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Jul 01 2005

Politics and religion-2

As I said before, the significant beginnings of Buddhist religious involvement in Sri Lankan politics began with the 1956 stunning landslide parliamentary victory by an underdog candidate who ran on a platform that shrewdly mixed nationalist politics with an appeal to the ethnic-religious Sinhala-Buddhist population that they would receive favorable treatment under his government.

While this resulted in a short-term benefit for the new Prime Minister and his government, they found it hard to meet the raised expectations of their aroused base and pretty soon things started falling apart. The most serious was the failure of the government to implement a deal to meet the needs of the minority Tamil population, because of the opposition from their more extreme Sinhala-Buddhist supporters, who argued then (and have done so ever since) that almost any concession to Tamil interests was a sell-out of the nation’s Sinhala-Buddhist heritage. This was followed in 1958 by a pogrom aimed at Tamils that resulted in many deaths, injuries, and displacements, and in 1959 the Prime Minister himself was assassinated by a Buddhist monk in a plot led by some Buddhist clergy, people who had once been his supporters.

But despite this seriously negative outcome, the die had been cast as far as political appeals to ethnic-religious chauvinist elements were concerned. Other politicians noted how successful such appeals had been in garnering votes and immediately almost all members of political parties started falling over themselves in trying to pander to the majority religion. Politicians who had not been known for their religious devotion ‘got religion’ in a big way.

This pandering took the form of public piety, making sure that everyone was aware of how religiously observant they were. They would make public shows of going to Buddhist temples, paying courtesy calls on the major Buddhist clerics, incorporating religious themes into speeches, etc. (Does this seem familiar in the US context?) Even some of the members of Marxist parties started doing these things, such was the pressure to conform to this new standard.

Governments started public funding of temples and the clergy, going so far as to provide temples with Mercedes-Benz limousines to transport the clerics. The irony is that Buddhism itself is a religion in the ascetic tradition, with the Buddha himself (the former prince Gautama) rejecting all worldly goods and attachments, seeing such things as barriers to attaining enlightenment and nirvana.

Perhaps the best example of the extent to which this kind of religious pandering led to absurd policies came in the way the calendar was changed. (You are going to find the following story hard to believe but it is true. I lived though this.) The Buddhist calendar is based on the lunar cycle. The full moon has always had religious significance for Buddhists because it is believed that the Buddha was born, attained enlightenment, and died on a full moon day. So one government, in its desire to pander to religious sentiment, decided that the weekly calendar that had the weekend on Saturday and Sunday was too Christian-centered and that what was needed was a Buddhist-centered calendar that was built around the lunar cycle. So the full moon, quarter moon, new moon and three-quarter moon days were made holidays (called ‘poya’ days) as were the days just preceding them (called the ‘pre-poya’ days). Thus the pre-poya and poya days were the new weekends, replacing Saturday and Sunday.

Since these days need not coincide with Saturday and Sunday, a new system had to be devised to keep track of weekdays. So the weekdays were called P1, P2, P3, P4, and P5, standing for the ‘first day after poya’, ‘second day after poya’, etc. The catch is that since the lunar cycle is around 29 days, every fourth week or so (there was no definite pattern), you would have an extra workday in the week, which was called P6. Keeping track of these things and scheduling future events became a nightmare. Every time the week with the extra day kicked in, authorities would have to decide which of the five weekday schedules would have to be followed on the extra day.

It also made interactions with the rest of the world problematic, because the periodic occurrence of the extra-long week meant that the poya days did not have a fixed relationship to the standard days of the week. Since the rest of the world worked on the standard week, people outside Sri Lanka never knew when we were off on our weekends, disrupting international trade.

This was the system that existed when I was in middle and high school, and it was confusing for everyone, to put it mildly. It is surprising that it lasted as long as it did (many years), but it finally collapsed because everyone just got sick of it, and Sri Lanka reverted to the standard system, without any seeming religious objections.. As a sop to the religious wing, the full moon day every month was retained as a religious holiday so that Sri Lankans now have probably the most public holidays of any nation.

The point of this story is that once political parties start competing for religious support, there seems to be no end to the kinds of ridiculous things that can ensue. The messing around with the weekly calendar was confusing and ridiculous but relatively benign. More serious is when these actions result in one group feeling that it is only their religious sentiment that matters when it comes to forming public policy.

In the US, there are already signs of the increased public piety among elected officials. They talk about their religion and their visits to churches are publicized. Religious spokespersons are invited to the White House. “Prayer breakfasts” are held routinely by elected officials. We have official “days of prayer.”

It also seems to have become routine for Presidents and other politicians to end their major speeches with the phrase “God Bless America.” This is relatively new. When President Kennedy spoke to the nation on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis, perhaps the closest the world has come to all-out nuclear war, he ended his speech with a simple “Thank you and good night.” This was the same ending used by President Nixon when in 1972 he spoke to nation about his plans for the war in Vietnam. Although Presidents up to and including the overtly religious Carter occasionally inserted references to God in their speeches, it was reserved for special rhetorical flourishes and it did not become a standard ending tagline for speeches until with President Reagan. It was his successor George H. W. Bush (the current president’s father) who really went over the top, ending his speeches with almost pep-rally like appeals for God’s blessings. (See the article by Jonathan Rauch in the National Journal for a review of God’s appearance in presidential speeches. Rauch also makes the astounding claim that seven states even prohibit atheists from holding public office! His article was written in 1999.)

When politicians feel the need for public statements of piety, then I think we are going down a dangerous road. There is a gripping ten-minute video clip from the TV program The West Wing that captures this issue very well. The clip is must see TV. In it the senator portrayed by Alan Alda, under pressure to make a show of his religion, makes this comment to the press “If you demand expressions of religious faith from politicians, you are just begging to be lied to…And it will be one of the easiest lies to ever have to tell to get your votes.” (To see the video, just click on the still of Alan Alda. You need Quicktime video to play it, and that is a free download if you don’t already have it.)

I have always believed that the secular state is the most just state. It also would fit (I think) with John Rawl’s ‘justice as fairness’ model for society. Many people think that ‘secular’ means atheist but that is wrong. A secular state means that laws must be neutral with respect to any or all religions or the lack of it. The government cannot promote any religion or deny people their right to practice the religion of their choice. The establishment clause of the First Amendment to the US constitution pretty much says it best: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

It would be a pity to undermine such a good idea.

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