One cannot observe the politics of America or the Middle East without thinking, at least occasionally, about God.
And one cannot be a decent political scientist without looking beyond one's own locale, country, and continent, to see how things are done elsewhere.
All this makes it hard for a political scientist to be an atheist, or to hold too firmly to any one conception of God or God's demands of humans. There are so many of them, and they differ so much.
It may not be impossible for a political scientist to assert atheism, for we are exposed to the slippery language of politics, in which all is possible. Yet atheism for us is difficult in the extreme, given the prominence of God-quoting politicians of all stripes.
God is the most prominent and arguably the strongest figure in the political firmament.
God is strongest by virtue of the range of politicians who claim the mantle of God's grace.
I have divided my life between North America and the Middle East. I am less well informed about other places.
My testimony about God in politics may be weakest in the case of Europeans and East Asians. The meagre attendance of the pious in all those cathedrals may mean that God has moved on from Europe. Survey research indicates that Western Europeans are less likely than Americans to say they believe in God. The prominence of technocrats in the discussions of the various bodies of the European Community reinforce such a conclusion. Their debates are generally more detailed and rational--dealing with who gets how much of what--than what we hear about absolute truths in the regions where God prevails.
South and East Asians are hard for a westerner to fathom. What I read about the followers of Buddha and Confucius falls outside of my own monotheistic framework. However, the presence of numerous active Christians in those societies, pictures of Buddhists burning themselves for higher causes, and the intensity of the Chinese regime's pursuit of those who follow the sacred traditions of Tibet or Faulun Gong suggest the presence of at least a distant cousin of the God admired by Jews, Christians and Muslims. The many gods of Hindus seem strange to those of us brought up to deny the power of idols, but worldly political observers should have moved beyond what was written in the Book of Exodus so long ago, that my God is stronger than your God.
We have arrived at the ultimate mystery. Who or What is God?
Multi-culturalism and post-moderism demand that we skip over these questions, no matter how important they seem. Who among us humans can claim the key to such profound mysteries, not clearly answered by any of the prominent faiths.
Jews are the most elusive in describing God. We are forbidden by tradition to even express the name of the Almighty, much less to depict the image or describe the face. Christians focus on the Son of God and Muslims on the Prophet of Allah, without getting at the Almighty, per se.
But dare we ignore the passion or the prominence of God in political discourse?
Not if we want to understand the politics of the United States or the Middle East.
Americans are pretty close to the top of various surveys of western populations asking about a belief in God. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_Europe; http://www.cobourgatheist.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=76:belief-in-god-by-country&catid=126:statistics&Itemid=72
The hot button issue of abortion, and a preacher's claim that a Mormon candidate follows a cult outside the framework of Christianity should quiet anyone who doubts the role of God in American politics, or is tempted to speak with too much certainty about a separation of Church and State.
It is interpreters and myth-makers who speak about a Separation of Church and State. The Constitution only says that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Such language has not hindered tax exemptions for religious institutions, kept Holy Books away from the central ceremonies of courts or Congress, or provided much protection to politicians not inclined to visit a church, synagogue, or mosque.
The Almighty may figure more often in the recent campaigns of Republicans than Democrats, but we should not forget Jimmy Carter, the problematic preacher in Barack Obama's background, nor Obama's having to assert his Christian loyalties against claims about his middle name and his Muslim father.
The experience of Salman Rushdie and newspapers that dared publish cartoons depicting Muhammad should warn any traveler in Muslim countries about expressing doubts or humor.
Israeli politicians may be moved by religious tradition to keep God, per se, out of their campaigns. However, the insistence that Israel is a Jewish state, concern for the Land of Israel, and disputes about the observance of Shabbat and Kashrut make clear that the Almighty is close to the platforms of political parties that garner a majority of the votes.
How much of politicians' assertions of faith is lip service? Or to what extent does religious doctrine guide the decisions of policymakers?
The first of these questions falls outside our capacity to know, given what seems to be the universal tendency of politicians to speak in the most general of terms, in ways to avoid giving offense, or to keep us from knowing their inner most thoughts.
The second of these questions falls due to the diverse nature of religious doctrines. My own reading of documents said to be central to the major faiths leads me to wonder about the essential belief of any religion, outside of the affirmation of an Almighty that they are not inclined to describe with precision. The Talmud is a series of arguments--many of them unresolved--about God's laws. So much for the clarity of the Hebrew Bible. The divisions of Judaism, as well as the multiplicity of Christian denominations, and the bloody rivalry between Sunni and Shiite in Islam discourage any claims of obvious connections between doctrine and public policy.
All of which convinces me that God is pervasive in the politics of many countries. There is no other figure with a larger following. However, none of this clarifies the nature of the Almighty, or the nature of public policy that must be implemented. We are left with God at the center of politics, without knowing the character of God, or how to implement God's will.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at November 12, 2011 07:27 AM