When George W. Bush cited Jesus Christ as being the most influential political philosopher that he identified with in a 1999 Republican primary debate, a significant turn in media attention to religious matters took place. To question how far religion and politics has ever truly been separated in America is too much a stretch for this—or any—single book. Yet with pre-millennial blues and, subsequently, 9/11 dominating our press, the role religion plays in the US (and, by extension, the world) has been broadcast widely and loudly over the last nine years.
The sleeping giant that has awoken is, of course, religion, here focused on the Christian right and evangelical movements. Yet this collection of essays is not necessarily “for” or “against” our religious choices; most of the authors do an excellent job at playing both scholar and devil’s advocate when taking into consideration the society-at-large, and how we are meant to prosper or suffer by the politics of religion (and vice-versa). As is made out early in the text, this is not a book that has been split by the usual media coverage of religion, taking the sides of the fundamentalist factions or the burgeoning atheism movement that has grown in its wake.
In fact, Sam Harris is only mentioned once in passing, while authors like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens do not appear. To the contrary, documentaries like Jesus Camp and other critiques of fundamentalist fury pass unmentioned, while megachurch pastors like Joel Osteen are barely discussed. Instead we have weighty looks at consumerist capitalism and prophetic evangelicalism, the history of the Civil War, and how the theories of Jacques Lacan can accurately describe the current situation from an early childhood developmental perspective.
Using Thomas Paine’s ironic rise and fall from public grace as a steppingstone to show why democracy is a process and not a manufactured product, pressed and ready for wearing, Jeffrey W. Robbins submits an elucidating essay that considers how the democratic struggle that began with the Revolutionary War continues today. He calls to our attention that religion, like politics, is often in the hands of the translator, and when that translation is in the interest of the person instead of the prophecy, something is amiss. This sentiment is echoed throughout the pages of this collection in various forms.
Peter Goodwin Heltzel follows this idea when putting forth the idea of “prophetic evangelicalism”, citing how progressive evangelicals need to take up the arms of the race struggle in ordering a more harmonious society, something which the better members of the creed have done in the past. Using a piece of a letter by Martin Luther King Jr.—where King calls out the citizen “who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice”—Heltzel calls for evangelicals of all races to embody the latter. While it is a refreshing look at a religion that is often discussed only negatively (with the George W. connection), Heltzel himself seems to give too much credence to this faith as being the one that “really matters” in American politics.
The exploitation of Christian power becomes a standard meeting place for many of these authors, who all warn against the dangers of overusing their beliefs as territorial prowess. As Anna Mercedes writes, “Theologies asserting unyielding power too often reiterate a paradigm of violence.” Mercedes contributes one of the most heartfelt pieces here (hinted at in the title, “A Christian Politics of Vulnerability”), concluding that such a politics must “be gleaned from our gospel heritage”—that is, as cognizant of the history and presence of suffering in our world as the prosperity of a certain few.
In general, the first half of this collection looks back, while the second really feels progressive. Ben Stahlberg’s “Theocratic America?” asks one of the most important, yet often unasked questions regarding the state of American religion: “What needs critical consideration is why we tend to think of religion, in both our personal and political deliberations, as a distinct matter of individual belief or intention at all.” As he points out, this form of psychology is begotten by Christian influence.
Why do we make such a big deal over whether or not God exists? Why are atheists outcast for not believing, or do you feel an affinity toward someone who says he or she believes? Is this really an important question, considering the amount of other issues we have to contend with on our planet? If that’s our starting point in social relations—that God exists—what does that say about our moral, ethical, and political foundation as a human community?
This is where this book excels, especially between those two poles most of the media focuses on—the fundamentalists who claim that God exists, no further questions please, and the atheists (or non-theists, as one friend puts it), who correctly state that that question is irrelevant but then go on to offer absolutely no spiritual or social guidance to the confused individual.
The former take a passive stance, one probably handed down which they take at face value; the latter generally critiquing the hypocrisies of religion lucidly, yet forget what thinkers like Karen Armstrong and Huston Smith have pointed out: that people need religion at some primary, fundamental level. To abolish it is as senseless as saying that this or that particular faith is the only way.
Andrew Saldino looks at the question of faith from the viewpoint of money and trade, considering the possibility that we have reduced our entire political body to economics, much in line with Socrates. “We have taken the best element of our animal nature and unconsciously elevated it to the highest intellectual and spiritual possibility of our republic.”
He goes on to state that Americans are not only addicted to oil, but that they also crave “cheap imported merchandise in general.” The connection between the religion and the political can be summated in Karen Armstrong’s idea that it is our behavior, and not our beliefs, that truly define our religious practice. A compassionate and worldly religious philosophy would not make other nations suffer at the cost of us consuming without considering the economic consequences behind our purchases.
Rocco Gangle continues this line of thought through the theories of Spinoza, Hobbes, and Locke, pointing toward the trinity of Western religions as being the ones that have come to view God as a kind of king (or, I would propose nowadays, CEO). Our behavior toward this deity—one of passive subservience, of denoting his “otherworldly” manner—reflects our spiritual outlook and can, at our worst, further reflect how we treat the rest of the world. Gangle offers tangible steps towards a more thoughtful democracy, reminding us that what really matters in churches, synagogues, and mosques is the human bonding that occurs there, not the transcendent rituals.
Taking cues from Thoreau and asking when has “there ever been times that have not been troubled?” J. Heath Atchley provides a philosophical edge that leans on metaphysics when contemplating the space between an idea and an experience: “An idea is something to be thought, and an experience is something lived; thinking and living are not the same, or thinking is an emaciated version of living.” This, of course, ties in to Armstrong’s behavior/belief paradigm. Co-editor Neal E. Magee continues the introspective gaze by asking how our religious and political choices are today helping us in “worlding our world” (reminding one of Alan Watts’s claim that people do not inhabit the planet, but that the planet peoples).
Magee offers perhaps the most lucid essay of this bunch, precisely because it is so worldly in scope. Maybe it’s because of his privileged position of having read all the other essays in the book, making his final contribution a sort of compendium. Still, his insights are powerful, and important in the consideration of the marriage of religion and politics in America today. He cites Marx’s idea of “misrecognition” as evidence of how in our interactions with products, we misrecognize them as our “primary social relation—a relation between things—rather than one’s relations with other people.”
This trend can readily be witnessed while watching a person of any faith who holds such a strong conviction that their faith is the only way that they immediately discredit arguments or appeals from persons of other religions. When this happens, we become talking heads instead of the intelligent and compassionate creatures we are capable of being. It further reminds us that listening is much more a skill than speaking, for it listening that we hear what others say, and not only hear what we want to hear.
Magee also reminds us that a person in control of their inner life must recognize the role they are playing. He uses George W. Bush as an example. Whatever one’s feelings concerning the current president are, Magee states that he must self-identify with the role of the President of the United States in order to pull off what he does.
This is true for each of us; neuroses occur when there is a rift between who we are and who we think we are. Self-identification with the divine is a common practice in many primal societies, as well as yogic practices, where one imagines him- or herself as embodying all the attributes and qualities as the figure they have faith in. Then the distance between the divine and the human closes, and the individual literally “embodies” the divinity.
This is a challenging concept to a country whose God is often treated as a king, or CEO. Yet Magee’s call, like many others in this excellent collection, is that the realization that we are the only ones responsible for our choices, and that we cannot necessarily count on our media or political and religious leaders, is of primary concern for any of us wishing to witness a harmonious globalization of ideas and faiths. And at this point in time, that means all of us.
“‘I do not believe in it; it is just part of my culture’ effectively seems to be the predominant mode of disavowed/displaced belief characteristic of our times,” writes Slavoj Žižek in the Postface. Anyone who has ever seen the Slovene philosoher and social critic speak live, or the insightful documentary Zizek: The Reality of the Virtual, knows that this man’s great gift is oration.
Still, his writing is powerful due to the imagery it invokes in each word, like he painfully exorcises every syllable from some demonic labyrinth hidden deep in the bowels of the planet. Those bowels are always political in his eyes, when he concludes that, quoting Robert Bork, “There is an eager and growing market for depravity, and profitable industries [are] devoted to supplying it.” America’s Sleeping Giant is feeding from this depravity, and this collection of essays does an exceptional job of shining a light on some of the more hidden aspects in our culture today.