BY RICHARD L. FRICKER
In a recent interview theologian, scholar and historian John Dominic Crossan offered his view of the current religiosity of American politics. Never one to mince words, Crossan said the current crop of candidates on the far right know very little about religion. They and their fellow travelers trivialize politics and God and may well be leading us to the end of the two-party system. Finally their rigidity has opened the door to Islam in America.
As the Republican nomination train heads down the convention track one thing has become abundantly clear: religion is an issue. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, calling himself a “man of God,” kicked off his campaign with a modern day tent revival in Houston.
Congress member Michele Bachmann stunned pundits by suggesting earthquakes and hurricanes were messages from God. The indirect message, was to vote for Michelle.
With so many candidates playing the God card it sounded like a good idea to contact a scholar about religion in politics. Is God calling people to be candidates? Just where is all of this heading?
Crossan was born in Tipperary, Ireland, in 1934. He was educated in Ireland and the United States, received a Doctorate of Divinity from Maynooth College, Ireland, in 1959, and did post-doctoral research at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome from 1959 to 1961 and at the École Biblique in Jerusalem from 1965 to 1967.
He was a member of a 13th Century Roman Catholic religious order, the Servites [Ordo Servorum Mariae], from 1950 to 1969 and an ordained priest from 1957 to 1969.
He joined DePaul University, Chicago, in 1969 and remained there until 1995. He is now a Professor Emeritus in its Department of Religious Studies.
In the last 40 years he has written 25 books on the historical Jesus, earliest Christianity, and the historical Paul. Five of them have been national religious bestsellers for a combined total of 24 months.
The scholarly core of his work is the trilogy from The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant  through The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus , to In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom, co-authored with the archaeologist Jonathan L. Reed . His work has also been translated into 12 foreign languages, including Korean, Chinese, Japanese and Russian.
Crossan is particularly expert in the history of the Roman Empire. His interaction with thousands of people on educational and speaking tours gives him a unique view of the evolution of American politics and religion.
FRICKER: How did religion become so intertwined with politics in a country that had always prided itself on separation of church and state? Or, is this something that has always been there under the surface and just politics by another name?
CROSSAN: To be very honest, I find it very difficult to listen to any of them. It’s not just Republican or Democrat, it’s not just a turn off, it’s like I have to protect my own integrity by not listening to these people. It’s like contamination; you might start believing like these people.
Gov. Perry has a significant following among ultra conservative evangelicals and touts himself as a “man of God.” Michele Bachmann has had a longstanding relationship with a Lutheran congregation that is extremely conservative.
Both seem to allude to their candidacy and being divinely inspired. It seems that in the Old Testament prophets were generally reluctant to take up their task. In fact, many attempted to hide from God, Jonah was thrown into the ocean, thus the tale of being in the belly of a big fish. So is this prophet approach to candidacy a contradiction to scriptural writings or again is it politics as usual under another name?
Contradiction would almost be a compliment. It’s a profound shallowness. They are using something without the slightest awareness of what it is, no matter which side you’re on.
They are profoundly trivializing God.
Politics has become trivialized to mean partisan sniping, both sides do it and that’s life. But it is not politics, politics means [from the Greek] for the city’s good. Ethically politics is supposed to be what is good for the community.
“Politics” is no longer a good word. When the president says, “That’s just politics” we know he means partisan bickering.
Then they drag religion into it and they trivialized religion, it doesn’t matter which side you’re on. It is profoundly disrespectful, which tells me, the person involved has absolutely no religious sense.
What about a divinely inspired candidacy, do you think there is such a thing?
It’s a desecration. I know prophecy, and these guys are not prophets.
I don’t mean that I am one, but I have spent my life listening to the voice prophecy in the bible, from the Old Testament to the new through Jesus and Paul. These guys just ain’t it [prophets].
During the 1960 presidential campaign candidate John Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, addressed the anti-Catholic bias among conservative Protestants who were concerned about the separation of church and state.
Kennedy said, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the President – should he be Catholic – how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote.”
At the same time Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was emerging as a civil rights leader. What is the difference in the religious issues then and the religious issues now?
I think what happened, from the liberal side, it was quite alright for Martin Luther King, and all those whose courage brought us all the good things about civil rights, to do it in the name of religion, and they were quite right. They did it in the name of the biblical god, the biblical god is about freeing slaves, and anyone who knows their Exodus knows that’s how it all began.
He said his vision of non-violence came from being a biblical Christian. But he said it’s in the Constitution that we are all created equal. He also said we had not fulfilled the promise of the Declaration of Independence, or for that matter the pledge of allegiance.
So, it seems quite appropriate, and I agree with it by the way.
Caesar Augustus [63 B.C.E.- 14 C.E.] minted coins with his image and title “Son of God.” He made religion a tool to reform and unite the Roman Empire. Is there a comparison to the way Augustus used religion and the way religion is being used in American politics today?
I would not make the comparison, it dishonors Caesar. The point that is valid is that on any profound level religion and politics cannot be separated, that is on a profound level.
Let’s say we raise the subject of social justice, religion has an answer and politics has an answer. If we raise the issue of taxes, religion may not have an answer as to how we ensure everyone gets a fair living wage. But, on the profound level a human being’s body and soul cannot be separated.
When we raise profound questions, how to find peace or whether or not to go to war, all those questions have an answer from the religious side – that can be good, bad or indifferent, and from the political side – and that can be good bad or indifferent.
The Roman Empire had no problem with there being a separation of state and religion. They understood various people would worship various gods. The only thing was that no one should say that you shouldn’t worship Caesar, the state God was the Emperor.
The truth has been that State and Church, Mosque, Temple, whatever it makes no difference, can be distinguished but not separated on a profound level. You can certainly do it in so much that the state should not support, for example, Lutherans against Episcopalians, or Eastern Christians against Western Christians, in that sense our separation of church and state was quite right.
I think any religious person has to be bilingual. They have their own language whether they’re Buddhist or anything else. If they come out into the public square they must be able to translate their religious language into political language.
If I’m talking in a religious context about Jesus as Lord, son of God, I would use words of the traditional Christian language. If I am speaking in the public square I will most likely speak about justice for all, the pledge of allegiance, or all men created with inalienable rights.
That’s what I mean by bilingual.
When did the poor, the disadvantaged, the immigrant and non-Judeo-Christian religion become the enemy? And, why is it an advantage to view these groups as the enemy?
It seems to me there is a coalition between the political right and the religious right, which is something new.
Historically the religious right did not get that involved in politics. It did with prohibition and maybe they learned that that didn’t work very well. It put the emphasis on personal salvation and not on political action.
Now you have the religious and political right working together and that creates a huge contradiction. The religious and political right don’t really agree, except when the political right picks up something like abortion or same sex marriage in order to make an issue.
If you really knew your Bible well you would have to say the political right’s policies are anti-biblical. There’s no emphasis on justice that I can see. There is no emphasis on not just helping the poor, but eliminating the poor.
This has been a magnificent con job.
The political right has been able to seduce the religious right into thinking they are on their side by simply hitting button issues like abortion, or whatever they want that seems to make people forget everything else.
You were educated for the priesthood, studied in Rome, wrote several books on the bible and religion and lectured widely. Of the thousands of people you have encountered have you ever met someone you believed had one-on-one messages from God? And if so, were then commanded to a specific act?
In a very personal visionary sense, I’m not certain. I speak in churches all the time and I am continually meeting very good people who are not from the left or the right, but from the center, who are trying to renew the center of Christianity.
If someone told me they had a vision, I would ask them to be very, very careful. Not that I don’t believe in the possibility. But with symbiosis, your conscious and your image of God you could very easily imagine God wanted you to do all sorts of things, such as kill Muslims or abortion doctors. When I meet someone like that, no matter how sincere they are, I call the police.
If this religious theme in politics continues, where will it take us and what are the hazards?
I don’t know if it can get much worse that it is at the moment. It seems to me what we might be watching the disintegration of the two-party system.
The out party can say, “why should we do anything for the next four or eight years because it will make “them” look good. So why don’t we make it just as bad as possible for the next few years.” I understand that logic.
We might have discovered the limit of a two-party system. We might need to go perhaps to a third party, where the other two need to court them to get anything done.
I don’t know how we’re going to get over this. We have now really worked out a system that as soon as a president takes office the attacks start. I don’t know if our two-party system has a viable future.
There is logic involved in not cooperating.
Given the current right wing view of Islam it might be well to recall the story the Caliph of Bagdad, al-Mamun (786-833 C.E.). al-Mamu is said to have had a dream in which Aristotle appeared to say his philosophy and Islam were not in opposition.
The Caliph ordered that all of Aristotle’s work be translated into Arabic. This was the beginning of the translation movement.
During the next 200 years Aristotle, Greek mathematics, astronomy, medicine were all translated from Greek to Arabic. The translators were Muslim, Christian, Jews, Zoroaster’s and others from a wide spectrum of religions and scientific beliefs.
These translations made their way to Muslim Spain. Among the philosophers of the time, known as the Golden Age of Cordoba because the court was filled with Muslim, Christian, Jewish and other philosophers all gathered in the pursuit of knowledge, was a man named Averroes.
The writings of Averroes had a tremendous impact the Christian world as Aristotle was again translated, this time from Arabic to Latin.
Central to this Christian movement was St. Thomas Aquinas. Based on the writings of Averroes, whom he respectfully called “The Commentator”, Aquinas also found compatibility with Christianity and Aristotle. Aquinas’s writings “ Summa Theologica and the Summa Contra Gentiles” where adopted by the Catholic Church as doctrine, and remain so today as the basis of Christian thought.
Evangelicals appear to have no problem making the connection between Judaism and Christianity. Given this close philosophic connection between Christianity and Islam, how did this connection get lost?
“Lost” would be too honorable a word. There is an acute ignorance in this country, especially on the religious right, first of all about their own Christianity in any historical sense. I mean it’s sloganeering. I don’t think they know that much about any other religion.
Clearly Islam is on the rise throughout the world. Isn’t it lucky that we have found terrorists that are Muslim; therefore there must be something wrong with their religion, as if our own history wasn’t bad enough?
So, where is Islam and its relationship with Christianity and specifically conservative Christianity headed?
Islam will have to go through the same process Judaism and Christianity went through, that is cleaning out its own historical basement. They will have to come to grips with contradictions in the Quran. It will be negative in the beginning, anyone who says anything will be under attack, but it’s going to have to happen.
I don’t think a feeble Christianity is going to be any match for Islam. I’m not talking about a violent Islam; I’m talking about a fervent Islam.
I think we’ll be absolutely powerless before Islam. It has nothing to do with violence or anything else, young people will be convinced this is something to be believed in and this other stuff is awful. If young people have listened to too much fire and brimstone and a punitive God of right wing Christianity I think more and more they will be turned off and that leaves them with nothing.
What I see is that the left wing and the right wing of Christianity will go their own ways. What we need is empowerment in the center, and that is what I’m trying to do.
– Richard L. Fricker lives in Tulsa, OK and is a regular contributor to The Oklahoma Observer. His latest book, Martian Llama Racing Explained, is available at http://www.richardfricker.com.
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