jimsleeper.com » Religion in Politics?: Can’t Live With It, Can’t Live Without It

Religion in Politics?: Can’t Live With It, Can’t Live Without It

By Jim Sleeper – March 26, 2010, 6:20AM

1. The more the Roman Catholic hierarchy resembles a Congregation for the Propagation of Coercive Fondling, the less credibly it clothes what the late Father Richard John Neuhaus called “the naked public square.” The next time some politically presumptuous bishop says he won’t give communion to a pro-choicer (like John Kerry in 2004), ask him if he’s stopped letting child molesters give communion to anyone else.

2. The longer that Israel is held hostage by the Bible-thumping, “full Israel” zealots in Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition, the more the slogan “Never again!” will remind us that, in peace-making with Palestinians, today’s Israelis never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

So much for religion in politics, eh? Well, not quite. These are tragedies, not occasions for the tongue-clucking and schadenfreude that some of us secular liberals are quietly indulging. Here’s why it’s too easy to survey the would-be theocrats in Rome, Jerusalem, Gaza, Tehran, and Kabul and say, “So much for religion.”

We’d also have to survey how the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., a seminary student named John Lewis, and poor, black churchgoers managed to walk, trembling, into Southern squares, dressed in their threadbare Sunday best, to face fire hoses, dogs, prison, and, for all they knew, death.

We’d have to ask how hundreds of fire fighters and cops on 9/11 — many of them brought up in Catholic Youth Organization sports teams, with an old parish sense of right and wrong – could rush toward death, not to take lives but to save them, at the risk and cost of their own. I suspect that some of these people’s hearts are breaking over the church scandals and that they’re feeling demoralized and outraged.

We’d have to ask about the courage and impressive dignity in the multitudes who took to the streets of Tehran last June to strip bare the pretensions of theocrats. They were able to do it because, like our civil rights marchers and Gandhi’s followers, they meant to redeem their faith from ecclesiastical overlords who have broken their hearts, too, as well as their bones.

But not their spirits. “This paradoxical relation between the possible and the impossible in history proves that the frame of history is wider than the nature-time in which it is grounded,” wrote Reinhold Niebuhr, who ran as a socialist for New York State Senate in 1932. “The injunction of Christ – ‘Fear not them which kill the body but are not able to kill the soul,’ (Matthew 10:28) neatly indicates the dimension of human existence which transcends the basis which human life and history have in nature.”

In his compelling and profoundly moving A Stone of Hope, the historian David Chappell notes that King absorbed Niebuhr’s writings as a divinity student in the early 1950s. Both knew that Marxism’s secular eschatology claimed a similar transcendence; many died for it. But Communism became even more Power-mad than the Church.

“How many [military] divisions has the Pope?” Stalin once quipped. Stalin’s ideological heirs got an answer in 1989, Pope John Paul II landed in Warsaw and was met by a million people, who soon brought down the regime. More recently, though, the Polish parliament underscored the underside of religion in politics by passing a resolution declaring Christ the country’s king.

The operative lesson, as I wrote here during the marches in Tehran last summer, is that while religion is dangerous and odious when it tries to rule in states, it often proves indispensable as an inspiration to a body politic, especially to insurgencies against tremendous odds. Without its strength, republics falter, but when faith oversteps its bounds, they are lost.

Let me say a bit more concerning Israel and the Jews. Judaism is the religion of an inflected nationalism that often rejects some of what nationalism usually claims – namely, sacred ties to “blood and soil.” The Hebrew word ivry–close to the Hebrew word for Hebrew–means “he crossed over,” denoting Abraham’s separating himself from all he’d loved in response to God’s command.

Abraham’s loneliness — smashing his community’s old idols, preparing to sacrifice his son — sometimes approached existential grandeur. But, taking the sublimity of man’s distance from God straight up, the ancient Hebrew liturgy turned natural beauty into a metaphor of man’s futility: “He is as the fragile potsherd, as the grass that withers, as the flower that fades, as a fleeting shadow, as a passing cloud, as a wind that blows, as the floating dust, yea, and even as a dream that vanishes.” (Yom Kippur liturgy.)

Where Hellenism united love and beauty with nature in timeless cycles and embraces the world as it is, Judaism forces the imagination away from graven images and toward action for ends that haven’t been attained yet on earth. It finds beauty in the arc of the deed that pursues justice across time.

As the Israeli philosopher Yirmiyahu Yovel puts it, the human subject begins to identify its own purposes with the transformation of a world that is not indifferent to its efforts. Abraham’s grandson Jacob wrestles with an angel all night, trying to wrest truth from God; at dawn the angel names him Yisrael, which in Hebrew means, “He wrestles with God.”

Many of us do something like that when we seek a trans-historical significance in our deeds. Puritans did it all the time, seeding the American experiment by emulating Hebrews explicitly. (Hence the Hebrew on the seals of Yale and Dartmouth, which they founded.)

But to cope with the vast unknown it had opened between man and God and between present and future, the ancient Hebrew religion fostered the nationalism of a people pursued by a mysterious, irascible Interlocutor. In the Bible and subsequently, Abraham’s nation is sundered early and often from its Promised Land because its territorial claims turn out to be contingent on keeping a covenant to pursue spiritual and moral ends.

That gives this inflected nation a strange, new orientation on earth: “The Jewish nation is the nation of time, in a sense which cannot be said of any other nation,” observed the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich:

“It represents the permanent struggle between time and space. . . . It has a tragic fate when considered as a nation of space like every other nation, but as the nation of time, because it is beyond the circle of life and death it is beyond tragedy.

“The people of time . . . cannot avoid being persecuted because by their very existence they break the claim of the gods of space, who express themselves in will to power, imperialism, injustice, demonic enthusiasm, and tragic self-destruction.

“The gods of space, who are strong in every human soul, in every race and nation, are afraid of the Lord of Time, history, and justice, are afraid of his prophets and followers.”

Tillich is noting that, from its biblical beginnings, this tribe coheres through its unprecedented negation of what’s usually tribal and through its imaginative, sometimes brilliant defiance of what the lords of space and power demand.

By that truly biblical standard, the Jewish religious zealots who are grasping at power and molesting Palestinians gratuitously through Netanyahu’s government are preparing to sunder their people from the land again. They charge that Israel’s secular liberals have broken the covenant. But so have they, like the ancient temple priests, like the Roman Catholic priests, and like the mullahs in Gaza and Tehran.

Yes, there are many differences. But my operative principle holds: While religion is dangerous and odious when it tries to rule in states, it’s indispensable as an inspiration to the body politic, especially to insurgencies against what seem overwhelming odds. Without its strength, republics falter, but when it oversteps its bounds, they are lost.

The growing disgrace and isolation of Israel’s blindest supporters and the Church’s most arrogant priests should be understood as an overdue corrective, but it’s nothing for us liberals to celebrate or be smug about. You don’t have to be a Puritan to understand that it reflects a corruption in the human heart that we have to fight all the time.