Religion, Nationalism, and Hearts and Minds

One’s religion is a profoundly subjective experience and expression at once very personal and at the same time inextricably communal. Religion is so much more than just a a personal experience. Religion resides in us acting more as a living internal presence linking the personal and social experience of life while hosting the expression of one’s spirituality. Often woven into religion, morality works as the framework that provides guidance or rules for living in community. In some traditions morality is expressed more as a set of precepts to assist behavior choices. When an institution or individual outside the religion takes it upon itself to reframe the individual’s morality, it impacts a part of us that is hardwired in our private and social domains. We cannot scientifically prove why any of us are Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish or of any other religious persuasion. The founders of this country recognized the nature of religion and the necessity of not binding a specific religious tradition to this country’s governing identity. Far from preventing the practice of religion, the separation of church and state has allowed the United States to develop a rich history of religious pluralism and practice, albeit a volatile mix. This pluralism has long been a symbol of this nations health and vitality; a hallmark of this democracy’s success. Contrary to what is being currently suggested, our constitution has allowed us to be a very religious country populated by people free to worship as their personal history, traditions and instincts require. 

My blood freezes when I hear public officials call for the United States to commit itself to any form of singular religious nationalism. Consider for instance the history of Iran if you are thinking such a move would solve our problems. Given the politics of contemporary proponents of religious nationalism, remember the lessons of 20th century communism. Communism was conceived as an idea founded on a more just distribution of the wealth among the world’s workers and yet it acquired an earned reputation to be a form of secular religion headed by ruthless dictators committed to their own interests and founded on centralized authority. Communism evolved quickly to become associated as a form of dictatorship proclaiming through authoritarian structures the terms of ‘good and just’ while re-defining morality for the masses. This characterization may be unfair to the original intent of Karl Marx and maybe even some early proponents of a more fair and just society, but it does fairly summarize what happens when a state institution determines itself to be the custodian of a religious tradition secular or otherwise. 

In the context of Christianity which is the tradition of my parents and in which I was raised, the teacher Jesus clearly instructed people to give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s. Moreover we were admonished to pray in private and avoid public displays of righteousness. History has taught us that even if we are willing to ignore our own prophets, when a specific religion and morality occupy the decision center of a government, violence and cruelty are sure to follow in consequence. In a pluralistic and democratic society the timeline for civil breakdown under state religion is likely foreshortened because the right to religious freedom and individual agency are infused into our blood and bone from the onset of consciousness. We won’t peacefully undo pluralism. 

As a nation we have learned the hard way in Southeast Asia, and the Middle East that the ‘hearts and Minds’ energy of a nation or culture ultimately cannot not be overcome by the raw power and ‘shock and awe’ arising from the political dimension of human enterprise. The framer’s of the constitution recognized that marrying religion with the raw power of politics was a fools errand and an invitation to national self destruction. In a successful democracy, the moral authority of the individual as well as community undergoes a form of a ‘hard work harvest’ that mediates the expression ‘of the people ‘ into the formal public rule of law. We have as a people already demonstrated that skillful discipline of mediating political power allows the true expression of the will of the people in the rule of law. Given our nation’s history and ethos, our hearts and minds, today’s problems will be solved democratically or not at all. The sequence of consideration called The Good Decision was developed originally as a workshop to reconnect our public and private selves at the level of hearts and minds. Good Decisions are hard work sometimes, but that is the work of democracy.

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