Thursday, September 22, 2005

When politics and religion converge…

There is a good TCS article by Lee Harris that concerns itself with the nature of society and politics and the elusive solution to the problem of the human condition. At the outset, Harris quotes from a book (published in 1911) entitled Political Parties by a German sociologist named Robert Michels.
"The fundamental sociological law of political parties (the term 'political' being here used in its most comprehensive sense) may be formulated in the following terms: 'It is organization which gives birth to the domination of the elected over the electors, of the mandataries over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization, says oligarchy.'"

I certainly can’t argue against that bit of prophesy. Neither does Harris, who, in his article, makes a convincing case for the “inevitability of oligarchic rule”. He posits that, among other things, most people devote the bulk of their time and energy to survival, so the emergence of an administrative elite is as practical as it is inexorable. The problem though, lies with human nature. So the question is: how does a given society prevent the ‘ruling class’ from riding rough-shod over the liberties of ‘ordinary’ individuals.
There is no quick fix to the human condition. The panacea of universal democratic reform cannot change the nature of things any more than the dream of a socialist utopia. If we are to change reality for the better, we must first be prepared to see it at its worst. And here, oddly enough, is where politics inevitably becomes delusional, and only religion manages to get it right. Politics selects a certain group and explains why they should rule over others; religion looks at us all and says that none of us can be trusted with power. The doctrine of original sin is the best prophylactic against the pretensions of any ruling class, and it is precisely those groups that have stressed this doctrine the most that have freed themselves from the tyranny of their betters.

If social homogeneity is sought after, then perhaps religion is the solution to the problems that attend pluralism. But what if individual identity and individual liberty are the goal? If so, there will be conflict, as individualism is largely inconsistent with religion, per se. By religion, I’m referring to the mystical beliefs, customs, rituals, et al that are shared by a group. One is a member—in good standing—of X religion if in fact one conforms to the tenants peculiar to it. Hence, genuine tolerance of individual belief within a particular religion is necessarily forbidden. Therefore, Harris’ implicit suggestion that theocracy is the ultimate solution sacrifices individualism on the alter of societal bliss. I, for one, prefer to take my chances with pluralism and tolerance.

Why am I, a self-described theist (Christian), so adamantly opposed to quasi-theocracy? Well, mainly because I happen to agree with America’s founders, who were wise enough to learn from history. They were cognizant of the fact that their predecessors migrated to the North American continent to escape the mild theocracy of Europe. Beyond that, I believe that the Bible says what it means. Namely, it clearly articulates that faith and politics are eternally distinct and ought not to be mingled. For when such is attempted, both suffer greatly. Additionally, I’m convinced that faith resides within the individual, rather than a corporate attribute that is parceled out to religious devotees. Sadly, the latter view is as popular as it is lucrative.

Aside from internal norms, religious sects often tend to ‘expansionist’, so to speak. One extreme is obviously radial Islam, with its brutal subjugation of women and making war on infidels. The other is the relatively benign Roman Catholicism, which seem content to issue grand Papal pronouncements. In any event, religionists generally aren’t content with leaving non-believers in a state of secularism. But in America, Protestant Evangelicals have become increasingly fond of using political power to effect the sort of social change that, presumably, God would approve of.

The variety of political moralists that dominate the news these days is the so-called “religious right”. They have, without question, carved out a niche in the Republican Party over the last few decades. This much maligned (justifiably in my view) subset of the GOP purports to be Christ’s ambassadors in the US and indeed the world. A recent example of this fervor is in an essay by Don Feder.
And, yesterday, a U.S. district court in Sacramento ruled it’s unconstitutional for school children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance with the words “One nation under God.” In Scriptures, God tell us – time and again – “If you turn your back on me, I will turn my back on you.”

The other side of the proverbial coin is the rarely mentioned “religious left”. These folks were active in the struggle for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. While the that activism was laudable, their underlying motivations were, in my view, suspect. Essentially, this group advocates for the equality of outcome (social justice) and is apparently not satisfied with equal treatment under law. One of the more prominent left-leaning religious organizations, National Council of Churches, stated the following in the Spring of 2001:
"As representatives of the faith community we believe that government is intended to serve God’s purposes by promoting the common good. Paying taxes to enable government to provide for the needs of society is an appropriate expression of our stewardship. We believe the United States of America should have a responsible tax policy for all people, particularly the most vulnerable.”

When politics and religion converge, everyone loses. Such an unholy alliance draws on the worse aspects of both, to the detriment of those that choose not to consensually abide by the arbitrary rules laid down by the self-appointed implementers of God’s will.

If there is to be a cohesive society—one that is sustainable—religion and politics must remain separate. Individualism must be respected. Tolerance of peaceful differences must be a datum that all recognize. If not, some form of tyranny will be unavoidable.

hat tip: jomama