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Sundry Reflections on the Politics of Religion Sundry Reflections on the Politics of Religion
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2016-12-29 09:37:53
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Recently we have been witnessing in the media a veritable plethora of news- articles regarding the Orthodox branch of Christianity (comprising some 300 million or one eight per cent of the global total number of Christians). Some pundits of religion have called it a veritable propaganda offensive to popularize Orthodoxy around the world.  What is going on? Is it mere propaganda, or what? To begin to understand this phenomenon one needs to review, even if cursorily, the record on the relationship religion/politics as experienced first in Europe and later globally.

There is little doubt that religion has always represented, from primordial times, a powerful cultural force unifying diverse and disparate people. It seems to be a permanent feature of human nature of conceiving one’s identity. Jung, who had studied most of the major ones and researched them all over the world for psychological reasons, arriving at the concept of archetypes which they all seem to possess, is known to have observed that “throw religion out the door and it will come back through the back window as a pernicious cult of sort or an ideology.” It seems to be indispensable, even in practical political life, even in places where a powerful ideology controls every aspect of a people’s life. This is what terrorists have grasped while those who condemn anybody who practices a religion, or any religion for that matter, as an unenlightened retrograde obscurantist (Voltaire was one of those “enlightened” men) have failed to realize a very simple philosophical principle of Thomas Aquinas: the abuse does not obviate the use.

In effect, the ideology often enough sees itself in conflict with religion, which it considers just another misguided unenlightened rival ideology, and persecutes it or makes it illegal. We saw that phenomenon in the Soviet Union between 1917 and 1989); we continue to see it in China today where Communism is still holds the reigns of political power. Going back to ancient times, we saw that in the persecution of the Christians in Rome. They were persecuted for being perceived as competing ideologues subversive to the imperialistic interests of the Roman Empire, refusing to serve in the Roman army. All that changed once the Empire became Christian under Constantine. But we’ll return to that.

Besides Christianity, with which most people in the West are vaguely familiar, since by now good old paganism seems to be on its way back, one thinks of Islam which managed to unify the various wandering tribes of the Desert into one powerful civilization, in some ways superior, at the time at least, even to that of the West still struggling to emerge from the Dark Ages following the fall of the Roman Empire (the superiority residing in medicine and architecture, and, to some extent, philosophy). One thinks of Confucianism and Buddhism which did the same in the Far East, giving rise to the hegemony of Chinese and Japanese civilization in the area. One thinks of Hinduism unifying the whole Indian subcontinent. And the list goes on. With no religion, the tendency seems to be for centrifugal forces to take over and destroy any sign of unity and adherence to common values and traditions.

Historically, we know that beginning with the third century AD the Roman Empire, with the advent of semi-deranged emperors such as Caligula and Nero the Roman Empire, at least in its western part, appeared doomed to decline and eventual destruction, as in fact happened eventually. The political genius of a Constantine resides in the fact that he became increasingly aware that religion could be the force that would keep the centrifugal forces at work in the Empire, at bay for a while; a sort of cultural glue. So he embraces Christianity and basically requires that everybody in the Empire become a Christian. To refuse was equivalent to showing disrespect for the Emperor. People remembered too well the fate of those Christians who refused to throw incense at the statue of the Emperor.

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Constantine embracing Christianity

In effect, you now have a Christian empire with the Emperor as the supreme ruler in temporal matters while the Pope is the supreme ruler in spiritual matters. It seemed to be a perfect arrangement and it did in fact keep the Empire going for a while longer. The problem was that the unity was so powerful and unshackled that the crucial distinction between spiritual matters and temporal matters began to disappear. In medieval times the power of the Church reached a culminating point when a bishop could be both a temporal ruler and a spiritual leader.

The Pope allegedly inherited one third of Italy, the very center of the peninsula, from Constantine, the so called “donation of Constantine,” in reality this was a fraudulent claim. Dante puts three Popes in hell for failing to distinguish the temporal from the spiritual. This state of affairs persists till the 16th century. In Italy it does not end till the 19th century when Italy becomes a unified country and the Pope is stripped of all temporal power, except for a symbolical vestige named Vatican City (see Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel Il Gattopardo), given to him, almost nobles oblige, by the dictator Benito Mussolini. Thus the principle of separation of temporal power and spiritual power was upheld in some form and everybody saved face.

In the eastern part of the Roman Empire, the so called Byzantine Empire, with its capital in Constantinople (present day Istanbul), things go on as usual for another thousand years or so, with the patriarch of Constantinople in charge of spiritual affairs and the eastern Emperor in charge of temporal affairs. In effect the one who called the shots, even in spiritual matters, was the one who held the temporal power and controlled the army: the Emperor. The patriarch, an equal with within the descendants of the apostles, which includes the bishop of Rome, the Pope, was merely the representative and the defender of the faith; a spiritual function. In more pragmatic Machiavellian terms, however, the real defender of the faith was the Byzantine Roman army which in the 4th crusade failed to defend the city from the invading Christians from the West on their way to free Jerusalem from the infidel Moslems. On passant, they did a little pillaging in Constantinople, a Christian city. So much for spiritual values and the brotherhood of all Christian, not to speak of that of all humans…Even the Pope at the time was horrified by this gross event and exclaimed about the Crusaders’ army: “no wonder the Greeks call them dogs.”

To continue the narration, Hagias Sophia’s, the largest and most beautiful Church in the world at the time, remained is a Christian Church till the end of the Byzantine Empire and the advent of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century. It is now a museum surrounded by minarets. Obviously there are religious wars, and they spill over into cultural wars, better known as Crusades, and there are winners and there are losers, but religion (be it Christian or be it Moslem) remains a powerful cement to keep people’s allegiance, even patriotism, alive and well and to better camouflage one’s real political intentions.

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The Hagias Sophia’s in Istanbul

Some have said that the problem with religion is that it produces too many fanatics; and such an opinion may express a valid point. But this can only be so in as much as religion too can be interpreted and presented as just another political ideology. When that happens, religions tend to vie with each other as ideologies have tended to do from time immemorial. Enter Marx with his “religion is the opium of the people” or Mao with his “religion is poison.” The Machiavellian stratagem of the more astute politicians among us is to manipulate them and pit one against the other. One uses them as ideological tools while remaining in control and pulling the political string at all times. One manages to promote one’s ideology, civilization, even nationalism through religion. One manages even to appear pious and holy.

For example at the recent meeting in Moscow to honor the 70th birthday of its Orthodox patriarch Cyril, a letter of invitation was sent out inviting all the Orthodox patriarchs together with the most important figures of the Orthodox Church. None of them failed to show up, albeit some came more enthusiastically and more entourage than others. This was hailed by some orthodox Christians as a great show of unity and cooperation within the Orthodox Church, even a good omen and a joyous prelude to eventual reunion with the Western Catholic Church. What seems to be forgotten is that the celebration took place in Moscow and the invitation had the blessing, so to speak, of a pious orthodox Christian who often goes on pilgrimages to Orthodox sacred places, while at the same time gobbling up Crimea, or parts of Ukraine or part of Georgia while eyeing the Baltic countries, former satellites of the Soviet Union with large Russian populations of which he has proclaimed himself the champion. It appears that none dared to disrespect the blessing of such a pious but powerful member of the Orthodox Church, or even impugn his real motives.

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Putin congratulates Patriarch Kirill on his 70th birthday

You get the point. We are talking here about the politics of religion. Like Constantine, one can use religion for one’s ideological and political agenda. Since Communism as it is, can no longer be revived in Russia, probably not even in Italy, one can still bring back the past glories of Russia as expressed via the Orthodox Church and showing the great respect for traditional values, all lost in those Epicurean hedonistic societies in the European Union and the United States of America. One may even be able to convince oneself, with all those yearly holy pilgrimages, that one is a genuine peace-loving Christian and not a mere astute ideologue. It worked quite well for Constantine; why should it not work for Mr. Putin?  But Christ’s injunction remains: “By their fruits you shall know them.” So, keep your eyes and ears open.

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Check Dr Emanuel Paparella's EBOOKS
Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers
& Europe Beyond the Euro
You can download them for FREE HERE!
 
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