This is usually where I say ‘This is not an attack on religion’ or ‘I hope you aren’t offended by this, it isn’t a criticism on religion’ (and it isn’t), but I also realise that I do not have to lick the boots of anyone who’s close-minded enough to be offended by this article. All it takes is an Internet search to find something to get properly angry at. If you can’t even see this article for what it is (a piece lamenting the failure to separate religion and state, as well as a few reasons behind it) then you are likely the crazies I will refer to.
I have no need to apologise, thank you. (I thoroughly welcome feedback, though, so feel free to comment)
With the recent rise of far-right religious conservatism amongst the crop of US presidential nominees (Rick Santorum’s ‘makes me want to throw up’ comment sticks out) and our own fair share of religious ludicrousness back home, is it too late to point out that we’ve had too much religion in politics?
Consider the supposed threat of Christian proselytisation in Malaysia. Are there Christians trying to convert others to their own faith? Probably, yes. Are there Christians stupid enough to try and convert Muslims to their faith, in Malaysia? Unfortunately, yes. Does it mean that there is a whole conspiracy to build a Christian army in Malaysia? Any fool you could tell you there’s no such thing. But the fact that there are people who endlessly hound this theory of theirs is an indication of two things – there are people who sincerely believe it, and there are people exploiting it for political expedience.
Both are enough to show you why dragging matters of faith into politics is a bad idea. This isn’t a new idea. Even the US was founded on secular principles back in 1776. ‘In God We Trust’ notwithstanding (it was added later), the US remains a secular nation, though unfortunately one that is now forced to kowtow to religion as well. And Malaysia most certainly wasn’t created as an Islamic state, even if Islam is the religion of the country – having a dual-track legal system would seem pointless otherwise. But despite the fact that even people back then had the foresight to see what a problem it would be, the issue is worse today. Why is that?
What baffles me is that there are people who appear to value their faith yet insist on sullying it with dirty politics. My only conclusion is that they are so invested in their beliefs, and so convinced of the need to spread them (lest mankind, you know, burns forever) that they feel the need to take their message to the political stage.
Why you want that separation (between church and state)
But if I were a very devout person, I sure as hell wouldn’t want office-seekers dragging my faith through the mud. Even if the Pope or Dalai Lama himself decided to run for office, I would absolutely vote against them if they campaigned on religious premises.
Keeping religion out of politics also means keeping things fair. When the state does not favour a religion, it also does not discriminate against it. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a society where people decide what concerts to go to, or what kinds of functions to attend? But when the national dialogue if hijacked by the wrong people, restrictions on even these simple things crop up everywhere.
Our country is such a great example. What happens when you have vocal religious extremists? You get Ibrahim Ali, Zulkifli Nordin and Hasan Ali, all seeing conspiracies where there are none and projecting their paranoia onto the electorate. Collectively they make Muslims look overly sensitive, narrow-minded and unreasonable. You know that whatever their convictions these people are also motivated by political issues - aren’t their actions only detrimental to the cause they’re trying to champion?
It’s perfectly fine for politicians to have deeply-rooted beliefs and faiths. They just have to keep it out of their duties. Let me illustrate. If you were a US President who happens to be Catholic, and a popularly-voted pro-abortion bill came onto your desk to sign, you had better sign the bill into law. If you vetoed it on the basis of your religious beliefs, then you are not fit to be president – better go pack. The exception occurs if you were elected president because of your Catholicism. Even then, to veto a popular, bipartisan bill seems pretty wrong.
Similarly, if you were a Malay-Muslim chief minister of any state, you have no right to ban alcohol. Restrict Muslim access to alcohol, by all means, but you cannot criminalise drinking. And hey, look at Selangor – Malay chief minister, but alcohol freely available. And this is the same in just about every other state in Malaysia. So it isn’t a totally far-fetched dream, to want politicians to keep personal convictions out of their daily running of the state.
These are all ideals, though. Wiser people from centuries ago already envisioned a more secular world where religious organisations rightly kept to themselves and maintained their integrity. Despite the fact that people may think we are more advanced a civilisation today, one only has to contrast the relative secularism popular amongst the influential figures of the past, with the politicians who helplessly must work around strong religious lobbying today, to see that we may not have moved forward much at all.
Why it still sticks
Religion is a powerful motivator. There’s nothing like faith to keep yourself popular and elected. Rather than having to convince people consistently with facts, figures and a concrete track record, faith is a matter of looking beyond the tangible. It’s no wonder that politicians find faith such a useful tool for rallying loyal supporters – consider how many more people are willing to lay down their time, effort and money for a person they might believe has the support of one god or another.
It’s also long been used to claim the moral high ground. The argument for the religious candidate is, if not one espousing his/her holiness or godliness, one of assured moral standing. There probably comes a more inherent trust for someone who professes a certain religion – compared to someone who has no religion at all. Relatively, all the religious politician has to do is claim the moral high ground by contrasting and comparing their faiths or lack thereof. It’s a tired method and I hope many people see through it now, but it’s unquestionably a popular tactic.
People feel the need to advance their religious agenda. This is the flip side to the issue. Rather than politicians testing the waters of religion to shore up support, it’s the religious factions within a country who want to advance themselves. And what better way than getting the people in government (i.e. the people with money and means) to endorse your message? These are also the people ultimately responsible for the existence of candidates like Rick Santorum or Michele Bachmann; people who feel that the country is headed to hell and somehow insist they have discerned a ‘saviour’ politician who will bring the nation back into the light. It is another tired trope but it never seems to die, somehow. These are the people who still think Obama is a Muslim and the US needs to be ‘taken back’; these are the nutters who probably also think the US was founded as a Christian nation; heck, I’ll even go ahead and say they probably thought Jesus was a white male. Maybe he was also American, I don’t know.
At least Ibrahim Ali doesn’t think the Prophet Muhammad came from Malaya.
In all honesty, this is not an issue that will go away. So long as the religious right exists in all its extremity and blindness, then there will always be a demand for the far-right conservative, ready to preach the forgiveness of his faith and yet condemn the others who do not share it.
I leave you with a quote from Thomas Jefferson, in a letter dated 1802:
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their “legislature” should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.”
Nicholas wonders how much Rick Santorum would throw up if he read this article.