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How religion became entwined with politics

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This weekend, millions of people will celebrate Easter. For Christians, the passion of the Christ signifies redemption through divine self-sacrifice. But non-believers, too, may find it worth pondering a story of a spiritual leader who said his kingdom was “not of this world”, refusing the political role many supporters expected of him and his detractors feared.

Religion today can seem to be taking the opposite course. Not long ago, societies looked destined to become ever more secular as they grew richer, and religion’s influence on politics would ebb away. That has not happened.

In developing countries, the very mixed record of secular models — communism, socialism, nationalism or western-style democracy — in delivering equitable material growth set the stage for a return of religious fundamentalist politics, whether in governments or in violent non-state movements. Resentment against lingering power imbalances and alienation with western-led globalisation has also tempted authoritarian leaders to use traditionalist religion to win support: India is a case in point; so is Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

In the west, too, the barriers between politics and religion have been disappearing. A traditionalist backlash can be seen in phenomena as superficially different as the nostalgia of Europe’s populist right or the undermining of abortion rights in the US.

Not all of this — arguably not even most — is spurred by religion. Nor are all organised religions politically reactionary or keen to play any political role at all. Many believers resent demands to be held to account politically for their private creed; yet such demands are increasingly made. So too with other aspects of personal identity, where people are called on to nail their deepest personal values to the public mast, and take political sides accordingly.

What is happening is the dark side of identity politics: an invasion of the political sphere by identity-based tribalism. Once identity markers are turned into political tools, all aspects of identity are exposed to being politicised.

This is not new. Modern history is marked by the shifting struggle to create shared, neutral political spaces. Five centuries ago, the Age of Discovery and rise of the scientific method loosened religion’s grip on human affairs. Later the American and French revolutions explicitly separated church and state. Reaction always followed.

By the mid-20th century, however, it was reasonable to think that the separation between the public and the private sphere was here to stay. In the following decades, liberal philosophers established the doctrine that politics should be based on commonly accepted rights, not on contested conceptions of how life should be lived.

They may have won the intellectual argument; they did not win the practical contest. Personal identity markers increasingly claim to be the foundation of political allegiance. And sometimes the personal does need to be made political, lest the border between the two entrench inequalities of power.

But without any border at all, everything is a political battleground. When identity markers are fundamentally incompatible, a politics grounded on them becomes a competition for which group can most dominate others.

The only hope for peaceful coexistence is to agree that some beliefs cannot be litigated in the political sphere, even those which people may find give the deepest meaning to their lives. Re-separating politics from identity is something religions, too, can support through their insistence on the dignity of every human being. But one needn’t be Christian or even religious to endorse the call to give to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s.

Via

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