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October 7, 1997


A Witches Brew: Politics and Religion

I wonder to what extent the upcoming symposium, "Great Religions in a Pluralistic Society," sponsored by The Harbinger, will air what appears to me to be one of the most dangerous trends in recent years -- the growing tendency to mix religion and politics. In a memo addressed to USA faculty, the organizers of the symposium make the business of the symposium sound inoffensive and noncontroversial: The symposium "will explore the basic tenets of the Great Religions of the World and how this diversity of beliefs can teach us to live in a democratic, pluralistic, and increasingly technologically oriented society of the 21st Century."

Judging from recent events at home and abroad, it doesn't appear that "this diversity of beliefs" is doing such a hot job of teaching us to live in all of that mentioned above. I'm sure the learned members of the symposium will do their best to reassure us, but I'm not very sanguine that they will do much more than preach soothingly to their several choirs. Will elucidating the "basic tenets of the Great Religions of the World" contribute anything to the reduction of bigotry in Mobile and in the State of Alabama? Reducing that bigotry, especially as it impinges on blacks and gays, is finally a legislative and judicial matter, but our fearless leaders, many of whom are very religious and yet bigots themselves, profit politically by their bigotry because a sizable portion of the citizenry of Alabama is steeped in bigotry. What have the dominant religions done to mitigate this bigotry in their congregations? Instead of seeking to influence politicians, shouldn't they address what's fundamentally unchristian in the congregations? I point at the Christians because the several Christian denominations make up by far the dominant religion in Alabama. Given this situation, the whole business of the symposium has the musty smell of the Ivy Tower. Incidentally, the Ivy Tower is not exactly squeaky clean. In August a Federal jury in Atlanta awarded $275,000 to the former chair of the Department of Communication at Kennesaw State University who was demoted after questioning the dismissal of the only two Jewish professors on her faculty.

All of the religions participating in the symposium have shown, in vary degrees, a penchant for positioning themselves to gain political favors from legislators or for putting political pressure on legislators. Even sweet little Buddhist nuns were, apparently, doling out money ($100,000) to emissaries of the Democratic Party in Los Angeles recently, though they innocently denied any such intentions, saying, "We see people. We don't see politicians." Pat Robertson, Chairman of the Christian Coalition -- the man who calls the shot for that organization -- recently in a taped talk indicated that the Christian Coalition would do well to adopt the political tactics of such venerable political machines as Tammany Hall. He said among other things: "We've got to be knowledgeable. We are not a bunch of ingenues anymore. We're a seasoned group of warriors." Yeah, so is the Taliban, to cite an egregious extreme of what can happen when politics and religion get seriously mixed. In Kabul these days men have to wear long beards and aren't even allowed to fly kites. Women are forced to completely veil themselves and must get permission from the Taliban to go to the market for food. This is what comes of modeling a pure Islamic society on the teachings of the Koran. Or worst, in Algeria you get a situation where approximately 60,000 people have died since 1992. Let me not neglect the Israelis who also like to claim scriptural authority for their political acts. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, apparently bent on making the situation worse for both Palestinians and Jews, is still determined to allow building of 300 homes for Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

On the political side of the coin, our politicians, playing to the Christian Right, are prone to come up with stunning no-brainers. In defense of monogamous marriages, Christopher-righter, Gov. David Beasely of South Carolina, speechifying about the perils of divorce at the Christian Coalition Convention in Atlanta said: "Studies will show monogamous married couples to be the most sexually satisfied people in America." I can hardly wait to read all about it. From the left-center we have Vice President Al Gore pressing the Yeltsin government to reject a bill to protect the Russian Orthodox Church against competition from other Christian faiths. He was told that, in trying to impose its pluralistic tradition on Russia, the United States was applying a double standard since it didn't similarly press the King of Saudi Arabia to allow different faiths.

We had best set our own house in order before we go about bragging up "how this diversity of beliefs can teach us to live in a democratic, pluralistic, and increasingly technologically oriented society of the 21st Century." But since religion and shooting seem to have a lot in common, who knows, maybe the learned participants in the symposium will shoot at some real targets this time.

-- Tom Brennan

Life Forms by Dan Silver

The Harbinger, Mobile, AL