Friday, August 21, 2009

Comments on The Belmont Club,
"Unto Caesar"

One of the many strengths in Western Civilization is the separation between roles of the KIng or Basileus and that of the High Priest. At one time they were fused in the West as they historically were in the East. In the East a Despot or Khan was either God's agent over all realms or was a god themselves. In Eastern Orthodox christianity the Emperor dominated the Patriarchy and exercised jurisdiction in both roles under what is called Caesaro-papism. Western Christianity over the long term benefited because it had to survive without the protection of the Imperium. At the same time the material weakness of the papacy allowed independent political communities to develop.

This division between the sacred and profane powers is unusual and created enough complexity and variety in structures that doctrines of tolerance, individuality and privacy were allowed to develop. A parallel set of circumstances created out of physical disaster and dispersion allowed congruent doctrines to develop among the jewish communities that no longer had a unified state with an anointed KIng and a temple bound priesthood to enforce discipline.

In America religious communities have always influenced political debate but other voices would always jealously guard against being subsumed in one voice. Certainly much of the abolitionist movement and later progressive spirit came from the tradition of militant Unitarianism from the 19th century. The alternating alliances and rivalries among the protestant communities and between them and catholic or jewish immigrants helped shape the Republic. Uncertainty about having a religious voice to close to the political voice was raised when John Kennedy became the first Catholic President. That helped define the role of clergy in being a moral voice but keeping them ostentatiously away from formal policy roles over the following decades. Even Billy Graham while seen as a prominent voice close to the White House was not allowed to exercise as open a role in advocating for specific policies as theologians of an earlier era did.

The one exception to this was in the black community. There ordained clergy would regularly engage in roles as both pastors, politicians and organizational leaders with real financial influence. This may in part have been due to the paucity of university trained leaders other then clergy as a result of prior discrimination. Partly it might have been accepted as an indication of patronizing by the larger society in dealing with the minority as if it was a foreign client. In some countries military officers are similarly found in positions of commercial and political leadership also because they are the only pool of skilled professionals available.

Obama by attempting to mobilize clergy for a political dispute is spreading the structure of the black community into the general society. He risks inflaming those who will see this as an Islamic fusion in his mind of the roles of sacred and profane leadership.

We have a thread on the Czars, then we have a thread on Caesar. Do I detect a pattern? Which will come next Henry Kaiser or a thread on Egyptian Pharaonic monuments or Faro and gambling?
Place your bets.

Reform Judaism has been a floppy branch of the Democratic party for 70 years Besides Reform is really an expression of German Jewish culture. That worked out well. At least the Sulzbergers of the NY Times left Temple Emanu-El and switched to Episcopalian.

Of more concern to me is the decline of what was the robust genuinely American theological movement of Conservative Judaism. This was in fact the bulk of American Judaism during the 20th century but it is under pressure, with some splitting off to become closer to Reform and new immigrants identifying with a reinvigorated Orthodox movement. They are not helped by a leadership that wants to change the relgion's name to something that sounds less "conservative."

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