Sunday, May 08, 2005

Two Types of Religion, Part I

Authoritarian Religion

Attending the "Freedom and Faith" Rally at Central Presbyterian Church on Sunday 25 April '05 and the vigil in front of Highview Baptist, and then reading excerpts of remarks from the speakers at "Justice Sunday" in the paper on Monday, I realized again that religious faith comes in two very broad types. The terms "liberal" and "conservative" are not all that helpful here and so I won't use them. Instead, I will contrast authoritarian religion with prophetic-liberating faith. I am most familiar with the way these types play out in Christianity, but I think I see these rival forms in all the major religions--at least as far as I am familiar with them. Let me contrast these rival forms of religion more thoroughly.

Authoritarian religion is hierarchical in its institutional form--even if the tradition was for a low-church, laity-centered polity. Power flows from the top down--and doesn't flow very far. It is concerned with rules and regulations to a very high degree, seeing its sacred Scriptures primarily as a rulebook. Its ethics are focused on purity concerns, dividing the righteous from the wicked very sharply. With control and purity as the bywords, sexual issues take center stage in ethical concern: women are relegated to lesser status, and those whose sexual orientation doesn't fit a very narrow "norm" are objects of revulsion, discrimination, and fear.

By nature, this form of religion is exclusionary. Orthodoxy ("right teaching") is defined very narrowly. Differences of opinion are tolerated, if at all, on only a very narrow range of topics and only within a small degree. Thus, adherents in an authoritarian religion will have impassioned debates over distinctions that outsiders have a hard time telling apart.

No matter how much the official doctrine of this form of religion speaks of "grace," "mercy," "forgiveness," or "eternal security," the underlying ethos is one of fear: fear of heresy, fear of breaking the rules, fear of science, fear of social change, fear of other religions, fear of forms of its own religion which are NOT authoritarian, fear of secularism, fear--ultimately--of God. (A person I know who holds to this form of religion has created clothing with the slogan, "I Fear God" and cannot figure out why they won't sell!)

It is clear to me that the U.S. Religious Right, composed of Protestant Fundamentalists and the far-right fringe of U.S. Catholics, is a form of authoritarian religion. That is why its political allies are profoundly anti-democratic and engage in the politics of fear and secrecy. A democratic republic with separation of powers, checks and balances, real participation by the people is too messy. So, more and more power is invested in the Executive, laws are changed to allow more secret decisions, the legislature is turned into a rubber stamp for the Executive, and steps are taken to undermine an independent judiciary. The forms of voting are still allowed, although all kinds of tricks are used to disenfranchise groups likely to vote for another agenda. But real power is invested in plutocratic oligarchy.

Media consolidation erodes that check on power concentration as well. Every time a speed bump on the road to total domination is met, the masses of true believers in the dominant form of authoritarian religion (the "Christian" Right in this case) are mobilized through a manufactured threat (fear again). Though they control most forms of public life, they constantly are told that they are persecuted victims who MUST rise up and defeat law x or pass law y in order to avoid the downfall of civilization or the end of the world. Objectively, they hold more power than any other group in the nation, but one would never know that to hear the language of victimization, discrimination, and persecution which characterizes their discourse.


By Michael the Leveller. But Wait! There's more to come!


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