Overestimating Religion

At Katie‘s recommendation, I read Michael Northcutt’s An Angel Directs the Storm a few hours ago. Overall, there isn’t much to say about this book except that it’s an incoherent piece that strains to fit historical reality to Northcutt’s thesis. Two points in the book are notably off-target: the idea that American freedom has been uniformly libertarian since John Locke, and the attributing of most modern political forces involving the US to religious influence.

In this post I’ll only talk about the latter problem; for the former, just read Eric Foner’s The Story of American Freedom.

Northcutt’s primary mistake is ignoring the very recent developments in Dominionism. Dominionism is a fairly recent ideology, born of the maturation of a new Protestant clergy strong enough to stave off most radical pathologies that marginalize radicals. In the last few years Dominionists have engaged in some pathologies that may be their downfall, but between the 1970s and the early 2000s they were supremely effective. In particular, analyzing the American manifestations of religion in reference to the War on Terror without talking about the break between earlier Evangelical waves, for example William Jennings Bryan’s, and Dominionism, is futile.

But what is even worse is that like too many people, Northcutt attributes the Israeli/Palestinian conflict to religion. Although Northcutt’s approach seems to come from the Christian left, I’m most familiar with this fallacy as used by atheists. When I ran in radical atheist circles on the net, everyone presumed that the I/P conflict was about fundamentalists killing each other over scriptural commandments; that included me, even though I should’ve known better based on my own background.

In fact, the I/P conflict has little to do with religion. Hamas is motivated by religious fundamentalism, and many settlers are motivated by the commandment to populate the entire historical country of Israel.

At the same time, one of the striking characteristics about the Israeli right is that it’s sharply divided between the fundamentalist parties, which are more concerned with domestic policy than with maintaining the occupation, and the nationalist parties, which care little about shoving Judaism down people’s throats.

In Palestine the main right-wing party is Islamist, but for decades there was no Islamism in Palestine. Granted, for many centuries there was no Islamism, period, but Palestine was dominated by secular forces into the 1980s; Hamas only became a major force after the Oslo Accords of 1993.

Even then, it’s never been popular for its Islamism; most Hamas voters wanted to end Fatah’s corruption and control over the government, and only about 30% voted for the party because of its religious or political agenda. Once you factor out people whose main motivation is unbridled violence against Israel rather than Islamism, the percentage beomces even lower.

Finally, Christianity’s influence on American Middle East policy has been minor; it’s increasing lately, but certainly before the 1980s, nobody in power in the US cared about what Christian Zionists thought when formulating the country’s position on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Truman didn’t start supporting Israel because of any Christian fundamentalist influence, or even Jewish influence; he supported Israel because it was the homeland of an ethnic group that had just seen 6 million of its people systematically murdered. It’s easy to forget that in 1948, Jews had been the West’s most oppressed minority for a millennium or two.

2 Responses to Overestimating Religion

  1. SLC says:

    Attached is another slant on the role of religion in politics.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/26/us/politics/26faith.html

    The bottom line is that not all evangelicals are as nutty as James Dobson.

  2. Alon, I think you might be conflating two separate issues regarding the role of religion in the I/P conflict. There is, as you point out, the role of religion in originating and manifesting the conflict. I agree with you that it is better thought of in terms of imperialism than theology.

    On the other hand, there is the role of religion in terms of ending the conflict. This is where the influence of the two faith traditions might be most pronounced. Like an infection, fundamentalism has made a home in the open (political) wound, making it more difficult to cure. The presence of the two fundamentalisms will make it harder for each side to realize its interests in a compromise.

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