<< back to All Teachings

The Religion of Politics, the Politics of Religion

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | May 01, 2005
In topics: Politics, Religion
Whether we like it or not, our political life is now so dominated by religious perspectives that we must all participate in defining what true religious values are, lest we allow others to do it for us.

 

On January 20, 2005, a few hours before I needed to leave for the airport, I was exercising on my ski machine while I watched the president's inaugural address on television. I confess to being fascinated by our president, whose sheer nerve amazes me. Besides, I love national spectacles and am easily swept away by the emotions, however cooked-up they may be. So I sped along on my skis (going nowhere), mesmerized by the black-suited president walking down the aisle toward the podium, the crowds, the pomp, the solemnity of the occasion. I momentarily forgot about my flight.

All my past skepticism about the president's actions and statements was suspended as I listened to his inspired opening words. As he went on, though, I was sweating more and more, and not just from the exercise. The president's address was making me nervous, even as it thrilled me. Truth is, it was a noble speech. Had it been delivered by someone else, I probably would have cheered, gotten off my machine, and phoned a friend. But these words were coming out of the mouth of George W. Bush, a man whose policies had caused me no small amount of grief — a man I would never have dreamed of voting for.

Referring to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the president spoke of a "day of fire." "We have seen our vulnerability," he said, "and we have seen its deepest source. . . . There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment . . . and that is the force of human freedom." He went on to say that "the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands," and that the task of spreading liberty was the "work of generations. The difficulty of the task is no excuse for avoiding it."

The president repeated the words freedom and liberty many times in his speech. Though he didn't give us his own definitions of these words, his voice conveyed a confidence that everyone knew what he meant and would be inspired by it. Coming from a man whose idea of preserving freedom is full-scale invasion of a foreign nation on false pretenses, such words make me nervous. But I applaud the sentiment: the idea that no one can be free of tyranny till all are free is at the heart of all religious beliefs.

The speech also challenged young people to "serve in a cause larger than your wants, yourselves" adding that "self-government relies on governing the self." The president made pleas for a sense of discipline, morality, and personal responsibility as the basis of public life.

How could I object? As a Zen Buddhist priest and teacher, I am constantly advocating these same values.

The president vowed to take America forward to promote goodness everywhere in the world, beginning at home with compassion for people through social programs that, he said, would give everyone a chance at "ownership." Never mind the details: this was a high-minded speech, full of vision; a speech that went, in a sense, beyond politics. Yes, this was a religious speech.

I think about religion all the time. It seems to me there is a human need for religious expression and practice: some people find ways to express it; others don't. For me, religion is not imposed from the outside, but comes from within, a natural outgrowth of our human nature. I find the religious expressions of some people a bit abstract, theoretical, and ideological, rather than personal and soulful, but I have an open mind. I keep listening, trying to find out what people believe in, and what difference their beliefs actually make in their lives.

I believe the president's sense of religious mission is sincere. I believe he had a genuine conversion experience, changed his inner life dramatically, and is a sincerely devout person who feels moved by his faith to pursue his political goals. Although my political instincts are not the same as his, I can appreciate his passion, for I too have a sense of an inspired social mission that comes out of my religious practices. Like President Bush, I am moved to care about the world and to wish for its inhabitants universal well-being and freedom from oppression. I realize that this is an impractical and possibly even foolhardy wish. The historical record certainly does not support the possibility. Nevertheless, I try my best to see my personal life and my worldly life as one seamless whole, and to let my actions in both be motivated, as much as possible, by the desire for good. It may be that our president sees his actions in precisely this way. It may be that his vision and mine are not so far apart in essence, however far apart they may be in execution.

But, as inspiring as religion-based politics can be, it is also dangerous. Some of history's worst offenses can be attributed to it. So it is no wonder that I was sweating so robustly on my ski machine. We all ought to break out in a sweat when we hear any hint of religion and politics mixing. There's nothing worse than a political (or even a religious) leader who sincerely feels God is on his or her side. The results of such immense confidence are usually disastrous. This is what we are seeing right now in Iraq: a religiously motivated force meeting an immovable religious object. Who knows where it will end?

On the other hand, politics as mere rational management doesn't satisfy either. It's too sheepish, too colorless. It lacks vision. Maybe there was a moment, sometime in the mid-twentieth century, when politics as rational management seemed the wave of the future, but that moment is past. In a world that's changing so rapidly, a world that's full of immense problems and may be beyond repair, probably nothing other than a faith-based politics will win support. The craving for a sense of meaning in social life seems more acute now than it has been for many generations. This probably accounts for the re-election of President Bush. On a rational basis, he ought to have been voted out, because too many things had gone wrong under his watch and everyone knew it. But the president convinced many voters that the faith and vision that guided him were stronger and truer than his policies, and that, as he said, even if you didn't agree with him, "you know what I stand for, and you know I keep my word."

If American politics is more religious than it has been for a long time, we are not alone. The world of Islam is undergoing a tremendous religio-political revival. I'm not sure I understand what's behind it. I have the sense that the explanations we read in any paper or see on television are not accurate. September 11 caught us all off guard, and we still have not digested it. That spectacular act of terrorism was more than a lucky break for a bunch of fanatics; it was a sign of an apocalyptic religion gone berserk. Suicide bombers look forward to death as a happy reward. Who among us can really comprehend this? To dismiss such terrorists as "evil" is to miss the quality of desperate religious longing that they embody. What we reject as terrorism is seen by much of Islam as an understandable, if not justifiable, scream for a more meaningful and righteous world.

Recently a friend complained to me of a health problem. She had, she said, a pain in her heart, a heavy feeling that wouldn't go away. After consulting many doctors, none of whom could find anything wrong with her, she concluded that she was literally heartsick at the state of the world, exhausted with the politics of the last few years. She was feeling paralyzed and impotent and too emotionally numb to address it, so the despair came out physically.

Many people I talk to these days are experiencing similar despair or depression. They are feeling listless, vaguely frightened, and unenthusiastic about their future. The frenetic activity that preceded the November presidential election is now over, and for the moment everything is more or less quiet on the Left. People are perhaps too exhausted to go on being contrary, and their efforts seem futile in the face of a triumphalist and hermetically sealed administration in the White House. Among the people I know — and I suspect this is true of progressive forces across the country — there is a lot of fear. The program of the current administration is truly radical. There seems to be no lively alternative. So we sit and hold our breath, facing the direst of prospects: an American fascist state; economic collapse; environmental catastrophe; World War III, to be fought against proliferating bands of terrorists all over the globe. People are aware of these things, but they don't want to think about them, so the awareness comes through as an unconscious dread, bad dreams, a pressure on our hearts, an almost physical weight we bear.

These frightening possibilities cannot be denied, but neither can they be taken as facts. The only fact is that we don't know what will happen in the future, and to imagine that we do is foolish. It is not unusual for history to proceed by a process of reversal: momentum going in one direction is replaced by momentum in the opposite. The Buddhist teachings on karma are relevant here. They tell us that our positive actions will always, perhaps in some unforeseeable way, lead to good results not only for ourselves but for the world. They also tell us that the warp and woof of causality weaves a tapestry so complex that no one but a Buddha could understand it. So hope is never out of place, even in the darkest of times.

Besides, our despair does nothing for anyone. To take action for a better future requires an optimistic spirit that is capable of seeing possibility even in seemingly hopeless situations. Our anxiety about the future is not as rational as we might think. In fact, it's a kind of personal angst we are projecting onto the world, which is beyond the effects of our projections. The world has its own path to follow, a path much more mysterious than any we could imagine.

The actions of our government, in matters large and small, can be maddening. And when we are mad, we fall back on habitual responses. It's better, though, to stop clutching and recoiling and take a more open-minded view. We should ask ourselves: Is there anything of value in what this president says? Anything to be learned from it? Can I in some way appreciate the views that are being advanced, so that my own views might be challenged? And if I must oppose them, can I do so respectfully and intelligently, without feeling that I am opposing idiots and evil-doers, but rather people who might have worthwhile hearts and minds of their own?

Asking ourselves questions like these can help us to see our political choices in a new light. For example, on abortion, we might ask: Could there be some virtue in the idea of a right to life for an as-yet-unborn being? And can it be that pregnancy entails a responsibility more sacred than the right to dominion over one's own body? On gay marriage: Could it be that those who oppose it are trying desperately to say something for their notion of marriage, rather than merely against the rights of homosexuals? On privatizing social security, which is part of a much wider argument that the government should not or cannot do much to help people in need: Could it be that personal responsibility and initiative are more powerful, and even more virtuous, than large bureaucracies?

I do not say that the forces of conservatism have the answers; only that their successes, rather than being mere evidence of the power of the rich to disregard the poor, may be pointing toward something we have not yet understood.

And there is always the possibility that badly motivated actions might have unintended beneficial consequences. Could we, even for a moment, indulge the fantasy that the president's faith-based policies might, despite the appearance of disaster ahead, lead to unforeseen good results? And could we imagine this even while we are working hard to oppose those policies?

In tough times one has to have a flexible viewpoint. One also needs energy, generosity, patience, focus, and wisdom. These qualities are characteristic of a religious practice that gazes skyward as well as earthward. We liberals who do consider ourselves religious have been careful to compartmentalize our lives, putting politics on one side and faith on the other. It's time for us to be more forthright and serious about our religious commitments, and to see them not as private aspects of our lives, but central pillars that support our public acts. This may mean, first, being more faithful to our religious practice, whatever it may be; and second, letting others know that our political actions stem from our religious commitments. Though we have no desire to convert anyone, we need to insist on being heard, just as we are willing to listen.

Whether we like it or not, our political life is now so dominated by religious perspectives that we must all participate in defining what true religious values are, lest we allow others to do it for us. In my view, real religious values — Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, or otherwise — always involve peacefulness, generosity, and a willingness to accept views other than one's own. We ought to insist on this as we go forward, doing what we can to shape the political attitudes of a new generation. We need to develop inspiration for this task, as well as the right vocabulary, strategy, and organization — just as those currently in power did thirty years ago, when they were dissatisfied with the dominant politics of that time. We must learn something from them: that in the Western world, religion is always the basis of any powerful political consensus. Let's see to it that when the social wheel turns, the religion we are talking about will be broad-minded rather than narrow, peaceful rather than warlike, open rather than closed.

© 2006, Norman Fischer