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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