Whenever the term secularism is mentioned the immediate reaction by almost everyone is that this is a matter concerning only the Muslim world. After all, most other countries, regardless of their initial religious backgrounds, appear to have developed political systems in which secularism is the lowest common denominator rather than the core of a dispute.
The European states are supposed to have scripted God out of politics; at least since Nietzsche’s mis-named Zarathustra preached a new brand of nihilism in the 19th century. In the United States the separation of politics from religion was a fundamental principle of the Constitution enacted in the 18th century. In India, the world’s most populous democracy, the separation of religion and state allows the country’s many diverse faiths to share the same political space.
Nevertheless, as the French novelist Andre Malraux once prophesied, the 21st century will be nothing if not religious.
“Nobody can keep God out of politics,” says Jim Wallis in his provocative book “God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It?”
Wallis should know. He is a Protestant preacher, writer and thinker with a long history of efforts to develop a space within which God and Caesar can work together in the service of the citizens.
Wallis is a rare bird if only because most evangelists in the United States today support the Republican Party or groups further to its right. A visitor to the southern sunbelt of the United States might form the impression that many protestant churches are little more than branches of the Republican Party and that all true Christians have a religious duty to vote Republican.
According to Wallis this situation is the result of two events.
The first is that the Republican Party, which had almost no presence in the southern states, used the denominational churches as a Trojan horse through which to capture those traditional strongholds of the Democrat Party. The second was that the Democrats, partly influenced by the European Left, looked at religion with suspicion, especially when it came to issues of individual freedom and life-style.
Wallis argues that perhaps the most important reason why Senator John Kerry, the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, lost to President George W Bush in 2004 was the average American’s belief that Democrats are, somehow, godless.
But is the Republican Party presenting a genuinely Christian political programme? Wallis says: no.
He argues that the Republican Christians have reinterpreted Christianity to be an ideology for the well-to-do, the powerful, and the censorious. By presenting their politics in Christian terms and tones they have succeeded in persuading millions of American to vote against their own economic interests. Thus a Michigan auto-worker who may be about to lose his job because of Republican free trade policies, may vote Republican because of other issues such as abortion, stem cell research and gay and lesbian marriages. And these, of course, are all issues on which the Democratic Party is supposed to have an anti-Christian position.
The result of all this, according to Wallis, is a new situation in which the Republican Party may well continue to control most, if not all, levers of the American governments for years, if not decades. And that, of course, would be a blow to democracy in which changes of governments, and policies, through elections is a substitute for civil war. There can be no true democracy in a society in which a minority can never hope to become a majority.
So, what is to be done?
Wallis admits that anyone who talks of creating a religious government, let alone a theocracy, in the United States would be laughed off the stage. But even if such an enterprise were possible the question would remain as to which version of which religion should be adopted by the state as its “official faith.” Also, any injection of religion into government at the highest levels could only increase the brutality of what is already one of the most brutal political systems anywhere in the world.
Wallis’s answer is twofold.
First, he wants all partiers and political activists to recognise religion as a legitimate participant in the political debate. He says that the Left is wrong in treating religion as nothing but a reactionary medieval relic or, worse still, a fantastic concoction designed to hoodwink the masses. To back his point Wallis digs into the Old and New Testament for “political programmes” and finds some interesting material. He also argues that because the average American has a religious bend of mind he would more easily relate to any issue if it is presented with a clear religious-ethical dimension.
Secondly, Wallis wants the Christians to broaden their field of political vision beyond such issues as opposition to abortion, homosexual marriages, and stem-cell research. He thinks that it is possible to develop distinctly “Christian” domestic and foreign policies as an alternative to what is on offer by secularist politicians and groups.
Wallis agrees that state and religion should remain strictly separate. But what he thinks is harmful is the separation of religion and politics. He lashes out against those who want to keep religion as a purely private matter for the individual and insists that individual beliefs are bound to have public consequences. In any case the very effort to keep politics out of religion is a political act.
Wallis is much less persuasive when it comes to concrete examples of what he sees as “the Christian alternative” to secular policies. One case he treats at length is the liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein. Wallis recalls his own background as an anti-war campaigner and peppers his books with the letters he and others wrote to various authorities and the meetings he and others held with various world leaders to prevent the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Having established his pacifist credentials, however, Wallis goes to some length to highlight his intense dislike of Saddam Hussein’s regime which he described as one of the most vicious in history. He says that getting rid of Saddam Hussein was a noble act but he wishes it had been achieved without war.
The question is how?
Wallis, finding no clear answer, comes out with a set of confused references to “international action”, “pressure from the UN”, and “more robust inspection of Iraqi weapons’ sites.”
Wallis is also opposed to the way President Bush is waging the so-called “war on terrorism.” He wants more resources spent on winning the hearts and minds of Muslims and more meaningful action to address their grievances, whatever they might be.
But, once again, the trouble is that such vague positions stand little chance of winning the argument against clear political positions.
In the US Christian fundamentalists, most of whom support the Republican Party, have been successful because they pick some clear issues and come up with simple positions. For example, they are against abortion without any ifs and buts. They also support capital punishment for murderers and rapists. They oppose gay and lesbian marriages. They support the teaching of the biblical version of the Creation instead of the Darwinian theory of evolution.
Religion can impact politics precisely because it can provide simple answers to complex questions. Religion is the domain of certainty, not of yes-but, and or-if. More importantly, religion is not the best place in which to develop compromises. Politics, on the other hand, is all about yes-but , or-if, and compromise.
This is, perhaps, why human societies need both religion and politics. A society in which politics excludes religion is a sick one. And one in which religion swallows the political space is even sicker. Wallis, although a man of the cloth, has the great merit of understanding that.