Why Progressives Can't Ignore Religion

In this fine country of ours, there is "a wall of separation between Church and State," as Thomas Jefferson once put it. And thank God for that (at least, if you’re inclined to believe in it). Our country has been so much stronger and more free as a result of having that wall. 

Here's the thing, though: having that wall doesn't mean that the cord linking politics and religion can ever be severed, at least not in this country where religion lives so fervently. The fact is that the USA remains, by a considerable margin, more religious and more Christian than any other Western nation, with close to 80 percent of us still calling ourselves Christians (in spite of somewhat falling percentages on that number in recent years).

Even beyond that, though, religion permeates our culture, our language, our traditions, our public rituals, our history, and yes, our political debate. More than anything else -- more than political party, more than political history, more than any cultural icon whether it be Shakespeare, Star Wars or John Wayne — Christian religion is at the core of what America believes in and relates to. Progressives ignore or dismiss religion at our peril: we will never get to a majority political coalition in this country without understanding religion and the people who believe in it. 

The fact is that religion has driven most of our country's great conflicts and has been the inspiration for most of our progress. The abolitionists and the pro-slavery Southerners, the suffragists and the appalled conservative ministers who railed against them, the Populists of the late 1800s and the High Church business elite who were locked in combat, the Protestant Prohibitionists and the heavily Catholic "wets" who opposed them, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950-'60s and the racist but Bible-beating Southerners who fought them: they have all fought over an impossibly tangled blend of religion and politics.

The good news is that the religious fault-lines are pretty much the same kind of fault-lines as the political ones political activists are more used to. In religion as in politics, conservatives tend to be rather individualistic, as the ultimate goal is to win the reward of heaven for yourself. Conservatives tend to value tradition and traditional hierarchy above change and openness, believing that too much change is scary and that only traditional authority figures can protect us. Conservatives tend to believe that an excess of democracy and "rights,” whether in government or a church setting, is a bad thing. God's role for conservatives is to punish us if we stray from the one true path. 

Religious progressives, on the other hand, are drawn less by hope of heaven and fear of hell than by the appeal of the sacred community, and the teachings of religion to love their neighbors as themselves. They tend to be more open to new ideas, new kinds of leaders, and new ways of thinking about faith; and much less inclined toward thinking there is one true path.

The happy thing about the American experiment with freedom of religion — which actually echoes ancient Greece and Rome before Christianity became the official state religion — is that while people are inevitably shaped, motivated and drawn to politics by their religion and philosophy, our constitution's wall of separation between church and state has generally (with some notable exceptions) kept our politics far more free of zealotry and violence than you find in countries without that wall. For most of world history, politics and religion were so intertwined they corrupted each other and caused a great many bad things. The fact that this has not happened as much in America is a tribute to founders like Jefferson. 

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 Christianity and 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.

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.

The church leaders in the 300s who cut the deal with Constantine to create the "one true creed" that all Christians thereafter were supposed to follow, and that the state would adhere to, had nothing to do with the man who had supposedly founded their faith. A religion tied to state power, a religion that uses violence to enforce its ideas, a religion of the authoritarianism and conservatism of the Catholic church of that era had nothing to do with the teachings of the Jesus of the Gospels. And the religion of modern conservatism has nothing to do with that Jesus either.

The Jesus who launched his ministry by saying he had been sent to bring good news to the poor and liberty to the captives, that he had come to set the downtrodden free and "to proclaim the Lord's year of favor" (which in ancient Israel meant a year where wealthy bankers and moneylenders were obligated to forgive all debts the poor owed them) — that Jesus would be astonished and bemused that men like Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney say they are his followers. The gentle man who preached the Sermon on the Mount would be stunned by an audience of people who had cheered the idea of a man dying because he had no health insurance, or another audience that laughed and cheered when Glenn Beck gleefully said in a speech to a conservative conference that "in nature, the lions eat the weak.” And that Jesus would be appalled to learn that most of the people in those audiences would say they were his disciples.

Those who worship the gods of selfishness may proclaim themselves to be saved by Jesus, but they do not follow his teachings. As politics and religion continue to influence each other in America, progressives need to realize how completely conservatives have distorted the religion they claim to believe in. And we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about our own values using the familiar language of Christ — a language the vast majority of our fellow Americans already understand. 

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