The recent pronouncement (May 2013) by Justin Welby, Archbishop of Cantebury, that UK television ought to give a high profile to religion, raises an important question. His elite male desire to have religion “stitched into our public life” brings to the fore what tends to get overlooked in the countries of the west. It is that at their root, most religions are patriarchal ideologies that seek to govern the thinking and actions of those who come within their respective spheres of control. In other words organised religions are actually a form of politics.
When western politicians claim that ‘religion should be kept out of politics’ and western theologians assert that ‘politics should be kept out of religion‘ this indicates a tacit recognition of a hard-won truce – in the west – between the competing desires of both these elite’s to exclusively govern their particular communities. However, as we know, the west is only a special and relatively recent case, and as we now see vividly manifested in the Middle East, religion is actually one of the oldest forms of politics.
The fierce struggles in Europe against religious governance during the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment periods, finally created a bifurcation between the two sets of competing elites. The male political elite began to govern their communities according to secular law whilst the male religious elite continued to govern theirs according to ancient texts – but after the Enlightenment within a restricted sphere.
However, this split between secular politics and religious politics is less clear-cut in other countries – particularly in the Indian sub-continent and the Middle East. There, the battle between religious and secular forms of elite male governance still rages. In Iran the conflict, has been won by the religious elite – at least for the moment. In Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Pakistan and elsewhere, the struggle ebbs and floes, but continues. The current fundamentalist religious movements exerting themselves by bomb and/or ballot-box in the Middle-East, North Africa, Afghanistan etc., represent an aggressive return to the primary political core of religions – particularly the three Abrahamic ones.
Interestingly in Europe and the UK there is also the beginning of a re-emergence of that particular struggle. It comes via calls for Shia Law to take precedence over secular decision-making – for some sections of our European and UK communities. It is time, therefore, to recognise that organised religion – at its core – is not simply a private spiritual matter, but another form of politics. It is therefore an issue of increasing public importance. On the surface, the question may appear simply as a choice between decisions based upon ancient books, or upon ballot boxes. But it is actually more than this.
Left unchallenged such a choice resolves itself into a question of which set of elite males should govern and regulate the conduct of communities, societies and nations. This is because ‘patriarchal power’ is the sun around which these two competing forms of earthly governance orbit and neither have brought peace, justice or equality, let alone gender equality. As we shall see in the next section political governance by male elite’s is hard-wired into the DNA of all three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Later we will see a mirror image of this patriarchal aspiration reflected in secular politics.
Religion: Politics by another name.
The neglect of serious biblical studies – even among those of ‘faith’ – leaves most people with a casual and naïve understanding of religious ideology. In fact theoretically and practically, religion is about earthly governance so religion is a form of politics. In this regard it is the existence of threats and punishments which identifies any ideology as concerned primarily with politics and governance. The three Abrahamic religions are therefore replete with threats and punishments. Reading the Torah/Old Testament quickly reveals that ‘in the beginning’ was not just light – but governance.
Genesis clearly expresses that the imagined first couple, Adam and Eve were to have no say in what they could and could not eat or how they would live. They were duly punished for gaining knowledge. The author/s of Genesis and the other books of the bible clearly did not wish humanity to be self-governing, democratic or even knowledgeable. Later, Genesis suggests that the whole of humanity, except Noah, was punished because they did not follow the dictates laid out for them. Noah is even promoted to governor general of the whole planet;
“And the fear of you and the terror of you shall be on every beast of the earth and of every bird of the sky:” (Genesis 9 v 2.)
Later still, Abram is said to have, circumcised every member of his family and household. No, discussion, no contradiction, no alternative and no vote on the matter was to be allowed. The inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, who refused to live according to such dictates, were duly wiped out. The true political import of such narratives is missed if only their authenticity or historical credibility is discussed. In each case, the texts are purposeful, polemical narratives used as political weapons in order to establish at least three hierarchical-based objectives.
First, to establish and confirm an exclusive, collective community. Second, to gain and maintain leadership control of that collective community by a governing male elite. Third, to promote and consolidate the attributes and objectives considered desirable by that governing elite, which by sleight of hand they present as the word of God.
“But if you will not harken to the voice of the Lord your God, and do not observe and do all his commandments and his statutes which I command you this day, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you…..The Lord shall send upon you ruin, confusion, and rebuke in all that you set your hand to do, until you are destroyed, and until you perish quickly; because of your evil doings, because you have forsaken me.” (Torah/Old Testament. Deut. 28 v 15 and 20.)
The real political essence of this passage (and countless others) is the demand to ‘do’ (ie obey) all the commandments and statutes’ which are decreed by the religious elite. The demand, in typical totalitarian fashion, is backed up by threats of punishments up to and including total destruction of those who resist. The narratives of Exodus and Leviticus are also full of rules and regulations that were to be forcefully imposed upon tribal members by the leaders of the tribe. What these texts demonstrate is the aim of an elite to govern every aspect of personal and community life. One further example;
“They will bow down to you with their faces to the earth. And lick the dust of your feet.”…”And your descendants shall posses nations.”..”.the nation and the kingdom which will not serve you will perish.” “You will eat the wealth of nations, and in their riches you will boast.” (Isaiah 49 v 23; 54 v 3; 60 v 12;61 v 6.)
What is clear is that these are not spiritual concerns. They are political aspirations and fantasies. Although they were never realised, the patriarchal political nature and essence of Judaism did not atrophy or become extinct. Jewish women and the Palestinians have born witness to how this aspiration to govern others still virulently operates. The desire to become a political power governing human conduct is also clearly evident in the Christian Gospels.
“Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?…In Bethlehem…For out of you shall come forth a ruler.” (Mathew 2 v 2-5 and 6.)
The gospel narrators at this point were not anxious to gain a mystical interpreter of theology – they wanted much more. Because religion is essentially politics, its political nature did not (and still does not) disappear even when its advocates are forced by circumstances to play a subordinate role. Recall the empire-wide Christian governance achieved on the back of the conversion of the Roman Emperors, Constantine and Justinian to Christianity. This was a hegemony that led to Europe-wide community domination and oppression throughout the middle ages by successive Popes, and their religious/political lieutenants. It also led to the infamous bloody crusades to assert domination over the Middle East. Next consider the political foundation of Islam, which calls for submission and obedience to men, particularly elite men.
“O you who believe! Obey Allah and obey the Apostle and those in authority from among you; then if you quarrel about anything refer it to Allah and the Apostle,..” (Surah 4 v 59)
This is clearly an instruction to submit to a form of earthly governance controlled by Muhammud and ‘those in authority‘, which is not restricted purely to spiritual matters. The ’anything’ in this quotation applies to all aspects of communal living. The above, and many other instances in the Qur’an are political directives aimed at the total governance of human communities by a male elite. From the conquest of Mecca in 630 CE, through the armed establishment of the Islamic Empire in the 9th to the 13th century, the politics of Islam governed all aspects of life with rigorous detail and ruthless determination. For;
“Allah has promised to those of you who believe and do good that He will most certainly make them rulers of the earth as He made rulers those before them…” (Surah 24 v 55)
Here we have the third, Abrahamic monotheistic ideology, not only emphatically aspiring to the complete political governance of human communities already incorporated within their control, but ever hopeful of jurisdiction over those who as yet remain outside it.
An important point arises here. The racist nature of some of those who criticise Islam, particularly in the West, is revealed by their partiality. They correctly recognise the political nature of Islam and its frequent ruthless suppression of opposition, but do not criticise Judaism and Christianity for this identical political aspiration and practice. Nor do they criticise Christianised liberal democratic capitalist politics for its immorality, corruption and support for exploitation of the worlds’ people and environment. Religion in the west, is no less a form of male politics, even though it has become a subordinate and colluding partner with another form of hierarchical male domination – politics via the ballot box.
Politics: A new form of religion.
In western countries in particular, politics has become an alternative universal absolute. For some people, ‘faith’ in politics has replaced ‘faith’ in an invisible higher power. Politics has, like religion, become seen as something universally and eternally good – whose existence is rarely questioned – even if its honesty is. Political parties have even taken on the form and some of the content of religious denominations and sects. Like religions they are dominated by male hierarchies, who decide rules along with acceptable ‘norms’ for their membership. They also promise future benefits to mankind – under their leadership – and continually preach the ‘good news’ to members who duly attend conferences to listen.
Some political parties are more democratic than others, and like Protestant Congregationalism and Presbyterianism, allow a varying degree of participation to members. But again like religion, it is generally a form of participation, restricted to financially supporting the elite and serving them practically. Unfortunately, this is not the worst aspect of politics, for political parties create and encourage an attitude of unwarranted ‘belief’. Belief in ‘the party’, in spite of any contradictory evidence; ‘belief’ in the leadership, in spite of obvious failings; and ‘belief’ in the party dogma and ideology – without question. It becomes, a religious type commitment.
Take for example the words of Trotsky’s 1924, speech to the 13th congress of the Russian Communist Party; ”..in the last analysis, the party is always right…‘right or wrong, this is my party”. This statement is so close to a form of nationalistic passion or religious zeal as to be an adequate indicator that even the politics of the ‘left’ is effected by this ‘absolutist’ phenomenon. That a fervent anti-capitalist and highly intelligent intellectual such as Leon Trotsky can succumb to such political ‘intoxication’ shows how powerfully this secular ‘universal absolute’ has become – and he was not on his own to fetishise ‘the party’!
Nor is it something now relegated to the past. For was this sentiment (my party right or wrong) not powerfully exhibited by some members of the SWP in the recent troubling events? Unfortunately it is not restricted to this one UK sectarian organisation but infects most of them. Indeed, as Marx long ago wrote; “Every sect is in fact religious”. Yet there are still many contemporary anti-capitalists who unquestioningly accept (ie ‘believe’ in) the absolute necessity for a political party to deliver the oppressed from exploitation by the capitalist classes. The party in this perspective is seen as a missionary type project whose elite will guide and lead the workers to a new-Jerusalem salvation.
This ‘belief’ in the ‘party’ exists despite the evidence that political parties are the problem not the solution to the problems facing the working and oppressed classes. And it is here that the distinction between belief-based ideas and evidence-based ideas becomes starkly apparent. Advocates of belief-based ideas accept only evidence that supports their beliefs and reject evidence that does not. Even highly intelligent anti-capitalists will trawl through copious amounts of material in order to extract evidence that confirms what they already believe. They rarely, if ever, search out or trawl through historical material to find evidence that contradicts their views. This partisan research method distinguishes between those who say they follow Marx and those who actually follow Marx’s advice on research and politics. For example;
“Hence too, a revolution with a political soul, in accordance with the limited and dichotomous nature of its soul, organises a ruling stratum in society at the expense of society itself.” (Marx in ‘Marx/Engels. Collected Works. Volume 3 page 205.)
Marx’s negative appraisal of politics and the political mentality was the other side of the coin so to speak of his oft-repeated advocacy that “The emancipation of the working class, must be achieved by the working classes themselves.” It also coincides with his decision not to co-operate with people who stated that the workers must be “..freed from above by philanthropic persons from the upper and lower middle classes.” These opinions rarely get an airing on the ‘left’ nor are they seriously considered by those who continue to ‘believe’ in the Leninist project of creating a ‘vanguard’ party to emancipate the working class. This is despite the fact that Leninism from 1917 and beyond did in fact organise a ruling stratum in soviet society at the expense of workers of soviet society.
To sum up.
The fact that religion and politics are ideologies of patriarchal governance should be obvious from their ideas and their practices. They both promote an acceptance of governance by elite males, to the detriment of women and all those below them. This governance is perpetuated by three elements. First: hegemony in thinking. Second: threats of possible punishment. Third: by actual punishments. The latter two explain the viciousness with which people, who seriously oppose their rule, are treated. Whilst some kinds of political governance may be marginally better than religious, the political elite’s still use the armed bodies of the state to club, pepper-spray, taser, kettle, gas, arrest and imprison demonstrating workers, anti-capitalist activists and other protestors against their rule.
In many non-western countries these enforcement elements are not always adequately provided by the state and therefore patriarchal vigilantes fill in the gaps. The meaning of religiously inspired shooting or beheading of women and men who do not accept governance by fundamentalist males is both to directly punish and harm the victims but also to reinforce conformity and fear among others. The bombing of polling stations and different religious communities by fanatics from other religions has the same purpose and the purpose is political. If religious community hostilities were simply about esoteric spiritual matters, disputes would be conducted in words only and agreement (or disagreement) would be reached without bloodshed.
Neither is it, as some people imagine, that religious hostility is political hostility in which spiritual matters have been unfairly introduced to confuse or justify the actions of combatants. An element of that may be occasionally true, but religiously inspired hostilities are always political hostilities, precisely because religion has always been and continues to be a form of patriarchal politics. Once again, (ie in the 21st century) religion is trying to become the new politics and the old politics has, for all intents and purposes, become a moribund religion. Neither offer real material benefits, except to their elites. They are both parasitic on their respective communities promising a better future under their leadership, but delivering worse.
To gain a future fit for all sections of humanity, without discrimination, without exploitation and oppression, the capitalism mode of production will have to be superseded and all forms of patriarchal governance – religious and political – relegated to the dustbin of history. An awareness of these two needs will take time and experience to spread widely among communities. Old habits and deference are too well ingrained to be instantly overthrown for self-activity and communal organisation.
Nevertheless, every new mode and every new paradigm of thinking has its pioneers. Among the young people of the 21st century, there are many such future trailblazers untainted by religious dogma or political sectarianism. It is these present and future generations of humanity in the east and the west, who face the task of combating the patriarchal ideologies of religion and bourgeois politics. It is to be hoped that the developing crisis will speed this process on.
Roy Ratcliffe (May 2013)