Religion and politics: an unpredictable mix In many nations, religious activism is a growing force for change. Clerics of many persuasions are using their pulpits as sounding boards for heartfelt but often conflicting calls for sweeping new social orders -- stimulating new debates over the separation between church and state.
Boston — RELIGION and politics: They are often an inevitable but uneasy mix. Historically, the spiritual and moral elements in government have been a source of inspiration for those seeking justice and freedom. But they have also led to holy wars and terrorism. Today, however, the real question is not whether religion should be entangled with global politics, say most church and secular leaders. The issue now is how much involvement the clerical should have with the nonclerical, and what forms it should take. On this, there is little meeting of the minds.
In the West, particularly the United States, the division of church and state is a constitutional mandate. But recent years have brought heated debate over the height of the so-called wall of separation and whether this barrier should be porous enough to allow such practices as school prayer and public aid to parochial institutions to seep through.
In other parts of the world there is no such clerical-government division. There, the prime issue is the role of the church in maintaining nationalism and the traditions of the past or in effecting social and political reform.
Some insist that the church and its clergy must hold themselves above specific agendas and partisan stances. Love for God and man in a global society, they say, are the proper theological goals. Others would put churchmen right down in the trenches and in the seat of government, fighting for spiritual ideals in a very political way. Some even justify the use of violence to achieve ``religious'' ends.
Perhaps the recent embracing of ``liberation theology'' in Latin America and the Philippines best illustrates one important aspect of the controversy.
For example, the role of the Roman Catholic Church in deposing Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos is now under scrutiny by both theologians and government officials. The Marcos family reportedly had some close ties to the Vatican up to the end, but it was Jaime Cardinal Sin -- the Archbishop of Manila -- and other bishops who were instrumental in mobilizing resistance to President Marcos.
These clerics termed the disputed presidential elections of Feb. 7 ``unparalleled in the fraudulence of their conduct.'' The clergy's pulpit and in-the-ranks support for challenger and now-President Corazon Aquino was visible.
The official position of Rome remained neutral. Pope John II generally praised the ``peaceful and just solution [of the Philippine succession issue] . . . without recourse to violence'' but was careful not to reveal any partisan preference. This seemed consistent with the Pontiff's clear stance against direct involvement of clergy in political revolutions.
However, some observers don't see a significant difference between the clergy's position in the Philippines and the political activism of Roman Catholic clerics in Nicaragua, where a quartet of priests in the left-wing Sandinista government have been barred by Rome from exercising sacral functions.
The argument is not likely to be resolved soon. Political involvement of the church has deep historical roots. It dates back at least to the 7th century when the Prophet Muhammad united political and religious authority.
From the Protestant Reformation and Counter-Reformation to modern times, religious authority has alternately enjoyed prominence and or been consigned to an inferior position in the West. In the East, although colonial rulers gradually encroached on the domain of religion, clerical influences remained important in helping to legitimitize political power and mobilize military force.
Today, the role of religion on the global scene continues to present a series of paradoxes. In some cases, the church focuses primarily on man's spiritual needs. In others, its main role is in prodding technology and emphasizing material progress.
In certain instances, religion calls for peace and societal unity. In others, it is a source of conflict and violence.
Additionally, certain branches of organized religion adopt liberal political and social agendas. Others embrace traditional conservative if not reactionary tenets.
In spite of these conflicts, scholars and clerical leaders do tend to agree that churches and religious thought are increasingly influencing national and international politics.
A. James Reichley, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of a new book about religion in American political life, says ``there is evidence of a general turn towards religion throughout the world.'' He attributes some of this quest to a disenchantment with secular institutions and a reaction against the trappings of new technology and ``modernity.'' And he expects the trend to continue.
However, Prof. Martin Marty of the University of Chicago, a leading Protestant theologian, says the warming to religion is not uniform globally. He refers, in particular, to parts of Western Europe and Scandinavia as a ``religious icecap.''
In Africa, however, Professor Marty points out that ``16,000 Christians are being born or converted every day.''
``And in the Islam world, every fifth human is now of the Muslim population,'' he explains. In the l950s, every seventh person was Muslim.
In Latin America, where two-thirds of the world's Roman Catholics reside, liberation theology is a distinctive mark of the resurgence.
In the US, the movement away from secular outlooks, particularly in the Sunbelt, is characterized by a strong shift toward religious fundamentalism.
These divergent trends have produced equally dissimilar religious leaders. They range from the bellicose Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran, who has vowed to overthrow ``un-Islamic'' governments, to South Africa's Anglican prelate, Bishop Desmond Tutu, who trots the globe preaching nonviolence in rallying those opposed to apartheid.
Theological scholars tend to agree that the most noteworthy and controversial religious saga today is the rebirth of fundamentalism around the world. And the group that is attracting the most attention is the Islamic Shia faith, whose followers are called Shiites.
The Rev. James Wall, Protestant theologian and editor of the Christian Century, points out that Islam presents a ``puzzling phenomenon'' for Westerners who, he says, are ``accustomed to being told that all international conflict is based on capitalist-communist economic difference.''
However, adds Mr. Wall, ``it is Allah, not Marx'' who inspires this movement.
There are approximately 550 million Muslims in the world, of whom 90 percent are Sunnis. The remaining 10 percent are Shiites, including 40 million who live in Iran. But there are marked differences between the Sunnis and Shiites, explains Wall.
``Politics and religion are synonymous to the Shiite Muslim,'' he says. ``In Iran, Shiite religious officials are the rulers. There the displaced are in charge. In contrast, Sunni Muslims -- who govern all Arab states except Iran -- have reached an accommodation between religion and political power. In Saudi Arabia, for example, the King rules by being religious and acting political.''
Theological and political distinctions among Islamic fundamentalists are, however, not broadly understood in the West. ``Our government is structured to deal with sovereign states, not movements,'' says Moorhead Kennedy, executive director of the Council for International Understanding. A Protestant minister and long-time student of Islam, Mr. Kennedy was one of those held hostage for 444 days by Islamic militants at the Tehran embassy.
``Religious movements just don't fit the [foreign policy] mold,'' he says. Kennedy calls for the US to adopt a more flexible approach to diplomacy towards Islamic fundamentalists. He says the State Department must better examine problems of religious movements without embarassing local embassies.
Others agree. Chicago's Professor Marty also wants a ``more fluid'' US foreign policy toward Islam. ``We must stop stereotyping . . . [assuming] all Arabs are terrorists. They are not all the Ayatollah in Iran.''
Most scholars agree that religious fundamentalism in the East is quite different from that which now is taking hold in the West. There are, however, some common roots. Max Stackhouse, professor of religion and society at Andover Newton Theological School, suggests that ``every religion is based on certain fundamentals; and fundamentalism arises when these fundamentals are imperiled, obscured, or ignored.''
Professor Stackhouse also points out that fundamentalism tends to arise in lower and lower-middle classes at times of class mobility and in religious traditions which lean heavily on revelation. He says it is often impossible to predict whether fundamentalism will take a liberal or conservative turn.
Arie Brouwer, executive secretary for the US National Council of Churches of Christ (NCCC) says ``a general feeling of insecurity'' about moral values slipping away accounts in part for the rise of fundamentalism in the US.
Mr. Brouwer and others believe that the Christian political ``right'' is a potent force. But most doubt that this religious coalition will be able to produce a viable presidential candidate, like the sometimes-touted evangelist Pat Robertson.
Despite a strong constitutional commitment to separation of church and state, few see the mere interaction of the clerical and nonclerical as a threat to the republic. ``Mixing politics and religion is as American as apple pie,'' insists Ernest Lefever, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
``Jesus of Nazareth stated the perennial question: Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's,'' Dr. Lefever says. ``But he gave no precise formula for solving specific problems.''
This specialist on the role of religion in formulating government policy, says that, on the one hand, a free society should rightly have theological underpinnings. But he also warns about the ``dangers of invoking divine sanction for particular positions on public issues.''
Of late, in the face of sharp criticism, both the religious left and right in America have moved toward politically active stances which Lefever says are causes for concern.
For example, various liberal church groups, including the National Council of Churches, US Catholic Bishops, and other progressive Protestant and Jewish organizations condemn the arms race and nuclear war, advocate economic reform, back sanctuary in the US for illegal refugees from Central America, and oppose government investment in racist South Africa -- all in the name of religion.
On the other hand, religious conservatives continue to lobby for legislation banning abortion, reinstating prescribed school prayer, and affording public aid to private education.
``True religion must stand above the battle,'' says Lefever, ``and judge the excesses of all ideas.''