Political Theology, Take One

You know when you spend a lot of time thinking about something, and then suddenly it seems to be everywhere? I’ve had that feeling recently. First, Ruth Wisse’s almost-out book, Jews and Power, showed up in the Lilith office, and within a day I’d devoured it. Then, this week’s
New York Times magazine features a cover article entitled “The Politics of God”. And this coming week, CNN is featuring a series of specials on political/religious figures in Islam, Christianity and Judaism. As someone who can’t get her mind off of the connections between
religion and politics, it’s kind of like the world’s been reading my mind.

The excellent Jews and Power focuses on Jewish politics—or rather, the ways Jews have constructed and envisioned power, which was generally distinct from hegemonic views. But it nicely illuminates the way that religion can not only influence how politics are conducted, but how for much of the world, for nearly all of history, religion has been political. If we find ourselves surprised by that fact, it’s as much a product of our American history as our modernity. We’re so removed from Europe’s religious wars, from everything from the Hussite massacres to the Balkan conflict of the 1990s. I think sometimes it makes it hard to understand a lot of the rest of the world.

(It’s something that caught my eye about the trailers for this CNN
thing, kindly sent to us by their PR folk ahead of time. Watching
Christine Amanpour in the video below is amazing—you can sense that what
she’s saying is going to be a real revelation for people.)
There were a lot of things I found lacking in the Times magazine
article. The author, Mark Lilla, seemed to be writing from the era of the
Ford administration, completely ignoring the role of religion in America’s
current politics—politics since at least the Reagan era, when the far
right went religious. But he did a great job laying out the basic nuts
and bolts of political philosophies of Hobbes and Rousseau. In Reader’s
Digest version, Hobbes “did the most revolutionary thing a thinker can
ever do — he changed the subject, from God and his commands to man and his
beliefs.” He was more of a sociologist than a theologian. His legacy
helped inspire Rousseau, although Mr. R’s ultimate love of religion led
him to believe that its morality could inspire men, politically, to do
good. It’s an amazing thought, and one I’d like to believe, but history
has found within humanity a tendency to take this simple theory and let it
mutate into the same old bloody power struggle: Rousseau’s writing has
inspired fanatics from Leninists to Nazis. So it’s kind of out.So it leaves us with that all-important question: is it possible for a
politician to have strong religious beliefs and leave them (or claim to
leave them) completely outside the office door, a la John Edwards? Do we
want them to? Is it better to have as much a fence around the
Constitution as we have around the Torah? And, just as important, how
much can we demand from our leaders? How much strength need their
convictions have, and from where must such convictions arise? It’s a
sticky situation.The one factor I don’t want to leave out, though, is the unmitigated
maleness of all these goings-on. (Minus the Christine Amanpour part, and
I’m holding out high hopes for some analysis of gender—I’m an incurable
optimist.) As a feminist, I don’t want to talk about relationships of
power—which is pretty much what politics is reducible to—without at least
noting that these two power structures, religion and politics, are both
pretty much male-run institutions. (Ruth Wisse seems pretty averse to mentioning gender, but we’ll come back to that another time.) While women have often been part of
the angry mobs of history, women-run movements and institutions (those few
there have been) are generally not confrontational in the same way. And
that should figure into the conversation as well.

Since the rest of the world seems content examining this subject with
closer scrutiny than usual, I don’t mind promising future musings on the
current state of affairs in the intersection of politics and religion. I
love the theories at play here, but I’m also trying to get prepped for
when the question inevitably comes into sharp focus as the election of
2008 looms closer: what does religion mean for us, for our political
hopefuls, and for the future political landscape of our country?

–Mel Weiss