Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Religion and Government

Religion has its uses - particularly for those who want to stay in power.

Religion has been a big thing as of late, particularly overseas.  People who want to prop up their power structure often employ religion to get the masses to support them - and this is a tale as old as time.  Historically, emperors, Pharaohs, and other dictators employed the "anointed by God" gambit, or, in some cases, such as Japan, claimed to be Gods themselves.  It is a neat trick, because, as a citizen, if you criticize the political decisions of the leadership, you are attacking the State religion and God himself.  You can expect to be stoned to death, shortly.

Oddly enough - or not so oddly - revolutionary movements use religion - or a form of religion - as their backbone as well.  You have to get people to believe in a cause before they will overthrow an emperor anointed by God.  It helps, of course, if the emperor has given in to excess, but it helps even more if you have an alternative God to put in his place - or can argue he has defied God or the Gods, himself.

In more recent times, we have seen secular "religions" being used to rally the masses.  "Godless Communist" countries (an interesting moniker) use Communism itself as a form of State religion or cause to rally behind.  It creates a series of beliefs that people are expected to invest in, often to their own detriment.  But that is no different than any traditional religion.

It is interesting that one of the foundations of our country (and one rarely talked about by the far-right) is the "establishment clause" in the first amendment.  You no doubt have heard a lot of noise about the first amendment these days - people on the far-right claims it means they can say anything they want to, and everyone has to go along with it and news outlets and online forums have to print their messages and moreover, people have to buy their products, whether they want to or not.  Anything less than that is a violation of their "free speech!"  This is, of course, nonsense - and no, that is not up for discussion.

But the actual first Amendment says more than that - and less, in terms of "free speech":

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It is interesting how this has been interpreted over the years.  For the most part, it has been interpreted to mean that while we have freedom of religion in our country (the right to practice any religion you please) we are not free from religion in that a religious display or prayer by one person is not an infringement of your rights to practice another.  It gets sticky, as in recent years, people have argued that government-sponsored displays of manger scenes are an implicit endorsement of one religion over another.

(By the way, the establishment clause doesn't mean you can do illegal things and then claim they are part of your "religion."  While some Indian tribes have successfully argued that their use of Peyote is a traditional religious practice, this does not mean you can get away with murder by claiming it is part of your religion, such as the human sacrifices practiced by most religions over the centuries - but more about that later.  Ever aspect of the "Bill of Rights" - including the second amendment - has limitations.  Free speech isn't entirely free - the government can regulate the time and place of such speech, and in some instances, even the content thereof.  You can't project child porn onto the side of a government building as a "protest" - there are limits, as you would soon discover.   People seem to have forgotten this in recent years, in their yearning for "freedum".)

But getting back to manger scenes, in my small town, this was easily addressed by moving the manger scene across the street to the church, which was built on the "town square" back in the 1800's before people took this sort of thing so seriously.  But it is a point well made - that when the government provides space for only one religious display, it is de facto endorsing that display.  In response, some courts have argued that so long as all religions have access to this space then there is no establishment of one religion over another.  So, people like Anton LeVay and his "Church of Satan" (which, from what I can fathom, is the biggest trolling effort ever launched - long before there was an Internet!) demand to put up their "satanic" display in opposition, and - if you'll pardon the pun - all hell breaks loose.

I am still plowing through Machiavelli, a Portrait, which is an old library book I found in a book exchange.  It is fascinating reading, as like a Rorschach test, people read into his writings what they want to see - a heartless bastard who advocates for scorched-earth politics, a misunderstood person in modern times, or perhaps merely a commentator of his era.  And things he said in The Prince or The Discourses are often taken out of context.  Consider this quote:

“And as the observance of religious teaching is the cause of the greatness of republics, similarly, disdain for it is the cause of their ruin. For where the fear of God is lacking, the state must necessarily either come to ruin or be held together by the fear of a prince that will compensate for the lack of religion.”
― Niccol√≤ Machiavelli

Some have argued this means Machiavelli is endorsing religion as necessary for civilization - and that ungodly States are destined to ruined due to lack of faith.  But if you read more into it, he is merely stating what I have said all along - religion has positive aspects in a society in that it keeps the plebes in line - going to work every day, paying their bills, and not committing crimes.  Without religion to guide them, the hoi polloi would simply revert to barbarism.

They must either fear God, or fear the State.  The former is easier to administrate.

Religious fundamentalists argue that what Machiavelli is saying is that faith in a higher power is what keeps society together.  Others, including myself, would argue that Machiavelli is being - if you'll pardon the phrase - a little more Machiavellian in this quote, by basically saying that religion is a way to keep the stupid brutes in society in their place. Or as Karl Marx once said, "Religion is the opiate of the masses."

In Celenza's book, he interprets it more harshly:

"Religion is one thing, primarily, instrumental.  It points toward no greater truths, though it makes people believe there are such truths, and it possess utility only in so far as it contributes to political order.  It is especially important to use religion when proposing something new politically - a new political order, a change in government, and so on."

A little harsh, yes, but closer to the truth, and indeed we see this in action today.  Putin uses the Orthodox church to bootstrap his legitimacy as the de facto dictator-for-life of Russia, as well as his "Russian World" vision of the future.  Many Russians buy into this not as a political stance but as an almost mystical religious one.

Kind of hard to dispute that - in fact, you can't logically argue religion.  Under Erdogan, Turkey has moved from the secular state championed by Ataturk, to an Islamic near-theocracy.  And of course, nearly every Arab country (and Indonesia and others as well) claims to have divine inspiration from Islam - and uses the Quran as their constitution.  Again, you can't argue divine leadership - it isn't up for discussion, interpretation, and (pardon the pun) - God forbid - amendment.

Yes, amendment - the mechanism in our constitution that allows for change over time.  We've done it 27 times so far, sometimes for noble purposes, sometimes for trivial reasons.  People still propose we amend it to outlaw "flag burning" - as if the first amendment only applies to certain topics.  But the second part of Celenza's quote above is quite on-point on this.  Americans - some at least - have made a pseudo-religion out of the Constitution (which, like the Bible, they've heard a lot about, but never actually read) and thus view our government in quasi-religious terms.

"It is especially important to use religion when proposing something new politically - a new political order, a change in government, and so on."

Recent changes in our government and society have not had the endorsement of major religions.  In fact, quite the opposite.  Things like Roe v. Wade, and gay marriage were and are, vehemently opposed by fundamentalist religions, who also argue that as a "Christian Nation" only they should have a say in how the government is run.  Not only are they pissed-off about those things, they are not so sure about women's rights, rights for minorities, and pretty much every change to the social fabric since World War II.  They want to "go back" to the "good old days" because they were never allowed veto power on these newfangled things.

The Catholic Church suffers from the same problem.  No Pope has been very successful in updating the dogma of the Church, as the hard-liners would argue that such changes go against church teachings.  And without the support of the old school, change isn't going to occur.  So, over time, the mentality of the 16th Century becomes cemented in place - with no hope of change or evolution.  The only solution is to start a new religion - as has been done, repeatedly, over the ages.

No doubt, if mainline religions supported Roe v. Wade or came out (pun, again) in favor of gay marriage, there would be almost zero opposition to these societal changes.  But sadly, the Catholic church believes in limiting gay marriage to Priests and altar boys.  Yes, I had to go there - but the way the church was set up, it was a mechanism designed for abuse, with the code of silence and the specter of shame and sin used to keep people quiet.  So many act shocked by the revelations of decades (nay, centuries?) of clerical abuse, when the system was designed for just that.  There is no logical argument for setting up a system where children as used in religious services and intentionally placed in situations where they are alone with "celibate" men for long periods of time.   It was a feature, not a bug.

But I digress.  It just illustrates how fucked-up religion is - or at least can be.   Is.

Of course, at one time on this planet, religion was the government, or at least governments had to endorse and pay homage to the State religion.  The idea of separating politics from religion is a relatively new one, and as you can imagine, religious leaders were not keen on this.  A secular government takes away extraordinary power from the church.

In response to my last posting on religion, a reader sends me this link, which argues, like the Rosicrucians, that maybe Jesus wasn't a real person, but a construct of earlier religions.  Many have made this argument, as it seems that only decades later, is the story of Jesus even told, and quite a long time later that Saul/Paul made Christianity into a franchise.  Many folks, particularly fundamentalists, think that Saul changed his name to Paul to renounce Judaism in favor of "Christianity" but such is not the case.  Paul is just the Romanized version of Saul.  And Paul's great contribution to Christianity was to take it from a sect of Judaism (where only Jews could be Christians) and make it available even for the Goyim.

What is interesting about the link they sent me, was that it argued that the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross was a continuation of a long line of religious sacrifices - willingly and otherwise - where someone or some thing is sacrificed to God for the greater good of all.  It is an interesting argument, and indeed, is some sort of societal good.  Apart from cutting the hearts out of young virgins (as some mezzo-American societies did) the idea of the individual doing good for the whole of society does have some merit, even if it doesn't mean literally sacrificing your life.

Humanity has always been divided into the "let's do good for all" and "I've got mine, jack, you get yours!" mentalities.   If you are the kind of person who brings their shopping cart back to the corral, or picks up and disposes of litter, you fall into the first category.  If you are the kind of person who throws trash out on the road, well, you are probably in the second category.  Oddly enough, today, most people who identify themselves as fundamentalist "Christian" seem to fall into that category.

God wants me to have this penis boat - the fact that I have one is a sign I have incurred God's favor.  The fact that my neighbor is annoyed by the loud sounds if makes, is a sign they have incurred God's wrath.  That is the "thinking" involved in today's "prosperity theology" - where might makes right, and money equals piety.   Cursed are the poor, for they surely have pissed-off God!

Of course, like anything else, the concept of the few sacrificing for the benefit of the many has been bastardized by religion.  I mean, if you are head honcho of a religion, what better way to cement your power than to have any dissenters sacrificed as part of some ritual or ceremony?   Better to sacrifice your enemies than your supporters.   And in a way, Communism, as a religion, worked the same way.  Stalin was the head priest, and his "lists" of people to be liquidate was the price that had to be paid for the greater "good" of Communism - and some people today actually still believe this!

On Facebook and other social media sites, you will see "memes" from Christians, claiming that anyone who doesn't believe in God has no moral compass.  What's to stop them from going berserk and just taking what they want and killing people?  Without the Bible, all is lost!  And yet, in the Bible, there is a lot of killing going on, and even Jesus stole a horse.

One could argue that today's twisted version of Christianity (and every other religion) not only do not provide this moral compass, but worse, legitimize bad behavior.  Prosperity theology normalizes ripping off customers, particularly if they don' go to your church.  God says it's OK!  In Iran, they are twisting the Quran to legitimize state-sanctioned rape and murder, because, God wants that?

No only is this idea that "only" religion can provide a moral compass wrong, it is laughably so.  Unscrupulous people have used religion to justify bad behavior since the dawn of time.

So what's the answer?  What is the point of all this?  There is a point.  Maybe our "moral compass" should be dictated by our laws and not some dusty old books whose content contradicts itself again and again.  The problem with ruling-by-religion is that you can find a passage in any religious treatise that justifies your actions, whether good or bad.

Maybe - and I know this sounds crazy! - maybe we should determine, in our own time, what is morally correct and what is decent behavior.  Human beings have an innate sense of morality - or at least most of us do.  There are always the psychopaths and sociopaths who live by their own rules or delusions.  That is why we enact laws - to protect ourselves from these outliers.  And yes, these laws often mean a restriction on the rest of us - a sacrifice we all make for the greater good.

Sure, maybe I could be a responsible Bazooka owner.  But my "right" to own such a weapon is overshadowed by the prospect of someone being wildly irresponsible with it.  And that is why even the most ardent second amendment enthusiast would not argue that ordinary citizens are entitled to own Bazookas, rocket launchers, howitzers, or nuclear weapons.  Even automatic weapons are hard to come by - by design.  But surely, the Supreme Court hasn't yet address that issue, right?  What we have to look forward to in this stunning new age!

Like I said, some folks like to make a religion out of the "founding fathers" and like with Jesus, they fail to understand their real teachings.  Jefferson thought the Constitution should be reworked every 20 years or so.  They provided a mechanism for amendment because they knew our society would change over time.   While many were slave-owners, they realized that slavery could not exist forever, in a country dedicated to "freedom."

Sadly, many of today's "patriots" think that what the "founding fathers" wanted was for us to exist in a static 18th-century era, allowing nothing to change and to look to the Bible for inspiration for our laws.

It just is amazing how wrong people get these things.