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Religion as Politics

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In 2011, I attended Shimon Peres's Presidential Conference, "Facing Tomorrow," in Israel. Headliners included Tony Blair, Benjamin Netanyahu, Natan Sharansky, Sarah Silverman, and Shakira. Blair and Netanyahu were predictably fiery and challenging -- Netanyahu almost had me believing. Silverman, note to future organizers, was surprisingly unfunny and uninteresting. Shakira was equally surprisingly articulate and passionate about the need to educate poor children; she also gracefully resisted her interviewer's awkward insistence to shake her hips.

Dr. Ruth also gave some talks. A couple of decades ago I was waiting in line at the airport between the diminutive Dr. Ruth and a giant Boston Celtic. I was playing basketball regularly at the time so I got some tips from the Boston Celtic on my jump shot. Dr. Ruth helped me with everything else.

Now, what was I talking about? Oh yes, religion, politics, Israel, and facing tomorrow.

One topic curiously absent in Israel's Presidential Conference was religion. We heard from economists, political theorists, philosophers, government officials, business leaders, military strategists, professors, new technologists, scientists, comedians, writers and rappers. But the only keynoter with any religious bona fides was Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of Great Britain. No religion, and in Israel of all places.

I attended a session on the future of the Occupied Territories, which never mentioned religion. So, in the Q & A, I asked the distinguished panelists how they thought religion factored in among the many sources of conflict between Israel and Palestine and how religion might figure into a solution. Blank stares ensued, then confessions of ignorance about the role of religion in the Middle East. How could such learned and important men (they were indeed all men) be unaware of and even unconcerned about the religious dimension of the political situation involving Israel and Palestine?

Ignorance of the religious dimension of the 'political' contributed to the fiasco in Iraq after George Bush's premature declaration of victory. Expectations of being greeted as the victorious liberator were replaced by reality: Viewed as imperialistic occupiers, we faced fierce resistance. Imperialistic occupiers are viewed both as exploiters of local resources (oil, for example) and as imposers of foreign values (religion, for example): Western, liberal, Christian values would triumph over Middle-Eastern, conservative, Muslim values. Reason would triumph over benighted religion. Our cultural miscalculations proved tragic. Religious factions divided political loyalties so deeply that a coalition government could scarcely form let alone govern effectively. The U.S. spent many costly years trying to patch together a deeply divided society whose fragile existence continues to be imperiled. God forbid, pun intended, Iraq should turn to Iran for assistance.

Continuing evidence of the marginalization of religion is seen in the impoverished media coverage of the recent State Department Report on Religious Freedom. The report reminds us that on the basis of religion, people around the world are being systematically deprived of their most basic human rights. Some of those deprived of their religious rights are imprisoned or even killed. Most, however, are oppressed -- not permitted to practice their faith freely, denied jobs or access to government, or simply demeaned.

In the United States, our entire political system, at its most basic, is designed to protect fundamental human rights -- to life, liberty and the individual pursuit of human happiness. The State Department report makes clear that religious freedom is not a U.S. right, it is a human right. Creating the conditions of liberty, including the free choice of religion, requires continual political vigilance and willpower.

You might be excused if you are unaware of this disturbing report. It received very little coverage from prominent media. Huffington Post relegated coverage of the report to the Religion section (which is certainly not as oft read as the Politics section). Yet from Murfreesboro to Xinjiang, the religious is the political.

Who knows why the religious dimension of reality is so carefully separated from the political in the West. Perhaps religion is excluded from the political in Western media because the media is secular and underestimates the importance of religion. Perhaps Western liberalism assigns religion to the private sector and so fails to understand its public and political significance. Perhaps religion is not on the radar of secular, Western liberals. Who knows? But religion is just as much a part of the political around the world as morality and economics.

Our understanding of politics, at least in our world (the one with lots of religious believers), must include an understanding of religion. By ignoring religion, we fail to ensure that the political conditions necessary for the protection of human rights are in place and in practice. And to the detriment of us all.