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Religion and Political Power

by RON JACOBS

 

In a time when it seems that religious justifications for the excesses of both revolutionary and reactionary impulses are the standard, Haymarket Books republication of Paul Siegel’s The Meek and the Militant is a useful resource for the individual looking for a rational analysis of the relationship between religion and power. The book, which was originally published in 1986, provides a historical overview of the world’s five great religions and takes a look at their relationship to power both inside and outside of government and capital. Although Siegel utilizes a Marxist analytical framework in his work, the text is equally useful for the Marxist and non-Marxist alike. Unfortunately, Siegel died in 2004, which precluded any update before republication.

The Meek and the Militant is essentially a history of the world’s great religions, with the most detail saved for Christianity and Judaism.. One of the things that makes the text valuable is that it turns the current assumption that religion shapes social forces on its head. Instead, the text rests on the the premise that social forces shape religions. In a metaphor familiar to fans of the rock band Jethro Tull’s Aqualung album–which examined the relationship of humanity to religion– The Meek and the Militant asserts that man created God in his image. After making this assertion, Siegel takes it several steps further, arguing that once created, the powerful among men re-created that god in their image and used that newly created god to maintain the servility of the rest of humanity.

However, because of the nature of religious belief and the incredibly powerful hold it has on the psyche of humanity. religion also plays a role in movements opposed to the powerful’s need to dominate. Examples cited in Siegel’s work include the Puritan-inspired revolution against the King of England, the struggle against slavery in the United States and, more recently, the role of Catholic liberation theology in Central and South America, especially as regards the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua. Because of the book’s publication date, the role of radical Islam is barely scratched. Indeed, Siegel acknowledges its power but only in passing when he mentions the reactionary social forces of the Ayatollah Khomeini and their role in derailing the Iranian revolution of 1979. To his credit, however, he does discuss the all-too-common misrepresentation of Islam as a fanatical and warlike religion. Indeed, its history is no more or less so than the histories of Judaism and (especially) Christianity.

Despite the revolutionary power of religion–something that one should expect given the often radical nature of various prophet’s pronouncements against their rich and powerful contemporaries–the historical fact is that when all is sorted out, religious forces usually end up on the side of power. This phenomenon is explored and instances of it are enumerated throughout Siegel’s text, whether he is discussing evangelical Christianity and the robber barons in the US or Orthodox Judaism and Zionism in Israel.

Each and every time god was revived by those opposed to the power structure, whether it was the prophecies of Moses against the pharaoh and his gods or Jesus’ Christian underground against the Pharisees’ and their temples; to Mohammed’s pronouncements against the excesses of Islam’s monotheistic predecessors or Buddhism’s proclamations against the Emperor’s Confucianism; the oppositional religion evolves into that which it opposed. According to Siegel, this is due to religion’s easy manipulation by the ruling classes- a manipulation that is facilitated by the contradictory nature of religion.

This contradiction lies in its promise of a life not of this earth. Consequently, its radical nature can be as easily defined to be otherworldly and in favor of keeping things as they are here on earth just as it can be utilized to effect change in this temporal state. Oftentimes, this transition occurs when an interpretation that turns a prohet’s word of liberation inward–from the liberation of a people (the Jews, for example) to the liberation from sin of an individual being.

As mentioned before, this book was published in 1986. At the time, Ronald Reagan was president of the United States, the Soviet Union still existed and was fighting the US-sponsored predecessors to Al-Queda in Afghanistan, and the Sandinistas were fighting a CIA-sponsored counterrevolutionary force in Nicaragua. The rise of the so-called Christian Right was just approaching its zenith and had just began to dramatically alter the face of US politics. Ronald Reagan, after all, was not George W. Bush. Not that the forces behind his throne were any different than those behind the current administration, but the parliamentary forces opposed to them were arguably more organized and considerably stronger than they are today. Part of the reason for that is the power that right wing Christians have in this country. This element of US religious power has essentially bludgeoned those in the US political arena that don’t share their beliefs into submission. Indeed, it is as if they really did have the power to send us all to hell because we might oppose their design for world domination and eventual apocalypse. In addition, the role of radical Islam in all of its forms was as yet unrealized at the time of the book’s publication. Consequently, the text suffers from its suspension in a time just before today’s political reality, yet this does not detract from its true value, which is as a historical overview of religious history. Indeed, perhaps the most important lesson one can draw from this text is that religious belief can be a humanistic and revolutionary force just as easily as it can be manipulated against those forces. Furthermore, Siegel’s historical commentary proves once again that the application of dialectical thought is quite useful in anticipating the future.

As we head into another year of uncertain carnage defined by Washington’s belief in its own covenant with a god created in its own image and an enemy with elements of its leadership seeming at times only too willing to oblige in a comparable oppositional role, the historical insights of The Meek and the Militant provide a useful reminder as to the roles religious belief can play in a world of circumstances that cry out for revolutionary change.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: rjacobs3625@charter.net

 

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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