The role of religion in modern political life

The role of religion in modern political life is a puzzle. God as an idea worth taking seriously is clearly on life support, at least as far as serious analysis goes. As Andrew Levine says, for a long time in the world of political analysts “the idea that the Creator of all there is would care about the political affairs of particular Homo sapiens, that He (always a He!) would favor some members of our paltry species over others, seemed too preposterous to take seriously” and that “it is hard to see how any part of the Sturm und Drang of modern politics could really be about God, no matter what some political actors do, say, or believe. If their self-representations belie what is plainly the case, they must be deceiving themselves.”

But while the idea of a god being involved in political affairs is still seen as absurd, what has changed is how analysts react to religious claims.

What, then, should we make of the fact that nowadays it has become common for political analysts to take militant believers at their word – adding religious divisions to the list of pertinent explanatory factors?

He argues that there are pendulum swings at play: “transitions from periods of intense religiosity and periods in which a secular consciousness is predominant, and periods of religiously inflected militancy and periods in which politics takes a secular turn” and that political analysts have underestimated the role that religion plays in nation building, and that using religious identity to create feelings of nationhood is necessarily exclusionary of other groups, leading to conflicts.

He gives examples of the role the three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam play in modern political life.

Try as hard as secular Zionists, and their nineteenth century nationalist forebearers did, there was no way to construct a Jewish identity that leaves the Jewish religion out or that lets other religions in. It is not just Jewish beliefs and practices that are incompatible with Protestantism; more importantly, it is Jewish nationality as it came to be conceived.

Throughout the Christian and Muslim worlds, there are many socially constructed nationalities that are similarly related integrally to religions or, more usually, to divisions within larger religious traditions. The nature of the connections varies from case to case and changes over time. But religion is a factor in almost all instances.

But now that authentic faith has become untenable, it is not about God at all except to the extent that historical religions shape existing cultures. It is about identity, and therefore recognition, dignity and respect.

When sectarian politics flares up on the wrong side of the class struggle or when it operates to sustain systems of domination, it makes bad situations worse and solutions to problems more intractable. The theocrat wannabes who gravitate towards the Tea Party and the (oxymoronic) “national religious” settler movement in Israel provide conspicuous examples.

His article does not suggest a solution but leaves open the answer to the question: If religious politics is about the need for ‘recognition, dignity, and respect’ and not about god, will giving them those things lead to a diminution of role of god in politics or will it lead to an intensification of religious demands? I fear it will be the latter.


  1. raven says

    But now that authentic faith has become untenable, it is not about God at all except to the extent that historical religions shape existing cultures. It is about identity, and therefore recognition, dignity and respect.

    I’ve been saying something similar for a while now.

    US christianity is dying.

    1. People are leaving the churches at 2-3 million per year.

    2. It’s also hollowing out. The fundies don’t read the bible, have any idea what is in it, know their doctrines which doesn’t matter because they change often anyway.

    Fundie xianity has become is right wing extremist politics with a few crosses stuck on for show. It’s hate, lies, and hypocristy 24/7. Hate works for tribalism or they wouldn’t use it. But hate and lies just isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

  2. Ulysses says

    We already see the intensification of religious demands. For instance ten or fifteen years ago the Catholic bishops would not have pushed an anti-contraception agenda. Everyone knew the bishops were against contraception but they were about the only Catholics who were. Now the bishops have put contraception back into the national debate, even though they (and a few fringe fundamentalists) are the only ones interested in that debate.

  3. raven says

    Now the bishops have put contraception back into the national debate, even though they (and a few fringe fundamentalists) are the only ones interested in that debate.


    BC use among relevant cohorts of Catholic women is 98%.

    The bishops aren’t very bright. In the last few years, 1/3 of US Catholics have left the RCC, a truly astonishing number at 22 million.

    While they are babbling on about some rather recent silly rule they made up, people are running out the doors by the millions. They are just machine gunning themselves in the feet.

  4. busterggi says

    Life is getting morre complicated and religion offers simple answers to those not able to bear the complications. Religion won’t die but its believers may try to kill off all who disagree with them – something they’ve done for millenia.

  5. Greg says

    I think that as the world gets smaller through the Internet, and the eventual elimination of “differences” of gender, race, and sexual orientation, the hard core fundies will continue to double down on their beliefs, and will eventually be like the Amish, or the Quiverfuls, or the Fundamentalist LDS churches.

    They’ll be isolated communities that will turn away from the world and will slowly die out. I won’t be sad to see religion as a driving force or an identity go away, but I feel bad for the future children. They are going to be cut out from a great future.

  6. Brian M says


    Given the realities of peak oil and climate change (and no, driving a Prius or working as a consultant on a Climate Action Plan won’t save us), are you so sure the future is bright and shiny? I imagine these fundamentalist cult compounds will do well in a Mad Max future.

  7. lanir says

    The problem with giving organized religion more respect is you cannot expect the same in return. They’re all authoritarian to one degree or another, and that’s not a way of thinking that lends itself to respecting others. With the previously mentioned losses they’re suffering in their flocks, it’s not like you can later threaten to be less nice. They won’t necessarily care since a polarizing issue may get them more active followers which could lead to a more stable situation for them.

  8. lanir says

    Also, very simple but very pertinent question: Respect them more for what? Would they be willing to do anything to earn it? That side of the usual discussions hasn’t seemed very interested in give and take discussions lately.

  9. Maurice Smith says

    You just lost right now, although God wants to let you know that He still loves you, and that He really doesn’t want to see you rotten in Hell. Hell ain’t the place to be. Seriously. I know I made mistakes and I’m not where God wants me to be, although, God is still working on me. I love to speak in tongue having know that i’m praying perfect prayers to God in Perfect Faith. It’s amazing to know that out of all the laws and commandments that God gave His people, that the ONE THING that He truly wanted them to do was to Love Him with ALL of their heart, soul, and mind… I when I tried to keep all the commandments I was more sin conscious then I was God conscious. When you’re double-minded, you caught up in all these emotions and feelings. Always feeling down when you mess up, although the thing that you messed up on can turn into an opportunity that can make you better at that thing that you messed up on when you ask God to lead you and guide you and have faith. Faith isn’t believing that God will do it for you, it’s believing that God’s already done it for you. Stepping out of your comfort zone, and opening yourself to God. AND THAT’S THE TRUTH!!! HALLELUJAH!!!

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