Dr. David Wilbur: Power and Illusion: Religion and Human Need. Part 9
by Ervin Taylor
This is Part 9 of the summary of Dr. Wilbur’s book. It should be emphasized that all of the text in this series of blogs in bold font in the body of the text of the chapter summary has been kindly provided by Dr. Wilbur. If there are any of my own comments, they will follow in regular type.
Summary for Chapter 8: Religion and Politics
The art of politics consists in hiding the face of power behind the mask of doing good.
Throughout much of recorded history, the state has chosen a specific religion for official support and that religion has also provided the approval of the Gods/Heaven to justify the power of the state. Christianity brought to the Greco-Roman world the idea that a believer could only serve one Deity. Christianity started to assume political power as soon as it made peace with Constantine. This power grew almost unchecked for centuries. The Islamic tradition also has a long history of melding political and religious authority. Much of the world has now abandoned coercion in religious matters. However fundamentalist strands of Christianity and Islam are still eager to force religious compliance.
Some Rudiments of Politics
People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf–George Orwell
Human political systems can be thought of as varying combinations of strands from three major concerns: Freedom, Utopian and Special Interests. The United States was founded largely with a concern for freedom. The Bolsheviks came to power with a utopian idea—but no plan. Current US politics seems substantially bent by special interests. Specific laws often seem less important than who gets to interpret those laws.
Democracy is not a guarantee of good government, as a tyranny of a majority can be just as damaging to any minority as an unrestrained dictator. Constitutional government with a strong judiciary was the solution of our founders.
Throughout much of history, support from the Gods has been used to justify political authority. However, there is a democratic strand that justifies political power by the consent of the governed. It goes back to classical Greece and was resurrected especially in the Enlightenment.
In a crude but very real sense, politics is the discussion of the legal use of violence in society; to what ends.
Power, Utopia, and Religion
Religions usually seek the approval of the political authorities and as a religion grows in popularity, there often comes a point where it is mutually beneficial for the religion and the state to recognize and support each other. The early Christian Church went through this, moving from persecuted to persecutor relatively quickly after getting formal political sanction. Most religions have some utopian ideals that are safe enough if expected in another reality but risky if their implementation is sought here.
Corruption, Diversity, and Religion
Political power brings an increased risk of corruption to a religion as people seek to control such power. Religious diversity is usually not looked on with favor by religious leaders or the civil authorities with whom they seek accommodation. Thus political power may encourage a single orthodoxy.
Religion and Political Freedom
Religions usually have a desire for their own freedom of worship but no general goal of human freedom. In fact, religions tend to teach respect for authority and the group and to be largely conservative except at brief moments of innovation, such as the founding of a new dissenting tradition.
Political Revival and Religion
Revival of neglected religious traditions in support of political rejuvenation is a not infrequent pattern. This occurred in the Old Testament histories, under the Maccabees, under various Roman leaders including Augustus, under Josef Stalin, and even with Saddam Hussein.
Religion and Place
Religions have often come to designate some pieces of geography as holy to their God and deserving to be controlled by the faithful, even at the cost of great violence. Jerusalem is the most memorable example for a seemingly petty God who has to control a particular pile of rocks and dirt.
Fallibility, Freedom, and Religion
Human freedom is impossible except in a society that tolerates significant diversity. For those who seek to impose some religious vision on the world, this may not be an option. In general, fundamentalist religious traditions reject this type of tolerance.
Truth, Politics, and Religion
Educated people generally know that political speech seeks political advantage, usually without concern for truth. On average, religious leaders have a better record of telling the truth so their endorsement is often desired by politicians.
Political Benefits of Religion
Those who would relieve oppression and improve human life have sometimes been able to use religion in positive ways—20th Century examples include Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi. However, religion is plastic enough so that it is usually mobilized on both sides of any important long-lasting issue.
Religion and politics are almost always to some degree enmeshed, sometimes officially and sometimes unofficially. Each represents opportunity for the other—for both doing good and being corrupted.