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PERSPECTIVES ON FAITH & POLITICS

AMERICA: CITY ON A HILL?THE STATE & RELIGION

"Politics no longer asks why or whether questions but only how," author Salman Rushdie once wrote. "It does not ask what kind of world we wish to live in. It does not analyze the consequences of the choices that are made for us. Nor does it address itself to the grievances and achings of the soul." For millions of people, those "achings of the soul" have found no relief in secular politics, and civic life has become a farcical drama played out by governments and states who seem to have no concern for the deeper needs of human existence.

Whether it's the issue of secularism and cultural identity in Europe's headscarf cases, the battle over land and holy sites in the Middle East or the feud over prayer in American schools the intersection of faith and politics sometimes creates conflict.

Below, guests on FAITH & REASON and other thinkers offer their insights and opinions on the uneasy balance between politics and religion as it has played out around the world.

AMERICA: A CITY ON THE HILL?

From debates over the Ten Commandments in school and courthouses to objections over abortion and stem-cell research, America seems in the grip of cultural battle between faith and reason for the soul the country. The question fought in elections and at dinner tables throughout the nation seems to be what's the right mix of politics and religion in today's democracy? Here and some relective responses:

Robert Bellah, sociologist: "I certainly think that we need to reinvigorate our political life together. But I don't think we want to make an absolute dichotomy between religion and politics because the very nature of the way things work in America, is that political initiatives often come from religious communities." Robert Bellah, sociologist Read the transcript (PDF)

Colin McGinn: "England is a much more secular society than the United States is. But I certainly find myself here puzzled and disturbed. All the opposition to Darwin's theory of evolution is to me absolutely absurd, and the dominance of certain kinds of religious beliefs — especially when religion turns into a conservative, political agenda which doesn't seem to have much basis in the Bible anyway."

Reverend William Sloane Coffin, progressive clergyman: "And my understanding of Christianity is that it underlies all progressive moves to implement more justice. Get a higher degree of peace in the world, you know? And although people don't see it, that's what I mean by politically-committed spirituality."

listenHear more from William Sloane Coffin (23:30) or read the transcript
Leon R. Kass, bioethicist: "It is sometimes said that some questions (stem cell research, reproductive issues, HIV confidentiality) are moral and religious questions and, therefore have no place in our political life. But political is always about moral questions. We're always trying to figure out what the better or just or right or decent thing to do it."
listenHear more from Leon Kass (49:27) or read the transcript. (PDF) (DVD/VHS)
Salman Rushdie: "As a young man [in the 1960s], the idea that religion would become right at the center of the public life seemed unthinkable. It seemed to be at the margins, it seemed to have gone into private life, which in my view was where it belonged-and that it was not a political issue. The world has changed dramatically."


THE STATE & RELIGION

Throughout history religious forces and the state have coexisted, sometimes peacefully, at other times in perilous balance. And occasionally, religion has taken over the state apparatus completely. Here, FAITH & REASON's international cadre of writers discuss this compulsion as it has played out in different parts of the world.

Salman Rushdie: "What's happening [today] is, I do think in a certain way that many people perceive failures in secularism. If you look at the rise of Islamic radicalism, you can say that the rule of the Ayatollahs was created by the failures of the secularist Shah of Iran You could say that in Algeria a secular leftist revolution essentially became a fat cat corrupt regime. And people disillusioned with that revolution and it's party move towards extremist religious parties in response. So you can look in different parts of the world and see the growth of religious fanaticism as being a response to a sort of disillusion with secularism."

Martin Amis: "The point to understand is that it's not very nationalistic, Islam. It's like Soviet Communism in its early phase. It's meant to be a worldwide community, and borders on that importance. And when Khomeini and [secularist Saddam] Hussein were at war, the Iran-Iraq War, Khomeini always said, "This is not a war between two countries; it's a war for the soul of Islam."

Kanan Makiya, professor of Middle East studies: "Islam has a relation to politics which is different... Islam from day one begins with the Islamic polities, city-states, basically established by the Prophet Mohammed in the city of Medina after he was expelled from Mecca. From then onwards, Islam lives always with political states."

listenHear more from Kanan Makiya and others from the special ISLAM VS. ISLAM, (34:41) or read the transcript.

Israeli author David Grossman spoke about the influence of religion on Israeli politics: "A very basic problem of us as a state today [is] that there is too much connection between religion and the state. For the last 60 years almost, Israel prioritized the political goals of religion over the political goals of the state. For example, many things that have happened to us since the Six-Day War, the '67 War, [things] that drove the occupation of the occupied territories, were highly dominated by religious aspirations. And the religious are so much involved now in politics in Israel today. It's so much dominant in our politics. And it's dangerous because also on the other side, on the Palestinian side, we see the same phenomenon. They are now ruled by not only religious people, which I can respect, but they are ruled by fundamentalists, by fanatics."

Martin Amis, author of a recent book on the Soviet Union, KORBA THE DREAD: LAUGHTER AND THE TWENTY MILLION, reflected on the U.S.S.R's attempt to completely eliminate religion: "But it seemed that ideology was going to take over from religion. Ideology was a kind of Methadone that would get you off heroin, you know. And it was far more virulent than religion."

Margaret Atwood: "The Bolsheviks got rid of their nearest ideological neighbors, the Mencheviks, as soon as they had the power. They killed the lot. You know? Too close to them. They got rid of any other socialists. They wanted to be the only true church brand of socialists. So any theocracy in [the United States] would immediately eliminate all other competing religions if they could [that] is exactly how they would operate, because that's what happens under those kinds of arrangements. You want to be the power, the only power, and anybody who could be a rival power, you'd get rid of them."

Salman Rushdie discusses the triumph of secularism over sectarianism in India's history: "The great founding fathers like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were absolutely convinced that to secularize India was the only way of keeping various [religious] communities safe. But in order to avoid a repetition of the bloodshed of partitioning, you had to not allow any religious community to dominate any other. And therefore India was given a secular constitution.

Tell us what you think about faith and politics.

Perspectives - What do you think?
"It's such a very dangerous thing when patriotism and religion become equated...becomes nationalism and militarism and a complete intolerance for any other point of view. I think it's dangerous too...'The God is on our side thing is extremely dangerous.'" --Susan Jacoby

Respond

"The church perhaps is the only institution in the nation that can ask: "Okay, how are your policies squaring up, not only with the principles of the Bible, but with the principles found in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights?" Everybody else is scared to do it. The Church had better be afraid not to do it."
-- Rev. James Forbes

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