Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Problem With Political Religion

Photograph of the American Flag compliments of Ian Britton at

A few months ago I read Cornel West's newest book Democracy Matters and made a note of copying my favorite chapter called The Crisis of Christian Identity In America. It is a fascinating critique of what West refers to as Constantinian Christianity. The following paragraph is typical of this piece of prophetic scholarship:

"Most American Constantinian Christians are unaware of their imperialistic identity because they do not see the parallel between the Roman empire that put Jesus to death and the American empire that they celebrate. As long as they can worship freely and pursue the American dream, they see the American government as a force for good and American imperialism as a desirable force for spreading that good. They proudly profess their allegiance to the flag and cross not realizing that just as the cross was a bloody indictment of the Roman empire, it is a powerful critique of the American empire..."

I encourage you to read the book if you are curious about how exactly "Constantinian Christianity" is defined by West as well as to decide for yourself if you agree with the above statement. I include it because I think that is captures the essence of the "crisis" West is pointing out in American Christian identity and has provoked and deepened some of my own Baha'i thinking regarding the broader issue of the problem of political religion itself.

I define political religion as the effort by individuals or institutions to manipulate the power of religion to achieve narrow, partisan agendas. This includes both theocratic projects that seek to seize state power in order to impose particular interpretations of religious truth on society and secular progressive projects that utilize the language, symbols, organizational resources of faith communities, and the passion of religious individuals to impose their interpretation of reality on society. Both sides of this coin of political religion have their forms of zealotry and fundamentalism, though each attempts to claim moral superiority in the discourse regarding the future of the human race on this planet. The problem with political religion is not simply an issue of "church-state" separation but rather goes to the heart of what politics and religion are.

Politics, as currently practiced in American society is fundamentally divisive in nature, operating on a pitched battle between partisan interests whose ultimate goal is to win at the expense of their opponents. The prize is power, the power to create a society in the image of one's own group at the expense of others (though often while professing that it is for the good of everyone).

Religion, as defined by Baha'u'llah, Founder of the Baha'i Faith has a very different purpose:

The Great Being saith: O ye children of men! The fundamental purpose animating the Faith of God and His Religion is to safeguard the interests and promote the unity of the human race, and to foster the spirit of love and fellowship amongst men. Suffer it not to become a source of dissension and discord, of hate and enmity. This is the straight Path, the fixed and immovable foundation. Whatsoever is raised on this foundation, the changes and chances of the world can never impair its strength, nor will the revolution of countless centuries undermine its structure.
(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 215)

Political religion has little patience or use for the way that religion is described by Baha'u'llah. Even in the most enlightened and inspired efforts toward social change, the politically religious person must ultimately square off against his brother or sister and struggle for power. One will win, one will lose and the cycle "of dissension and discord, of hate and enmity" will roll on and on driving both the winners and losers further from the "fundamental purpose animating the Faith of safeguard the interests and promote the unity of the human race, and to foster the spirit of love and fellowship amongst men." At a time in human history where daily events demonstrate the urgency of unity, political religion is ascendant all over the world, fueling division that some thinkers have described as hastening us toward a "class of civilizations". This is the very reason that Baha'is abstain from involvement in partisan politics. It is not a practice of a religious community passive in the face social problems but a powerful, counter-cultural discipline of a religious community committed to promoting change through the power of unity. For more on my understanding of the Baha'i perspective on abstaining from politics, you can read here, here, and here.

Thank God that humanity has the capacity to chose its future and recognize the truth of these words:
My hope is that in this enlightened century the Divine Light of love will shed its radiance over the whole world, seeking out the responsive heart's intelligence of every human being; that the light of the Sun of Truth will lead politicians to shake off all the claims of prejudice and superstition, and with freed minds to follow the Policy of God: for Divine Politics are mighty, man's politics are feeble!
(Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 150)

And furthermore:
Our hope is that the world's religious leaders and the rulers thereof will unitedly arise for the reformation of this age and the rehabilitation of its fortunes. Let them, after meditating on its needs, take counsel together and, through anxious and full deliberation, administer to a diseased and sorely-afflicted world the remedy it requireth.
(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 215)

I share these same hopes for humanity. Do you?