By Promod Puri
Whereas rituals, customs, and traditions furnish symbolic and distinctive identity to religion, the pathways to the divinity which are paved with morals and ethics, are often debased by its despicable ceremonial rites and practices.
It is in this context that the contemporary and progressive political ideologies disdain religion. Its nature is customarily interpreted thru inherent ritualistic practices rather than its doctrines of ethics and noble thoughts.
This article delves into the subject of “politics and religion”, and seeks the entry of virtuous, logical, informed, and intelligent religiosity in the political constitution serving the modern societies.
The contempt for religion in both Communist and democratic-socialist political ideologies is based on a portrayal that usually embodies rituals, customs, and traditions of a religious order.
Religion has become an official or legal taboo in the political and bureaucratic functioning of secular democracies and socialist regimes. Separation of church, temple, mosque, or synagogue from the state is the byword of the current political thinking.
Even though religion has significantly contributed its philosophies, universal truths, and theories to the school of political science, the two are deemed separate disciplines that influence the affairs and social character of civil society.
Modern political pundits and their students or observers have not gone beyond religious customs and beliefs to explore the intelligence and enlightenment generated over the centuries in discernable interpretations that touch every aspect of human endeavors including politics.
Philosopher T. S. Eliot “believed that democratic societies rejected the influence of an established church at their peril, for in doing so they cut themselves off from the kind of ethical wisdom that can come only from participation in a tradition. Thus, he argued, such a society would degenerate into tyranny and/or social and cultural fragmentation”. (Source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Chapter: Religion and Politics).
Outright purging of religion without recognizing its universal messages of ethical and secular nature has been a major part of the liberal political appeal. But this appeal also holds the hyped social impression that “politics is a dirty game”. The “game” is soiled by immoral, corrupt, and evil intentions. And the latter is the cause that politics becomes “dirty” since ethics are either optional or non-binding.
“Politics and religion must be kept separate” is an acknowledged doctrine in secular and democratic-socialist systems. But there are elements in most religions that are liberal, secular, and democratic. For these reasons, politics can incorporate religion in its order, whereas religion can keep its sanctity if the “dirty politics” stay out of it.
It is a fact that the laws of the land with their universal application have been constituted from religious teachings to institute political ideologies.
Barack Obama cites that “The Majority of great reformers in American history were not only motivated by faith but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause”.
Nevertheless, religion does not find a liking in progressive political behavior. Rather it is inferred as meddling in the affairs of a political system.
In secular societies, demarcations have been marked for the functioning and observation of religious customs and traditions to safeguard political entities from religious entities. However, as religion still enjoys certain privileges and rights besides its deep roots in the psyche of people, it does influence public opinion.
But as long a religion exists with its antiquated, irrational, and irresponsible rituals, customs, traditions, and beliefs, an intelligent society will not accept them as part of its political culture. Moreover, as societies are increasingly becoming culturally pluralists, religious representations from rituals, are not acceptable in non-coherent populations.
In this scenario, senseless convictions along with ceremonial rituals, customs, and traditions need to be disqualified from a political discipline. Rather let religious doctrines based on ethics and moral values contribute to support and enrich political ideologies.
Politics in general, is not, and should not be, confined to skills and strategies to seek or manage power. Besides governance, guidance is also its objective which comes from conscientious and sociological logic offered by religion over the centuries.
In fact, religion itself began as a socio-political movement from the very beginning of its origin.
Essentially, religion is a code of conduct for a civil society. It all started from here. With society’s progression, the code of conduct also evolved resulting in its expansion and formalization.
As civilization started taking root management of the society began.
The origin of religion can be traced as part of human evolution. Ancient religious orders basically were a set of laws and principles for some acceptable behavior in an emerging civil society.
Later all aspects of human cultures including presumptions and myths, and overwhelming elements of nature were covered in one order. In all these developments, social unity and coherence were the natural needs and dependencies of an advancing society.
An organized collection of beliefs and behaviors, a set of ideas started pouring in this social construction. And with the introduction of the Supreme Being, man’s most intuitive conception or imagery, the assemblage got sanctified.
And during this stage of evolution when spirituality and supernatural elements started dominating religion that its philosophical and learned aspects began branching out in various faculties. As such political science emerged as a separate discipline to guide the management of civil society.
In this management, ethics plays a significant role in the development and disciplining of a civic society. Ethics holds society together. Ethics delivered through religion have more commanding acceptance by the society than the constitutional laws and statutes executed in political regimes.
The acceptance of ethics as a theological appeal finds conscientious stay in the minds of people. Many known statesmen and leaders have effectively advocated religious ethics not only as part of their political wisdom and temperament for better understanding and acceptance of their messages but to underline the importance of faith in the affairs of civil society as well.
From Mohammad to Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr. to Nelson Mandela and Dr. Ambedkar all had religious commitments grounded in humanism, love, compassion, and kindness to wage their political and social campaigns against slavery, apartheid, discrimination, inequality, and untouchability based on color, class, and caste.
Gandhi’s crusade against evils in the society and his political discourse were derived from the Hindu scriptures of Upanishads advocating the concepts of non-violence, truthfulness, self-discipline, compassion, and virtuousness.
Obama, who believes in the power of faith, has sought a “serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy”.
He argues, “more fundamentally the discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms”. In a public address, he said: “secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square”. (“Obama’s 2006 Speech on Faith and Politics”, The New York Times, June 28,2006 edition).
“Before entering the public square”, what Obama is demanding instead is the infusion of true religion, without its symbolism, in the political environment to establish moral guidelines in its ideologies.
In a world, which is politically divided into two castes of Leftists and Rightists with sub-castes of Extreme Left and Extreme Right, ideological fanaticism runs high along with elements of power, ego, and greed, which are opportunistically embraced by all political establishments. In this “dirty game”, socialist idealism becomes just sloganeering.
The idiosyncrasy of the present socio-political left and the right mental constitution is that the leftists have a revulsion for religion. And the rightists are religious fanatics. The former ridicules and rejects religion and the latter is narcissistically illiterate about it.
And this is where the science of politics must step in to explore the true spirit of religion based on its universal teachings to find permanent residency in political leadership.
Deepak Chopra says: “Enlightened leadership is spiritual if we understand spirituality not as some kind of religious dogma or ideology but as the domain of awareness where we experience values like truth, goodness, beauty, love, and compassion, also intuition, creativity, insight, and focused attention”.
Paved with these divine and acknowledged values religion offers an ever-guiding relationship with politics in the service of humanity and its environment.
(Promod Puri resides in Vancouver, Canada. He is a journalist and author of Hinduism Beyond Rituals, Customs, and Traditions).