Political Religion

For the vast majority of human history religion has been a centerpiece of any government, the notion of a separation between church and state is a relatively recent notion, by and large dating back to Thomas Jefferson (ignoring Jesus of Nazareth’s dictum to, “render unto Caesar that which is Caeser’s and unto God that which is god’s”, which was mostly ignored for the two millennium that followed). However, recently this notion has been almost completely rejected by both radical American conservatives, and fanatic Muslims, an exceptionally odd parallel.

On a global scale radical Islam (so called, political Islamic) has, in it’s various forms, become one of the most powerful forces of international relations within the last 40 years (dating back to the 1972 murder of Israeli athlete at the Munich Olympics). This is despite it’s relative small, on a global scale, following. During the period in time in which a mixture of church and state was common, the Muslim world was somewhat unique, in that under the caliphate is was relatively accepting of other religions, in particularly as Jews fled from one persecution to other in Europe, Jews in the Muslim world lived in the protection of the Caliphate. This contrast, between the modern radical Islam, which defines itself by its exclusivity, versus the pluralist policies of the Muslim caliphate is representative of a fundamental shift in whether or not a secular law can exist in parallel with religious law, as a national authority.

This conflict plays itself out in many other arenas, in the United States of America the Catholic diocese often advocates for its members to vote for political candidates who’s agenda matches church doctrine (on issues such as abortion and stem cell research) a conflict best symbolized by John F. Kennedy’s, “I do not speak for my Church on public matters — and the Church does not speak for me”, a further example of this conflict is the State of Israel does not maintain a formal constitution for fear it might conflict, in hearts and minds, with the Torah. This conflict is a result of the inherent exclusivity of moral law, and indeed both religious law and secular law are moral. It makes little sense to have a moral law, and then state that it shouldn’t actually be enforced (especially given that most religious codes are even kind enough to prescribe punishments for the crimes they list). Some religious documents, such as the Tannach (the combined Torah, Prophets, and Writings), go so far as to prescribe political and judiciary organization for the religious state. Given these conflicts codes it is little wonder that for more than a millennium the various churches and governments were intertwined.

That does not, however, explain why after several hundred years of the acceptance of a separation between church and state there is a relatively sudden resurgence of claims for the mutual exclusivity of them. The reason for this is the same for almost all political campaigns, it’s effective at winning hearts and minds. Few issues cannot compel action from the populace when phrased as “us versus them”, and religion is especially well suited for such a framing, given its exclusive nature (one can only be a member of a given religion, and most religions claim to be a “final answer”). This framing with the radical Muslim world, of an us versus them (bolstered by activities such as American invasions of various Muslim countries, and Israeli treatment of Palestinians), has acted as a recruiting tool for violent extremist Muslim’s to recruit from what would otherwise have been a relatively moderate population. A similar phenomenon occurred in 16th century France as the native Catholic population became reactionary after the increase in Huguenots.

Fundamentally, politicized religion is a reactionary result of perceived persecution. When populations believe they are threatened they attempt to unify themselves on a common point, sometimes this is nationalism, and sometimes it’s radical religion. Nationalism, however, often defines itself by things like standing armies, whereas historically religious groups lionize small groups of rebels (dating back to the Maccabees). This perceived persecution, self-definition as an independent entity, and radically differing moral principle results in a use of religion to make political statements.