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Inviting the Religious Hen into our Government’s Fox House

As the State Department introduces its new office of religious engagement, Americans should fear how religion is often abused to advance neoliberal polices around the world.

So the State Department recently announced that Shaun Casey, professor of Christian theology and ethics, will head a new office of “Religious Engagement.” This is a curious phrase in a country with constitutionally-mandated separation of church and state. Far more worrisome is the notice that this new office will “focus on engagement with faith-based organizations and religious institutions around the world to strengthen U.S. development and diplomacy and advance America’s interests and values.”

It’s that ominous phrase about strengthening “U.S. development and diplomacy” and advancing “America’s interests and values.” This doesnotmean supporting democratically elected rulers in other countries who want to put the needs of their people ahead of the desires of our corporations. On August 20th, the Huffington Post referenced a New York Times article by Robert Scheer – which in turn quoted Patrick L. Smith of Salon — on US complicity in the destruction of Iranian democracy back in 1953:

“Sixty years ago this week the United States successfully staged a coup in Iran to overthrow democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh that a newly declassified CIA document reveals was designed to preserve the control of Western companies over Iran’s rich oil fields.” (by Patrick L. Smith, Salon, August 18, 2013)

All over the world, actions to serve “America’s interests and values” have shown that we hate democratic nations that put their own interests above ours. Drafting religion to help advance our “interests and values” should disturb both our government and the religiosity with which it wants to mate.

There is nothing new here. Nearly two thousand years ago, the Roman statesman Seneca the Younger (5 BC – 64 AD), made the often-quoted observation that “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.” Useful forwhatdepends on what kind of religion, and what kind of government. Usually, it’s authoritarian, all the way down: fascist or despotic governments looking to hook up with equally authoritarian religions that can be counted on to put their adherents in line with the government’s aims.

This never turns out well. The best known example is probably from the era of Mussolini’s Italian fascism and Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Pope Pius XI signed a major agreement with Mussolini’s fascist regime in February 1929. This was the deal that led the Pope to hail Mussolini as his “Man of Providence” and brought church and state into greater unity than at any time since the Renaissance. After Hitler came to power on January 30, 1933, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli – who would become Pope Pius XII in 1939 — signed a treaty with German diplomat Franz Von Papen. Germany agreed to stop its propaganda campaign against Roman Catholicism. In return, the Church agreed to separate religion from politics. This diminished the influence of the Catholic Center Party and the Catholic Labor unions, making the Church less principled, but more useful.

These hookups offered churches safety, in return for the churches using their authority to keep Christians from interfering with the fascist regimes. No one can serve two masters, and these collusions put allegiance to the rulers’desires ahead of the ethical and moral teachings of religions. That is the kind of “usefulness” our religions can provide: selling “US interests” to their members as what God wants. And believers aren’t fooled. The decline of religion in European countries after WWII has at least some connection to the ease with which the Catholic Church (or the German Christian Church) sold out not only their faithful, but also their Jesus, God, and the Bible.

Defenders of religion might think things would turn out better if only religion controlled the police and military power, rather than having to make these devil’s bargains with secular governments. Then nothing could stop the Priest-Kings from institutionalizing the kind of compassion and love that lies at the heart of their religion. But it hasn’t worked that way; the picture is even more deadly when religion controls the power: Crusades, Inquisitions, torture and murder are staples in this genre. Absolute power does seem absolutely to corrupt those who wield it.

On the subject of religion hooking up with government, we have this ironic quotation from Professor Casey himself, the Christian theologian who will lead the religious piece of this marriage, from his comments at the 2008 Christian Scholars’ Conference:

“Religious groups are threatened when they become too comfortable and too cozy [with power politics]. They lose their independence; they forfeit their role in society. They are the ones that are supposed to hold up moral values and call us all to justice, but if they have a permanent relationship with the president, they lose that critical distance, and in some very real ways, they risk losing their very essence.” (On Lipscomb University web site:

Consider what it could be like if our government were linked with healthy religion, which focuses on admirablebehaviorsrather than “right beliefs” (the definition of “orthodoxy”). At its best – no matter how seldom that occurs – religion helps people sense the difference between good and evil, true and false, trust and betrayal, serving and manipulating, gods and idols. Think of our government’s stalking of Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. Assange is an Australian citizen who – like the New York Times and a handful of the biggest papers overseas – broke no law. He simply published documents that had been leaked to Wikileaks, many by Manning. The fact that the Obama administration isn’t after the New York Times shows that our elected officials know Assange committed no crime.

However, even religious prophets would agree with the US government that Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden leaked classified information, in violation of the laws of the Army and the NSA. However, the religiously nuanced would point out that Manning and Snowden violated lower level laws in order to serve the higher authority of the US Constitution. These heroic young people had the moral courage to serve the even higher demands of truth, justice, and the most moral aspects of the American Way of Life. Considering that both Manning and Snowden will probably be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, the fact that President Obama – a Constitutional scholar, no less — was awarded the Prize is ironic, if not ethically reprehensible. If God took sides, He would side with those who revealed truth, not those who fought to keep their dishonesty, violence and betrayal secret from those who entrusted them with the charge to govern wisely.

The Obama administration is no longer fooling a majority of the people in these cases. Consider:

“If knowledge is power, then the lack of knowledge, or ignorance, amounts to a lack of, or exclusion from, power. As such, removing, obscuring, or hiding knowledge – in a word, secrecy – not only creates power, it produces powerlessness, weakness, and vulnerability as well.” if knowledge is power, then the lack of knowledge, or ignorance, amounts to a lack of, or exclusion from, power.” (AlterNet/ ByElliot Sperber, “Why Edward Snowden’s Leaks Have Empowered All of Us”, July 2, 2013)

This doesn’t mean that no government can ever be applauded by conscientious religious and ethical voices, or that all governments and churches are evil. The period after WWII up to the early 1960s comes to mind, and is remembered proudly by those of us who grew up then. The Marshall Plan helped both Germany and Japan back on their feet, and has been rightly admired for over two generations. There were people at the time who wanted us to rob those countries of the “spoils of war” – as we had punished Germany after WWI, virtually guaranteeing that there would be a WWII. That would have been the route of a self-serving vengeance. After WWII, we did not take that route; we took a higher moral path, and people all over the world admired us, for decades. Our government also had a tax structure that kept the ratio of earnings between the richest and poorest Americans within humane limits (up to an income tax rate of 94% in 1944-45, and over 90% through 1963). Our elected officials did this 50-60 years ago because, in a democracy, it is the middle class that is most critical. Without a middle class, democracy is not possible, because the middle class contains the rungs on the ladder of success that make it possible for all our citizens to have a realistic shot at the American Dream. Back then, most preachers admired the ethical principles and moral sensitivity of our government, because our actions were much closer to being in harmony with the teachings of Jesus and the other prophets in the Bible.

But there’s a catch. Only honest, fair, trustworthy governments can ever find this kind of ethical harmony with the best teachings of religions. Sixty years ago, we had it, and it gave America the reputation which our government has spent the last fifty years betraying. Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden represent those too-rare voices with the ethical sensitivity and moral courage to insist that an errant government must answer to those higher ideals, without which it will earn only the scorn of the world, and of history. As those who understand religion know, it’s Religion 101. Once, in our United States, it was also Government 101.