Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Religion of Politics

Democracy & Society

Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca

I do not find in orthodox Christianity one redeeming feature.
Thomas Jefferson

Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it with religious conviction. 
Blaise Pascal 

Seneca: Bust of Seneca, part of double-herm in Antikensammlung Berlin. "Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives and dies. It is just as possible for you to see in him a free-born man as for him to see in you a slave."
Photo Credit: Calidius, 2004.

Winston Churchill once famously said that "a fanatic is someone who cannot change his mind and will not change the subject." Now Britain's war-time prime minister was rarely at a loss for words, and as the quote suggests, the able politician had undoubtedly met his share of fanatics. Such experiences are rarely pleasant or inspiring. Quite the contrary.

Now, there are many kinds of fanatics, from sports fanatics dedicated to a team, to music fanatics devoted to a group or performer, to political fanatics devoted to a political party's platform. The first two are generally harmless enough. But politics is another matter; it's a blood sport. Its winner-take-all tactics, notably today in certain quarters, is factious and tends to neatly divide people into opposing camps.

And despite such tendencies, and despite many saying it's uninteresting or overly combative, it's important, since leaders decide policy and the direction a nation takes.

So, we know that politics is already combative. When you add the fuel of religion to politics, and thereby religionize politics, you makes it even more divisive than it normally is, as hard as that it to imagine for some.

The result is an explosive mixture that is harmful and destructive to the aims of a pluralistic democracy. Religionizing politics, who would want that?

Many religious groups who want change, it seems. That is what has been taking place in many democracies lately. Not officially, of course, in such countries as Canada and the United States, and to a lesser extent in England and France. All those nations have a long-standing and strong democratic tradition, where its citizens have the right to choose which religion, if any, they want to follow. (My views on religion can be found here in a previous post.) That is a good thing for democracy.

State Religions Still Exist

An interesting note is that many democracies like England, Denmark, Iceland and Norway have state religions. Israel describes itself as a Jewish state, but Judaism is not the official religion, and citizens can practice other religions. And although Afghanistan,  Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Yemen are among the nations that have instituted sharia or Islamic law as its basis for judicial decision, the only true operating theocracy is Iran, or the Islamic Republic of Iran, as it is officially named.

Even so, in Canada and the U.S., evangelical Christians play a major role in shaping policy, and increasingly so with great zeal and conviction. In what has been described as a culture war, evangelical Christians have, since the 1980s in the U.S., and more recently in Canada, not only formed strong voting blocs and alliances, but fielded candidates for the very highest offices. Their goal, simply put, is to return to more traditional, conservative family values. And, according to their thinking, all this is encapsulated in the beliefs and tenets of evangelical Christianity.

This is not surprising news to many, particularly as it applies to the U.S., where each candidate running for all important political positions, the president being the most important, must declare allegiance to Christianity to have any chance of getting elected. Whether that statement is sincere or not is another matter. It has to be made, and forget about that toothless all-encompassing statement that the U.S. is a Judeo-Christian nation.

It's hardly the case, at least not in the minds of fundamentalist and evangelical Christians, who would like to see the U.S. return to "traditional (read: Christian) values."  That being the case, it is seriously doubtful that anyone other than a declared Christian could get elected president or prime minister in the United States, Canada, England or France.  And in the U.S., it's better if the candidate is an evangelical Christian. Consider the difficulties Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon, had in convincing American that he was a true Christian.

That being the case, the probability of a  practicing Jew, Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu getting elected to the highest offices of the land are low as to be statistically insignificant. This, despite decades of federal policies of integration, multi-culturalism and pluralism.

Canada's Christianity

Here in Canada, religion has become more acceptable, if not more fashionable. In a recent article in The Walrus magazine, Stephen Harper and the Theo-Cons, Marci McDonald wrote about Prime Minister Stephen Harper uttering "God bless Canada" during his victory speech the evening his Conservative Party won a minority government mandate, and Harper became prime minister of Canada:
As pundits pondered the significance of Harper’s taste in exit lines, one thing seemed clear: a politician known for attempting to control his party’s every public utterance had chosen to invoke what National Post columnist Warren Kinsella dubbed “the G-word.” If, as suspected, Harper was sending a message to the country’s estimated 3.5 million evangelicals — not to mention the 44 percent of Canadians who tell pollsters they’ve committed their lives to Christ — what was he trying to tell them?
It's hard to say, precisely. Now, Prime Minister Harper does not wear his Christian beliefs or faith on his sleeve, as former U.S. President George W. Bush famously did during his eight-year tenure as leader of the only superpower. Yet, Harper's Christian beliefs undoubtedly inform and guide him. As such, he might be thinking that it's time for Christian Canadians, and they are a sizable number, to reclaim Canada for Christians.

That might mean bringing about change to long-standing traditions like pluralism, open immigration and multi-culturalism that are an anathema to such religious Canadians. They would like to see a return to older traditions. To a time when things seemed simpler. And to get "tough" on crime, build more prisons, hold back immigration and generally realign Canadian policies with those of the U.S. since the United States is a more Christian nation.

Such explains some of the concerns of mixing together religion with politics. But there is a larger more over-arching concern that gets to the root of faith, belief and zeal. By definition, religions like Christianity, Islam and Judaism have defined narratives and circumscribed beliefs that are exclusive in nature. Adherents tend to follow such beliefs by faith, and it's an all-encompassing faith, whose long traditions have provided answers to all of life's important questions.

So, for example,a Christian believer tends to believe the faith he holds as being the only true faith, and by default the others as false. There is no acceptance of other faiths as being possibly a little true. It's like being a little pregnant, an impossibility. That explains some of the great appeal of Christianity to many; it is all explained for you in no uncertain terms. But its strength for some is its weakness for others, notably in politics, where the art of compromise is an unwritten rule, Yet, for the believer, compromise is a dirty word.

The strong and true believer sticks to his convictions, even if under attack. And opposition often means little, since among the faithful, comfort is offered in the words that opposition is often a sign that G-d is either testing you or favouring you.  You get the general sense of where this leads to.

For that reason, it's highly problematic when a person with strong religious convictions holds a high office. such leaders may say it it doesn't affect their thinking or decision-making, but by definition and by conviction it often does. This is not to say such people cannot do any good. They can, and they do much good for society, led by the very faith that supports and informs their daily lives.

But my feeling is that such persons should  and can do good works only outside politics' highest offices. The danger for democracy, as history has shown, is too great. Leaders might start believing that they have been placed in such a position of power by G-d, who, accordingly, has blessed and given assent to all their decisions, whether or not they are good for its citizens. Who can argue otherwise? G-d is on their side.

As an example of such thinking, we have witnessed, most recently, the fateful and faith-led decisions of President George W. Bush in his declared War on Terror. The deadly consequences of such an ill-fated and ill-considered decision are still being played out almost a decade later. When the definitive history of this period is written decades from now, the archives opened up, documents released and declassified, I suspect that historians will not be kind to President Bush. He, of course, is unrepentant, and sure of his decisions.

The final word on this matter goes to an unlikely source, to the well-regarded Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis, who wrote: "Of all bad men, religious bad men are the worst."


  1. The problem is not religion but faith. Religion can be a source of community and comfort if one questions its dogmas. At this moment in history, there are only two doctrines that people accept with blind faith: Marxism and Islam. Christians no longer execute witches and homosexuals despite the fact the Bible commands one to do so.
    The three countries in the world most committed to absolute faith are Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela. That is why they are the best of friends with each other.

  2. Your point is well-taken. Evangelical Christians, however, view the world through a different lense than moderate mainstream Christians, with whom you might be more familiar. Evangelicals believe in the inerrancy of their bible and in absolute faith to its doctrines. Their views of homosexuals is well-known, as are their views on "witchcraft, socery, etc."

    They might appear well-spoken and sincere, and even a "lover of Israel," but their intentions are, among the most militant and evangelical, to bring about policies in accordance with the Christian world-view.


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