The Pathos of Politics – Religion


The importance of religion in the descent of human sociology cannot be overstated. Beyond family ties, religion played a critical role in establishing group solidarity and social order, particularly in codifying behavioral norms. It is difficult to imagine how humans could have evolved into tribes without religion and its associated rituals that form the basis for cultural indoctrination. Whereas conflict was the impetus for political evolution, religion was its glue.

“Religious beliefs are never held by their adherents to be simple theories that can be discarded if proved wrong; they are held to be unconditionally true, and there are usually heavy social and psychological penalties attached to asserting their falsehood.” ~ American political scientist Francis Fukuyama


Tribal peoples inhabited the Arabian peninsula for millennia without forming a state, even as they lived on the borders of state-level societies, including Egypt, Persia, and Rome/Byzantium. The Arabs were never conquered, owing to the harshness of the desert in which they lived: largely unsuited for agriculture, and so incapable of supporting an invading army. (The inhospitable environment owed to deforestation millennia earlier. The Arabs were the flinty people who stayed put.) As such, Arabs felt no military pressure to consolidate into a centralized state. They operated as merchants and intermediaries between nearby societies.

The situation changed dramatically in the early 7th century with Muhammad. He received his first divine revelation in his 40th year and began preaching to tribes in his native Mecca.

Persecution ensued, so Muhammad and his followers moved to Medina in 622. Asked to mediate among the bickering Medinin tribes, Muhammad ended up drafting a constitution which defined a belief system that transcended tribal loyalties.

The new Muslim polity gained adherents, conquered Mecca, and unified Arabia into a single state-level society.

Arabia was insignificant in world history until that time. It was only through Muhammad’s charismatic authority and his homebrew religion that afforded unity, and thereafter to project power throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Unable to succor surpluses, ascendant Islam had no economic base. The interweaving of religious belief and military organization garnered economic power through conquest of agricultural societies that did produce surpluses.

Arab states were never able to overcome tribal politics. This forced Arab and Turkish dynasties to resort to extraordinary measures to shake loose of tribal ties: through slave armies and foreign administrators.

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The rise of Islam had a political impact on western civilization, but it was physical, not cerebral. Islam as a creed could have no consequence on Christian Europe, nor did its politics impress; but the presence of Islamic states in North Africa and the Near East colored European politics from the 8th century on.

In conquered territories, those who were neither Jew nor Christian were offered the stark choice of converting to Islam or death. As “peoples of the book,” Jews and Christians were tolerated, provided they accepted Islamic political authority, and paid extra taxes in recognition of their inferior status.

Medieval Islamic rulers allowed their non-Muslim subjects considerable community autonomy. Jews were much safer under Islam than in Christian Europe. This cross-cultural tolerance in the Middle Ages was exemplary and would only slowly dawn upon Europeans many centuries later.

Like their Arabic counterparts, Jewish scholars contributed nothing to political discourse. Doomed to live as outcasts under governments under which they had no sway, silence was golden. But Jewish transmissions of medical, mathematical, and technical knowledge in medieval times were immeasurable. Some of those contributions came by way of Islamic scholars, before taqlid sapped Islam of its vitality.


While the founding of the Arab state is a striking illustration of the political potency of religion, virtually every other state has relied upon religion to legitimize itself after the fact. The founding myths of Chinese, Hindu, Greek and Roman states all traced rulers’ ancestry toward divinity; but it was the God fashioned by the Jews that had created the crucible upon which European political ideals were forged.

Judeo-Christian Consequence

3 sanguine convictions informed the development of western political philosophy – from the Greeks: belief in reason; from the Jews: belief in God; from Christians: belief in love.

Ancient Greeks philosophers held reason in the highest esteem. Their conception was not original. Various Oriental cultures influenced early Greek thinking in this regard.

Rationalism is a recurring theme in political thought, buttressing both elitism in its general absence and democracy in its general presence, depending upon the period and context in which reason is evoked as a basis for a polity.

The significance of human rationality is miniscule compared to the role of religious faith. In the history of western political thought, Greek rationalism was a splatter on a fabric woven by Judeo-Christian heritage: faith in human reason dwarfed by divinity in political import.

From Judaism, belief in one God and a firm moral code infused the axioms that shaped political and legal structures. The concept of absolute justice underlies the moral code that is the foundation of western law and ethics.

Whereas the ideal of ancient Greek philosophers was to think clearly, the Jewish aspiration was to act justly. The divergence reflects history, but more importantly polar conceptions about the nature of divinity.

In the Greek rationalist view, man created gods. In the Jewish view, God created man.

The Jewish conception of an absolute supreme being challenges man to elevate himself to communion with God by living a just life. Greek religion offered no such compeller.

The fundamental impulse of Greek religious mythology was to bring the gods down to earth. Though immortal, the Greek gods were subject to fate, which overrode their divine powers. The Greek gods acted like humans, with human vices. They offered no moral role model.

In the mid-5th century, Socrates best summed up the essence of Greek thought with “knowledge is virtue.” For a Jew, “the beginning of wisdom is the yirah of God.”

This is no obiter dictum in the Old Testament. Yirah occurs 17 times in the book of Proverbs alone, with numerous mentions in other books, including Job, Ecclesiastes, and Psalms.

Though the Hebrew term yirah is commonly translated as “fear,” it also means “awe.” Whereas we are inclined to retreat from objects of fear, objects of awe can inspire. Drawing nearer to God approaches the source of all wonders. Further, a more apt translation for yirah than “fear” in this context would be “respect.”

In antiquity, Jews and Greeks were none too fond of each other. To an ancient Greek, a Jew was a fanatical puritan, living by a strict creed that made no allowance for human weakness. To a Jew, a Greek, with his endless philosophizing, was an ethical barbarian whose gods indulged in debaucheries worse than those tolerated in the basest Jewish sinners.

Thus, Jewish monotheism, not Greek rationalism, was the springboard which posited ethical precepts that have affected every political theory devised in the western world. Implicit is the idea of natural law: a higher law than humans could devise, beyond whim and caprice.

Greek polytheism obscured the principle of unity. Their religious pluralism was reflected in the Greek’s inability to transcend the confines of city-states as a political ideal. While Greek analysis of different polities formed a cornerstone for later political science, it was ultimately limiting.

In contrast, unity is deeply embedded in Jewish monotheism. Sociopolitical tolerance is difficult to imagine without the idea of a brotherhood of man.

The concept of covenant first appears in the agreement between God and Abraham, and becomes a frequent motif in the Bible whenever momentous decisions are made. This begat the idea of social contract and is the subtext for all compacts that bind tribes or states together. Covenants are impossible to conceive without some underlying sense of commonality, which ultimately is founded upon a shared morality.

It is remarkable that the propellants of western political thought derived from small societies which were not predominant powers; quite the contrary. The Greeks had to fight for their lives against Persians, Macedonians, and Romans. They never even united as a people. Yet, through Hellenistic culture, they established an empire of the mind.

Roman subjection of Greece left the Greek people in place. The spiritual concession of worshipping the Roman emperor simply meant adding another god to the polytheist pantheon.

In contrast, when Rome conquered Judea in 70 CE, it drove the native Jews into a diaspora; the reason: religion. The Jews were unwilling to admit anything more than military defeat. There was no room for another deity. The Jews refused to worship a pagan emperor, as did Christians in the centuries that followed.

Rather than compromise their belief in God, the Jews fought to the bitter end. To punish their defiance, the Roman sought to destroy not only the Jewish state, but also its people.

The Romans were not religious fanatics. They cared not a whit what their subject peoples believed, beyond the outward admission of obedience to Roman imperial divinity. Jewish refusal to do so incensed Romans as inscrutable irrationality.

The Roman era was the not first where Jews experienced the end of political independence and mass exile.

In 721 BCE, the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel: razed its cities, deported its people, and settled the region with compliant immigrants.

In 586 BCE, the Babylonians subdued the southern kingdom of Judah. Following a 2-year siege, the conquerors destroyed Jerusalem and many other cities that were never rebuilt.

The Babylonians deported the educated class. Many other Jews fled to Transjordan and Egypt. Only a small number of craftspeople remained in what became known as Judea.

In 539 BCE, Persia defeated Babylonia. King Cyrus permitted exiled Jews to return to their homeland, rebuild the temple of Jerusalem, and freely practice their faith. The small number that did return to Judea were dedicated to preserving their culture.

The Roman conquest of Judea was more disastrous than either Assyrian or Babylonian assaults. While the Assyrians destroyed the northern Kingdom of Israel, southern Judah was still intact. When the Babylonians juddered Judah and exiled the Jewish elite, a diminished, dispirited Jewish community remained.

In burning Jerusalem and its temple in 70 CE, the Romans were determined that the Jewish people never rise again. Such an aim could not be attained over so resilient a people.

Even before the war was over, the Romans granted the Jews permission to establish a center of learning in the coastal town of Yavneh. After the war, Yavneh became the hub of the Jewish community in Palestine. The Roman authorities left this religious body alone as long as it did not stir up any political trouble.

Roman Emperor Hadrian (76–138 CE) sought to unify the belief systems in the empire to support his legitimacy. That attempt foundered when facing Jewish monotheism.

Hadrian realized better than his predecessors that the Bible was the source of the indomitable resistance of the Jews, so he abolished the academy at Yavneh and decreed that the study of the Bible or its observance punishable by death. This was more than the Jews could tolerate.

Romans suffered heavy losses in the Jewish revolt that followed (132–135), though relatively few compared to the 580,000 Jews that were massacred. 50 fortified towns and 985 villages were razed to the ground.

Hadrian’s successors saw fit to relax the prohibition against the Jewish religion and education. Over the next 3 centuries, rabbis’ principal efforts were focused on developing a way of life founded upon the Bible and teachings of the prophets that could subsist independent of any material or political instruments.

Thus emerged the Talmud: a compendium of Jewish ethics and law, philosophy, history, customs, and lore. The product of ~2,000 rabbis over 8 centuries, the Talmud ensured the continuation of Jewish culture over the next 1,800 years without a state. Such dedication to belief and education explains why Jews have been so influential in the evolution of western civilization and politics despite their perpetual out-group status.

Christianity consolidated and transcended Greek and Jewish contributions in trumpeting love as the basis for relationships, both among humans and with God.

From Jesus’ teachings about love flow 2 basis facets – individualism and universalism – that constitute the sociopolitical ethic of Christianity.

The significance of love arises as a spillover conception of monotheism: that we are all God’s precious children. Christianity extended this into love as the basis for relations with God, and with each other.

In Matthew [22:36–40], Jesus is asked “the greatest commandment in the law?” Jesus replied that love of God is first, followed by “love your neighbor as yourself. On these 2 commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

This is not to slight others in the love department. The ancient Greeks were intensely interested in love. Plato’s Symposium (385–370 BCE) is one of the great dialogues on love in world literature. Classical Jewish thought emphasized compassion and charity, admonishing adherents to “love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Beyond antecedents, Christian thought made love its centerpiece. Love is life itself: an exultation springing from belief in a personal relationship with God. More than any other force, the concept of universal love – that all people are children of God – propelled human equality as an ethical ideal, which is an emphatically political concern.

Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s. ~ Matthew [22:21], The Bible

Jesus saw no value in anything not connected to a spiritual existence, and so said little about political affairs, even as his followers looked to Jesus to be a political revolutionary and lead them from Roman oppression. What they got instead was implicit submission, save the occasional angry outburst of cleansing the temple of money lenders.

Submission was not a difficult act for most incipient Christians, who were underclass folk drawn to the religion’s deprecation of earthly socioeconomic distinctions. Another appeal was the element of Christian sharing and charitable benevolence, alluded to in the Sermon on the Mount.

Submission became all the more important as Roman officials correctly came to view Christianity as a subversive development, despite Christians’ outward obedience. In an empire that was a politico-religious unity, Christianity invited attention and repression. Revolution was infeasible, as the Jews had amply demonstrated, so early Christian teachings emphasized appeasement.

Submission was also in the tradition of the Old Testament, where Israel’s ruler was anointed by God. As the Catholic Church grew in stature, this view evolved into the doctrine of the divine right of kings.

The first kingdom to fall under the sway of Christianity was Osrhoene in east Syria, at the end of the 2nd century.

The alignment of church and state began in earnest with Roman emperor Constantine I, who converted to Christianity and declared it the empire’s official religion in 324.

In the 1st 3 centuries of Christianity, it was a radical pacifist religion, which is why it was persecuted. It was the religion of the poor and the suffering. Jesus was the symbol of the poor and the suffering. In the 4th century, it was taken over by the Roman Empire. Emperor Constantine turned the church into the religion of the persecutors. ~ Noam Chomsky

The works of Augustine of Hippo reflect the arguments over the relationship between church and state that simmered throughout Europe for well over a millennium.

Christianity defined Europe. ~ English historian John Roberts

The bedrock of Christianity is Judaism, which is the source of the fundamental Christian ideas. Jewish myths were generalized in Christianity to become powerful forces in the world.

At the heart was the Jewish view that history was providentially ordained: predeterminism. Though the exercise appeared as pillage and slaughter, the Crusades were fueled by this concept, as were many acts of aggression by states throughout the history of western Europe.

Providence theatrically found its voice in manifest destiny: the widely held belief by American settlers in the 19th century that they were destined to expand across the continent.

In actuality, the lack of equity evidenced in societal relations throughout history shows how shabbily love has fared, even among Christians. But then, ideals are regularly subject to tarnish by a species that touts them but favors expediency instead. When it comes to goodness, people advertise what they are not.

Human manipulation of symbolism being what it is, these notions, and the texts which proclaim them, have been employed to rationalize polities throughout the political spectrum. The Old and New Testaments have been invoked to justify slavery and freedom, obedience to authority and revolution, monarchy and democracy, capitalism and socialism.

Christian transcendental love expressed itself in the Middle Ages by burning pagan books and pagans to boot. Historically, righteous condemnation has been far more common than compassion in the Christian lexicon.

Dastardly deeds do not dim inspiring dogma. More than any other force, idealistic optimism has propelled human endeavor, whether expressed in religious, economic, or political context: the often-naïve hope that somehow the future may be brighter than the present. The mind sugars the bitterness of today with its saccharine vision of tomorrow.

 In God We Trust

Political philosophy has ever been inexorably entwined with religiosity. Modern states have not abandoned the religious mantra. Far from it. The supposedly secular United States is exemplary. The 1st Amendment to the US Constitution stipulates that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Reacting against godless communism, the phrase “under God” was tacked onto the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. President Dwight Eisenhower approved “In God We Trust” as the national motto in 1956, following a Congressional joint resolution. “In God We Trust” has been on US coins since 1864, and on paper currency since 1957. No objection has ever been made by any politician holding federal office about separation of church of state.