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One cup religion, one cup politics, one cup economics….

Posted on Wednesday, 23rd November 2011 @ 10:40 AM by Text Size A | A | A

A few weeks ago, when reshelving books that had accumulated on my bedside table, I discovered that I had been reading a lot of books about religion. First, I asked myself, is there something the matter with me? Then, after musing about this for a while, I decided that it was politics, or rather religion in politics, that was on my mind. I don’t think that I have learned anything particularly powerful, that would help us all solve the mess that we are in, but I have gleaned a few insights from my nightly hot toddy of religious inspiration that have worked their way into my conversations with my friends and associates.

For example, friends of mine, a couple, related to me a story about their daughter, who had married an immigrant from India. What was disturbing to them about him was that he and his family revered Kali, an Indian goddess that Westerners associate with destruction, and hence, something evil. I had recently read a few articles about Hinduism, and told them that Kali Maa is considered to be the kindest of the Indian gods, and that the stories of her violence are examples of her protective nature. In one of the stories I read, Kali defeats a horde of demons, and after she has slain them all, she dances ecstatically over their dead bodies. Lying in a pile of dead demons is the wounded Shiva, her consort, and she unwittingly tramples on his body as well. He moans in pain, and she contritely apologizes and begins to weep. Don’t worry, my love, he says. I am really very happy. I am so happy that you are on my side!

I don’t think this story helped them much. They had many dark suspicions. Death, for us, can only be bad. But the more I think about it, the Indian pantheon, if you look at it philosophically (apparently many Indian people also do this) she is like a goddess of Homeland Security. Of course, the bureaucracy of our organizations obviously weeds out any possibility of human feeling. It’s all technical – using x-ray scanners, electronic eavesdropping, computerized databases and such. No room for a compassionate, protective mother. She is certainly not Michelle Bachman. Kali Ma would never kick the crutches of the poor and needy.

My mental quandary, caused by the public theological musings of our Republican political candidates, has led me into a morass of history, economics, and religion so dense that I have become prone to saying alarming things. I was participating in a forum of people discussing politics, in which someone wrote that he wished the Tea Partiers would go to hell. I responded by saying that that was an excellent idea. All Tea Party members should immediately go to Hell. Upon which, a fellow who had been attending to the give and take of this dialogue responded that he was deeply offended by my words, and wrote about a thousand words expressing his indignation. I replied that I couldn’t respond to everything that he said, and that I really didn’t believe in Hell. The worst a fellow could suffer, afflicted with such a curse, I said, is to be compelled to park his Chevy Suburban, and ride a bicycle. He responded with another rant, even longer, saying that he really did believe in Hell, etc. So I ended it all by saying, “Rush Limbaugh is the Antichrist! Repent, and reject Satan!” That seemed to freak everyone out, but him.

What I hate most about the religious side of politics, is that people take care to present themselves as Christians, and then feel that they have acquired a kind of infallibility, like the pope. This established, they go on to repeat everything they have gleaned from the John Birch Society Blue Book. Either that, or they get the same spiel, slightly watered down, from Fox News.

I used to think of Fundamentalism in a good way. People going to hear preachers in tents, and singing. Getting excited about the Lord.  Alexis de Toqueville described the ordinary American people in Colonial times as extraordinarily mystical, in awe of God’s Creation, which they saw in the unending wilderness that was so close to them. Beautiful, kind and caring people. Reverence for work, for the well-run household, for children and the extended family. It takes a whole village to raise a child.

There’s a lot of reasons why fundamentalism is problematical, nowadays. Consider the effect of the changes in the late eighteenth century. The Industrial revolution. The scientific revolution. Finally, the French Revolution. That really did it. When the French executed their king, everybody started to take it for granted that the Church did nothing at all that was worthwhile. Which caused a lot of changes. Such as, Christian Socialism. Shouldn’t the Church try to help people in need? Or, since when does any particular church have a right to conduct all marriages, etc. because it is a State sponsored religion? Even more troubling, the question was asked, what makes a preacher legitimate? Can he be inspired directly by God, or does he need to go to school? Can he be appointed by a wealthy person with political power, and serve his interests?

Fundamentalism in America tends to ignore that these questions were ever asked. A the turn of the century,  some churches viewed theology as a kind of science.  It bothers me that they are trying to bring this back.  No other truth is needed.  I suspect that most people who go to fundamentalist churches don’t actually believe any of that crap anymore. It’s worse than being an atheist. You give lip service to it, constantly, but it means nothing to you. You prove that you are a good person by being knowledgeable of the Bible. But you don’t interpret it. You don’t read between the lines. It’s just a tool to give you legitimacy, to further your personal agenda.

But I am more than willing to admit that I am prejudiced on this issue. I don’t live in that world, I don’t see what they see. But history has a lot to say about religious hypocrisy. In the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, it has been revealed that many of the accusations were accompanied by disputes over property, grievances between neighbors. A political analyst (I wish I could recall the name of the writer) said that religion in politics has very little to do with religious feeling, and a lot to do with building fences. I can believe that.

Beyond the religious hype there is the right-wing belief system. Trickle down economics. The less government, the better. It wasn’t always that way. During the Gilded Age, just before the turn of the century, the plutocrats could rightly call you a Marxist if you didn’t agree with them. After all, it was Marx who proposed the idea that all value in manufacturing is created by labor. Any profit that the industrialist makes, is subtracted from that labor. However, reading about the history of how economics has been taught in the United States and elsewhere, I read that an economist named Francis Walker, disagreeing with Marxian theories, proposed a different view of profit. Profit wasn’t  just a kind a rent charged by people of means. An industrialist was also an entepreneur, a person who created new ways to make wealth, both to his own benefit, and to his employees. Walker also asserted that the boss could take too much profit from his enterprise. The boss deserves more, because his work is more valuable. But he can’t take it all. The concept of entepreneurship had its heyday in Silicon Valley, and some truly great workplaces were created, such as Apple Computers. How did we go through such a revolution in business, to the present nightmare created by the financial world? It seems to me, that it wasn’t very long ago, when the future seemed so promising. What was done was done by stealth, by deception, by lies to the American people.

A common theological question is: are human beings basically good, but only become evil by interaction with the world? Or is evil part of human nature? I read an essay from “Freud’s Vienna” by Bruno Bettelheim, in which he related the story of a man in Poland who ran an orphanage for street children, made homeless by the wars. He firmly believed that children were naturally good, and created a governance for his school which included the children’s decisions on an equal par with his own. In fact, on one occasion, the children felt that he had made a few decisions without including them, and they brought him into the student court, and reprimanded him for this behavior. These same children were  sent to Treblinka by the Nazis, who first marvelled at their precosity, and then gassed them, every one. That wasn’t because they were democratic, of course, they were Jewish children. All the more reason that we should hate and fear fascism in any form.

We might make a parallel to this democratic orphanage a discussion of the concept of democracy. Aristotle wrote that democracy was an imperfect political system, because the people were prone to being misled by demagogues. But those polish children bring to mind a different type of democracy, a democracy that values fairness more than anything else. To be a political animal, one needs more than self interest. I don’t think anybody must  read a pile of books, to be a good democrat.  It would be more important to have the spirit of justice seen in children, to have a democracy that works.

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