Confusing Politics With Religion

Much is made these days about the threat of “Radical Islam,” and the fact that the Jihadists often seem bent on killing as many Westerners—particularly Americans—as they can. This has led some to adopt a posture of “political protectionism,” akin to the trade protectionists we see in some circles, warning of the dangers posed by “radical Muslims” throughout the world. But at the risk of being thought “politically correct” (an epithet I regard as among the worst things you can call anyone who postures as a “thinker”), I think we need to be cautious about confusing politics and religion.

Properly understood, all of the world’s great religions speak to the best in us, not the worst. At the same time, all of them suffer from the handicap of human imperfection, and many of the “mystic” religions—those that assume the existence of an all-powerful God, as opposed to philosophy-based creeds, such as Confucianism—seem to have a thread of evangelicalism in them, seeking to “spread the word” and convert everyone to what they suppose is the “one true” path to salvation.

Unfortunately, this latter aspect also appeals to the worst in us—the facet of human nature that divides the world into “us” versus “them,” and strives for ways to prove ourselves “superior” in some ways to the rest. It was that aspect of Christianity that took Europe on the Crusades…had otherwise sane people burning accused heretics and witches alive at the stake…and is still echoing around our own culture in some of the more extreme fundamentalist sects. And yet we, ourselves, seem perfectly able to separate out the “nuts” among us, who view religion as a way to feel superior to others, from those who view their religion as a source of peace and strength, and who view the philosophy of Christianity (and Judaism) as one of tolerance and brotherhood.

Before we begin lumping all Muslims together, we need to understand the vast differences between them—differences that are every bit as caverous as those between the Unitarians, the Fundamentalists, and the Polygamists in Utah. Properly understood, many of the differences spring not from the teachings of the Christian religion, but from the political views—and, on occasion, the personal lifestyle preferences—of different religious leaders…some of whom are intoxicated by notions of their own self-worth, and all of whom suffer from human imperfections of their own. Similarly, I suspect that much of the mistrust and hatred that spills across cultures stems not from the core values of the various religions, but from the obvious excesses of each religion’s particular strains of crackpots—those who pervert or distort those core values for their own particular ends.

To look at a non-religious analogy from American history, we need only examine our dealings with the natives, which any student of history must admit are not shining examples of honesty or integrity. There were many American Indian tribes who were peaceful, wanted nothing except to be left alone, and who agreed to treaty after treaty, trusting that we would live up to our word. There were also many bands of renegade Indians, who were outraged by what all the white settlers were doing, and would attack along the frontier (though never in the numbers we see in the movies). Our reaction was to lump all of them together…and we had an appalling tendency to attack peaceful tribes in retaliation—the attack on Black Kettle’s tribe in the Sand Creek Massacre being among among the most appalling examples. (We also had a tendency to violate any treaty we found inconvenient, another aspect of settling the west that history books often ignore).

If we are going to try to get along in this world, all people of good must be able to recognize and distinguish others of like mind in different cultures from the “crackpots” that inhabit other parts of the world—and, unfortunately, dominate many of the headlines. Whatever the culture, I think that most people (well…at least those who aren’t raised in a climate of hate) are well-intentioned and honorable, and are more than willing to enjoy the blessings we share on this planet. Unfortunately, while we can all recognize and dismiss our own culture’s lunatics, we aren’t always successful at doing so across cultural borders. This seems to be the source of much of the mistrust in the world—and the breeding ground for much of the hatred that perpetuates so many of the continuing conflicts that we seem to see around us.

On the other hand…we do have reason for optimism: the advent of the internet does make it possible to communicate directly with people all over the world. If it does nothing but make us realize that there are thinking souls on the other side of the world who are just as eager to help make the world a better place…if not for ourselves, then for our children and grandchildren…then that may well prove to be the biggest step toward true peace the human race has ever taken.

Of course, this does not, mean that our current notions of moral relativism, so prevalent among the “politically correct thinkers” of our day, should be mistaken for actual thought, rather than its absence. In the recent novel, The Star Dancers, a non-human diplomat observes that “Whatever the language, the voice of reason sounds much the same.” Most people of good will probably agree, personally…though I might add the caveat that “reason'” does seem to imply at least a modicum of “thought,” as well.