Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Religion and Politics, Briefly...Again

I have seen the question tossed around lately about "should religions be apolitical?" Or, the sister-question: "Should religion be political?" I've seen this question asked both within our nascent polytheistic traditions, and I've seen it applied by non-polytheists onto our polytheistic traditions and religions.

It's an embarrassing question. It's not embarrassing for the reasons you might think. It's embarrassing because it's a flawed question which forces the person who responds, in either fashion, into a way that destroys the individuality and autonomy of at least three different things: 1) religion by itself, 2) politics by itself, and 3) the combination of religion and politics.

There are many far better questions to ask:
Are some religious groups political? Yes.
Is that ok? Yes.
Are all religious groups political? No.
Is that ok? Yes.
Are religion and politics the same thing? No.
Are religion and politics different things? Yes.
Can religion function separate of politics? Yes.
Can politics function separate from religion? Yes.
Can religion and politics sometimes function together as a thing in its own right? Yes.
Are there contexts where religion and politics come together? Yes.
Is that ok? Yes.
Is it ok for there to be contexts where religion is separate from politics? Yes.
Is it ok to be political and religious? Yes.
Is it ok not to be political? Yes.
Is it ok not to be religious? Yes.
Is it ok to insist that a non-political religion is by its nature also not compassionate? No.
Is it ok to insist that politics without religion is necessarily unethical? No.

Here's the problem, people are seeing these questions in one of two ways: 1) either that of a need of drawing hard and fast boundaries where things must be utterly separate and in vacuums all on their own without having relationships to other things or places where they can combine; or 2) that because boundaries aren't hard and fast, that these different things must just be the same one thing. Either way it amounts to an obscuring of the matter at hand.

I have said this before, but it bears repeating.

Take for instance a person who has a yellow colored pencil and a blue colored pencil. They color solid yellow on the left side of the page, and solid blue on the right side of the page. They then color lighter yellow as they approach the center of the page, and lighter blue as they approach the center of the page, and when the two colors meet the artist then colors a little bit of yellow and a little bit of blue on top of one another and the artist ends up with the color green. Visually, you can go so far to the left of the page and still see just the color yellow. You can still look to the right side of the page and still see just the color blue. You can also look to the center of the page and see where the color green emerges, and you can see that a little left of the middle there's a yellow-green before it resumes yellow, and you can see to the left of the middle where there's a blue-green before solid blue emerges.

The boundaries are not hard and fast, but yes, you can see that there are still at least three different colors: yellow, green, and blue. The existence of yellow does not negate the green or the blue. The existence of blue does not negate yellow or green. Just because the boundaries between these colors is not hard and fast, it doesn't mean that there are not at least three different colors. If a person ignores this simple fact that yellow and blue are different colors, and that these colors can combine to form a third color which has properties of both but which is also a third color in its own right, a person stops being able to make that third color at all because a person has forgotten what primary colors are and how they are separate, and how they can combine, or how some of those colors can form other color combinations that have nothing to do with green (yellow and red make orange, but blue and red make purple, neither of which has anything at all to do with green).

An artist doesn't need a heavy black line to contain the yellow or contain the blue, or contain the green to know that these are all different colors with different properties. An artist can also look at the page and realize which areas are blue enough to be blue, yellow enough to be yellow, and where that green color picks up and ends in the center. An artist who starts requiring heavy black lines in order to see yellow from green from blue stops being able to blend colors in an organic, flexible, creative way.

But, an artist cannot combine the colors at all if at first the artist doesn't know the properties and uniqueness of the separate colors s/he is working with. If all a person sees is one green color there, no blue, no yellow, no matter how far s/he looks to right or the left of that page, all because there was no heavy black line separating out those colors, a person has forgotten the nature of what green is, and can lose the ability to understand and see separate colors. If the artist assumes that yellow needs to be green in order to be truly yellow, this too is a problem.

Just because the boundaries aren't hard and fast with heavy black outlines, it doesn't mean that the boundaries aren't there, and it doesn't mean that you're not working with separate items.

Whether politics and religion should or shouldn't come together ("Should religion be apolitical?") is as much a failure of a question as "Should yellow be anti-green?" That question misses the point entirely and requires people to take sides as to whether or not they want a heavy black line arbitrarily down the middle of the green; or as to whether or not they choose to see that entire color spectrum, from yellow through green to blue, as only one color. The heavy black line obscures being able to see the spectrum, and can disallow access to that third color; while seeing only one color available across the spectrum allows access only to one color at the expense of the other colors' autonomy and individuality. Religions need not eschew politics completely, but religions also do not need to be political in order to be religions (nor do politics need religion in order to be truly political).

Either way, it's non-functional and artificially restrictive. Either way it stamps out the individuality and uniqueness of these things. Either way it ruins the chance of understanding the relationships amidst these things.

Religion is one thing. Politics is a different thing. Religion and politics can combine to form a third thing, or they can be individual things in their own right. Whether you have religion, or politics, or religion with politics, it's ok. But, you have to be able to distinguish one from the other from the other at some point or you fail to work well with any of these things.

And in the words of Kermit the Frog, it's not easy being green. But I guess it's not easy for Gonzo to be bluish-purple, either...

Image Credits: Public Domain.


  1. Thank you for your eloquent writing of religion and politics. As a Roman Polytheist, I see some Gods as being political such as Jupiter, Juno, Minerva of the Capitoline Triad and Ceres, Libera and Liber of the Aventine Triad. These Gods are involved with protecting the rights of citizens and governing the State. They would be the green in your example.

    However, not all Roman Gods are involved in politics such as Bona Dea or Flora. To ask these Gods to be political would be an act of impiety, which would upset the Pax Deorum (Peace of the Gods). They would be yellow.

    But to place the Gods into a binary system of religion=politics or religion vrs politics for me is another act of impiety. Like you, I see it as yellow, green, and blue - with shades in-between.

    1. You're welcome, Va. I'm glad you found it useful. I posted another, more thorough article on the same matter at With US elections drawing nearer and politics ever stronger in the forefront, and because I’d seen a very poorly worded question going around about religion and politics (together or separate) in regards to polytheistic religions, I felt the matter needed airing again in a shorter post.

      What you’re addressing here in your comment is important, and I thank you for bringing up the matter. Humans can further project our own unexamined ideas of religion and politics onto the deities themselves to the point where the deities can end up being mistakenly viewed as political when they are not, or when deities who are political but humans may ignore or erase this function.