Wednesday, July 07, 2004

The Difficulty of Figuring Out Who’s Really on the Top in Wrestling and Religion or Mort Saul Among the Prophets

In my village atheist phase, I’m concerned by the influence of religion on politics because bigotry and irrationalism are catching. Religion is a very mixed bag, however; and though all faiths are obviously false if construed as systems of propositions, religious values are certainly not all malevolent or anti-democratic. The very notion of the separation of church and state originated on the church side of the line, for example. Indeed, it could be argued that the worst thing about the current confluence of politics and religion is the bad effect that politics is having on religion.

If slavery is the Punic curse of American history, imperial patronage plays the same role in history of every church. Preachers sometimes claim that Christianity triumphed because of the many miracles wrought by the saints and apostles; but, from a real politik point of view, the only miracle that mattered was the miracle of the Milvian Bridge in which Constantine saw a cross in the sky, won a battle, and became emperor. In one respect, of course, that cross was a good sign for the faithful since Christianity needed the coercive power of the state to become a universal religion, but it was a bad sign also since the empire provided its services at a high price. To this day, for example, the monarchical mummery, obsessive secrecy, and authoritarianism of the Catholic church derive from the imperial model; and it is these political characteristics much more than the doctrines of the faith that make abuse and corruption inevitable.

George Bush isn’t exactly Constantine, but he and his cohorts are offering the modern churches a new version of the imperial bargain. In return for votes and money, churches will get tax breaks, federal funds, and support for some but not all their cultural concerns. Go along with aggressive wars and your leader will endlessly profess his faith. Soft-pedal your opposition to the death penalty and we’ll recriminalize abortion and pester the pornographers. Rome has been making these kind of deals for centuries and will probably go along—it’s only the first moral compromise that keep you awake at night, the ten thousandth is easy—but some of the more traditional Protestant groups, especially the Baptists, are having second thoughts about making their services into pep rallies for the President or acknowledging that the Reverend Moon really is the Messiah.

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