by Jean Daniel
The basic issue facing us is whether we should "render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's and unto God the things which are God's." In other words, can the temporal be separated from the spiritual? If, for what¬ever reason, we believe that such a separation is impossible, we are led to the conclusion that in a divine order, religion should dominate civic orga¬nization. We must then consider a theocratic state as legitimate. The ques¬tion in this case is whether theocratic states can respect minorities which hold a different religion from that of the state, or have no religion at all.
If, on the other hand, we consider that separation between the spiritual and the temporal is desirable and possible, we are forced to deal with the role of a secular state. Can one maintain political ethics without a spiritual basis, or earthly laws without transcendental affirmation? Or is the role of the state merely to organize the coexistence of the various religious com¬munities? Are the ethics of a godless, secular state legitimate and effective?
There are at least two examples of pure theocracies in the world: Iran, which practices Shi'ite Islam, and Saudi Arabia, which practices Sunni Islam. There are also less "pure" examples in Islamic states and in Israel, where theocracy has been somewhat modified by the influence of, or attempt at, democracy. Iran is seen on occasion to persecute its minorities while Saudi Arabia merely forbids worship by any faith except the state religion. This state religion is intolerant because it takes itself to be divine and universal, leaning not only to classifying people along ethnic and reli¬gious lines, but even to religious and ethnic cleansing. One could claim that the totalitarian communist states practiced a state religion since only the priests of their single party where considered capable of revealing the cor¬rect sense of history.
On the other hand, in the Western world, we have witnessed anti-theo¬cratic movement, with the English Revolution in 1679, the American Revolution in 1787 and the French Revolution in 1789. From the Habeas Corpus in England to the Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen in France emerged the machinery for the death sentence passed on God. A denial of God as head of state was proclaimed.
Religious and Secular
It is important to note that we are speaking of the God of monotheism. If one is to believe the Indian specialist Lakshmi Kapani, India did not need our Western revolutions in order to separate the spiritual from the tempo¬ral. There is nothing in the sacred writings of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism or Sikhism which regulates the lives of the citizens, nothing com¬parable to the Jewish Torah, the Catholic doctrines or the Muslim Sharia. Of course, this does not mean that people are not deeply imbued with reli¬gion in their daily lives. In fact, rather the opposite is true.
The West and India enjoy a form of secularity which falls in line with the definition of religion in Greek and Roman antiquity: the gods were omnipresent but they were not necessarily obeyed. The great French schol¬ar Sylvain Levi has pointed out that there is nothing in the sacred writings of Eastern religions to incite intolerance, even less violence. Nevertheless, the Indian state is seen to be reduced to arbitrating in so-called wars of reli¬gion. The experts should decide whether the Indian fundamentalism stems from reaction to an identity threatened by imported monotheism, albeit now secular.
In the U.S.A. it appears that religion is totally separated from the state although almost all its citizens are organized into religious communities. The American nation triumphed over two original sins (the slave trade and the massacre of the Native people), as well as the initial tragedy of the War of Independence, by dint of the Puritan dynamism of its capitalist victors. It is somewhat strange that this nation-state's catechism should turn sterile ("the American dream") and become a colorless and neutral legal admin¬istrator of inter-community conflicts. After the collapse of the U.S.S.R., the American superpower is wondering if its citizens have less in common than they have differences. They all come together under one banner: that of coexistence.
In the French example, or what is left of it, for it is threatened from all sides, religion is also separate from the state, but the beheading of Louis XVI meant more than just a symbolic death for the godhead of the state. The individual transformed into a citizen was born in France between 1789 and 1791. Because those rallying against the Catholic Church remained mistrustful of the people, almost two centuries went by before the citizen reached maturity.
In this revolutionary concept, the individual is sovereign without regard to religion, origins, environment, and social class. The republican state is the expression of popular sovereignty by free and equal individuals. Now, communities are again springing up in France, lobbying for some reform or other. This is an alarming trend, as we can see from recent, ludicrous and convulsive consequences (each one different from the other) in the U.S.A., in Lebanon, and even worse, in Yugoslavia. We are in the age of communitarianism. Why is this so?
First, we have forgotten that human beings are religious beings. They are, and have always been, social and religious beings. The individual was an invention, a construction, who appeared late in human history and was preceded by the community without which s/he cannot exist. The indi¬vidual keeps wanting to get away from it but conversely, keeps wanting to get back into it. Marx thought that nations and religions were doomed by history but both concepts should be accepted as permanent within human¬ity. The conclusion is that to assail an individual in integrating into his/her religious community causes a reaction or even a regression. "Religious community" does not imply only a religious belief, but a certain balance in a patriarchal society imbued with religiosity.
Second, we have been going through a crisis of reason, linked to the emergence of the individual. The cults of reason and of "organized histo¬ry" and the belief in scientific progress are worshiped in a religious man¬ner. The cult of reason has even led to totalitarian ideologies, including the Russian-style chauvinism of Stalin's successors. Emmanuel Levinas believes that the crisis of reason stems from the way in which two ideolo¬gies of progress ended up in tyranny: liberalism in Nazism, communism in Stalinism. "World wars and local conflicts, National Socialism, Bolshevism, the concentration camps, the gas chambers, nuclear arsenals, terrorism and unemployment - it is all too much for one generation, even if it was a mere witness." To this one must add the horrors of colonization and decolonization. The crisis of reason leads to either a temporary nihilism or a permanent need for transcendence.
Third, and most important, our generation has snatched from God all civic powers, and taken upon itself the ability to destroy humanity and to recre¬ate it and reproduce it ad infinitum. Space and time are eliminated and our images are universal. Though we know that there is only one earth, one world, one planet, we have no idea what kind of new being will emerge from this media sphere. It is disconcerting from a philosophic point of view to think that nothing human can remain unknown to us. However, aware¬ness of the unique nature of the world does not mean achieving unity. Quite the opposite: the upheavals we must suffer before we achieve this unity will be terrifying.
Population movements, a soaring birthrate, the mingling of peoples, the mixture of cultures and the babble of the world's languages should remind us that Babel was a curse and not a tribute to multilingual cosmopoli¬tanism. The tower of Babel is a tower of punishment and misery.
So, wondering what we are and preferring to be what we were (or thought we were), we run after so-called "authenticity." This often means rein¬venting our own roots and claiming to rediscover our parents' religion: a religion whose message we sometimes use to reject others. The need for something religious is felt by some as a lack and by others as nostalgia, perhaps regret over a lost world of continuity. In ancient Greece, in India, and in Christianity, there are rites which imply a need to return to the sup¬posed era of fundamental myths, now reconstructed for new circumstances.
Contemplating the reasons behind the force of communitarianism, we can assess the fragility of the regimes which claim to counter or ignore it. We can also understand how even the most totalitarian systems can assure their future if they manage to satisfy the basic religious needs of the original human being. The essence of despotism and the precarious nature of democracy are evident.
The religious and psycho-sociologist Rene Girard has indicated that the enemy is one's brother, the next person, what the Ten Commandments call one's neighbor. If we are entreated to love our neighbor as ourselves, this is precisely because s/he is the one we are most likely to treat as a rival and thus consider hostile. The person who is most like me but not me is my enemy. Thus fratricide is the only real war. We only hate the only real war. We only thoroughly hate what we know best, what is just a little different from us (any little difference will do). And so, rather than spontaneity in love, love demands self-restraint and it is learning to love which becomes the inheritance of Abraham and of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Adapting the reflexes observed between individuals to the relations between religions, races and nations, we arrive at the Balkan proverb: We have no friends. We just have allies among the enemies of our enemies. We are in no way obliged to share such a pessimistic interpretation but it helps to remind us that belief often corrected what was imperfect in "natural reli¬gion." What is taken as a return to religion is often a return to what preced¬ed religion and which faith set out to correct. However numerous are the reasons for the naturally religious aspect of the human being, the reasons for resisting the drift back to nature are even more numerous. But in any case, we must oppose giving up the separation of religion and politics.
While the religious act colors and nourishes the political act, religion on its own cannot inspire the political organization of a city. The indomitable nature of the religious act must be taken into account but it is quite anoth¬er thing to submit to people's institutions, the fruits of having achieved human dignity, to any manifestation of religious belief.
How then can the powerful religious nature of human beings be resist¬ed? Montesquieu provided an answer when he said: "If I knew something of use to me, but detrimental to my family, I would chase it from my mind. If I knew something useful to my family but not to my country, I would try to forget it. If I knew something useful to my country, but detrimental to Europe, or useful to Europe but detrimental to humanity, I would consid¬er it a crime to forget it."
This paper was originally presented to the 1994 "Symposium on Religion and Politics" at the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, New Delhi.