Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Religious influences on political views

Religious background - whether or not it has been renounced - clearly plays an important role in determining the shape and tenor of a person's political and social views. Even people who have not had a religious upbringing are often influenced by religious elements of the broader culture.

I am interested not so much in survey data etc. about links between particular religious traditions and particular political ideologies (interesting though this can be) as in the logic behind the links. For example, it seems to me that the left owes a huge debt to Judaic sources insofar as its basic project is an attempt to make real a religious vision of a new earth, a promised land of harmony and prosperity.

Protestant churches and sects are generally closer to Christianity's Judaic roots than churches in the Catholic tradition (e.g. Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Episcopalian and Anglican). These latter traditions are not so much Christian as Christian-Platonic, following Plato in seeing the soul as essentially spiritual rather than essentially embodied and earthy. Judaic notions of the resurrection of the body and a (mass) last judgement sit uneasily with the belief of most traditional Catholics and Episcopalians in a soul that leaves the body at death and makes its individual way to heaven. (The Pythagoreans and Platonists believed something like this.)

But, ultimately, all traditional Christians and religious Jews believe in a spiritual - or at least in a supernaturally transfigured - realm, and such a belief is very compatible with political conservatism (and with political quietism which could be seen as a non-activist form of conservatism). Clearly, for religious people the main game is to get things right for the long haul - for the spiritual or transfigured realm - and secular institutions, political or otherwise, are of secondary importance.

Those who have lost their faith in a supernatural solution may or may not retain the moral priorities and ideals of the renounced religion. They may, like Nietzsche, find inspiration in the aristocratic values of classical Greek and Roman culture, so different, as well-known passages from the New Testament and related works make clear, from Jewish and early Christian social and moral teaching. Though non-religious conservatives will have various views on these matters and may retain many elements of Judaic or Christian ethics, they will not, as a rule, attempt (like the non-religious, left-leaning liberal) to implement a secularized version of Judaic or Christian moral and spiritual ideals.

In this the conservative - non-religious though he/she may be - shows more realism than his/her 'progressive' equivalent, and, in fact, a more profound understanding of the holistic nature of religious thinking.

Of course, the dramatic rise of Islam and, in particular, of militant Islamic fundamentalism, has changed the whole dynamic of the interplay between religion and politics in the West. But that is another story. For now I merely observe that these developments have highlighted the close links between Western religious traditions and our more general notions of freedom. The exploitation and abuse by Islamic extremists of Western conventions of religious freedom not only put those conventions at risk, but, with them, other freedoms which we have taken for granted but which are in fact the delicate fruit of a long historical process.


  1. About religious background and politics, you are right they are related. You can even see political tilts in some extant sub-denominations. In the U.S., the Presbyterian Church exists in a more liberal and a more conservative version. They have different names and different tenets, but both trace their religious heritage to the "original" Presbyterians in the U.S. (and I suppose ultimately back to Scotland).

  2. Mark, I love the clarity of your mind and your limpid prose. I really must start coming here more often.

  3. CONSVLTVS, yes, the complexities of denominations and sub-denominations are interesting and important. I suspect they have created the very fabric of our political thought-space to a large extent. And it is a real possibility, is it not, that, as those various traditions fade away, so our notions of freedom etc. will change quite radically?

  4. Thanks for the compliments, Ana. The prose may be clear, but I can assure you that the mind behind it is mired in dark confusion most of the time!

  5. So, new conservative is but old priest writ large? And, new left-liberal is also but old puritan writ large? (Apologies to Milton.)

    Supposing there is some truth in this, do you have a hypothesis that might explain it? Maybe there are two types of people?

    What about crossovers -- those who go from priest-religion to left-liberal secularist or from puritan religion to secular conservative?

  6. Alan, I would not want to claim as much as you are suggesting I am claiming. I just want to suggest that our notions of freedom and other political ideas derive from religious ideas and the history of interactions between the church and state in very complicated ways; and that the Protestant tradition - being more exclusively Bible-based - is closer to Judaic thought than the Catholic tradition which is more influenced by Greek thought; and that the left-liberal tradition could be seen to owe a big debt to certain strands of Judaic thought. Individuals may be influenced by any of these elements in the culture (and I am aware that the Judaic tradition itself is rich and varied) to a greater or lesser degree. Do you think I am mistaken about the general points?

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  8. Like you I suffer from dark confusion much of the time.

    Consider it this way:

    Liberalism arose almost exclusively in Protestant and post-Protestant societies (Britain, US, Holland, British colonies).

    Democracy pretty much ditto, though most strongly in the US and British colonies.

    Fascism arose and flourished in Catholic societies (Italy, Spain, parts of Germany) and in Protestant Germany, but never in the above-mentioned societies.

    Socialism and Marxism grew most strongly in Germany, France, Russia, China. That's a mixed set of environments: Catholic, Orthodox, Confucian, but all conservative from a religious perspective. A moderate socialism did well in Scandinavian Protestant societies. In the liberal democracies socialism and Marxism made little headway. In the US they had no effect.

    So this tends to suggest that Protestant and post-Protestant societies had something that protected them from the horrors of fascism and socialism.

    Do we agree on this much?

  9. You make some interesting - and true - points, Alan. But I think our categories (and so our respective foci) are different. You are focusing on extremism versus moderation whereas I am suggesting that there is something in the Jewish tradition which fed into the New Testament (prophetic/apocalyptic) which survives in left wing thought - a hunger for justice, etc. and notions of an ideal, egalitarian world.

    Also I would not want to draw a clearcut distinction between Catholic and Protestant - you class the UK as Protestant but there is a strong Catholic element in the Church of England as well as a large Roman Catholic minority. I recognize the fact that there were/are strong socialist movements in Catholic countries (though often it is associated with anti-clericalism, i.e. a different sort of protestantism). I still see strong links between the moral and social ideals of the prophetic and apocalyptic traditions of Judaism (as reflected in the New Testament and in aspects of modern Judaism) and leftist thought.

    One last point. I suspect you tend to see Protestantism in terms of the intellectual liberal tradition; I was thinking of it rather in terms of more fundamentalist movements. Arguably, liberal Protestants tend to incorporate much idealist philosophy into their thinking (Hegel? Schleiermacher?), and so to that extent are removed from the more or less exclusive focus on the Bible of more fundamentalist groups.

  10. Thanks, Mark -- these are good replies to my comments. Getting the categories clearer is necessary if we are to avoid having crossed wires.

    The background to socialist dreams of a just world may be as you describe.

    Is there any sort of religious background to fascist dreams (or nightmares), in your view?

  11. I would have to think about it, Alan. I did some reading on fascism a couple of years ago, and there is some good material out there. Of course, it's always going to be problematic to define it but I think certain 20th century movements had enough in common to warrant a common label.

    An anti-egalitarian ethos seems to be part of it, and this could be seen to derive in part from Greek philosophy though it also has a lot to do with militaristic notions of authority and obedience (and the camaraderie of war?). And of course evolutionary ideas are also important. And there was some input in Germany, wasn't there, from occult philosophy? Again, you have the sense of hierarchy - initiates and all that sort of thing. Gnosticism rather than mainstream popular religion.

    These are just a few thoughts. I might come back to the topic, and if you've got a perspective on it please let me know. You or anyone else.

    I suppose the big question is whether something like it will arise again.

  12. I'm a few weeks behind the thread, but I wanted to introduce myself as someone who will continue to follow your posts.

    As a secular conservative myself, I have to admit that my values come from the Christianity I was raised with. I don't believe in the supernatural, but I still recognize where my values come from.

    I'm not sure there's a correlation between religion and politics. One example: many liberals are also Christian, they simply read the bible differently focusing on helping the poor and emphasizing compassion over righteousness and obeying religious doctrine.

    I'd be curious to hear your comments on my own posts at The Heathen Republican (sorry for the shameless promotion, but they seem up your alley).

  13. Thanks for commenting THR. Hope to hear from you again. I've had a quick look at your site and I'll certainly be going back there. On the issue of whether or not there is a correlation between religion and politics, I certainly agree there is no simple correlation. But, as you concede, there is often an influence. It's a topic worth exploring, at least at the personal level.