Religion, Politics, and Subtlety

I just finished watching two intriguing programs on television that

mix, at least in my mind, notions about religion and politics. The

first was tonight’s Charlie Rose. This was the most pessimistic

assessment of the Iraq war I’ve seen so far on Charlie Rose. Last

week’s episode with William Kristol was the complete opposite - oh how

things have changed in a week, how the propaganda of a decapitating

victory and the cheering crowds of Iraqi’s seems to have disappeared

in a single week. Although I know full well that a week is far too

little time to judge such a vast enterprise as regime change and

rebuiliding in Iraq, I do so love it when the media suddenly discovers

that the world is far more complex than they have portrayed it, or

that chance rules human affairs far in ways we can rarely comprehend.

After watching Charlie Rose I turned to the Discovery Channel special

report by Thomas Friedman “Searching for the Roots of 911.” I admire

Friedman a lot and I felt this documentary was one of best I’ve seen

about the roots of terrorism. Although Friedman clothes many of his

ideas in neologisms and metaphors that sometimes seem too trite for

their own good, there is a real sense of subtlety to what he says

about the resentments of the Arab-Muslim world for America. America

has long acted in the world with a double standard. The entire cold

war was a long struggle between the rhetoric of freedom and the

realpolitik need to contain the Soviet Union by whatever means were

necessary. In the Middle East this meant supporting a large number of

cruel dictators, including Saddam Hussein. It is no surprise to me

that we are now feeling the blowback of those actions.

All of this links to my recent

post that cited some commentary by Fred Clark and Richard Dawkins on

the religious dimensions of the current war, especially from George

Bush himself. What offends me most about Bush is his lack of

subtlety. And I begin to wonder how much of this simplemindedness

comes from religion, especially the evangelical religion of Bush.

A lot of simplifications occur in religious faith. Friedman cited

many of them in his documentary when he acknowledged that there are

strains of Islam struggling to create a holy utopia in which a master

race is replaced by a master religion. In such a belief system the

individual becomes merely a martyr for the cause, just like the

hijackers of 9-11. The movement seems to be from a simple black and

white view of the world to a black and white view of the person.

Evangelical Christianity seems to make the same move, but in reverse,

from a simplified individual to a simplified world. The relationship

of the individual with God is all that matters for the evangelical

believer. And as long as that person has a “Good Heart,” and faith

then they can never be wrong or led astray. Fred Clark puts it thus

The dangers of such an approach are
obvious. All considerations of consequence and outcome (including
respect for the potential of unforeseen consequences) become secondary
to the matter of intent. For Mr. Bush, if someone has a "Good Heart,"
his intentions are pure and he can do no wrong.

This is what makes me so worried about George Bush and the current

war; there is no public acknowledgement in the current administration

of subtlety or doubt. Hussein is evil and therefore must be

eliminated. Such attitudes strike me as religious instead of

political. A religious war, at least on the basis of history, seems

guaranteed to be far more dangerous than a political war. If we are

fighting a religious war for democracy in the Middle East then we have

inflated our risk by measures that can hardly be measured. The cynic

in me says it would be better to be fighting for oil then to fight for

the grand wave of democratization some of the neoconservative advisers

to George Bush seem to expect to arise out the ashes. When gambling

with such stakes the chances of falling into the same double standards

we perpetrated during the cold war seem massive. If we build up the

expectation for democracy too much the blowback will be that much

greater in the future.

My ultimate question is why does religion fall into these traps of

simplfying the world. Personally I am an atheist. But I admire the

possibilities of religion. I know that religious belief is as diverse

as individuals, just as there are some atheists who want to eliminate

religion there are some theists who wish to coexist with the

faithless. A month ago there was a conversation on a few of the

weblogs I regularly read. It started with Steve at One Pot Meal talking

about the appeal of monasticism to an atheist. From there comments

were made

by AKMA and others. The points made by AKMA that are most interesting

are about how the community constrains the belief of the individual.

It seems to be a truism in American Protestantism that a personal

relationship with God is the only way to be faithful and that the

traditions of Catholicism stunt the personal relationship. Although I

strongly support the individual’s journey toward faith I wonder if

Bush and other evangelicals need to acknowledge the community around

them. And that community cannot be confined to other believers. If

it is confined then it is like standing inside a hall of mirrors.

Although I disagree with almost everything my coworker Larry has to

say about religion I admire his willingness to engage in

conversation. The problem is that it is merely talk - there is no

risk for the evangelical believer. Larry is never going to become an

atheist. Yet I feel that I might become a believer. If there is no

risk of changing another’s mind then the cost of the conversation

eventually seems to become too large. This is the way I now feel

about the war debate - the cost of resistance seems too large, the

blindness of faith too strong. How can such a beautiful impulse as

religion fall into such twisted despair?