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It’s about the power, stupid

Mark Lilla, professor at Columbia University, has written a long article“The Politics of God” in the Aug. 19, 2007, NYTimes. Shorter Lilla: people who think belief and state should be separated exist, but lots of people want God, the whole God, and nothing but the God. The article explores the history of and people’s need for religion in politics.

[O]ur problems again resemble those of the 16th century, as we find ourselves entangled in conflicts over competing revelations, dogmatic purity and divine duty. We in the West are disturbed and confused. Though we have our own fundamentalists, we find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still stir up messianic passions, leaving societies in ruin. We had assumed this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. We were wrong.


Lilla’s analysis is fine if you accept his premise, which is that this is about religion, about people’s sense of their place in the world, about feeling comfortable in the world. But he seems to be forgetting some significant points from very recent history in the course of reaching back to the 1500s.

1) Politicians, for their own agendas, have been stirring up religionists for decades. It’s not a new recipe for power-grabbing and disaster, but in the modern series Reagan was one of the first who showed how well the approach could work. In the 1970s, people sent relatives who’d fallen into the clutches of fundamentalists off to get therapy because cults weren’t normal.

After 25 years of promotion by politicians, it’s more important to respect fundamentalists than fundamental rights. I’m talking about the USA. Just one example: in a country founded on separation of belief and state, people — publishers, parents, teachers, school board members — try to accommodate creationists instead of laughing them out of the school. Sure, when the voice of reason gets its act together, they do get laughed out, but I’m trying to make a different point. The amazing and frightening sign of how badly our thinking has been clouded is that the creationists can get started at all.

In other examples (some of which are detailed in the article: “abortion, prayer in schools, censorship, euthanasia, biological research”) the results can be much worse than nonsense in science classes, and the voice of reason can be struck dumb.

2) In the repressive parts of the world, the Middle East, North Africa, China, and the list goes on, religious dissent was the only remaining way of disgreeing with the powers-that-be. It wasn’t necessarily safe, by any means, but the dictators (and therefore their Western enablers) made it the only feasible route of protest. There were democratic movements in, for instance, the Middle East. They weren’t convenient because they interfered with the control of oil. Mossadegh of Iran was deposed in a CIA-instigated plot in 1953. The infant Saudi human rights movement was and is slaughtered every time it manifests itself. The regime doing the slaughtering has the usual unholy alliance with religionists, and with its suppliers in the industrial world so long as it keeps selling them oil.

None of this is evidence that people have some incomprehensible desire for repressive theocracy. The fact that some people hope to find Truth in science or in a political system is certainly evidence of existential confusion, and not one that’s easy to resolve. That other people hope to find scientific or political answers in holy books is no less evidence of confusion. But these are individual struggles.

Lilla spends his whole time talking about that and never gets to the really significant point for politics. It is not confusion that makes people desire repressive theocracies. For that, they have to be pushed.

The pushing isn’t done for the love of God. It’s done by people who want power. It’s that simple. Somehow, Lilla overlooks that most important point.

Yes, believers like to practice their religion with those of like mind … when it’s about religion. Once it’s about power, that’s different. Then suddenly force is involved. Then it becomes important to do things the way the loudest mouth wants them done.

The very fact that all the problematic theocracies are repressive, the fact that none of them live and let live, tells you that this is about power, not religion. And that includes the imposition of their beliefs that Christian fundamentalists would like to see in the US. The problem is world wide. There is no need to scratch one’s head in puzzlement about what those crazy Muslims are thinking. They’re thinking the same thing as anti-democratic politicians and fundamentalists right here.

Lilla is aware of the universality of the issue.

So we are heirs to the Great Separation [of church and state] only if we wish to be, if we make a conscious effort to separate basic principles of political legitimacy from divine revelation. Yet more is required still. Since the challenge of political theology is enduring, we need to remain aware of its logic and the threat it poses. This means vigilance, but even more it means self-awareness. We must never forget that there was nothing historically inevitable about our Great Separation, that it was and remains an experiment.

But he’s still talking about the wrong issue (if he wants to talk about politics and not individual existential struggles). The political problem is one of grabbing power. The words used for that are just so much hot air. Now it’s religion. It could be the “free market,” or the redistribution of wealth, or anything. The words don’t matter. The hallmark is repression. Anyone who is depriving others of rights that they expect for themselves is grabbing power, no matter what the justification.

His solution to the problem shows what happens when you start from the wrong premise.

[A] world in which millions of people … believe that God has revealed a law governing the whole of human affairs. [As opposed to countries] founded on the alien principles of the Great Separation. These are the most significant points of friction, internationally and domestically. … we cannot really address them if we do not first recognize the intellectual chasm between us.”

Balderdash. I have never in my travels met a person who’s really exercised about intellectual chasms. The things people are willing to throw bombs about is having control over their own lives and having resources. Does anyone honestly think that the US would have thrown bombs at Iraq if it had all the oil it needed and wasn’t worried about being forced to “live like Europeans”? Even Lilla couldn’t be thinking that Cheney sat there and said, “I can’t stand this intellectual chasm. Maybe a bomb or two will fill it in.”

The problem is not chasms or principles or religions. The problem is the abuse of power. That’s what we have to be vigilant about. That’s why rights can never take a back seat to some other goal, whether it’s a progressive goal, or a conservative one, an economic, or an atheist, or a political one. As soon as rights are secondary, the door is opened to restart a new cycle of repression.

That’s what is so horribly wrong with one of Lilla’s conclusions:

we need to recognize that coping is the order of the day, not defending high principle, and that our expectations should remain low. So long as a sizable population believes in the truth of a comprehensive political theology, its full reconciliation with modern liberal democracy cannot be expected.

That is the most dangerous nonsense there is. People who hope for tolerance are open to being tolerant unless they feel mistreated, impoverished, or despised. The solution to that is more human rights, not less.

Right now, we’ve opened the door to repression in the name of religion. But let’s face it. Repression has nothing to do with God. God is just an excuse, and the loud mouths are hoping as hard as hell that we buy it. It doesn’t help when experts who should know better fall for the ploy, and discuss the problem at length and with erudition as if it really had anything to do with religion or God.

Crossposted at Shakespeare’s Sister