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When the Spirit of Holy War Takes Over

What’s God Got to Do With It?

by ANDREW LEVINE

Not long ago, it was widely assumed that faith in God is no longer an authentic motivator in modern politics, and that sectarian strife, despite its religious veneer, has more to do with class struggle or anti-imperialist resistance — or “subversion,” as Cold Warriors used to say — than religious conviction.

Of course, everyone understood that there were benighted quarters where news of the death of God, as Nietzsche called it, had yet to penetrate.  And it was plain that some people still deceived themselves into thinking that the Almighty took an interest in their affairs.  For them, religion sometimes operated as an inauthentic motivator.

But 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.

Maybe it was different when our world was still the center of the universe, or when our sun was.   Then the likelihood that a perfect Being would take sides in our political struggles might only have seemed wildly implausible to anyone not blinded by faith.

But now that everyone this side of home school knows that we, along with countless other species, evolved out of primal muck, and that our planet is an insignificant speck in a universe too vast for human comprehension, a universe that may itself be only one of many, perhaps infinitely many, others, “wildly implausible” seems far too generous.

And since everybody nowadays must at some level understand this, 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.

Even “too preposterous to take seriously” doesn’t do the situation justice.  This is a case where words fail.

And so, until recently, God was effectively read out of analyses of political life, even by those who believed that God exists.

* * *

No doubt, religious fanatics who get involved in politics feel miffed when not taken at their word; that is only natural.  But the Christians among them ought also to welcome the slight.

Like fanatics of other faiths, they think that they are on God’s side.  But if they also think that God is on theirs, their theologians had better get to work reconciling this conviction with a defining element of Christian religiosity – belief in the reality and inexorability of Original Sin.

All religions acknowledge (small-s) sins or their functional equivalents, transgressions of God’s commands or those of His earthly representatives.   (Big-S) Sin is a Christian notion.  It denotes a radical insufficiency on the part of all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, the original sinners; an inability to do anything of value without God’s unmerited grace.

For almost two thousand years, the consensus view has been that pride is the root of Original Sin and therefore of the never-ending miseries afflicting humankind.   Shouldn’t Christians therefore worry about their own godliness when they maintain that God cares about them enough to bless their political endeavors and to confound their enemies’?  How is such a thought compatible with awareness of their Fallen state?

Because they are not so fixated on human insufficiency and therefore on pride, this is an area where Muslims and Jews who also think that God is on their side have an advantage.  They can embrace their good fortune unambivalently.

And so it is that distressingly many of my fellow Jews make a big deal out of being Chosen – and not just for being the ones whose purported ancestors were given the Ten Commandments along with other revelations.  That was how chosenness was conceived for more than two thousand years.  But times change.

Nowadays, there are many Jews who do not believe in God and many more who only believe in bad faith, who deceive themselves into believing that they believe.  Whatever they say or think, they hardly care about the revelations God gave his Chosen People.

Why would they?  Most of them concerned a temple cult organized around animal sacrifices and administered by a priestly cast.  The temple has been gone now for almost two thousand years along with the priests (though some Jews still claim priestly or
levitical descent), and the religion of the Jews in Biblical times was long ago transformed into rabbinical Judaism.

Back in the day when God’s irrelevance to modern politics was widely assumed, no one touched by the Enlightenment cared much about rabbinical precepts or laws either – except as historical artifacts or objects of curiosity.

Nevertheless, many non-believing or indifferent Jews believed that God chose the Jewish people to dwell in the land of Israel.  Many still do. It is a remarkable state of affairs.

It is also a recent one.  In pre-Zionist days, religious Jews thought that the land of Israel would be theirs only when the Messiah came, not a moment before; and they accepted rabbinical injunctions not to take matters into their own hands.  Like many Christians, Protestants especially, they regarded the land of Israel as a Holy Land, not a homeland.  Many orthodox Jews believe this still.

Then Zionism hijacked the Jewish religion.  It was a process that took decades, and that remained unsettled until Israeli victories in the Six Day War established what some came to regard as a theologically momentous “fact on the ground.”  Why wait for a perpetually dilatory Messiah when God is on the side of the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces)?

And so the view now is that what we were chosen to do is displace, by any means necessary, the inhabitants of the land a Realtor God picked out for our ancestor, a patriarch from Ur in the Chaldees.

The deal closed, it seems, some sixteen hundred years after the great flood, the one that began when Noah was already six hundred years old.  This would mean that God got around to giving the land of Israel to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob some three thousand years after the Six Days of Creation.  Why did it take Him so long?   Don’t ask.

In Biblical times, being chosen implied a duty to slaughter Canaanites and other indigenous peoples living in the Promised Land.  Today it involves making life miserable for indigenous Muslims – by making second-class citizens of the ones who reside within Israel’s internationally recognized borders, enforcing an Apartheid regime in the occupied West Bank, and turning Gaza into an outdoor prison.  Occasional forays into Lebanon and frequent assaults on Palestinians living in Gaza are also prescribed.

Indigenous Christians get a pass because Christian Zionists in the United States are useful to the Jewish state.  And, unlike the original Crusaders, the foremost Judeocides of their time, they don’t want the Holy Land for themselves; they want Jews to be in-gathered there so that the End Days can come.

Christian Zionists therefore look forward to Jewry’s demise – either through conversion (unlikely) or annihilation and eternal damnation (the preferred option).  Even so, the Israeli government and the Zionist movement love them to death.

It is an article of faith with them – whatever is good for the state of Israel, as Israeli governments conceive it, is good tout court.  How pathetic is that!

Needless to say, there are countless other Christian and Jewish absurdities.  And the problem is hardly confined to Christians and Jews.

Since 9/11, many in the West have ruled Muslims out of the so-called Judeo-Christian tradition.  It would be hard to imagine a more wrong-headed or ill-informed historical judgment.  But no matter; Muslims sign on to many of the same absurdities.  And, like Christians and Jews, they have others unique to themselves.

So do adherents of non-“Abrahamic” religions.  In short, there is more than enough nonsense to go around.  It comes with the territory.

And high on the list in all “faith traditions” is the idea that when godliness spills over into politics, we all, no matter who we are, unlike our enemies, have God on our side.

* * *

It was a healthy disdain for such absurdities that led proponents of all the major theoretical traditions in social theory and political analysis to insist that the self-representations of sectarian politicians or, worse still, religious fanatics not be taken at face value.

They all assumed that economic, demographic, geographic, social, historical, political and geo-political factors explain religion’s role in local, national and world politics; in other words, that theologically-driven sectarian politics calls for an explanation, and is not itself explanatory.

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?

One possibility is that political analysis has taken a wrong turn; another is that the traditional explanatory strategies are lacking.  Both are right.

Part of the problem is that there is woefully little science in political science, and less still in political commentary.

An aim of science is to discover the causal structure of the world.  The objective, in other words, is not just to describe what we perceive or otherwise experience, but to explain it by accounting for it causally.  As a general rule, that requires well-supported theories.  Political science doesn’t have many of these.  Perhaps it never will; perhaps politics doesn’t lend itself to scientific elucidation.

But not all causal explanations require an elaborate theoretical infrastructure.  Sometimes it is enough to identify causally relevant mechanisms.

In Shifting Involvements (1982), an account of transitions between periods of intense political engagement and periods given over to private pursuits, the late Albert Hirschman drew attention to a social psychological mechanism that operates in many contexts.

Hirschman showed how, in certain historical periods, the inevitable frustrations of private life motivate public involvement, and then how the frustrations of political participation result, in turn, in a return to private pursuits.

He did not deny that each episode is affected by what preceded it; the process he described can be dynamic and even progressive.   But unless a stable equilibrium is achieved, the pendulum will swing from one pole to the other, from the political to the private and then to the political again.

No doubt, 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, follow a similar logic.

Not many decades ago, Time Magazine proclaimed God’s death on its cover.  That would seem like a bad joke today.  When candidate Jimmy Carter declared himself “born again,” it raised a shock of disbelief severe enough to worry his supporters in the 1976 Presidential election. That would be inconceivable now; candidates who don’t wear affirmations of faith on their sleeves are the ones who need to worry.

In that period too and for many decades before, in Israel-Palestine and indeed throughout the entire Middle East, all significant political activity was secular.  Obviously, this is no longer so.

Evidently, stable equilibria are hard to find.

But even if we are now in a phase where the religious pole attracts large numbers of people, and where spill-overs into politics are legion, the mechanism Hirschman identified would not explain why the traditional explanatory categories of social and political theory seem unable to account for what is going on, or why it now seems that religious self-representations actually are explanatory.

The reason for that is that the traditional categories really are incomplete.  At the same time, however, appearances really are deceiving, and there really are no good reasons to take religious self-representations at face value.

* * *

All major strands of modern social theory – Marxist, Weberian, Durkheimian, and so on — share a common defect: they don’t take groups’ concerns with identity issues seriously enough.  This is why their explanatory arsenals not quite up to the task of explaining on-going sectarian strife.

It is odd that these traditions are not more cognizant of this problem because they all represent, in very different ways, responses to the intellectual legacy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831).  And it was Hegel’s seminal work on the dialectical character of recognition, and his account of the Spirit of particular groups and peoples, along with proto-nationalist reflections of other thinkers in the tradition of German Romanticism, that helped shape the rise of modern nationalism and cognate political expressions.

One would therefore expect that political analyses based on these traditions would accord no less importance to identity issues than, to economic, demographic or geo-political factors.

But there it is: while the political importance of nationalism and related phenomena is incontestable, nobody quite knows what to make of it.  This is especially odd inasmuch as these concerns have been factors first in European, then in world, politics for almost two hundred years.

Nations are, in Benedict Anderson’s phrase, “imagined communities.”  They are socially constructed, usually on the flimsiest of bases.  In theory, they are comprised of people joined together by common descent, language, land, and culture.  However the facts seldom cooperate.  Nations are not found; they must be made.

As Ernest Renan (1823-1892) famously remarked, their construction depends on “forgetting a great deal,” and also on imagining much more.  Nations are willed into being, and maintained, deliberately or not, by on-going institutional arrangements and ideological interventions.  As Renan also said, nationality is a “daily plebiscite.”

Religion is often a key element in this process, though its role varies from case to case.  Most of the people who became French were Roman Catholic, and there have certainly been times in which many French nationals believed that being Catholic is part of what it is to be French.

But Catholicism was never definitive of French identity.  French Protestants were sometimes persecuted, and all kinds of charges were leveled against them.  But no one maintained that Protestants of French ancestry were un-French.  French Jews and Muslims have not been so fortunate, but for reasons that have more to do with racism and xenophobia than religious conviction.

On the other hand, Jewish Protestantism is an incoherent configuration, and not just because Judaism and Protestantism are rival faiths.  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.

It could hardly be otherwise.  In this case, claims of common descent are dubious outside particular regions; nationalist protestations to the contrary, all one need do, to become a skeptic, is observe how different Jews from, say, Poland and Yemen look.  Jews spoke different languages and did not live on the same land, and there is no distinctive non- or extra-religious culture that Jews share.  Changing all that was a goal of the Zionist project.

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.

And so, when political analysts assumed that theologically inflected politics was not really about God, they were right.  Perhaps it was different in other historical periods, before the old God died.  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 (oxymornonic) “national religious” settler movement in Israel provide conspicuous examples.

And when the spirit of holy war takes over the consciousness of those who fight against oppression, the consequences are often disabling.  Even temporary successes can have untoward effects.

In today’s world, this is almost inevitable.  With the historical Left in eclipse, our lodestar for waging sounder forms of class struggle and for resisting imperial and local forms of domination has gone missing.  Its replacement by atavistic forms of religious zealotry is a tragedy of historic dimensions.

Is the situation reversible?  Is there a chance that Hirschman’s mechanism is operative here too?

Time will tell.  The one sure thing is that “the fault,” as Cassius said to Brutus in Julius Caesar is “not in the stars.”  The fault is ours.  If we fail to get the pendulum to swing back in time to avert catastrophic consequences, it will be our fault as well.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).