The Wisdom of Doubt, Part VI

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Religion, Wisdom of Doubt

There is hardly an example of a mass movement achieving vast proportions and a durable organization solely by persuasion. Professor K.S. Latourette, a very Christian historian, has to admit that “However incompatible the spirit of Jesus and armed force may be, and however unpleasant it may be to acknowledge the fact, as a matter of plain history the latter has often made it possible for the former to survive.” It was the temporal sword that made Christianity a world religion. Conquest and conversion often went hand in hand, the latter often serving as a justification and a tool of the former. Where Christianity failed to gain or retain the backing of state power, it achieved neither a wide nor a permanent hold. “In Persia . . . Christianity confronted a state religion sustained by the crown and never became the faith of more than a minority.” In the phenomenal spread of Islam, conquest was a primary factor and conversion a by-product. “The most flourishing periods for Mohhamedanism have been at the times of its greatest political ascendancy; and it is at those times that it has achieved its highest accession from without.” The Reformation made headway only where it gained the backing of the ruling prince or the local government. … Where, as in France, the state power was against it, it was drowned in blood and never rose again. [Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (1951)]

Religion and government have been closely entwined going as far back as history goes. Every ancient civilization I know of was governed through an alliance of priests and kings. The priests sanctified the power of kings and assured the support and favor of gods for their policies; kings, in turn, saw to it the priests enjoyed protection and status. As a rule, the political/religious establishment accepted no challenges. Gospel accounts of Jesus’ Crucifixion suggested the Powers That Be in Jerusalem saw him as a potential threat to their authority.

In the first three centuries after the Crucifixion, Christianity went from being a small Jewish sect to a loosely organized movement made up broadly scattered communities, mostly gentile, with diverse beliefs. But the patronage of the Emperor Constantine sent what had been a minor religion up to the Big Leagues. In 325 CE Constantine convened the council of bishops at Nicaea to agree which doctrines would become the foundation of Christian orthodoxy to this day. From the reign of Constantine until modern times, Church power and political power in Europe were closely linked. Many of the Church’s most infamous acts of religious oppression were conducted in partnership with political power. In fact, the Spanish Inquisition operated completely under Spanish royal authority, not Rome’s.

My point is that religious authority and political authority have been drawn to each other throughout human history. And I argue that much of the Really Bad Shit attributed to religion really occurred in the nexus between religion and politics. As noted in Wisdom of Doubt, Part IV, history shows us that when authoritarian religious institutions form alliances with political power, the results can be nasty.

In the 15th through 19th centuries Christian Europe explored and colonized much of the planet. Countless atrocities were committed by both Church and crown in the process. By the 19th century the process had taken on a veneer of gentility, however, as Christian missionaries became the (sometimes) unwitting advance troops of capitalistic exploitation. The missionaries gained the trust of the people, challenged and weakened long-established local authority, and taught the “natives” European languages and manners. Then came Money — European and, increasingly, American — and before long the now-Christianized native people were enslaved on plantations and in mines, stripping away the natural resources of their own native lands to enrich far-away moneyed interests. And when the resources were gone and Money walked away, very often warlords and despots stepped in to fill the power void.

In America, religion salved the consciences of slave owners, who reasoned Africans were better off enslaved on plantations than free in Africa because here they’d be Christians. Mary Chesnut, wife of a plantation owner, soothed her own apparent discomfort with slavery by imagining herself a white missionary in an African village.

In 1901, Mark Twain took aim at the collusion of religion and money in his famous essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness.”

Extending the Blessings of Civilization to our Brother who Sits in Darkness has been a good trade and has paid well, on the whole; and there is money in it yet, if carefully worked – but not enough, in my judgement, to make any considerable risk advisable. The People that Sit in Darkness are getting to be too scarce ­– too scarce and too shy. And such darkness as is now left is really of but an indifferent quality, and not dark enough for the game. The most of those People that Sit in Darkness have been furnished with more light than was good for them or profitable for us. We have been injudicious.

The Blessings-of-Civilization Trust, wisely and cautiously administered, is a Daisy. There is more money in it, more territory, more sovereignty, and other kinds of emolument, than there is in any other game that is played. But Christendom has been playing it badly of late years, and must certainly suffer by it, in my opinion. She has been so eager to get every stake that appeared on the green cloth, that the People who Sit in Darkness have noticed it – they have noticed it, and have begun to show alarm. They have become suspicious of the Blessings of Civilization. More – they have begun to examine them. This is not well. The Blessings of Civilization are all right, and a good commercial property; there could not be a better, in a dim light. In the right kind of a light, and at a proper distance, with the goods a little out of focus, they furnish this desirable exhibit to the Gentlemen who Sit in Darkness:

LOVE,

LAW AND ORDER,

JUSTICE,

LIBERTY,

GENTLENESS,

EQUALITY,

CHRISTIANITY,

HONORABLE DEALING,

PROTECTION TO THE WEAK,

MERCY,

TEMPERANCE,

EDUCATION,

– and so on.

There. Is it good? Sir, it is pie. It will bring into camp any idiot that sits in darkness anywhere. But not if we adulterate it. It is proper to be emphatic upon that point. This brand is strictly for Export – apparently. Apparently. Privately and confidentially, it is nothing of the kind. Privately and confidentially, it is merely an outside cover, gay and pretty and attractive, displaying the special patterns of our Civilization which we reserve for Home Consumption, while inside the bale is the Actual Thing that the Customer Sitting in Darkness buys with his blood and tears and land and liberty. That Actual Thing is, indeed, Civilization, but it is only for Export.

An interesting record for a religion whose chief deity-prophet proclaimed that love of money is the root of all evil.

Which brings us to the present. In the last episode of the Wisdom of Doubt, I quoted a speech by Bill Moyers in which he laid out the devious plan of the Right to take total control of America. In brief, the economic plan is to exploit labor and reward the rich and the political plan is to control news media. Next comes the religious plan:

Their religious strategy was to fuse ideology and theology into a worldview freed of the impurities of compromise, claim for America the status of God’s favored among nations (and therefore beyond political critique or challenge), and demonize their opponents as ungodly and immoral.

At the intersection of these three strategies was money: Big Money.

This is a power play as old as civilization itself: The “priests” sanctify the power of “kings” and assure the support and favor of “gods” for their policies; kings, in turn, see to it the priests enjoy protection and status. I think we’ve seen this before.

We could speculate if people are self-aware of their own machinations or if, like Mary Chesnut, they’re mostly bullshitting themselves. I suspect many of those 19th century Christian missionaries were idealists who really believed they were doing God’s work, just as I suspect much of the rank and file of the Christian Right really believe their leadership and their cause are sanctified by God. The leadership itself is a far more interesting stew of denial, repression, and greed, but I’ll leave that alone for now.

What’s most fascinating to me is the way today’s Christian Right has so cheerfully subordinated itself to the causes of political power and “free market” capitalism, neither of which even remotely connect to Jesus’ teachings. It’s as if after all these centuries of compromising Jesus to attain favor and prominence, Christians step into the same old role without a second’s thought. As noted in the previous Wisdom of Doubt episode, disciples of the late right-wing theologian Rousas John Rushdoony are taught that God favored America with the blessing of “biblical capitalism,” and before his downfall the Rev. Ted Haggard used to preach that free market capitalism is the fulfillment of God’s Plan.

The Center for Religion, Ethics, and Social Policy at Cornell University has a web page called “Economics from the Religious Right” with quotes and links showing how the Christian Right has adopted the exploitation of labor and the accumulation of great wealth into their grab bag of “sacred” doctrines.

Hmm, now what was it Jesus said? “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25, New International Version). Does anyone on the Christian Right ever actually read the Gospels, I wonder?

But now let’s flip this discussion over and look at the other side. For two millennia Christians have engaged in real charitable work. Eight centuries ago Saint Francis of Assisi resisted the violence of the Crusades. In the 16th through 18th centuries Franciscan missionaries in North and South America worked tirelessly, often at great personal sacrifice, to protect native Americans from the exploitation and cruelty of other Europeans. Many generations of Catholic nuns dedicated their lives to caring for the sick. In fact, nursing was so closely associated with nuns that until the past 30 or so years professional nurses wore starched white caps whose design evolved from the nun’s coif.

And, yes, at times monasteries and convents housed acts of cruelty also. Religious people are still people. Much of the quality of religious orders, I suspect, depends on whether they are protected by civil authority or must answer to it. And, of course, the non-religious also do good work, and heal the sick and care for the exploited. I’m not one who believes that “they’re nice to other people” is one of religions’ chief claims to fame. Religions, like people, and government, and like any other human institution, are a mix of good and bad, idealism and corruption. If anything, religion seems to have an amplifying effect, bringing out the best in some people and the worst in others. I say any absolute position anyone takes on religion — that it is either entirely bad or entirely good — is one-sided and fanatical.

But, whatever you think of it, religion is not going away. Religion has been with us since we’ve been a species. Many of the arguments of evolutionary biology are probably valid. And many of the arguments against religion by crusading atheists like Richard Dawkins are also valid. However, the notion that if only people could be talked out of believing in God they’d see the light of Reason and Logic is, um, fanciful.

I want to discuss religion as a revolutionary force versus religion as preserver and defender of status quos in a future edition of The Wisdom of Doubt. Right now I just want to note that, historically, institutionalized religions tend to soak up the values and morals of whatever culture they are institutionalized in, and then they reflect those values and morals back at the culture, and so act as positive reinforcers of whatever is clanking about in that culture, good or bad. The Religious Right is doing such a good job of reflecting the ugliest and greediest aspects of American culture that they’ve just about erased Jesus entirely.

Here’s a great example, via Mike the Mad Biologist. Charles Marsh writes:

The worldwide Christian opposition seems to me the most neglected story related to the religious debate about Iraq: Despite approval for the president’s decision to go to war by 87 percent of white evangelicals in April 2003, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts poll, almost every Christian leader in the world (and almost every nonevangelical leader in the United States) voiced opposition to the war. …

… By the time American troops began bombing Baghdad before sunrise on March 20, 2003, the collective effort of the evangelical elites had sanctified the president’s decision and encouraged the laity to believe that the war was God’s will for the nation. Evangelicals preached for the war, prayed for the war, sang for the war, and offered God’s blessings on the war.

Sometime after Operation Iraqi Freedom began, I made a remarkable discovery. I had gone to one of my local Christian bookstores to find a Bible for my goddaughter. On a whim, I also decided to look for a Holy Spirit lapel pin, in the symbolic shape of a dove, the kind that had always been easy to find in the display case in the front. Many people in my church and in the places where I traveled had been wearing the American flag on their lapel for months now. It seemed like a pretty good time for Christians to put the Spirit back on.

But the doves were nowhere in sight. In the place near the front where I once would have found them, I was greeted instead by a full assortment of patriotic accessories — red-white-and-blue ties, bandanas, buttons, handkerchiefs, “I support our troops” ribbons, “God Bless America” gear, and an extraordinary cross and flag button with the two images interlocked. I felt slightly panicked by the new arrangement. I asked the clerk behind the counter where the doves had gone. The man’s response was jarring, although the remark might well be remembered as an apt theological summation of our present religious age. “They’re in the back with the other discounted items,” he said, nodding in that direction.

This takes us back to the quote by Eric Hoffer at the beginning of this post. “It was the temporal sword that made Christianity a world religion,” Hoffer says.

But in another part of the same passage, Hoffer also wrote (in 1951) “The threat of communism at present does not come from the forcefulness of its preaching but from the fact that it is backed by one of the mightiest armies on earth.” It isn’t just religion that is spread by sword and gun. Remove religion as an excuse, and mankind will find more excuses.

The corruption of Christianity in America today is paralleled by the corruption of republican government. Right now, America must choose between being a republic or an empire; I don’t think it can be both. By the same token, Christianity has to choose between what sort of power it wants to be — political or religious? I don’t think it can be both.

Separation of church and state isn’t just a liberal plot to keep Christians out of power. It’s what’s best for religion as well as the state. Separated from the temptations of temporal power, religion is free to be religion. Can evangelicals be made to see the truth of this, however?

Also: See Digby.

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3 Comments

  1. Swami  •  Jul 10, 2007 @5:08 pm

    Excellent post!

    If anything, religion seems to have an amplifying effect, bringing out the best in some people and the worst in others

    I’ll attest to that fact. I’ve seen some people get really ugly once they’ve gotten a dose of the Lord.

  2. Dale  •  Jul 11, 2007 @10:43 am

    Maha,
    Another very fine post in a very fine series, thanks.

  3. joanr16  •  Jul 11, 2007 @1:14 pm

    If this becomes a book, it will have an important place on my bookshelves. Everyone thinking/writing/working to restore equilibrium after the Dark Ages of W, is a hero in my eyes.

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