Religion: Neither a State nor an Ideology

By David Galston |5.18.18

I'm not someone who comments very often on politics. The reason I'm not is because politics creates enemies and I prefer friends. Sometimes, though, a situation is such that one must take a risk and speak up. Such is the case with the United States government which, for ideological reasons, moved its embassy to Jerusalem and with this move being blessed, again for ideological reasons, by a biblical literalist (The Rev. Robert Jeffress) of the Southern Baptist Church.

A popular personality I know is Tarek Fatah who wrote, Chasing a Mirage. In this book, Fatah critiques Islamic political personalities both today and in history who wish to re-establish the fiction of the Islamic golden era (that is, the Caliphate) in the political world today. Fatah is clear that the "golden age" of Islam is pure fiction, equal to other fictional golden eras like "early Christianity" and the "age of Augustus."

In his critique, Fatah distinguishes Islam as a State from the state of Islam as a religion. He argues that Islam is not really about a political "State"; it is about the state of the world, of people in the world, the state of peace, and the state of justice. Justice and peace are the true concerns of Islam and the real values of Muslims whether or not a Muslim "State" exists.

This turn of phrase can be applied to many other subjects. It is easy to distinguish between a Christian State, which American biblical literalist believe the United States is, and the state of Christianity. We might say that whether some State out there believes it is Christian has no bearing on whether Christianity is practiced in the world.

Indeed, we might further note that if a State being Christian is more important than the practice of Christianity, then the State may well elect just about anybody who purports to be Christian regardless of the individual's character. In the present United States, very few elected officials remind us of the values of justice, equality, and compassion, which are values Christianity is all about. History is good at teaching how a political State corrupts and compromises any religion contained in its borders and used to justify its program.

By why stop with a State? Ideologies taken literally also corrupt and bend any religion held in their grasp. An ideology, like biblical inerrancy, becomes more important than the actual practice of the religion in which the ideology has emerged. This is why we often see Christians practicing and supporting acts that are entirely unchristian in nature and opposite to the main value that Christianity supports, which is compassion.

Christian ideologies take over the place of Christian ideas – such that we might distinguish between ideologies in Christianity and the Christian idea – and create situations where professed Christians vote for individuals exhibiting the most unchristian values for purely ideological reasons. In such cases, the ideology replaces the religion that the voter confesses to follow.

We can also distinguish between the Jewish State and the state of Judaism. These two are not equivalent. Just because the State of Israel acts in one way or another does not mean that Judaism supports one act or another. Judaism is pluralistic. Its center is justice. Its vision includes respect for all forms of life. Like with other religions, how it is practiced is more significant than what one Jewish person or another happens to believe.

But Judaism, too, when it is defined and confined by the ideologies of a State can become an ideology rather than a religion. It can be about political interests and goals; it can also cultivate prejudice and support injustice. Ideologies create situations where the "other" - the one outside the self-interests of an ideological circle – is inherently corrupt or, in some way, non-human. It is not consistent with Judaism to regard anyone, even a criminal, as someone less than human, but an ideology operates differently than a religion.

Where a religion asks us to hold a larger, deeper, and profoundly more compassionate spirit, an ideology places focus on the interests of the State and asks us to substitute the State for religion.

It is possible to argue for or against the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Someone with much greater knowledge of world politics can make better comments than I am able to offer. I do know, historically, that the United States has felt a solution of lasting peace between Israel and Palestine should be in place first before such a move occurred. Peace first would mean that the United States' primary concern is to be a peace maker.

However frustrating and seemingly eternally elusive such a peace may appear, taking the position of a peace maker is better than taking the position of one side against another. The United States, as a State, is free to act in the world as it sees fit in as much as Israel as a State is also free (and as is the Palestinian State, which struggles to be born).

What is problematic to me particularly is how a Christian representative can stand in place of the State and take sides with the State in the midst of historically difficult and highly ambiguous relationships of enmity. The Christian preacher, in this case, proclaimed that the central teaching of Christianity is a fundamentalist understanding of salvation based on misreading of the Gospel of John and misunderstanding the Apostle Paul.

It has always been curious to me how those who stand on the authority of the Bible know practically nothing about the Bible, but that's another matter. The point here is that mixing Christianity with a State and, consequently, with a State ideology is a bad idea. Christianity is about the critique of the State because Christianity, like Judaism, is first about justice and peace. The State, in this sense, is a necessary stumbling block that human beings tolerate to form societies and to ensure mutuality. But the State, because it is an ideology, is specifically about its self-interests, whereas Christianity, because it is a religion, is the call for justice in the world. Justice requires a lot more from human beings than a simple ideology or, even, a simple vote. Justice requires our hearts, and it asks us to see the world through the eyes of our enemies.

A very good Christian pastor would know this and would, out of Christian faith, politely decline the invitation of the State to pick one side against another in an ideological struggle. In my imagination, a real Christian pastor would tell the parable of the Samaritan and then ask the State to come back when it has acted to heal the wounds of its enemy.

Photo of David Galston

David Galston is the Executive Director of the Westar Institute and the Ecumenical Chaplain at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he is also an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy. A co-founder and Academic Advisor of the SnowStar Institute of Religion, a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, and a United Church minister, David has written several articles and led many workshops on the question of the historical Jesus, the future of Christianity, and the problems of Christian theology in light of the historical Jesus. He is the author of Embracing the Human Jesus (Polebridge Press) and Archives and the Event of God (McGill-Queens Press). David holds a PhD in the Philosophy of Religion from McGill University.

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