Reza Aslan, Religion and Politics – Part 1 – Equivocation

The last post on this blog was about the Not peace but a Sword saying found in Matthew 10:34-39. The impetus for that post was actually a lecture I saw recently given by Reza Aslan on the connection between religion and violence. I’ve written on Reza Alsan before. His argument is based on a few fallacies, one of which is found around the 20 Minute mark, he says:

A Muslim is whoever says he or she is a Muslim, the end.

This (along with much of Reza Aslan’s argument) really comes from the Liberal theological thought starting with Friedreich Schleiermacher. This kind of theology is basically the idea that religion is first and foremost a personal engagement with the divine, or not even the divine, just the Unity of Being, or something like that, and that doctrine is really just the outcome of reflections on that engagement, and contingent on culture. For Schleiermacher all kinds of doctrines are equally valid, and doctrine doesn’t determine true religion, experience does.

Reza Aslan takes this idea even further claiming that doctrine doesn’t even determine particular religions, cultural identification does. Later on, at about the 59 mark Reza Aslan says:

Religion is above all else a matter of identity.

Now this is, for many people, as individuals, no doubt the case, however, we can easily slip into equivocation. If Joe Bambino says he’s a Catholic, despite not having seen the inside of a Church for 20 years and barely knowing the Lord’s Prayer, then for him being Catholic is more a matter of Cultural Identity, but that does not mean that Catholicism, in and of itself, is nothing more than a Cultural Identity. Catholicism is defined in the Church Tradition, when Joe Bambino calls himself a Catholic he is aligning himself with that tradition, whether or agrees with all of it, or even knows what it is.

Let’s take another example, a political example. I’m sure there were people in Nazi Germany, who were members of the Nazi party, who were not racist at all, or anti-Semitic, but joined the party because they were nationalistic, or because their friends were in the party. From that, can one reason that the Nazi ideology was not racist? Or that that Nazism, above all, was just a matter of identity? No, racism was embedded in that ideology. The fact that some individuals who called themselves Nazi’s were not racist doesn’t change that. For them Nazism might have been about nationalism and loyalty, but to then say that Nazism in itself was about that rather than racism would a faulty equivocation.

Reza Aslan edges toward this equivocation when he says around the 1:01 mark:

If that’s what religion is, then this argument about whether religions violence is religious or not completely falls apart. It’s not that it’s not religious it’s political; it’s that there’s no difference between religion and politics, that they are very much the same thing.

It depends what you mean by religion, and it depends what you mean by Politics. Ancient Greco-Roman Pagan religion was certainly political; in fact, the distinction between politics and religion in those cultures, and even in ancient Judaism didn’t really exist. But Christianity had the interesting invention of the Christian Ecclesia, which is a community which transcends politics, nationality and identity, starting from Paul’s “neither Jew nor Greek, slave or freeman and neither male nor female, but all are one in Christ” continuing with Augustine’s City of God all the way to the protestant reformation. Origen in his “Cntra Celsus – book 8” lays out the difference between the Christian Ecclesia and the Earthly Political Sphere quite well in chapter 75:

But we recognise in each state the existence of another national organization, founded by the Word of God, and we exhort those who are mighty in word and of blameless life to rule over Churches.

And later:

And it is not for the purpose of escaping public duties that Christians decline public offices, but that they may reserve themselves for a diviner and more necessary service in the Church of God— for the salvation of men. And this service is at once necessary and right.

Augustine’s City of God is basically an entire work on that same distinction, the City of God and the City of men. That is not to say that early Christians didn’t have political concerns, didn’t have political agendas, and didn’t have a political message, but it is to say that Christianity was not tied to a Nation or a State in the same way Judaism or Greco-Roman Paganism was in late antiquity. Islam also, through its history has a unique relationship to political power, distinct from both the Christian Ecclesia and Greco-Roman Paganism.

So to say there is no difference between Religion and Politics, as if Religion is one type of thing, and Politics is another, rather than religion being a catch all term for all kinds of ideologies which often have very little in common, and politics being the same.

People may use religion for political purposes, or treat religion as a political identity, but it is always with more or less plausibility depending on the religion on the kind of politics. It is also shaped by the religious ideology. To give an example claiming that one is a Jewish nationalist, and his political program is a 7 day work week, then we have an implausible connection, this is an obvious example, but it can teased out in all kinds of ways.

And it can also be teased out when it comes to violence. As I pointed out on my Post on the “Not peace but a Sword” saying by Jesus, just the fact that Christianity had to come up with a Just war theory distinguishes it from other religions. Given that we know that different religions have different relationships with violence, it follows that we can examine particular instances of violence and see whether or not they mesh with the doctrines of a certain religion. In a certain way Reza Aslan Agrees, he says at about the 1:03 mark:

We need a religious answer, a counter argument from the communities themselves.

I, for one, don’t know how that could be possible with his view of religion.

That being said I take his point, religious ideology is often political and based on identity, which can result in violence stemming from political concerns. So let’s take two examples of religious ideologies, both of them come from the third world, both of them in in the light of, and perhaps in response to imperialism and exploitation from the first world. Both of which were both highly theological in nature, and highly political in nature, both of which were revolutionary and both of which appealed to the the alienated, and both of which resulted in violence.

The two examples I’m thinking of are Liberation Theology in Latin American and Jihadism in the Muslim world. Liberation theology, for whatever faults it had, was a movement which was almost entirely peaceful, it was on behalf of and for the poor, and it was based on the gospel message of love, compassion and community, and the violence that resulted from it was almost entirely from reactions to it. Jihadism, although stemming from similar economic and socio-political circumstances, is quite different. One would have to be a fool to believe that the theological framework and scriptures on which those movements were based had no impact on how they manifested themselves politically. In fact I would say that the theological framework and scriptures were the main contributing factors that made the difference.

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Reza Aslan, Religion and Politics – Part 1 – Equivocation

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