“Is the religious political?”
In the academy, one is confronted with a plethora of departments, disciplines which, while ostensibly united under the aegis of the institution we call the university, these very sectional divisions betray not similarity but difference. This is actually not surprising given the very different theoretical basis upon which these various disciplines developed—not to mention the purposes that these disciplines serve in that catch-all phrase we call “society.”
Stuart Hall’s recollections of the development of cultural studies reveals a study of conflict in which internal and external forces, that is to say institutional elements within the university and the activist forces from without, strove to either abolish cultural studies as an unwanted interloper or enter it and fundamentally transform it by radical theories of race consciousness or insurgent feminism. Hall’s writing reports feminist intrusion was conceived of as breaking in to the pristine house of cultural studies. An interesting quote indeed would suggest that, “a crime, breaking and entering, was committed, and cultural studies was victimized,” Hall 1992, 6.
One here refers to this disciplinary origin story too laid-bare the bones of the academic enterprise and, by extension, to excavate how institutions develop, grow, and transform, inform and function, to keep pace with the social transformations. As an example of such institutional transformation, we need look no further than American academia’s finest and oldest continuous educational institution Harvard University.
Founded in 1636 as Harvard College, its primary function was the training of Puritan ministers. At last count, at least seven U.S. presidents have studied at Harvard, and its religious origins have largely been forgotten. Today, it is regarded as a Sentinel of secularism, high rationality, and a credential that all but assures success. For politicians, it is a credential that radiates power, intellect, and competence.
This example illustrates how an institution born to serve a religious purpose may transform over time to serve a political one. Institutions change, so does society. It is also certain that there is no true correlation between progress and rationality. Human beings often hold on to ideas learned in infancy and adolescence that remain in consciousness. This may be seen in religious notions that survive into adulthood and into senescence of divinity, of afterlife that resists rationality.
Connelly informs us that cognition and judgment filters through a process of layered intricacy where one’s perception results from an interplay of emotional impact and memory. Connelly explaines: “The visible register of subjectivity, and intersubjectivity as I will call it, is at once part of thinking, indispensable to more conceptually refined thinking, a periodic spur to creative thinking, and a potential impediment to rethinking,” Connelly 3. Connelly’s term, visceral register, suggest the feeling of rising from the gut, the viscera.
In this sense, we are responding to deep levels of feeling, instinct, that kind of gut knowledge. Our politics by contrast are often inherited or learned, more often than not, passed on like religion from one’s elders or caregivers. And while political perspective may be influenced by familial and even early life exposures, Connelly suggests that one’s political perspective doesn’t reach the psychic depth of one’s visceral register.
This may be why political ideas are more receptive to developmental transformation wrought by increased intellectual or educational stimuli than religious notions informed by emotional input. One can change one’s ideas with sufficient data, but it seems more challenging to change one’s feelings. Similarly, while maturity itself brings with it more nuanced and sophisticated thinking as we enter adulthood, these core themes of life, death, God, devil, good, evil, Heaven, Hell may prove more resistant to extinction.
This sense of duality lies deep in human consciousness as it is the very premise of elementary learning, as in thing A is not thing B. Or more to the point life exists, why not afterlife? Or God exists, why not the devil? Durkheim seems to support this supposition thus, quote: “Religious phenomenon is such that it always assumes a bipartite division of a universe known and knowable. And to two ginera that include all that exists but radically exclude one another,” Durkheim, 38. We see this duality as the sacred and the profane, and given the plebeian origins of Christianity in its expansion into what we consider European culture, that duality found expression in the belief that religion was sacred politics because worldly was profane.
Until, of course, it wasn’t, for when the Roman emperor Constantine adopted the Christian faith, he transformed Christianity as surely and certainly as Christianity transformed Rome. For the church born of oppressed Jews in the backwaters of the empire became Roman, became Catholic, which means universal, imperial. Its tongue became Latin, not the Aramaic of Jesus. The Cardinals and Popes wore robes of power, not humility. And the Bishop of Rome took titles formerly used by the emperor of Rome such as Pontifex Maximus. That’s Latin for Supreme pontiff, commonly referred to today as Pope. The historian Gibbon tells us the pontiffs were chosen among the most illustrious of the senators. And the office of supreme pontiff was constantly exercised by the emperors themselves. They knew and valued the advantages of religion as it is connected with civil government. Gibbon 38.
Gibbon here refers to the so-called Pagan-Roman empire where religion was a tool of state. When Roman elites took Christianity as a state religion, and when the church took temporal. power from the middle of the eighth century until the latter half of the nineteenth century, the pontiff held temporal well as spiritual power. Wherever there is temporal power, there is also politics no matter how or why it is realized. The Pope was a political actor, and his tool of state was the place assigned to his office by religious tradition. Yes: even Pagan religious traditions.
But if our subject here is religion, we must go just a bit further. Islam, a chronological descendant of Christian and Jewish traditions, was led in its formation by a man who was not merely a prophet but a warrior and also a law-giver. The former merchant was also, in a very real sense, a political figure who built an extraordinary set of beliefs that merged and meshed the numerous tribes of Arabia into what may be seen as a mega tribe based not on blood but belief. That mega tribe is, today over a millennium after its founding, known as Muslims, or believers, and it’s prophet Muhammad ibn Abd al-Muttalib. Over 1.6 billion people on earth are Muslims today.
Is the religious political? Anything that mobilizes millions of people is, by its very nature, political. When we try to separate religion from politics, it’s like trying to separate, well, wetness from water.
For approaches to comparative cultural studies too, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal.
These commentaries are recorded by Noelle Hanrahan of Prison Radio.