Politicians have generally enjoyed using religion as a political tool, and religious leaders have almost always tried to employ politics for religious purposes.
We live in good times for religion and politics. The great majority of us are free to practice (or not) religion as we choose. That has been rare in human history, as politicians have generally enjoyed using religion as a political tool, and religious leaders have almost always tried to employ politics for religious purposes.
My assumption in this article is that some sort of liberal-democratic republicanism is the best politics. So our question is: Does religion support or undercut such politics?
It is common in debates such as these for atheists to cite the long history of fanaticism, torture, and war that religion has caused and for theists to respond that such evils are aberrations and that their preferred religion, properly interpreted, is innocent of such charges.
So: Is bad politics built into religion?
Free people have two basic needs. One need is cognitive: they need to be rational, independent, and confident in their thinking so as to be capable of running their own lives responsibly. The other need is existential: they need to be able to act on their own judgments and take responsibility, for better or worse, for the results of their actions.
By contrast, the fundamental injunction of the major Western religions is Fear God and obey his commands, as Ecclesiastes 12:13 puts it. Variations of that are basic to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. At their very foundations, then, these religions build commandments by higher authority and fear-based obedience into the psychology of their believers.
The great danger of politics is its use of compulsion. The great danger of religion is its rationalization of compulsion. Any belief system that prizes obedience to commands as a priority, is a natural fit with a politics of compulsion.
Of course many political thinkers, religious or not, argue that people are too stupid or too depraved to live freely and so need to be controlled. Other core tenets of the major Western religions are also alien to a free society.
Cognitively, the major religions put mystical revelation and faith above empirical investigation and logical thought. Claims of divine revelation and faith demand of us that we subordinate our independent judgment to the authority of others—namely, those who claim to have received such revelations and who are demanding our faith. Authoritarians throughout history have often found such religiously-minded people to be politically pliable.
Morally, the major religions undercut individuals’ sense of their self-worth by asserting their sinfulness, weakness, and depravity. Those who doubt their own worthiness are unlikely to assert their rights and fight for their own interests and happiness.
Further, the major religions emphasize a supernatural world beyond this one and devalue the natural world. In their purest form, they preach sacrifice and renunciation—poverty, celibacy, and self-inflicted physical pain. Religious texts and sermons regularly demand that one “love not the material world,” that one feel guilty about enjoying sex, that one see the love of money as evil, and that anything other than abject humility is Satanic pride.
Such metaphysical other-worldliness combined with ethical anti-naturalism has political implications: people who believe will not demand the freedom to pursue happiness in this life. By undercutting people’s fierceness in their commitment to the good life in this world, religions again make people more easily controllable politically.
Additionally, the collectivism of much traditional religion militates against the individualism of liberal democracy. Note that the doctrine of Original Sin is thoroughly collectivistic: we are all responsible for the sins of humankind. Other elements of collectivism are prominent: we are all called to worship God together and in exactly the same way. And in many versions we do not reach God individually but will be reunited only as part of humanity or a chosen group as a whole. Therefore, your sinning becomes a threat to my salvation—your deviance from what everyone else is doing becomes a threat—and you asserting your individuality undercuts our collective salvation. Consequently, we will feel not only entitled but morally impelled to interfere with your lifestyle. Toleration is alien to such religious mindsets.
There is no way to get political liberalism from religious psychologies based on obedience, submission, mysticism, faith, sin, collectivism, and other-worldliness. Instead, what follows from them is exactly what has occurred in history in times and places where such tenets have dominated—various combinations of dictatorship and communalism.
For the first one thousand years of its political existence, Christianity practiced two basic models. One was happily authoritarian—the Christian leadership worked with Caesars and kings and the various feudal hierarchies in which everyone was supposed to know his and her place. Religious minorities were suppressed and religious heretics were persecuted.
Also during that millennium, many Christians would withdraw from society at large and set up their own communities devoted to living purely according to their precepts—monasteries, convents, and so on. Invariably they organized themselves into small “c” communist societies: there was no private property, everybody worked together, ate, prayed, and often slept in communal halls—all of it with an overlay of obedience to higher authority as manifested in the Church. Authoritarian communalism is pretty much the exact opposite of liberal democracy.
That was 1,000 years of history when Christianity had almost complete domination over the intellectual and cultural life of Europe.
Yet in the early modern world there was a transformation of European politics. Some republics and democracies emerged, and there was a reintroduction of liberal individualism. To give Christianity credit for this, we’d have to suppose that its leadership suddenly said to itself: “Wow, we’ve been interpreting Christianity all wrong for a millennium!”
Or we could say, more accurately, that the rediscovery of classical Greek and Roman (and perhaps some Germanic) political models convinced the humanistic thinkers of the Renaissance, who began re-experimenting with liberal political and economic ideas.
Against the rise of humanism, the major Christian voices fought a rearguard battle. The Catholic Church was a backward-looking institution of conservatism, fighting to retain its status. Leading Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin were politically authoritarian.
Modern liberal-democratic republicanism finally emerged from the centuries-long battles begun in the Renaissance, but very little of that was due to factors internal to religion. The factional viciousness of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation—Catholics against Protestants, Protestants against Protestants, everybody against the Jews—led to widespread death and misery.
The principle of toleration was supplied by the humanists of the Renaissance and Enlightenment who argued that each individual’s life and soul was his own responsibility and that we must respect each individual’s judgment about how best to exercise it.
What ended the torture and slaughter was not a religiously-principled stand. Rather, it was a prudential realization that the fanaticism was unsustainable. The principle of toleration was supplied by the humanists of the Renaissance and Enlightenment who argued that each individual’s life and soul was his own responsibility and that we must respect each individual’s judgment about how best to exercise it. That principle was grudgingly accepted by the strongly-religious and, if not accepted, forced upon them by the humanist-inspired principle of separating religion and politics.
That principle was grudgingly accepted by the strongly-religious and, if not accepted, forced upon them by the humanist-inspired principle of separating religion and politics.
Once those modern humanist principles of individual rights to life, liberty, property, toleration, and the pursuit of happiness were in place, they were extended to eliminating slavery and the subordinated status of women. (To my knowledge, there is not a single word in Scripture in principled opposition to slavery or against treating women as second-class citizens or semi-chattel.)
The point is that the most cherished and fundamental principles of the major Western religions were consistently and accurately used by religious leaders for authoritarian political purposes. And they have been used by politicians, whether religious or not, who have found them to be useful tools for asserting authoritarian control. And in many parts of the Middle East, where theocracies are still ascendant, the politico-religious complex is not yet dead.
Obedience to God is easily transformed into obedience to God’s representatives on Earth. Incentives of an afterlife are useful in getting people to accept their lot in life—or in getting them to sacrifice themselves so as to get their supernatural rewards. Accusations of sin and demands of humility are helpful in making people defensive and compliant.
Supernatural other-world-ism, mystical faith, collective guilt, and the worship of self-sacrifice are and have been the core and cherished principles of the major religions, both in the West and in the East. Renounce those principles, and you can have a modern free society. But renounce them, and you have also renounced religion.
This essay has been modified from its first publication on Every Joe as “Is Political Evil Built into Religion?”