Thursday, June 18, 2009

Religious ideology, political ideology

Man, it's hard to figure out what's going on in Andy McCarthy's head. I'm not sure why I do this, but sometimes I go over and read the National Review Online blog. I did so this morning, and the first thing I ran across was this post by McCarthy. After going through what he considers to be the relevant range of opinions about the situation in Iran, he closes with this:
Considerations of Islamic ideology have been discouraged in this country since 9/11 — lest we detect a nexus between Muslim doctrine and Muslim terror. Consequently, there is general ignorance about the Islamic political program (Islam is not just a religion, it is a comprehensive socio-political program [my emphasis]). But for a few nettlesome differences (like equality for women and hostility to homosexuals), the Islamic political program — especially the totalitarian version regnant in the Islamic Republic of Iran — is something the American Left would be very comfortable with. Obama understands this, and I think it is a better explanation for his solicitude toward Khamenei than any hope of reversing Iran's nuclear ambitions.
I'm not even going to say anything about the bizarro-world claims that litter the unbolded parts of this paragraph (though they are instructive, I think, of how far removed we are from any robust ideological consensus in the US at the moment).

I was just struck by McCarthy's notion of what a religion is. Islam is, horror of horrors, a comprehensive socio-political program! Certianly, religions differ in the extensiveness of their socio-political doctrine. To my (extremely limited) knowledge, Buddhism doesn't have a lot to say about the institutions and methods of rule. Among western religions, there is a commonplace division made between Christianity (a religion of faith) and Islam and Judaism (religions of law). Both of the latter are thought to have far-reaching consequencs for the mode of life and social organization of adherents, in a way that Christianity does not. I think it is very odd, to say the least, that McCarthy would say that Islam is comprehensive in its socio-political teachings while ignoring its fellow religion of the law, Judaism. On what basis does McCarthy think Islam is more comprehensive in its legal teaching than Judaism?

But aside from this, theocracy is not restricted to religions of law. There have been theocratic regimes based in Christianity (Catholic and Protestant--though I don't know of any Orthodox theocracies...) and Buddhism (pre-Chinese Tibet). Claiming proximity to god as warrant to rule is pretty close to a universal temptation among us human beings. I would think (again, this is arm-chair history of the most egregious sort) that when and where a particular religion becomes theocratic in its aspirations has more to do with external factors than with the content of its holy texts and teachings. Paul told Christians to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's when they were a tiny and dispersed community, but this did not prevent popes from crowning emperors and leading armies a millenium later. Looking at the Torah or the Koran or whatever will not tell you a) how political a religion can become or b) how extensively and intensively its adherants will live holy teachings as a set of practices.

Moreover, I'm pretty taken right now with Foucault's thesis about government: that the Christian pastoral introduced a practice of government into European life that is without precedent, and that this pastoral form has permeated the modern state in the guise of what the Germans call the Polizei (the administrative and regulatory enforcement arms of the government). Thus, if you set aside the question of theocracy--that is, the directly religious form of the state--you must still consider the myriad other ways in which a religion (a set of practices of worship) can imply, shape, and sustain political, legal, and social practices and institutions that are not explicitly or directly religious.

In short, if McCarthy wants to consider Islamic ideology, he should go right ahead. But he's not off to an auspicious start.