As I read the myriad of posts from across the ideological spectrum about Passover, the most celebrated Jewish holiday (by both Jews and non-Jews) in America, I was struck by how much contemporary religion has deteriorated to political ideology in drag. The posts could almost all be divided into two categories. There were commentaries on the Exodus story focused on the responsibility to love the stranger and to care for the vulnerable - the social justice agenda against which Glen Beck recently railed to manipulate anger and garner ratings. And there were reflections on the Exodus story emphasizing the dangers of the present day evil Pharaohs who arise in every generation to destroy good people - the axis of evil interpretation of Passover guaranteed to stoke the fear of an already fearful citizenry. Not surprisingly, the former posts inevitably called for support of some cluster of liberal public policies targeting Pharaoh like corporations or other such exploiters be it of the environment or the poor while the latter called for resistance, vigilance, and even preemptive violence against enemies ranging from Muslim terrorists to Democrats/socialists with each side of course proclaiming this was the way to practice the sacred task of Remembering the Exodus from Egypt.
Reflecting on these posts after weeks of posts on health care reform which used religion in a similar political fashion it seems to me that increasingly all we need to know is the name of the religious commentator and the church/synagogue/denomination to which he or she belongs and we can predict what position Scripture would be used to support. Our great wisdom traditions have essentially become mere tools to legitimate and anchor people's existing political views and psychological predispositions. Adding little or no wisdom to pressing debates, neither raising awareness nor consciousness in adherents, religion has become just one more part of a fractured and fragmented public culture. Religion has become the art of fancy proof texting, liberal or conservative politics in drag, adding little or no value to the public discourse, hardening people's preexisting political beliefs and fueling their sense of outrage against anyone with whom they disagree.
This use of religion is one that paradoxically makes religion trivial to increasing numbers of people - no wonder the fastest growing religious identification in America according to the recent American Religion Identity Survey (ARIS) is None - while at the same time an increasingly polarizing and dangerous force. Trivial because religious traditions, teachings, and stories employed to merely buttress our existing political positions be they Fox or MSNBC is mere cheer-leading and dangerous because proclaiming god clearly on one side of a debate and consequently deeming the other side as anything from absolutely wrong to evil is often combustible for believers. So these days religion rarely makes us think differently or understand ourselves (or others) more deeply - it confirms and inflames. Just ask yourself the following two questions: when was the last time you read anything by a religious commentator that made you question your already held opinion? and how often have you read a religious opinion (or heard a sermon) on a divisive issue and found yourself either revved up about your own view or angered about some one else's? My hunch is the answer to the first question is rarely and to the second often. Christopher Hitchens may well be right about the religion he so abhors - to paraphrase him - religion these days either trivializes or poisons everything it touches.
Take the way many people will be using the Exodus story this coming Monday evening. Liberals will sit around the Seder table telling the story of the Israelite oppression and liberation as a call to arms to help the vulnerable aligning the story to affirm, legitimate, and prove the Truth of some sort of progressive agenda and clearly demarcating (in Israel and America) the good guys from the bad guys while conservatives will tell the same Exodus story in ways that will make it obvious to them that they are innocent victims still oppressed by evil Pharaohs aligning the story with some sort of hawkish national security agenda (in Israel and America) that just as clearly knows who the good guys are and who the bad. People will leave the Seder neither liberated from their assumptions and predispositions nor freed to imagine the new truths and solutions we need to get us through the narrow places in which we find ourselves. (And the debate on health care was no different. I can understand religious believers intuition that their god wants everyone to have health care but I can't fathom how they know for certain their god has a particular opinion regarding thousands of pages of specific legislation!)
Religion as a whore of political ideology is bad for religion and bad for society and precisely the sort of religion we ought to be wary of, as it only further polarizes our public discourse. There is something absurd and arrogant about religious leaders pretending to know precisely what the god who they claim is Infinite, Transcendent, and Unknowable says about how to handle issues like health care, financial reform, and terrorism. Can the job of religious wisdom and traditions be to turn intuitions of the infinite, intimations we are part of some greater web of relations, and glimpses of a horizon beyond our five senses and our intellect into political affirmations that reify the way we finite human beings look at the world?
The religion I learned from my best teachers - the religion of the mystics and the holy tricksters - reminds us to never reduce the infinite to political cheer-leading and to never confuse our personal certainty with the Truth. The first job to get done by any religious tradition that embodies even the slightest hint of the infinite is to compel us to question our most hard held political beliefs especially when we find ourselves unusually agitated, angry, and hostile towards fellow citizens, community members, and neighbors who disagree with us.
Religion, rather than rigidifying our political ideologies and psychological orientations, ought to be destabilizing our certainties, as certainty is too often an enemy of compassion. Religion, rather than closing our hearts and minds to those with whom we disagree, and demonizing them, ought to blow apart our arrogance and compel us to try and understand the partial truth of those with whom we differ. From a spiritual perspective there is no human being who does not posses some partial truth, however small that truth may be or, to put it in secular terms, no one is so smart that they can be 100% wrong.
Religion ought to help us continuously widen our awareness, expand our consciousness, and deepen our understanding of others, especially those we fear and hate. Religion that turns Pharoah into a terrorist and Moses into a social justice activist is trivial at best and dangerous at worst. Religion that reduces god to a political advocate or a national security expert is at best ridiculous and at worst idolatry. Such religion neither makes us better people nor the world a better place. It's time for religious leaders to stop making god our chief lobbyist and supporter. It's time to liberate God from the narrow places contemporary religion has imprisoned God - its time for God to have an Exodus.
Follow Rabbi Irwin Kula on Twitter: www.twitter.com/irwinkula