Religion and Power Moving Forward into the Twenty-First Century

By: Marc Gopin

September 24, 2015

Religion and World Order

Tom Banchoff’s essay raises important insights and deepens the discussion about the historical relations between organized religion now and in the future with secular forms of power, governance, and authority structures. Banchoff rightly warns that ignoring these trends is a grave mistake in assessing the future, in tracking what kind of balance and shift in balance of powers may be taking place. There is no question that political Islam has had an enormous impact on contemporary history, even though it is too early to say where this will lead.

I want to focus my thoughts and response on two aspects of religion that are often not distinguished sufficiently in terms of our subjects of power and religion as well as secular and religious sources of authority in history and going forward. 

There are two essentially different elements of religion as a human phenomenon that often have little to do with each other, are often confused in analysis, and are often at odds with each other. These two have very different and opposite impacts on the course of human history and the perennial struggle for power, for freedom, and the desired ethical, political, and cultural arrangement of society. One is religious power as expressed in organized religion, and the other is religious values with profound implications for the nature of human living on earth. 

The essence of the struggle for emancipation from organized religion, from Socrates to the present, has been mostly about opposing the use and abuse of religious power and authority to suppress what are known today as the basic freedoms and basic human rights. The motivations of religious authorities, from ancient times to the present, to engage in these suppressions, I argue, are just as often of a deeply profane or secular origin. They belong far more in the realm of the struggle for power of some human beings over others, and struggle for the control of material resources. The great Biblical prophets exposed this over 2,500 years ago, pitting themselves against the priests of the time who used ritual and religion to control others, to build their own wealth or that of their kings and benefactors, and to engage in theft, murder, and war. 

Little has changed in this regard. All societies struggle with the corrupting nature of power, and democrats who are children of the Enlightenment, as well as disciples of many religious prophetic insights, have struggled to create political systems that can effectively cope with the corruptions of power. Those systems sometimes are more strictly secular and sometimes nominally religious, but all are united by an investment in human rights, the importance of every human being’s representation in the halls of power, at least if they are citizens of the state. 

This issue of citizen’s rights points to one of the weaknesses of secular constructs of human rights at the present time, and that is that they tend to heavily favor citizens, and heavily ignore the consequences of state behavior for non-citizens within and beyond borders, especially in terms of global commerce, foreign policy, and military adventures. Nevertheless, it was Christian Pietists such as the visionary Immanuel Kant who predicted the essential necessity of completing the journey toward enforceable human rights for all human beings—the categorical imperative by a steady march toward global governance, something still in our future but steadily emerging. 

Unlike the course of history for religious values, which have played an essential role in the evolution of democracy and human rights, in conflict resolution methods and diplomacy from every major religion, the course of history of organized religion in this regard has been utterly dismal until the post-WWII period. But even now we face some catastrophic realities of ultra-violence due to the ease with which states and corrupt clerics in good standing with their organized religions can still work together to fund—openly or secretly—extremism, hate, intolerance, religious warfare, ethnic cleansing, and even genocide. 

I began to write the first books on conflict analysis, conflict resolution, religion, and diplomacy in the early 1990s. Since then many have joined. Our writings were often based on our experience and experimentation in the field, just as in secular conflict analysis and conflict resolution. I can say categorically that religious values can and do play a pivotal role in the steady march of the planet toward less violence, more equality, more freedom, and more justice. 

I can also say categorically that, from what we have seen, there is a sure path to aid religious people and their organized religions to greater and greater contributions to these enlightened values, these psychological and political evolutions of the human mind that were foreseen by many prophets. But it is essential in order to accomplish this states be absolutely prevented from controlling, manipulating, or using religion as a weapon of war or a means of control. 

It is also essential that religious values play a role in the great ethical and political debates, but no role as organized political entities. The less power organized religion has, the more its clerics, both lowly and powerful, become voices of conscience and enlightenment. The more power they have, the worse they become, and the more their progress is retarded. This is a constant across the globe and across history. I think we are doing well in that for many decades now it appears that the marriage of many clerics and secular leaders in pursuit of common values is eminently possible. But where states interfere with this process, engage in brutal suppression using religious extremism or extremists (overtly or covertly), the more we will see a struggle between organized religion and secular institutions. 

It is clear that different religions and communities are experiencing challenges and changes unique to them, due to an unnatural mix of mundane power and religion that waxes and wanes in different communities and different regions. But the rules are clear. The more religion is abused for power and suppression, the more religion will be a tool of violence—and the more most people, given the chance, will escape its clutches, often pitting whatever they construct for safety, security, and political expression against religion and religious people. But there are ample experiments globally for an alternative to this deadly confrontation.

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