|Religion 21st Century|
Religion, Politics and Control
Human societies began with small groups that were more or less self-regulating entities. Group myths and rules provided common ground for group members. Families lived in local clusters, forming clans which joined together to form bands. Tribes were larger organizations based on looser affiliations of bands that defined and defended larger geographic areas. As tribal groups enlarged and became more powerful, local group myths grew into larger group myths complete with symbols and rituals that played a vital role in tribal cohesion. In the cohesion stories, tribal leaders grew larger than life often with supernatural powers. This irregular and uncertain progression from small to large groups continues in human societies today.
Civilizations in every region for as long a history has been recorded, featured Kings, Queens, and Emperors who were supported by aristocratic classes of priests. These divine leaders promoted Gods and rituals that supported their claims. Their priests acted as custodians of royal privilege. In turn, royalty provided wealth and prestige, often building temples and comfortable accommodations for the priests. Artists and architects became key allies of the priestly classes, building the largest structures in town with art and sculptures depicting gods and rulers.
The wealth in every society has been controlled by rulers and priests. A typical society is ruled by a small elite group that controls a large peasant group. Poor people have always been uneducated, obedient and available to work for or fight for the elite classes. The arrangement was altered recently as more affluent democratic countries emerged with educated middle classes who demanded a bigger share of the nation’s wealth and working classes who formed unions to negotiate higher wages and more benefits for their workers. Even in the most enlightened societies, however, large numbers of followers continue to follow leaders in self-destructive, even suicidal adventures. The tendency for most humans to submit to authority appears to be a fixed feature of human nature.
In many countries, the authority of religious organizations declined as the education and wealth of more “middle class” citizens increased. A relatively new idea is to separate the state from religious institutions. The shift from aristocratic control to democratic control requires new freedoms for citizens to become self-determining individuals who cannot be coerced by autocratic authority.
The US serves as an experiment in group dynamics. The US constitution formally declares the separation of state and religion. The US in the 20th century made slow but sure progress in achieving human rights for its citizens. Paradoxically, as other countries progress towards more individual freedoms and less religion, in the 21st century, the US appears to be regressing with increasing influence of fundamentalist Christian groups on politics. At the same time, scholarly investigation of the religion-political interface is alive and well. The American Political Science Association, for example, has a section devoted to the study of religion and politics. Topics of study include issues of church and state, law, morality, political behavior and social justice. The tendency for university educated people to study social and political movements and write books can, in the best case, lead politics in the direction of more civility rather than less.
The Scandinavian countries are among the most liberal and progressive despite the fact that Norway, Iceland, Finland and Denmark have constitutional links between church and state. In these countries, polls report the lowest levels of church attendance. Sweden disconnected Church and state as late as the year 2000. In my case, my Icelandic grandmother was a devout Lutheran. She told stories of her life in Iceland, taught me Icelandic songs and history, but little else about her Lutheran religion. I did recite the bedtime prayer she taught me: Now I lay me down to sleep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” My grandmother gave me the legacy of the good person. She was gentle, kind, and affectionate. She was a practical woman who raised nine children, worked hard all her life and knew suffering. As a result of all her life experiences, she was a good person.
Thanks to grandmother, I have no difficulty recognizing good people. I have no difficulty recognizing bad people, regardless of what they say, their social status, beliefs, or religious affiliation. What continues to surprise me is how many bad people can hide in the disguise of a religious person.