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Religion and Politics


John Simkin
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I believe that Jesus Christ is the most important person who has ever lived. In terms of my political and moral philosophy, he is a far more important figure in my life than say, Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg or Tom Paine. However, I have never been able to believe that he was the son of God. That needs an act of faith that I do not possess. That does not mean I dismiss the ideas of someone who does believe in God. That is irrelevant. My judgement is based on what they say and do.

Take the example of Martin Luther King. Here is a man who was motivated by a belief in God. His interpretation of the teachings of Jesus Christ had an impact on his behaviour. Not only in his political objectives (a society based on equality) but in the way he sought to achieve those political objectives (non-violent resistance). I believe that Martin Luther King is the most important political figure of the 20th century. Like Jesus Christ, he showed the way forward. That you could achieve political objectives without the use of violence.

It is undoubtedly true that King would not have behaved in the way he did without his strong religious beliefs. However, we have to remember that most people in the United States who believed in God were completely opposed to the views of Martin Luther King. They saw him as a dangerous radical. The most common description of King was that he was a “communist”. King was not only opposed by individual religious believers. He was opposed by church leaders. (In the same way as religious leaders opposed Jesus Christ over 2,000 years ago).

This pattern is common in history. Let’s take the struggle for equality in the UK. Most of the most important figures in this were deeply religious. This includes those who led the struggle against slavery, child labour and racial inequality. It is also true of those involved in the most important struggle of all, the fight for universal suffrage. The sad fact is that the established church opposed these moves. Why? Did they not read the same Bible as these social reformers? Of course they did, but they interpreted what they read differently.

There is an obvious reason why history is full of examples like this. The established church has from its very beginnings has closely associated itself with those who hold political power. That its role has been to defend the status quo and to control the minds of the masses. This has involved church leaders arguing that slavery or child labour was morally right. Thankfully, there have been enough individuals, who, after studying the teachings of Jesus Christ, came to a different conclusion. The brave ones, did not only say it was wrong, they did something about it. This was often at great personal sacrifice. Some died for the cause. Others spent time in prison. Most suffered from smear campaigns against their character. However, they continued the struggle and in most cases, refused to resort to violence, a tactic that was often used by their opponents.

Many of these campaigners were not lucky enough to see the changes they sought. They died before the legislation could be introduced. What they did do, was to provide an example of the way a true believer in the teaching of Jesus Christ behaved. This in turn has inspired other people to spend their life fighting for equality. Despite the activities of these people, the world is still a very unequal place. In fact, in world-terms, inequality of wealth and power has never been greater.

The recent United States elections illustrates this problem. The established church played an important role in the result that was achieved. They made sure that moral issues played a prominent role in the campaign. That is to say issues like gay marriage, abortion and stem-cell research. However, the morality of equality never became a real issue. They seemed quite unconcerned with issues like poverty, progressive taxation, health care or women’s rights. In fact, once again, the main role of the church was to preserve the status quo (or in some cases, to go back to the status quo of the 1950s).

The struggle for equality continues. We will have to do it without the support of the established church. However, we will need the help of people who are inspired by the teachings of Jesus Christ.

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John - What do you mean by "the established church"? In the US, I challenge you to name one monolithic "established church". True, protestant fundamentalists overwhelmingly supported "W" - but those folks aren't considered "main-line" protestants by "established churches" (like the Episcopalians, Disciples of Christ, etc.). The Catholics, hung up as they are on the issue of abortion, would still not be a strong factor for the Republicans; for example, Catholics would have a great deal of trouble with traditional Republican views on capital punishment.

When I came to Eureka, I found (to my surprise) an active group working for peace and opposing Ronald Reagan's foreign policy in - surprise, surprise - "the established church".

I think the issue is more complex than you seem to imply.

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I share your starting premise about the significance of Jesus of Nazereth and the even broader significance of Judeo-Christian values.

People of conscience have used their moral beliefs to move mountains from the Quakers, to William Lloyd Garrison, to MArtin Luther King.

Down here in the bible belt it is not uncommon to see bumper stickers with the four letters WWJD. Often the cars aren't the newest and biggest, and the riders in them seem to hold blue collar or big box service store jobs (not trying to sound like a snob)

WWJD means what would jesus do? While I rarely feel I am informed enough to know the answer, I find it to be a good question to use as a refer to.

I tend to inclusion in my ill-defined theology. I don't want a heaven that you can't get to if you are Hindu or Buddhist, are from the wrong side of the reformation, or Jewish.

Others use moral beliefs to exclude or condemn. I read a passage in the bible the other day about Jesus cursing a fig plant when it had no fruit to offer him out of season. When he and his disciples returned that day the plany had withered. When they asked him about it he said everyone has that power to pray and move mountains if that be their desire, they simply had to forgive every one that had wronged them first.

Another example would be the prosrcition against judging fellwo men.

I don't see how either approach can be used while condemning others to war declaring others to be heretics and fanatics.

Religion permeates our society and it has the power to move mountains like in the hands of MArtin Luther King and it has the power to destroy them in the hands of Osama Bin Laden.

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John - What do you mean by "the established church"?  In the US, I challenge you to name one monolithic "established church".  True, protestant fundamentalists overwhelmingly supported "W" - but those folks aren't considered "main-line" protestants by "established churches" (like the Episcopalians, Disciples of Christ, etc.).  The Catholics, hung up as they are on the issue of abortion, would still not be a strong factor for the Republicans; for example, Catholics would have a great deal of trouble with traditional Republican views on capital punishment.

I was of course referring to the established church in Britain. However, the pattern of church development is similar in all capitalist countries.

First the Roman Catholic Church and later the Church of England, became closely identified with communicating the dominant ideology. Every so often this resulted in a certain percentage of the membership rebelling against its leadership. The Peasants’ Revolt in the 14th century was led by church rebels like John Ball. In the 17th century the Puritans challenged the power of the state. The following century it was the turn of the Methodists. In the 19th century a wide variety of nonconformists groups emerged. These often worked closely with the main opposition party. In the 19th century it was the Liberals and in the 20th century it was the Labour Party. All these groups campaigned for political reform and a move towards social equality. In virtually every case, these church groups eventually become part of state ideology. The one exception to this is the Quakers who have remained loyal to their ideology of pacifism. This of course has brought them into conflict with the government in times of war.

In the last 50 years this has ceased to happen. New groups that have emerged do not argue for a move towards social equality. In fact, the opposite is often the case. They favour policies that reduces the rights of women, gays and other minority groups. This is not to say that these churches support the dominant ideology in the same way that the Roman Catholic Church or the Church of England did in the past. It could be argued that some of their policies damage the smooth running of the capitalist economy.

At the same time, the Roman Catholic Church or the Church of England cannot be relied upon to always support the policies of the government. In the 1980s the Church of England played a significant role in questioning the economic policies of Margaret Thatcher. One report of life in the inner-cities by the church was described by one Tory minister as being “Marxist”. Leaders of nearly all the churches in Britain condemned the invasion of Iraq. What did church leaders in the United States say about Iraq?

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I can't speak for church leaders (it'd be nice if some of them joined this forum!), but I can tell you that the Disciples of Christ here in town largely oppose US actions in Iraq. I think that is probably true of the national leadership in that denomination as well.

The Catholics made a big deal about "just war" during the Vietnam era, and it wouldn's surprise me if they did that again. Have they? I don't know.

Some other denominations are probably supportive, but I couldn't tell you which. At this point, it doesn't seem that churches are contributing to the debate as much as they did during Vietnam.

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