Why Progressives Can't Ignore Religion
Continued from previous page
This was a radical change in the culture of ancient Rome and Greece. Before that, religious freedom was much more wide open, like it is in America today. You could get in trouble sometimes if you didn't acknowledge some of the Caesars as gods or sons of gods, depending on how crazy and vain particular Caesars were, and that got some Christians and Jews in a lot of trouble at different points in Roman history. But ancient Greece and Rome were pretty mellow about religion: people had lots of different gods and theologies and philosophies, and could pretty much worship (or not, and there were openly agnostic or atheist people as well) whomever or whatever they wanted. But once the sector of Christian leadership struck their deal with the Roman government, which at that point in Roman history was tired of people getting into fights over theology (one Caesar noted that experience had taught him "that no wild beasts are so dangerous to man as Christians are to one another"), everyone was forced to worship the same god and have the same theological doctrine.
After that, severe religious repression was the order of the day in Europe for another 1,200 years. When Martin Luther posted his 95 theses and sparked the reformation, it launched a hundred new versions of Christianity, and commenced well over 200 years of frequently violent religious disputation in Europe. It wasn't until the American founders and other Enlightenment thinkers developed the notion that religion and the state should have a wall between them that a path for stopping religious wars and persecution was finally made.
So — why go into all this history of the deeply entwined thicket of church and state? Simply to make this point: For most of the history of Western civilization, religion and politics have been two sides of the same coin, very close to indivisible. Even when a wall was finally built, the two cannot help but deeply and powerfully influence each other. And if we don't understand that, we will never understand how to be effective in American politics.
Here's my other point, perhaps even more fundamental: from the beginning of Christianity, there has been a debate within the religion between progressives and conservatives over the most fundamental meaning of the creed. I tend to think of it as the debate between Jesus and the church leaders who struck that deal with Constantine.
The Jesus of the Gospels, especially of Matthew, Mark and Luke (John was written much later and was far more mystically oriented than the first three Gospels), was one of the great progressive thinkers in human history. His great passion was helping the poor, the sick, those most oppressed and reviled by the rest of society. His teachings focused on mercy, kindness, forgiveness, not judging others, and loving one's neighbors as much as yourself. His "Golden Rule" was that we should treat everyone as we ourselves would want to be treated. He taught that we would ultimately be judged by how we treated the hungry and the ill, by whether we visited those in prison and whether we treated strangers with kindness. He said we should forgive our enemies, "turn the other cheek" when slapped, and that only those who had never sinned (in other words, none of us) should cast the first stone to condemn the sinner.
The only times this gentle man ever seemed to get angry was with the money changers at the Temple, with wealthy establishment figures who didn't want to help the poor, and with his own disciples who didn't get what he was trying to say; one can only imagine what he would have done with the crowd today who claim to speak in his name.