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Why Progressives Can't Ignore Religion

Wall or no wall, politics and religion have always been inextricably intertwined, and we won't win until we recognize and deal with that fact.

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But religion permeates our politics at all levels nonetheless, and it is worth understanding a bit about the history of our country's dominant religion in order to understand our politics.

So let me go way back to the beginning of the "Christian" church, which was about as political as you can get. I put Christian in quotation marks because the most likely guess as to the beginnings of Christianity were nothing like what we think of as Christianity today. If you really want to dive deep into the scholarship of this first century of Christianity, I highly recommend a book by Robert Eisenman called James The Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianityand the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is a dense, detailed book of almost 1,000 pages, so it is not for the faint of heart, but it is an impressive work of historical scholarship that will blow apart the conventional wisdom we have about those early days of Christianity. It is incredibly hard to know what happened 2,000 years ago with any degree of certainty, and Eisenman's groundbreaking theories are controversial, but he makes a strong case for them. 

He comes to his theories by comparing the texts and historical documents from that era that we still have available to us, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Bible, the histories written by Josephus, the Jewish historian from that era, other Roman historical documents, and early Christian histories. Essentially, Eisenman argues that, whatever Jesus' original inspiration and influence to the movement in Judaism around that time, it was actually his brother James who was the far more significant political and religious movement leader, and that he was the same James the Just who was the most important character of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He argues that far from trying to build a new religion based around the idea of his brother as a savior, instead James was probably the most important leader of the Jewish nationalist movement of the time that was courting open rebellion with Rome, and that his most important opponent in arguing against rebellion and for collaboration with Rome was the man we know as Saint Paul. 

Eisenman makes a very strong case that the spark of the Jewish revolt that led to the Roman disintegration of the temple in 66 AD Jerusalem was the execution of James in 62. He also makes a strong case that St. Paul was in fact a member of King Herod's family, and had close personal ties to the highest level Roman authorities. When the Jewish uprising was destroyed, and the Jews were dispersed, the Christian movement that Paul created went a completely different direction than that early community in Jerusalem.

As I said, Eisenman’s theories are far from proven and some of them are quite controversial. His breadth and depth of detailed textual detective is impressive, and he makes a compelling case, but trying to figure out what actually happened 2,000 years ago is always going to be highly speculative, no matter how good a historian you are, and there is nothing approaching consensus among historians on many of his ideas. What is pretty clear, though, just from the Bible alone let alone other sources, is that James and Paul were deeply divided on both doctrinal and political matters.

In fact, if you look at all the various writings from that place and period in history, both the Jewish people in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem, and the early Christian communities throughout the Roman empire, were embroiled in deep and frequently quite unfriendly debate over the nature of both their faiths and their relationship with Rome. Just given all the different Gospels about Jesus that have been discovered in recent years (including Gospels allegedly by or about Mary Magdalene, Judas and Thomas, as well as the Gnostic Gospels), it is clear that the Christian movement in those early centuries was incredibly diverse in nature. As the superb book The Closing of the Western Mind documented, it looks very much like a certain group of church leaders in the 300s cut a deal with the Roman emperor Constantine and his successors to enforce only one doctrine for Christianity, and to shut down — with violence and government repression if necessary (as it frequently was) — all other forms of not only Christianity, but all other religions too.

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