think so.
For example, the Boy Scouts is an organization originally intended by its fonder Lord Baden-Powell to provide capable soldiers for the Crown. How could he fight a war with ninety-eight-pound weaklings? He had found the tubercular, rickety dregs of capitalist society to be unfit as cannon fodder, so he set about improving the boys through basic survival training and conditioning before they were conscripted into the army.
On becoming a Boy Scout, one is counseled: "DUTY TO GOD AND COUNTRY: Your family and religious leaders teach you to know and serve God. By following these teachings, you do your duty to God."
No one tells the boys their real duty is to Standard and Poor's 500, Dow Jones, and NASDAQ.
The Boy Scouts who are held to their oath as trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrift, brave, clean, and reverent are part of a religious and military movement. Standards of ethical conduct are enforced through discipline, punishment, or expulsion, and ritual prayer is encouraged and practiced. Military ranks are earned through participation, from Tenderfoot (Private) to Eagle (General Officer). Each troop (Unit) has a Scoutmaster (Commanding Officer) who serves as abbot or chief.
"God heard the embattled nations shout Gott strafe England and God save the King. Good God, said God, I've got my work cut out." - JC Squires
One of the practical purposes of religion is to serve merely as an ethnic tag, as when my father had me baptized a Presbyterian, his idea of social climbing up to high-church Protestantism several rungs above the Hillbilly clan we belonged to. It didn't work. Before long I was hanging out with Episcopalians, that is Anglicans, who were new people from away, and dating Roman Catholic girls, but they made me wipe my feet before I went into their homes, and I didn't have good-enough manners to stay long.
My people were Methodists or Nazarenes because the Baptists would not have us. We had a reputation for public drunkenness and murder. Our grandfather Abraham had killed John Ready in a quarrel over selling liquor in a dry township where sharecroppers and merchants fought over pennies. In my town the many Catholics were not recent immigrants but the old moneyed class, the French, who were the first white people to settle there. They had not kept slaves since the American Revolution, so they needed field hands and dirt farmers like us.
In the big cities, newcomers were easily labeled as Jewish, Italian, Irish, Polish, and so on, but in the small towns of rural America, the immigrants of earlier centuries had lost many of the old languages and habits that had made them seem peculiar, outstanding, and different from others. The northern European immigrants, the Scots-Irish (Ulster), English, German, Dutch, and Scandinavian had to a degree melded together through common Protestantism, inter-marriage, and the leveling by public schools. The endemic Indo-European class structure of society in early America was signified not so much by national origin as by sectarian affiliation. Scots Presbyterians, English Episcopalians, and German Lutherans of the old national churches were at the top of the pecking order. Beneath them were the Methodists and Baptists, and then the open-enrolment social clubs, the Evangelicals, Holy Rollers, Nazarenes, the homemade congregations, and the pietistic recluses, the Anabaptist Mennonites and Amish.
The political and the religious always go together when people see themselves as members of tribes pitted against their common enemies, as happened in Ireland, and in Serbia, where Protestants and Catholics, and Moslems and Orthodox Christians, recently went at each other. Political theology is a philosophical term signifying a metaphysical framework for types of government, methods of social control that rely not only on human nature and practical expediency but also on imagination and fantasy. Insofar as it is a contradiction in terms, political theology is absurd, a sort of oxymoron, and when god-talk and law get confused, one mixed with the other, we have social poison on our plates. A hippie commune and the Vatican do have a lot in common. Few persons would want to live in either, but some crave the order and discipline of the one.
None of the following exists in a religious group: equality between men and women, separation of religion and state, freedom of speech, freedon of religion, or freedom from religious police. An ideal religious state is a monastery, or a whaling ship with a Puritan Captain, where metaphysical notions based on tribalism are used to justify its laws. The utopian communities Brook Farm, Oneida, Amana, and hundreds of other planned communities in young America failed because they had no dictators, chiefs, or captains. Had they been new tribes with chiefs and sacred traditions, like the Mormons, they would still be with us.
People who think that sex is bad are not getting any. People who think that money is corruption do not have any. Those whom no one would want to kiss, like Ayatollahs, forbid kissing in public.
Poverty lets the poor enjoy the occasional luxury, and absence makes the heart grow fonder, but it is better to be rich for decades than a Rockefeller on his deathbed, and it is better to live and love than to save oneself for the hero's return.
When the Revolutionary Americans were making their break from custom and tradition, they asserted in their Constitution that their government would make no laws having to do with religion, that is, their legal form of social control would not be based at all on religion. They had learned enough of wars blamed on religion. They assumed that the killing and deprivations of warfare, of the Christianizing of Europe, the Crusades, the Thirty Years War, the Huguenot wars in France, and so on, had taken place because of religious differences. In every case religious differences were falsely cited as the reasons for going to war. People lied, perhaps because of the convenience of dehumanizing their enemies by calling them infidels. It is always untrue that people kill because the others are unbelievers, yet the fact that we can speak of "religious wars" shows that we take it for granted that we blame religion, such nonsense, for our barbarity.
In truth religion is not to blame. Even in the Albigensian Crusades against heretics ("Kill them all. Let God sort out His own") the motive for barbarous war was conquest and sovereignty, that is, property and control. King Louis VIII (1187-1226) extended French control into the Languedoc on the pretext of killing sinners, that is, non-Catholics and Catholics, for their own good.
The Spanish Armada did not sail against England because the English Crown was Protestant. The Spanish wanted to take Elizabeth's Crown and its power so that King Philip could pay his debts, and Elizabeth's pirates would stop taking the treasures his men had been extorting from American Indians. Yet once the Spanish were defeated, they all believed that the storm that had besieged the Spanish ships was no ordinary storm, but the work of a Protestant God. In such ways we project our ideas of ourselves as righteous defenders of God's truth prevailing over our wicked opponents.
As moderns we must put away the religious labels and daydreams that helped define us in the past, the made-up, mixed-up, fanciful, traditional explanations of our situation, the fabulous part of our identity.
Recommended reading:Ilyas Ba-Yunus, Professor of Sociology SUNY Cortland, The Myth of Islamic Fundamentalism