Political Theology, Take Two

So I spent many hours this week watching the recent CNN special, God’s
Warriors (on YouTube, where you can
find it, too). Whew! What a complex and complicated set of information
to absorb. It’s been a constantly playing record in my brain: how on Earth
are we meant to deal with people who insist on fusing politics with their
own fervent political beliefs?

The special itself was pretty enjoyable. Mostly, although obviously a
gimmick for better ratings, I was pretty impressed that CNN supported such
a project in the first place. To devote six hours to God’s
Warriors—a.k.a. the extreme fusion of religion and politics—is to first
and foremost commit to making people admit that the problem is not only
“over there;” it’s a universal problem. Letting Chrisiane Amanpour run
the show was a good idea; she never once let slip any personally-held
religious beliefs, and she although she often questioned people with a
gentle incredulity, she let almost all of them talk openly in response.
And she did manage to bring up women and a very simple gendered analysis
of the whole deal—“Fundamentalism of any stripe is bad for women,” which
is true enough.

I could say a lot about the television event itself, but if you haven’t
seen it, maybe it’s better for you to just commit the six hours, or at
least a sampling. There was a lot to find interesting. A Minnesota
preacher who identifies as evangelical who believes as fervently as I do
in the separation of church and state. A young Muslim woman from Islip,
Long Island, who loves her traditional Islamic life. Moderate members of
an Islamic political party in Egypt. (This was the part that rocked me,
because these men (and yes, the were definitely all men) want to use
Islam, and Islamic values, to bring about a moderate society. This
may well be the religious/secular conundrum Turkey finds itself in
[although no mention of Turkey by Christiane Amanpour].)

There wasn’t too much I found radically surprising, except maybe the fact
of this entire televised event itself. And the fact that while there was
definitely some fearmongering going on—as well as an honest attempt to
humanize religio-political fights—the condemnation that made it across was
not so much a condemnation of individual people or even countries, but of
the fact that once you fuse religion and politics, no matter how good your
intentions, things usually go to pretty ugly pieces pretty quickly. In a
political system, how power justifies itself is crucial to how the system
functions and how safe people are within it. And power that justifies
itself through the will of God is not really responsible for—and
ultimately not responsive to—human needs. I believe this to be historical
fact rather than personal theory, and I think Ms. Amanpour would agree.

This doesn’t mean we stop talking about religion and politics, because
that phenomenon is going anywhere too soon. Rather, I think we should
talk about it all the time, always learn about it, look through history
for it, consider the repercussions for both politics and religion when
they’re mingled (because they both get dirty). People with
religious inclinations need to talk all the time about while their values
can inspire them to do good works in the public sphere, those values are
personal, private values, and they themselves are inappropriate for
national discourse. And the flip side of this, of course, is that the
secular segments of today’s world needs to recognize the utterly salutary
effect that religion can have on the personal, private lives of others.
If we talk, we might not hate each other, and that’s a pretty excellent
place to start, at least.

I’m extremely interested to know what other people’s experiences have been
in looking at religion and politics. Are there any times when it’s
permissible, even a good idea to mix them? Are all cases of this equally
dangerous? What do you think?

–Mel Weiss

3 comments on “Political Theology, Take Two

  1. Matt K. on

    I saw the segment on Israel of this series, and was not impressed with the balance. As you point out, the episode on Islam showed a little bit about moderates. The Jewish episode, in contrast, showed a small bit on secularism, a whole lot on zealous/violent orthodoxy, and a lot on the American Jewish Lobby and how much control it has over the world. Some of this, I believe, was warranted. But if moderate Egyptian politicians are God’s warriors, then the episode fails to make fair comparison. Nowhere did it talk about moderate forces in Israeli politics, or organizations like Rabbis for Human Rights. Nowhere did it equate them to God’s warriors.

    But that’s a side issue. I agree that the question, as you framed it, is key: Should one mix politics and religion?

    The reality of God’s presence and will on Earth marks the religious conscious. So the issue of mixing politics with religion is intimately tied up with how real you think God is: Is God real enough for just my life, or is God an empirically provable/actual entity that acts in the world and that who all individuals should fear? The latter case is the more potent one, and consequently the more dangerous one.

    With the reality of God’s existence, a separation of church and one’s own politics is a difficult, if not impossible thing. For the True Believer, God is a fact of existence on which she bases her decisions—and not just a fact, the ultimate and deciding fact, and the source of her conscience. I think when we talk about a separation between church and state, we are talking about not allowing one person’s ideology to be an exclusive or privileged part of government organization or policy. But when it comes to political expression, how do you argue with the “True Believer”, to whom God personally sent his one and only son to die for the sins of mankind, and who in his holy scriptures made it clear the abhorrence of homosexual acts?

    For that Believer, God is the authority. And their religion is the authority on God. But God really exists, what did God say? Whose version of God is correct? This question is a source of a great deal of the world’s violence. Skirting this issue, modern religion has often reduced itself to the individual, justifying itself on the basis of “what’s good for me.” But it finds itself battling with the Believers, who see their religion as not just what’s good for them, but what is good and just for all. Whatever the outcome, modernists and nonbelievers will need great strength of conscience to contend with the believers—true belief in God is a powerful thing. (Why? Different blog entry).

    So the question remains:

    How do we get along but still stick to our personal and/or God-driven consciences?

    I wish I had a good answer, and I’m still looking for one. As a believer, I put my faith that between the lines of Torah–in the values that emerge from the text within the context of Near Eastern society, that brought morality into the world—is the will of God. There, I believe, is the wisdom and truth that has made the Jewish people endure through over three thousand years of oppression, violence, and attempts at total eradication. Great empires of the have come and gone, but yet the Jewish people remain, the only surviving people of antiquity, small in number but great in influence, shaping the modern world. In many ways, the Jews defy the patterns of history and the laws of probability. I put my faith in the belief that there’s a reason behind that, and that the reason is G-d.

    —So nu, get off your pedestal. What makes your belief in G-d any different from those Jewish shmucks that strap that try to blow up Palestinian elementary schools?—-

    Not much, I’m afraid. We both believe ourselves to be doing the right thing, we just disagree on what that is. What are our options?

    Still looking for the answer.

  2. admin on


    Many valid points, although I don’t think I agree with all of them.

    Mostly, I think that somehow, the difference between a true and beautiful religiosity and a political religiosity (which mixes two otherwise amazing things and totally treyfs them up) is the idea of agency and choice. So much of what’s so wonderful in Judaism has to do with choosing the correct behavior and path. Sin and righteousness are both pretty meaningless concepts–to me–without free will. But politicized religion is about removing other people’s agency. The personal is, of course, political, but having values that inform your actions in the public sphere is in no way the same as turning to the dude next to you and saying, “Here’s what God says YOU need to do.”

    It’s an unfinished theory, but there it is. Thanks for reading!


  3. Bob on

    But politicized religion is ultimately about forcing your beliefs on others. And all faith-motivated activicts need to remember ‘what is displeasing to you, do not do to another.’

    You want to shave your head, wear yellow robes and dance in the front yard singing “Hare Krishna”? Fine. You go, girl.

    Don’t pass laws that force me to do it just because it’s important to you.

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