On the 6th of December the President of the United States, Donald Trump caused an international furor by announcing that he would formally recognize Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel. The announcement unleashed a firestorm of Protest all over the world that eventually left four people dead in the West Bank and Gaza.
The announcement also spawned an interesting mix of opinion pieces and editorials across the news media highlighting different aspects of the situation from the President’s tactlessness and lack of political savvy to the facts surrounding the political situation involving Jerusalem. Of all the editorials, news bites, statements of affirmation and statements of protest that I read the ones that fascinated me most were those that highlighted the religious overtones of what was a clearly political move.
The Evangelical Christians in America welcomed the news with glee, leading one article to opine that it was because they believed that President Trump’s announcement facilitated the fulfillment of their interpretation of Bible Prophecy. The Pope weighed in as well urging the faithful and perhaps even the not-so-faithful who hold him in high regard to abide by United Nations regulations and resolutions regarding the status of Jerusalem. The purpose of this post is not to discuss the status of Jerusalem, Israeli-Palestinian relations or the Political posturing of the Trump Administration. I chose to use this current issue to highlight a broader, overarching theme that is perhaps much older but is still very much a reality on the political stage of action. The issue of religious liberty and the separation of church and state.
I find it fascinating that within the context of something so clearly political (determining state boundaries is a political issue) there are so many strong religious overtones. Why is it that religious leaders in America and around the world feel the need to weigh in on something that is political and therefore shouldn’t really concern them? Why is it that religion and politics become so intricately involved so often? Why is it that we hear so much about Holy War when the phrase is clearly an oxymoron? How can blood be shed over religious beliefs that espouse pacifism at their core?
Religio Political machination and the concept of a Holy War are not new ideas. In fact, they are centuries if not millennia old. One of the oldest Holy Wars was commissioned by Pope Innocent III in 1209 AD against the Albigenses of Southern France and continued for the next 20 years. In fact, it is also cited as being one of the most conclusive instances of genocide in religious history. What was most interesting about the Albigensian Crusades was that they were executed under the auspices of the French Crown giving them a decidedly political flavor. The reason the crusades were launched was that the Albigenses had different religious beliefs to the Medieval Church of the day.
Another instance of religious warfare embroiled in political intrigue is that of the gunpowder plot of 1605 in England. Robert Catesby, Guy Fawkes, and others were part of the recusant Catholic community who lived in decidedly Protestant Elizabethan and Jacobean England. When all attempts at placing a Catholic monarch on the throne in the wake of Elizabeth’s death failed, and when the staunchly Protestant James VI of Scotland took the throne as James I, the recusant community banded together to blow up the King and the parliament in the name of God. To Catesby and his associates, the matter of restoring Catholicism to England was one of eternal importance. Thus the concept of waging a holy war on the Crown in order to see eternal good come upon the nation was not looked on as radical but necessary. The plot was foiled but its memory lives on as a reminder of how dangerous politically charged religious fervor can be.
Notwithstanding all these examples, the most remarkable case of religiopolitical aspiration gone wrong (in my mind at least) is that of Oliver Cromwell and the Protectorate. Cromwell was a Puritan who, among other things, primarily championed a Reformation of the Church of England and Civil and Religious liberty. How did he champion this? Politically of course, and when politics failed he resorted to warfare which ended in the revolutionary style execution of the King, leading Cromwell and his Puritans to take over Parliament. The irony of the entire situation lay in the fact that Cromwell eventually dissolved Parliament, declared England to be a Protectorate and himself to be Lord Protector subjecting the country to a kind of absolutist rule sans a Monarch.
Cromwell championed religious liberty and greater Reformation and he used the power of the state as a vehicle to achieve his deeply religiously motivated ends but he ended up, almost involuntarily, embracing and becoming everything he had fought against. A religious dictator who had to beat back several uprisings led by those who had different religious and political beliefs.
History has a strange way of repeating itself and if we were to take a revision class what history would teach us is this; religion and politics should always, always remain separate. Why? Because despite every single sincere and noble aspiration religiopolitical alliances never end well, for anybody. It is not the prerogative of the state to inform an individual’s conscience and neither is it the prerogative of the church or any religious body to wield the power of the state to achieve their own religious agenda.
History can tell us that much. I sincerely hope we’re listening.