Monday, August 14, 2006


We all have heard the admonitions against the admixture of religion and politics into polite conversation. The turbulence of religious or political discussions can turn into arguments, and the arguments can soon take a quiet family reunion or dinner party to the brink of civil war.

There is an undernourished principle, the importance of which can be seen by ignoring it: whether in matters of faith or polity, disharmony causes those outside the disharmonious sphere to look into it with disfavor, and those inside it to lose their energy.

Hear, then, this call for Unity.

The faith and beliefs about government of many or most people are a single body of principles, greatly diminishing the possibility of tearing us away from our convictions about either. Politics and religion not only have these areas of commonality, but they are truly inseparable and often indistinguishable. Faith tells us how we ought to live; politics is how we get others to do the same, either by force of persuasion or force of law.

For many people, political activism for their causes takes on a religious role in their lives. It gives their lives meaning and makes them feel part of a larger whole in the way that religion does. They may also believe that their lives have more than a temporary impact, by leaving behind the aftereffects of the policies they attempt to implement.

For other people, conformity to the values of their religion requires them to have certain political views, and to be active with them. Taking action displays their faith to themselves and others, because our values are shown by what we do.

Religious views become mixed up with political ones, to a greater or lesser extent. Religious values say that saving life is Good, that helping the poor is Good, that chastity is Good, or that being kind to other species is Good. Adherents then are prone to wanting those Good things put into law, or at least to have their government support their practice. And it is an affront to them for their government to fund things with which they disagree.

Like numbers brought to life, people see themselves as having a "right" or "left" sign. They belong to one side or the other, and think they have to conform to all of the beliefs associated with that side. The religious overtones for certain issues bring religious conformity to bear.

But one thing is certain: separating religion from politics is a fool's errand. Calls for the separation of Church and State notwithstanding, few people can separate their deepest held beliefs from their opinion about governance -- and even fewer of those who do can be trusted. Trustworthy people are only found among those whose inmost beliefs (whatever they may be) are reflected in all phases of their lives.

But people of good conscience can disagree on the best way to dot an "i" or on fundamental issues. What we do with those disagreements depends on their centrality to our objectives. If we believe that the other's positive value to our side is outweighed by the negative value of the issue over which we disagree, we take steps to mitigate the damage, even up to dissociation. We ought to be careful, but often are not, that the steps we take to limit the negative effects of a disagreement we have with one of our own do not create more trouble for us than the other's mistaken opinion itself.

Francis Bacon, English scholar, politician, and Christian philosopher wrote of the twin effects of disunity "..[N]othing doth so much keep men out of the church, and drive men out of the church, as breach of unity...". There can be little doubt that this principle applies to all religions, and even to religion in general: few things keep the unfaithful that way more than the strife caused by religious disagreements.

In politics, people in general are attracted by a clear message, and repelled by petty squabbles over corruption, partisanship, and negativism. Whether the clear message is one of sacrifice or prosperity, war or peace, people will accept it more readily and rally to it more easily than if a mixed message is presented by multiple voices. Those already part of a faction may be temporarily energized by charges of corruption, or attacks on an opponent, and partisan fights over minor issues may test the mettle of a party, but viewed from the outside those tiffs are cause for the disdain of politics in general. Negativity requires escalation, as people become inured following each new outrage.

Unity is not the most basic good, however, as noted above. There are times when people disagree, and do so on matters of principle. When principles conflict, we must either capitulate or fight. But how to choose between Unity and some other value such as Life, Liberty, or Pursuit of power? We are required to choose sides, and to know how strongly we adhere to the side we have chosen.

For instance, we Christians have a basic agreement with the Islamofascists that there is a God, that there is life after death, and that certain things are moral and others are not. There are other specific areas of agreement, but the point is that on some level, we both battle the forces of atheism and postmoralism, those who have no God but themselves and no morality but mere ethics. Yet we oppose the Islamofascists, principally and obviously because they want us either to accept their way of thinking or to die. No theoretical partnership between Islam and Christianity can overcome their need to carry the banner of faith themselves, especially since they have chosen to view us as the enemy. So Unity with Islam will have to wait until its radicalism can be brought to heel.

In politics, as well as in religion, there are barriers to Unity. The case of Joe Lieberman is illustrative: here is a man of national stature, a statesman for whom our country should be grateful. But because of his refusal to subvert the defense of his country to politics, he is being shunned by his party. The same can be seen for ostensible Republicans who drift too far into liberality, populism, or intolerance, and are shunned, as well.

There is a difference, however, in rancor and divisions over matters of principle and questions of strategy. It is of utmost importance to maintain integrity of principle, and arguments visible to outsiders over these principles are a necessary evil. Squabbles over strategy and tactics are also harmful, and completely unnecessary unless they cast an unprincipled shadow; even then these should be kept private. Disagreement over strategy is often a mask for a hungry ego, or a poisonous ambition.

Unity is important, and I ask you: are the things on which we disagree, the things over which we squabble, argue, protest, and the things on which we go to war, are these things so important that our disagreement over them outweighs our value to each other?

I have answered the question specifically with respect to Islamofascism, which seeks to destroy first Israel and then the rest of the free world. But what of our fellow Americans of a different political party -- how great is the divide which separates us from them? Forget for a moment your rhetorical need to be right, and ask: is the amount of energy we apply to correct the wrongs of the other side greater than the damage to be done simply by accepting their errors? Can I unite with my rival to defeat our common foe?

Would you really rather show division to our common enemy than accept the goodwill of those with whom you disagree?

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1 comment:


But people of good conscience can disagree on the best way to dot an "i" or on fundamental issues.

Thank you, Alexander Hamilton :)

Disagreement over strategy is often a mask for a hungry ego, or a poisonous ambition.

A bold statement, which would be true if in fact there were exactly one unassailable strategy for each situation, not to mention a leader clever enough to know of it. Although a great deal of politics comes down to "poisonous ambition," debate over strategy is the last place we need to worry about venom. The glory lies in the initial decisions, not in the ways we choose to carry them out. All the hungry egos know that. :)

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