Editorial-Religious Wars

My title should be an oxymoron. Most religions, based on the spiritual well-being and eternal security of the individual as they tend to be, decry the use of war and violence to advance secular security. Certainly Christianity, as it derives directly from the words and life of Jesus Christ, gives no allowance for religious war in anything more corporeal than a spiritual cleansing of the thought process. So, too, we are told by many in the Muslim world that the term jihad primarily has a personal and internal application—I hope they are not just wishing this were so.

But we are in the opening days of the twenty-first century. A century already remarkable for its liberal application of religious agenda—mostly of the violent kind. In the aftermath of the worldwide socialist movement and the innumerable proxy wars fought between it and the defenders of liberal democracy we seem not to have reverted to the nationalism many expected but to a more elemental expression of religious violence.

I wish I could say that this is in any way associated with an increase in spiritual commitment or personal piety, if you will, but I cannot see any clear change in that direction. Rather the new religious forces seem more an outgrowth of tribal or group identity than anything else. This is a curious reversion of history—indeed, even of the haute evolutionary assumptions that human beings will continue to refine their social development.

We are instead rapidly approaching a state not dissimilar to prehistory and the landscape of early Old Testament times, when formal social groupings were emerging and asserting themselves: a time when the expression of a local deity functioned to define and protect the group. A local deity was owned by the particular society, defined that society, and defined the conflicts with other groups and their deities. It was a context that encouraged wars of annihilation. While the underlying causes might well have been competition over land, water, trade, or influence, the agenda of religious conflict and exclusivity made these precipitating issues and not end aims.

I could fill this column with examples from the intervening years of history to show the civil danger of tribal religion at work. The Middle Ages were replete with examples—and not just the oft-cited Crusades. And post-reformation Europe at times seemed nothing less than a cauldron of religious wars passing for civil rivalries.

Back to the future. George Santayana once said that those who do not remember the past are destined to repeat its mistakes. So why is it that so many religious leaders here are clamoring for political power even as basic religious communities around the world are erecting fences of tribal exclusivity? This issue of Liberty focuses neatly on the question with the article "The Quest for Power and Influence," by Gerald L. Zelizer. Here in these United States of America we have come under relentless assault by various religionists who are determined that the received orthodoxy of our society should have a legislative mandate for direct political activity. Why this insistence should be seen as a totally different dynamic here than the similar baying for power that has overwhelmed various predominantly Muslim societies in the past decade or so escapes me.

I will confess that I come to my caution in this regard from two unimpeachable sources. First is the plain facts of history and how the dynamic of tribal religion has worked its mischief in the past. The second source is from my Bible, and comes from the thirteenth chapter of Revelation, among other references. Here is given a portent of the future . . . and regardless of how Christians parse out the very significant particulars of this and other prophecies, all recognize that here we see the actions of an atavistic, power-hungry civil religion. A monolithic, politically powerful religion always dispenses its largesse in abusive ways: whether it is the beating of boys for flying kites, the burning of heretics, or the denial of basic foodstuffs to dissenters implicit in the end-time mark-of-the-beast state predicted in Revelation.

It has been many years now since the West was largely titillated at the death fatwa issued from Iran against author Salmon Rushdie for his very real aspersions of Islam. We now know where this leads. A few days ago scholars at Cairo's Al-Azhar University, a preeminent Sunni Muslim center of learning, officially declared a jihad against the U.S. for attacking Iraq. Clash of civilizations aside, it is self-evident that the force of such a statement and its likely repercussions derives mostly from the fact that in that part of our shrinking globe the world of the faithful has largely merged with a national strategic vision.

How can we protect our society against such a hijacking of true religion? Taken at face value, those who claim to represent the true spirit of Islam say theirs is a religion of peace. But surely then this merging of state and spirit in that part of the world has tended to ignore the subtleties of dealing with any "other," and tends to accelerate a tribal narrowness that goes beyond what the holy books themselves encourage.

Why do clerics and representatives of religious factions demand a political voice on the level playing field of political action? Even if not always realized, it cannot be but for the need to separate the acceptable faith from the other and deal with the threat in ways that only state power can provide. And before we enter that red-tinted alleyway we need to ask ourselves if that is what we want; if we want to emulate the fundamentalist horrors of such regimes as the Taliban, the Drogeda massacres of Cromwell's England, or the France of St. Bartholomew's Day. There is a vast gap between where we are now and those times; but it is a gap with a road between and not disparate points on the moral compass.

I am not one of those inclined to take alarm at changes in the religious affiliation census of our elected officials. For public service I expect all who are elected to honor the public trust, and I presume that their individual faith professions enrich their personal morality. I do not wish to see them use their public trust to advance the particular agenda—particularly an agenda for dominance—that their church may have. That would threaten far more than the First Amendment. Conversely I would not like to see any in public office threatened by their faith group if they do not do the above.

No major faith group is immune from the temptation to advance by means fouler than fair. The following example was not picked because it represents any faith group as such, but because it happened recently and shows how any faith group convinced it has the inside track to salvation can project itself against power. A large advertisement in the Washington Times railed against "the deadly dozen" of Catholic senators who support abortion. The advertisement then called on church leaders to deny Communion to these people. Quoting church distaste for the promise of President Kennedy to keep his faith out of his public office, the piece appears to have leadership backing. Abortion may be—I believe is—a moral outrage. But I am no more happy to see a church play political hardball to fight it than I am to see an Islamic fundamentalist state use sharia law to execute a woman guilty of adultery.

As I stated, I see the whole movement for legislation to empower religion in politics as subversive—to church and state. I see the perhaps well-intentioned if historically naive move to reach back to an idyllic Christian nation construct and then legislatively implant it today as equally dangerous. I see the developing "them versus us" battle taking on religiotribal overtones and cannot help thinking that we are heading the wrong way.
I cannot believe that The Prince of Peace I serve would have any part in religious war, whether fought by guns or political machinery.

Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."