Politics, Pagan Religions, and the 2016 Election

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Faith and the Election. Read other perspectives here.

Religion has become a major influence in our politics, and in terms of democratic values, not in a good way. Domestic terrorism is most often motivated by some kind of Christian belief. Abortion is made increasingly difficult for entirely religious reasons. Even violent rape does not justify it for many. Conservative Christians claim laws protecting LGBTQ Americans' legal equality impinge on their religious freedom, and use their 'freedom' to pass laws prohibiting this equality. Ted Cruz, who endorses theocracy came in second to the Mussolini wannabe in Republican presidential primaries.

These attacks on the rest of us in the name of religion force thoughtful people of all religious traditions to rethink how our beliefs relate to our politics.

Religion and politics

A good working definition of religion is "the highest context of meaning in our lives, which we celebrate with others." Whatever our religion, there will be times when the modern world pursues policies and practices that violate our sense of what is right and proper. If we are religiously opposed to these practices and policies, what should we do?

Atheists and others who say religion should stay out of politics are wrong. It shouldn't. In our own history the Quakers were vital in energizing the movement to abolish slavery. More recently many Black leaders of the Civil Rights movement were clergymen, among them the Rev. Martin Luther King. They were often supported by White clergymen and seminarians, even at the cost of their lives.

Examples such as these are justly honored by people who are also appalled at the role of conservative religion in America today. Is this a double standard?

No.

The Quakers and men like Rev. King were religiously motivated, but made their political case in universal terms. Their faith gave them courage to push against the beliefs of the times, but their arguments were mostly in a different language. They appealed to a common sense of fairness, justice, and reason, qualities one did not need to be a Quaker or even a Christian to accept. Speaking to people in terms of our common humanity, they transformed their societies.

Interestingly, their opponents also claimed religious justifications, but their arguments required accepting their theology at the cost of humanity and decency.

In a free society, whatever the ultimate source of our beliefs, expecting others to accept them requires us to make our case in universal terms. This principle is rejected by the Christian Right that threatens this country today. They share the mentality of Christians supporting slavery or segregation and using scripture to make their case.

This approach to politics is destructive to a free society at two levels. First, it legitimates religious dogma as sufficient to rule people who disagree. Second, since these people never fully agree on their dogmas, it opens the door to religious wars such as those Europe suffered for centuries and those in the Middle East today.

The Pagan roots of reason and democracy

While most Pagan societies have not been democratic, the most successful and memorable early democracy, Athens, was Pagan. The most powerful return of democratic values to political prominence, the founding of our own country, was inspired by Classical Antiquity as well as Enlightenment Deist thought. The connection is real.

Pagan religions honor a multitude of ways of thinking about and interacting with the sacred. None, or virtually none, require "faith" as it is meant in the Christian context. We recognize mystery but not faith.

With no hierarchies of ultimate authority, we are surrounded by a diversity of practices. Democracy provides a context where people with different views can discuss what to do as a community. The combination was transformative for a civilization. Despite Socrates's fate, reason as a way of understanding the world and dealing with others has democratic and Pagan roots.

Simply put, reason is the best way people with divergent points of view can settle controversies peacefully. Every reason we give opens itself to criticism, and if it survives, demands our respect. Inherent within an argument is the claim that it can be defended rationally. No one has special status simply because of who they are. They must give reasons for it, and reasons can be challenged.