America’s Lethal Admixture of Politics and Religion

Jun 28 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

What does religion have to do with politics? In the ancient world, the answer would have been “quite a lot.” After all, the gods made the state and the state gave and sponsored worship of the gods in return.[1] The same was true through most of subsequent history until the European Enlightenment began to break that system down. The “divine right of kings” and the idea of “state sponsored religion” were incompatible, you see, with the modern liberal democracy birthed by the colonists in North America. State sponsored religion is the enemy of the “we the people” modern liberal democracies are founded upon: God did not make the state; the people did.

As it turns out, and the Founding Fathers recognized this: for everyone to have equal freedom, everybody has to give a little freedom up. This is the basis of the social contract theory of government, and that theory was never put more to the test than in the establishment of the United States of America, the first national government established outside of the old European order.

The Constitution was not handed down by a god, nor decreed by a king, but debated and compromised into existence by free men acting upon their own will in accordance with the ancient pagan idea, given new life by the European Enlightenment, of natural rights.

As it turned out, the Christian religion and the idea of the modern liberal democracy were at odds. The Constitution is all about the granting of rights and liberties, guaranteeing equality before the law for all and an equal right to the pursuit of “life, liberty, and happiness.” The Christian religion is not about the granting of rights but the placement of restrictions and obligations.

This is no surprise given the Ten Commandments’ origins as a Bronze Age vassal treaty between the people of Israel and their God.

  1. Preamble (identifying the author of the covenant and his titles and attributes. Begins with the formula “thus saith…”)
  2. Historical prologue or review (Describes the previous relationship between the parties and reminding the subordinate party of their dependence on the suzerain. The “I/thou” form of address is characteristic of this section)
  3. The stipulations (States in detail the obligations imposed upon and accepted by the vassal)
  4. Provision for deposit (placing the treaty in a place of honor in the vassal’s city)
  5. List of gods as witnesses
  6. The curses and blessings formula (what will happen if the terms of the treaty are or are not followed. See Deut. 28).[2]

The Ten Commandments are arranged in a very similar pattern: preamble, historical review, list of stipulations (the main body of the commandments).The last three elements are missing, as Mendenhall points out, but it’s been argued that they are to be found later in the text. For instance, the Torah is to be read out loud to the public (list of witnesses) and kept in a sanctuary (call for deposition) and there are quite a few curses and blessings for the Israelites to receive depending upon how well they follow the stipulations of the treaty (statement of curses).[3]

No rights to be found anywhere; only punishments if they don’t obey. If you can see any advantages to this over the Constitution, please feel free to speak up now. I don’t see any, and the Founding Fathers plainly didn’t see any since they chose to ignore the Ten Commandments as a basis of our own system of laws and government. The Founding Fathers saw the old pagan idea of inalienable rights as preferable. I see no reason to question their wisdom.

But the pagans mixed politics and religion too and the Founding Fathers plainly had no intention of follow this ancient paradigm. They were witness to the dangers of state-sponsored religion in the Old World and the tyranny of the papacy. God-authority, they could see, was incompatible with people-authority. Thus we have “We the people” as the basis for our system of government as opposed to any divine agency.

The Founding Fathers understood that religion and politics are two separate endeavors with completely different goals. It’s safe to say that throughout history there have been as many definitions about religion as you can imagine.[4] One view is that of Ziony Zevit (2001):

Religions are the varied, symbolic, expressions of, and appropriate responses to the deities and powers that groups or communities deliberately affirmed as being of unrestricted value to them within their world view.[5]

Archaeologist William G. Dever adopts for his own use the definition offered by Hans H. Penner:

Religion is a ‘verbal and non-verbal structure of interaction with superhuman being(s).[6]

Which brings us to the idea of religion as ‘ultimate concern.’ We are talking here about the concerns of ordinary people. What did religion offer and in what ways did it motivate its followers? Dever lists several influences:

1)      The concern for survival. This was the first concern of religion. As Dever writes, “This would be not merely death by famine, disease, or natural and manmade disasters, but the possible obliteration of one’s self, one’s family, one’s heritage and posterity. Today we might call this the threat of non-being, Søren Kierkegaard’s “abyss” into which any individual might fall at any time.”

2)      Aligning one’s self with the universe. You will recognize the applicability of this motivation as well. As Dever puts it, it is getting the gods on one’s side. The distinction between “sacred” and “secular” is, as Dever explains, a modern one. Biblical Hebrew, he says, “has no specific word for ‘religion’… Living in antiquity was being ‘religious’…”

3)      How to placate the deities and secure their favor. This is still an ultimate concern for some religions in the modern world, particularly Christian fundamentalism. “If the gods really were in control, how could individuals act practically so as to avoid their wrath and secure the specific blessings that would enhance survival?” Dever calls this the “care and feeding of the gods.”

It should be readily apparent that all of these concerns are missing from the United States Constitution. They are missing from the deliberations of the members of the Constitutional Convention. The Constitution itself looks nothing like the Ten Commandments either in content or in structure. It is not a vassal treaty between supplicants and deity but an affirmation of, by, and for the people that they have established by their authority the national government.

Carter v. Carter Coal Co., 298 U.S. 238, 296 (1936) (“[T]he Constitution itself is in every real sense a law—the lawmakers being the people themselves, in whom under our system all political power and sovereignty primarily resides, and through whom such power and sovereignty primarily speaks. It is by that law, and not otherwise, that the legislative, executive, and judicial agencies which it created exercise such political authority as they have been permitted to possess. The Constitution speaks for itself in terms so plain that to misunderstand their import is not rationally possible. ‘We the People of the United States,’ it says, ‘do ordain and establish this Constitution.’ Ordain and establish! These are definite words of enactment, and without more would stamp what follows with the dignity and character of law.”

Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution call on God; neither list any obligations to a God or punishments by a God for failure to live or govern a certain way. All responsibility ultimately devolves to the people.

So we’ve seen what religion is about. What about politics? Politics comes from the Greek politikos (πολιτικός) which means “of, for, or relating to citizens.” Religion, remember, is essentially of or relating to god(s). Politics are the art or science and government and in a modern liberal democracy, this means not a deity dictating governance but governance through the people, derived from the will of the people, the “We the people” of the preamble of the Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Unlike the Ten Commandments, the author of this “covenant” is the people themselves. Yet fundamentalists like to show us photos like this and ask, “Politics and religion don‘t mix?”

We are, as it happens – theoretically at least – completely god-free where government is concerned.[7] The government can’t sponsor or support any particular religion (First Amendment) and a citizen does not have to pass a religious test in order to hold an office in this secular government (Article VI, paragraph 3), and the Ten Commandments are part of neither the Constitution nor the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments of the Constitution).

In fact, in answer to the question posed by fundamentalists noted above, all the religion now residing in our once secular government has been added since the generation of the Founding Fathers. They left us with no “under God” and no “In God we Trust” and no Faith Based Initiative. For today’s fundamentalists to pretend that their religion is fundamental to our system of government is, like the photo itself, simple dishonesty.

The Founding Fathers realized that politics and religion don’t mix and they did their best to protect us. To the extent we are suffering today from that lethal admixture[8] must be laid at the door of the Christian reactionaries and of the less enlightened citizens and elected officials who allowed these repeated assaults to pass. It’s up to us, this generation, to now put the genie back in the bottle and bring back the America the founders envisioned.

Update: See Mother Jones’ collection of Bachmann quotes here.

[1] Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 3d ed. (Oxford University Press, 2004), 24.

[2] George Mendenhall  “Covenant Forms in Israelite Tradition” The Biblical Archaeologist 17 (1954), 58-60.

[3] For a discussion of Hittite vassal treaty parallels with the Old Testament see W.F. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity (1957) and George Mendenhall, “Covenant Forms in Israelite Tradition” The Biblical Archaeologist, 17 (1954), 49-76.

[4] William G. Dever, Did God Have a Wife? Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel (Eerdmans, 2005), 1, sees “millions upon millions of notions of what religion is and does.”

[5] Ziony Zevit, The Religions of Ancient Israel: A Synthesis of Parallactic Approaches (Continuum, 2001), 15.

[6] Hans H. Penner, Impasse and Resolution: A Critique of the Study of Religion (Peter Lang, 1989), 7, 8; c.f. Dever (2005), 2.

[7] As the Treaty of Tripoli (1797) affirms: “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen,—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

[8] Charles Kimball: “The United States of America today includes large numbers of vocal, self-described ‘conservative’ and ‘fundamentalist’ Christians. Some are armed and clearly dangerous.” See When Religion Becomes Lethal: The Explosive Mix of Politics and Religion in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Jossey-Bass, 2011), 165. See also this article at AlterNet: Fighting the Culture Wars With Hate, Violence and Even Bullets: Meet the Most Extreme of the Radical Christians

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