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.