"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Voices From The Pulpit–The Volatile Mix Of Religion And Politics

The Episcopal Bishops in their Letter to the Church (3.15.16) wrote the following:
In a country still living under the shadow of the lynching tree, we are troubled by the violent forces being released by this season’s political rhetoric. Americans are turning against their neighbors, particularly those on the margins of society. They seek to secure their own safety and security at the expense of others. There is legitimate reason to fear where this rhetoric and the actions arising from it might take us
In this moment, we resemble God’s children wandering in the wilderness. We, like they, are struggling to find our way. They turned from following God and worshiped a golden calf constructed from their own wealth. The current rhetoric is leading us to construct a modern false idol out of power and privilege. We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others. No matter where we fall on the political spectrum, we must respect the dignity of every human being and we must seek the common good above all else.
While religious leaders may use secular example to illustrate a Biblical point – here, one supposes, the especial compassion of Jesus Christ for the poor, his warnings to the rich about the eye of a needle, and his reprise of the Ten Commandments’ injunction against idolatry – such examples my override any spiritual message.


The Letter to the Church, criticizing ‘the false idol of power and privilege’, the marginalization of the poor, the enflamed rhetoric of the Presidential campaign, and the conclusion that Americans (read political leaders) have ignored their responsibilities while feathering their own nest has stepped directly into secular debate.

Wherever one might be on the political spectrum, wrote the bishops, it is time to change our ways and recommit ourselves to the common good.   Yet it is clear that the bishops are far from neutral in their observations.  They, for example, have  taken a page out of progressives’ playbook when it comes to the assumption that a concentration of wealth and power is an evil. 

Conservatives dismiss this argument entirely.  Accumulated wealth, they argue, has been a feature of all societies in history; and far from an evil, it has been the treasury for patronage of the arts, the building of monuments and urban architecture, the spread of Christianity, industrial and agricultural revolutions, and the engines of economic enterprise. 


Concentration of power is no different.  Every human society from Amazonian tribes to the empires of Europe has been segmented and always with a top, middle, and bottom.  Those at the top – the more intelligent, ambitious, strong, savvy, and intuitive – have always attempted to consolidate their power; and although their reigns were always replaced by pretenders, they did their utmost to defend, extend, and increase their territories, wealth, and influence.

America today is no different.  The top tiers of the economic pyramid do indeed possess vast wealth and through it exert proportionate political influence.  As a result of the checks and balances of our political system, laissez-faire capitalism – the natural enterprise of self-interested individuals – has been controlled and moderated.  Our society may be just as economically ‘unequal’ as that of the age of the English kings, but far less arbitrary.

The bishops claim that we are ‘turning against our neighbors’, especially on the margins of society – a claim persistently made by political liberals.  Conservatives have no less concern for others, but see social integration and economic progress resulting from competition and individual enterprise not enforced cooperation.   Without a doubt aggressive competition for land and resources has resulted in wars; but human societies have fought for them since the first settlements.  Both the simplest tribal societies and the most evolved states have always been in conflict over the same rights. 

This challenge of social wills, when looked at from the larger perspective of history has always resulted in social and economic evolution   The European Union is a direct outgrowth of World War II.  Never again, say the Europeans, will we have a devastating war on our continent.  The current struggle between the West and radical Islam is less a fight for territory than it is for the life or death of democratic liberalism.  However this war turns out, the world will be less defined by national borders and democratic institutions and more by religions, ethnic, and racial interests.

As far as the enflamed rhetoric of the current political campaign, it is nothing compared to that of 1828 pitting Andrew Jackson against John Quincy Adams which has been called the dirtiest in American history.
Andrew Jackson’s reputation as a national hero was based on his military career,…..but his  military glory was turned against him when a Philadelphia printer named John Binns published the notorious “coffin handbill,” a poster showing six black coffins and claiming the militiamen Jackson had ordered executed had essentially been murdered.
Jackson's wife Rachel had been married to another man before Jackson, and a question arose about when her first husband had divorced her and when she began living with Jackson. The explanation was that Jackson and his wife believed she had been divorced when they first married, but there was (and still is) some legitimate doubt about the timing.
Jackson’s marriage on the frontier nearly 40 years earlier became a major issue in the 1828 campaign. He was accused of adultery and vilified for running off with another man’s wife. And his wife was accused of bigamy.
The supporters of Andrew Jackson began spreading a rumor that Adams, while serving as American ambassador to Russia, had procured an American girl for the sexual services of the Russian czar. The attack was no doubt baseless, but the Jacksonians delighted in it, even calling Adams a “pimp” and claiming that procuring women explained his great success as a diplomat.

                Thomas Sully, Andrew Jackson
Congressional fights have been no different. LBJ ran one of the nastiest campaigns ever seen in Texas while running for Congress. 

Local politics have always been characterized by bluster, bribes, libelous and scandalous ad hominem attacks.  Politics is a dirty business, and today it is no different.  To couch the 2016 campaign within the context of the compassion and inclusiveness of Jesus Christ is disingenuous to say the least.

The Episcopal bishops are not alone in their entry into the political fray.  Jerry Falwell as an outspoken televangelist with a large following; but he was also the founder of The Moral Majority, an overtly political organization created to promote conservative political values; and he was successful at merging the principles of religious fundamentalism within the rubric of politics.  Family values, prayer in the schools, freedom of religious expression, and the dismantling of all government regulation which impeded individual spiritual growth were issues which resonated with Christians and secular conservatives.


Pope Francis is the latest religious leader be become overtly political.  He and the Episcopal bishops have both criticized concentrations of wealth and power, the lack of concern for the poor, and the divisions and inequalities in society.  Francis like the bishops, however, was singular in his attack on political conservatives.  There is no doubt about the target for his admonitions and warnings, no real understanding of capitalist economics and philosophy, and no appreciation for the fundamental and valid differences in approach between liberals and conservatives.  He, like the bishops, can only see a world rent by venal ambition, greed, indifference, and raw individualism.


The world has more than enough politicians, pundits, academics, and political philosophers to weigh in on matters of social policy, economics, and world affairs without religious leaders doing the same.   As the the Gospels and the letters of Paul amply illustrate, the only goal of an individual is to have faith in Jesus Christ and hope that he will bestow his grace upon him.   Hinduism is based on the principles of spiritual evolution, karma, and release from reincarnation – all matters between an individual and God.  The world, after all is an illusion, and the sooner one realizes the vanity of commitment to it, the better off he will be.

 “We all die alone”, says Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy’s story The Death of Ivan Ilyich.  All else – family, friends, colleagues, society, and business mean nothing at the moment of death.


In short the Pope, the bishops, and every other religious leader in the world should focus on spiritual evolution and the principles of religion which can facilitate that journey.

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