Sunday, October 07, 2012

More about Religion in Politics

This election is getting more and more nuts.  Specifically, the statements being made by Republicans running for office in Congress just seem to be descending into the abyss of religious extremism.

Now, if you are reading this as a person with an honest religious belief, understand that this is NOT an attack on your religion.  I just wanted to get that out of the way.  I believe that everybody has a right to believe in whatever they wish.  Flying Spaghetti Monsters, Zeus, Athena, Earth Mother, Gaia, Jewish god, Christian god or Allah.   Whichever one floats your boat or whichever one you got raised with, that’s fine, its your choice and your right to believe, worship and live your life according to the strictures of your belief system to whatever level of strictness or leniency you see fit.  Go ahead, and I’ll do my best to defend that right - as long as you afford me that same right.

This is the way I grew up, with this message of tolerance and a belief in the First Amendment that, I thought, always has protected us from the crazies and the religiously insane.

But America has been changing since the 1980’s and the advent of the Moral Majority.  That group heralded the beginning of the right wing reaction to the 1960’s, and what a reaction it has been!  Without diving too far into the weeds, the main point is that there have been several movements designed to bring religion “back” into the public sphere - specifically, into politics.

Their aim is not really to bring it “back”, but to bring their influence into politics with the excuse that they are bringing back something that us liberal atheists have forced out - which is a laugh, since we’ve never had that power and still don’t.

This is alarming to more than just atheists or agnostics - many of the more liberal denominations of christianity in this country are also unhappy, since they are fully aware that it is the First Amendment which has been responsible for the huge success of religion in this country, by preventing either politics or religion from cross-contaminating each other.

Allow me to explain.

James Madison made the statement,
“Prior to the Revolution, the Episcopal Church was established by law in this State. On the Declaration of Independence it was left, with all other sects, to a self-support. And no doubt exists that there is much more of religion among us now than there ever was before the change, and particularly in the sect which enjoyed the legal patronage. This proves rather more than that the law is not necessary to the support of religion.” (Letter to Edward Everett, Montpellier, March 18, 1823)
“During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”
After centuries of State sponsorship, since the Second World War European churches today have seen the greatest loss of membership in history.  Church membership is down across the board, and in some countries, church attendance is at historically low levels, too, in places as low as 10%.  At least one country in the last ten years has severed State sponsorship of the traditional church.

In the US, where this movement is strongest, the one most obvious thing about what has happened to religion is its involvement with the Republican Party.  The Republicans have traditionally been a conservative group, and religion has never been far away.  But in the years since WWII, Republicans have been increasingly controlled by one of their traditional power bases, the wealthiest Americans and big business.  When the wealthiest Americans, business and the religious right decided that a wedding of their three interests would be a winning political combination, the Evangelicals never saw the train coming.  Their contamination by politics has been so slow and gradual, many Republicans, even among the working class and the poor, cannot see, even today, how their religious movement has been torn away from the roots of christianity.

But the fact that the Religious Right takes political positions which undermine this country’s Twentieth Century’s advances in caring for the poor, the elderly, the sick, women and children, is lost to these people.  Even the Catholic Church has scolded the Republicans for their mean spirited policies which ignore and actually harm the poorest of Americans.  These policies are in direct opposition to christianity’s most basic tenets, laid down in the Bible as spoken by Christ!  And yet, if you confront a Republican about this, the denial you will hear is amazing.

Since the 1980’s and the Religious Right’s start of their fight to bring religion into politics, church support by Americans as a whole has dropped.  In just ten years, the numbers of Americans self-identifying as not religious has gone from less than 3% to over 15%, and is the largest and fastest growing category thus measured.  I attribute this, at least in part to a reaction by Americans to this radical movement and its attempts to bring religion to national prominence.

In the other direction, what damage has been done to the political sphere by injecting religion into it?

Just look at the Middle East.  Until the 1980’s, one can see some real-politics in action in US foreign policy there, as we used Israel as a foil against the Soviet backing of Arabic nations, giving us access to the area through land based air fields and friendly ports for US ships.

But after that time, as the “peace process” got more and more muddled and the whole thing eventually got mired in something resembling molasses, one sees, off on the sidelines, this christian movement at work, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union and the loss of its sponsorship of the Arabic States.

Normally, one would think that the importance of a cold war surrogate nation would slack off as the cold war between the US and the USSR ended.  Surrogates were used by both sides to either protect their own interests or to attack the interests of their opponent, and with the end of that cold battle, the usefulness of those surrogates should diminish.

Indeed, one could easily see the change in the relationship between many nations and the US when their former adversarial status no longer made political sense.

But not Israel.

Many Arabic countries were brought “into” the fold of US friendly status after the USSR’s influence disappeared.  In spite of the US’ continued support of Israel and the obvious tension that relationship brought to the new relationships we fostered with nations like Saudi Arabia, those new relationships still grew closer with time. (and with the injection of large amounts of American cash…)

But the one thing which never changed was the standoff between the Israelis as the Palestinians, fueled by the refusal of the US to pressure Israel to end such things as the illegal settlement program.

Why?  Why does the US still back Israel in spite of that nation’s refusal to even consider a more even hand in negotiations with their Palestinian adversaries?  In spite of the damage it does to our relationships with Arabic countries and the resulting birth of the Islamic extremist movement which targets American interests, the US refuses to take a more pragmatic position which would be more in line with the real US interests in that region.

There is some controversy about this, but to many in the secular movements in the US, the answer is simple.  Religion and a belief in a religious prophesy of the future.

In the last book of the Bible, The Revelation of John, some say that the Second Coming of Christ is predicted.  The End of the World.  Capitalized, of course, and according to a religiously based TV network, soon to be televised - Live, and in Color!  Which shows how much wide spread interest is engendered by the right wing focus on this subject.  Evangelical groups all over the US preach it, and US politicians have been talking more and more about it.  George Bush even noted that he was given a vision by god to invade Iraq!

For those not aware, the prophesy involves a series of sub-prophesies, each one noting a milestone which will point the way to Jesus’ coming, including such things as the AntiChrist and his Thousand year reign, the final rebuilding of the jewish temple in Jerusalem and so on.  This hope was reignited by the establishment of the State of Israel, since obviously, the Temple could not be rebuilt unless that State existed and the Jewish people were brought back.

Groups financially supported by Evangelicals exist which try to work towards this end, and many current politicians now either belong to these groups or pander to the leaders of them.  Rick Perry, the current governor of Texas, is one such politician.

Of course, to us secularists, this is ridiculous, as the Second Coming couldn’t be anywhere near this era, because there has been no AntiChrist, and no Thousand Year reign!  But, who ever said religious extremists ever had to make sense?

Which is the whole point.

The entire foreign policy apparatus of the US is contaminated with this religious fervor about making Jesus’ Second Coming a reality, when modern scholars will tell us that their entire reading of that book is in error and it is largely about the Roman era and the predictions (about christian-Roman relationships) of a mad bishop imprisoned by the Romans on an island in the Mediterranean Sea!

These people are hijacking the foreign policy of the US on the basis of the ravings of a Second Century madman!

This illustrates perfectly the point that religion, when injected into the political process, seduces secular policies into supporting religious motivations, just as religion, contaminated by politics, loses its adherence to its own basic tenets.

Our world is getting smaller.  Travel and communication is so easy compared to even a few years ago, that events occurring at any point on the globe are known almost within minutes world-wide.  Information is global, accessible easily and virtually universally.

The time when dictators could isolate their populations from outside influence is over.  Even the most oppressive cannot entirely close off the internet, due to satellite phones and computer connections through those links.

In time, the mixing of religion and politics will go the way of the Dodo bird, extinct as dinosaurs.  In the meantime, it is something to be fought against as hard as possible.

The future of this country depends on it, and through us, the rest of the world too.

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