Tuesday, November 29, 2005

God And Caesar in America: An Essay on Religion and Politics

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Former Colorado Senator Gary Hart has written the most compelling, cogent contemporary treatise for the separation of church and state in America that we have come across. Titled "God and Caesar in America: An Essay on Religion and Politics," Hart's work is in the tradition of Tom Paine.

This is a trenchant, earnest commentary that combines Hart's personal experience as a child raised in a Church of the Nazarene household (he attended a Nazarene College), his years as a Yale Divinity student, and his career as a Yale Law School educated attorney and elected politician. Although his faith-based upbringing combined with his years as a national leader in the Senate provide him with a unique perspective, it is the eloquent, impassioned analysis that Hart applies to the interjection of religion into politics that makes his short book so insightful.

Hart can move from analyzing the deplorable manner in which right wing ministers hold Jesus hostage to achieve their own selfish political goals to the historical factors behind the separation of church and state that were enshrined into our Constitution by our founding fathers. More importantly, Hart makes a moral and practical case as to why mixing religion with politics is detrimental to both.

"Our founders knew that we would be governed by fallible human beings," Hart concludes, "from among whom we would select our leaders. They did not believe that human fallibility in the political sphere would be corrected by opening the corridors of power to ministers, priests and rabbis. To the contrary, to turn over the reigns of government to religious leaders could lead to one of only two destructive consequences: we would become a theocratic principality familiar to old Europe or religion would be totally discredited and taken over by the state."

"Indeed, how can religious judgment all seem to be rendered against one political party?" Hart asks in a chapter called, "Beliefs, Values and Justice." "The 'values' employed are very partisan values. All this religious partisanship is a very short step away from preaching that Jesus was a member of one political party."

"This kind of political activity may encourage one party," Hart continues, "and its candidates, but it certainly does nothing to further the gospel of Jesus."

Indeed, in the original debates over the Constitution, one of the reasons religion was guaranteed the right to be free of the influence of politics -- and politics to be kept free of religion -- was that once a specific religious faction took control of politics, that religion itself would eventually become corrupted by the secular, practical concerns of the political sphere.

Hart convincingly argues that religious values, as seen by a member of any faith, should be practiced in deed in the public sphere, but that absolutist religious principles have no place in the political world of the American democracy.

Because of the absolutist nature of the religious right, we have seen less and less compromise in American politics. "This circumstance has been created in no small part by the introduction of absolutes, especially 'faith-based' absolutes, into a political system, where no single group gets everything that it demands, and often does not even get one thing it wants unblemished by compromise."

Hart is optimistic that the pendulum will swing back to the heritage of our Constitutional wisdom creating the separation of church and state: "Politicians hiding behind the robes of ministers, policy makers courting a vociferous religious element, adventurers cloaking foreign military ventures in the crusader's rhetoric, political manipulators cynically using public fears to turn out voters all will be swept back into our nation's nooks and crannies from whence they emerged. This must happen, because America cannot be governed otherwise."

"God and Caesar in America" is a profound and vitally important reflection on the danger to our democracy posed by religious fanatics who have seized control of our government. This is a must-read book for anyone concerned about the Mullah fundamentalists who have hijacked this nation.

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