Saturday, August 27, 2005

Religion + Power = Pat Robertson

The red line people try to draw between religion and politics is really a false one. You can tell this by the fact that everyone wants to draw the line in a different place with a different set of exceptions. People on the right don't hesitate to ascribe policies on the income tax, the UN, and eminent domain to Jesus, but bemoan the way radical leftists have (in their view) taken over the mainstream Protestant churches. Meanwhile, we on the left are horrified when Catholic bishops denounce John Kerry's stand on abortion and Southern Baptist churches distribute Republican literature, but we lionize the great clergymen and -women who helped lead the civil rights and antiwar movements.

There really is no intellectually consistent way to separate religion from politics. If you take religion seriously (no matter what faith you subscribe to), its moral, ethical, and social implications inevitably affect your politics one way or another--and often several ways at once.

So the red line between religion and politics is phony. The real dividing line, I'd contend, is between religion and power.

When religion serves the powerless, the results are edifying, inspiring, and, not coincidentally, consistent with the historical roots of faith. After all (to focus on Christianity for the moment), Jesus and his followers lived among the poor and dispossessed in an arid land occupied by hostile imperial forces. Jesus was not a counselor to kings, generals, or tycoons; he was an advocate of widows, children, the blind and the lame. And when he spoke about wealth or politics, his theme was always helping the needy, bringing justice to the oppressed, and avoiding the corrupting lures of money and power.

On the other hand, when religion serves the powerful, the results are horrific. Naturally so--because the first imperative of power (whether it's held by an unelected potentate, an elected official, or a group or class of people) is to hold onto power and continually solidify that control. Once maintaining power becomes a goal, it almost inevitably becomes the goal--because when the demands of power and the demands of conscience clash (as they always eventually do), the leader who responds to conscience loses his or her grip on power and rejoins the "outs."

For example, it's becoming increasingly clear, with a generational perspective, that the long-term decline of the Democratic Party in the US in the second half of the twentieth century was caused most fundamentally not by the perceived weakness of the party on defense or by social issues like abortion but by the commitment to civil rights established as Democratic doctrine by Lyndon Johnson between 1964 and 1967. The Republican tide began to sweep the (white) South with Richard Nixon's "Southern strategy" in 1968, and a solid Republican South has been the cornerstone of that party's national dominance ever since.

Thus does choosing conscience over power, at crucial moments in history, lead to a loss of power. But that only makes sense--after all, that's the meaning of "to choose," right?

Conversely, those who seek power must be prepared to do what it takes to maintain and extend it. This is especially true for American leaders in this age of the "single superpower," an age not unlike Jesus's lifetime when Rome bestrode the then-known world.

To continue its current profligate lifestyle, America needs a constant influx of resources from the rest of the world, including poor workers from Mexico and the Caribbean, cheap products from Asia and Latin America, capital from China, and above all oil from the Middle East and a handful of other suppliers (like Venezuela). Any "responsible" overseer of the American empire must be prepared to do what's necessary to keep those flows coming at a reasonable cost. This includes diplomatic power plays, military attacks and invasions, and leveraging our clout to maintain a tilted playing field in the economic arena.

And if it also includes an occasional assassination--say, the killing of the leader of a relatively powerless South American dictator whose major crime is threatening to disrupt the flow of cheap oil to the United States--that's just one more small reality of power.

Yes, it's unseemly for a supposed man of God like Pat Robertson to call for the murder of another human being. But the fact that Pat Robertson wants the US to murder leaders who stand in its way is the inevitable result of the fact that Pat Robertson has chosen to be chaplain to the world's most powerful people (a role in which it's very hard to picture Jesus).

And let me be clear: When I say, "the world's most powerful people," I don't just mean the conservative Republicans who currently run the government, but all of us who live in, benefit from, and support the American empire. To the extent that we want to continue to enjoy the benefits of being the world's economic, political, and military superpower without assuming the commensurate moral responsibilities, we also join Robertson in wanting our agents around the globe to do whatever it takes to maintain our privileges. We just don't want to hear the messy details.

In the end, the only difference between Pat Robertson and someone like the aging Billy Graham (recent subject of many fawning tributes in connection with his last "crusade" in New York City) is that Graham has usually had the good sense and tact to avoid talking publicly about the crude realities of power. But either way, the result is the same: A clergyman who chooses to serve Caesar rather than Jesus eventually becomes a teacher of Caesarism rather than Christianity.
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