Why we should be skeptics of religion in politics

History suggests it is difficult to separate the ideologies of religion and politics. Therefore it is important to develop a thorough understanding of the manner in which religion wields its influence on political issues. It is equally vital that we examine how well we are interpreting sources of faith and religion as we apply these impassioned influences in modern society. This essay examines how the authority of religion is leveraged through politics to gain advantage for the privileged while excluding the disadvantaged. Excerpted from an update of The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age by Christopher Cudworth

“In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination.”

–Mark Twain

Religion as a slave to literalism

American author and humorist Mark Twain was a keen skeptic on the relationship between religion and politics in American culture. “It is agreed, in this country,” Twain observed, “that if a man can arrange his religion so that it perfectly satisfies his conscience, it is not incumbent on him to care whether the arrangement is satisfactory to anyone else or not.” Twain grudgingly admitted the value of fervent faith in a country where promotion of one’s convictions, politics and religion is a respected trade. But he did not necessarily regard the adopted determination of the masses to be the mark of a healthy republic, or the sign of an enlightened populace.  “All you need is ignorance and confidence,” Twain grousingly observed, “then success is sure.”

America’s famously rambunctious mix of ignorance and confidence nearly tore the country apart in Twain’s era as war erupted between the Union and Confederacy over states rights and a system of commerce dependent on slavery. The Rev. Peter Fontaine of Virginia was an Early American cleric (1687-1757) whose views on slavery exemplify the subtle yet distinctive manner religion––and especially biblical literalism––contributed to the acceptance and proliferation of slavery leading up to the Civil War. Rev. Fontaine called upon the Genesis character of Adam to explain man’s inhumanity to man. “Like Adam, we are all apt to shift off the blame from ourselves and lay it upon others, how justly in our case you may judge. The Negroes are enslaved by the Negroes themselves before they are purchased by the masters of the ships who bring them here. It is, to be sure, at our choice whether we buy them or not, so this then is our crime, folly or whatever you please to call it.”

Here we find the Reverend Fontaine transferring blame for the slave trade to others while advancing the notion that people are powerless to change as the direct result of Adam’s original sin.  But for all his seeming sensitivity to the frail state of human will, the Rev. Fontaine demonstrates a startling willingness to subvert principles of human equality as a means to justify the economic and political climate of his era.

Fontaine recruits the literal character of Adam to indemnify his claim to the authority of God, but the obligation to moral action seems to end there as he dismisses believers from moral responsibilities in favor of the blessings of material gain.  From this coarse subjectivity one might construe that submission to commerce is an act of atonement and pursuit of profit a form of salvation.

Fontaine does agonize over the struggle to keep slaves for commerce and still earn a place in heaven: “Nevertheless I cannot help expressing my concern at the nature of our Virginia estates, so far as they consist in slaves. I suppose we have, young and old, one hundred and fifty thousand of them in the country, a number, at least, equal to the whites. It is a hard task to do our duty towards them as we ought. We run the hazard of temporal ruin if they are not compelled to work hard on the one hand and on the other, that of not being able to render a good account of our stewardship in the other and better world, if we oppress and tyrannize over them.”

Here we find Fontaine making a case for slavery by paying lip service to issues of moral consequence. He strives to balance the economic mood of the times against concerns about earning a place in heaven. In the end, Fontaine sides with unrepentant capitalists seeking cheap labor by employing the confessional language of evangelical literalism to justify keeping slaves as if it were the biblical thing to do.

That very same phenomenon is occurring today as wealthy corporate interests, generally sided with Republicans and Tea Party activists beholden to wealthy capitalists, seek to eliminate labor protections such as collective bargaining rights in hopes of capitalizing on wealth opportunities for themselves. It is truly ironic that the political party that has positioned itself for years as representing “family values” and the appropriate use of politics in religion should stand on the side of blatant attempts at exploitation and subversion of hard-won laws protecting the labor market in America.

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