Religion Today

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Rule of God and Humanity

One of humanity’s perennial problems centers on balancing religion and government. How can the cosmic authority of the divine being(s) interact with the day-to-day authority of people. King James I (he of the King James Bible) believed in the divine-rule of kings, i.e., that God gave a king like him the authority to rule. The founders of the United States of America thought that religion and government should be separate, with government staying out of religious matters and religion having no official role in government. The communist government of China held for many years that religious belief and activity should be banned, and only in recent years has relaxed that view.


When Iran established its new constitution after 1979, the country formulated the balance of religion and human governance in a new manner. It started with a surprisingly American-like balance of powers in three branches—executive, legislative and judicial, The constitution then divided the executive branch between a president who administers the country on a daily basis and a “Supreme Leader” who constitutes a religious authority tasked with ensuring that the country’s policies follow the dictates of Islam.


This organization of government leads to a lively democracy in daily affairs which is then supervised, overseen, and sometimes restricted by religious mores, concerns, and judgments. Elections for president and the legislature are held every four years, with multiple candidates running campaigns, taking positions on issues, and holding debates. From this perspective, Iran has had one of the most free and lively democracies in the Muslim world.


This democracy is carried out within the boundaries of the Muslim religion, however. Candidates for president and the legislature have their worthiness for potential office evaluated by the Guardian Council; their character and moral behavior are judged by Islamic standards by the Council, whose membership consists of the highest experts in Islamic law and morality.


The Guardian Council supervises elections, and this is the beginning of the current uproar over the supposed landslide victory of Mahmud Ahmadinejad to a second term as president.


Since the elections of June 12 concerned the administrative side of the executive branch, it was supervised by the religious side. To question the election results, therefore, is to ask whether the country’s religious leaders are incompetent, corrupt, or simply hoodwinked by their own employees. Wherever one comes down on this question, the religious authorities who are tasked by the constitution for carrying out Allah’s will have done a poor job.


The opposition protesting the election results, led by presidential candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi, has tried (as of Tuesday June 23) to focus its demands on the votes and not to challenge the system. That is, they have asked that their votes be tabulated and counted, rather than question the religious leaders’ authority directly.


The religious side has responded by calling on the one who cannot be questioned, God himself. Soon after the election results were published, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared the election results a “divine assessment” of the candidates. To question the results is thus to question Allah Himself!


Furthermore, Supreme Leader Khamenei stated in a speech at Friday prayers on June 19th that the election results were valid. Perhaps, he admitted, perhaps there were problems with 100,000 votes here or there, as the legal challenges have suggested, but how could “11 million votes be replaced or changed?”  He thus denied suggestions that there was any wide scale fraud.


At the same time, Khamenei celebrated the campaign. He rejoiced in the openness of the debates, the ability of the candidates to express themselves, and praised everyone who voted, saying, “whoever has voted for [any of] these candidates will receive divine reward.”


In this way, Khamenei tried to emphasize that the elections had been fair and placed his religious authority behind the results.


The problem is that the Iranian people want more than God’s representative declaring that the election was just and fair, they want to see it. Justice must be seen to be just; election results should be transparent. Although Khamenei’s speech praised the “transparency” of the campaign, he demanded the acceptance of the published results without any accounting.


Will the balance between religious and human governance laid out in the Iranian constitution work? If religious authorities are not seen to act responsibly and morally, as is their charge, how can that be dealt with satisfactorily?

Thursday, June 11, 2009


Pope Benedict XVI’s recent visit to the Holy Land resulted in many newspapers featuring a story about the way Christians in the Middle East are leaving their homes for safer countries. This is certainly true for Iraqi Christians. But in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, the native Christian population is dwindling for another reason, namely, conversion to Islam. The following column was written about this phenomenon in January 2000. It is still true today.


     Since the birth of Christianity, there have always been Christians living in the territory where it began -- Israel. The vast majority of these Christians have been native Palestinian families and communities who lived there because it was their home, rather than the priests, pilgrims, and other Christians who were attracted to Israel because of the holy sites associated with the Bible.


   Now, at the dawn of Christianity's third millennium, native Christianity in the Holy Land is in danger of dying out. The numbers of native Palestinian Christians have dwindled alarmingly over the past few decades and the trend is continuing.


     In general, the cause of this trend is the Israel-Arab conflict. But what is interesting is the way the different religious communities view that conflict and how the pressures those views generate have impacted the Arab Christians of Palestine.


     Starting with the Christian community of the United States, we find that our country is strongly pro-Israel, which means that it supports the Jewish belief that the Jews have a right to settle, colonize and live in Israel. Although this policy is supported by many different religious and nonreligious groups in America -- including Jewish Americans -- the policy is perceived as "Christian" because of the United States' strong Christian heritage and because most of the Americans who visit Israel go there to see the religious sites.


     The Jewish community of Israel is divides into two different views. The minority view of the Orthodox Jews sees Christians as religious upstarts who should be tolerated at best and kept away at worst. The majority view, held by less-religious Israelis, is to encourage American support of Israeli claims to the Holy Land. This group has even noticed that the most vocal supporters of Israel, after American Jews, are born-again Christians, especially those who believe in Christ's second coming.


     The Israelis have played to these beliefs not only politically, but also with regard to tourism. For the year 2000 celebrations, for instance, Israel's government built a "Millennium Park" at the site of the ancient Canaanite and Israelite city of Megiddo, which the Book of Revelation identifies as the site of the final apocalyptic battle before Christ's appearance.


     This political identification between Jews and Christians has been noticed by the Islamic community of Palestine, the Arabs who are struggling to keep their ancestral homeland despite the Jewish presence. They see Christians as allied with the Jewish Israelis in working to keep the Arabs from what they consider to be their rightful place.


     Moslem dislike of American Christian politics thus becomes, in their view, dislike of Christianity. This general view of Christianity then spills over onto Arab Palestinian Christians. The shared Palestinian identity of the Palestinian Arabs continually struggles with Moslem suspicion of Christian Arab cooperation and alliance with Israel.


     So how has this situation led to the declining numbers of Native Christians in Palestine? The answer is surprisingly straightforward. The Christian Palestinians want to keep their ancestral lands, villages and homes just as much as the Moslem Palestinians. Despite the Moslem distrust of them, they dislike the Israelis as much as the Moslems do. To demonstrate their allegiance to the Palestinian cause and to eradicate the suspicion against them, more and more Palestinian Christians have converted to Islam. This places them above suspicion and enables them to join fully with their fellow Palestinians in the struggle against the Jewish Israelis. If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not settled soon, native Christianity in the Christian Holy Land may be lost forever through conversion.

The Morality of God

One of the most memorable lines in the 2008 movie "Frost/Nixon" is when the former president says bluntly, "when the president does it, that means it's not illegal." The actor Frank Langella delivered that line with such punch that the producers made it the climax of the film's trailer. Even people who did not see the film heard that claim repeatedly during the weeks it was advertised on TV ( or

What makes the statement so shocking is that in a nation based on the rule of law, the most powerful man, the president, claims he is above the law. Here is the nation's leader stating that he is so powerful that his personal will-not that of Congress or the courts-determines the law. Did not our country's rebellion against Great Britain begin when their king made the same claim?

What if someone even higher and more powerful, such as God, made the same claim? Would it have the same shock value? Would we view it the same dismay?

A newly released video podcast allows us to experience just that. In a satire of the trailer for "Frost/Nixon," the comic podcast "Mr. Deity" portrays God responding to a question by saying, "When the Deity does it, it's not immoral." (See Mr. Deity on iTunes, "Larry Deity interviews the trailer" or

Although some pious people will find the satirical presentation of this remark offensive, it actually points to one of the great paradoxes of Christian belief, a paradox focusing on the question, what is the relationship between God and the rules of morality? Christianity sees these rules, which are also called ethics, as coming from God. God is the source of morality and hence must be ethical himself.

Therein lies the rub. What makes particular rules or actions moral? There are only two possible answers to this question, and neither of them fit easily into Christian belief.
The Nixonian statement uttered by Mr. Deity, "When the Deity does it, it's not immoral," actually constitutes a succinct statement of one answer. Whatever God does is moral merely because God did it. The logic of the theological position is this: if God is the ultimate source and embodiment of morality, then by definition anything he does or says is moral. By definition, He cannot do anything that is immoral.

The Mr. Deity satirical presentation highlights the problem with this view. It suggests that God, like Richard Nixon, can act on a whim. His actions may be arbitrary, accidental, or contingent. He may act from motives other than morality. These could include love or justice on the one hand, or vengeance, anger or the desire to protect His followers on the other. By definition, such actions would be seen as moral, even if they were not necessarily intended that way.

OK, if that explanation does not quite work, what is the other option?

The description of the relationship between God and morality the satire does not mention is that there is a fixed standard of morality and that God always acts according to that standard. Fair enough. But that impacts the belief in a sovereign God who is all powerful. If there is a moral standard outside God, to which God adheres in his actions and words, then God is no longer all powerful. Instead, He is limited by that outside standard. He cannot act except in ways that standard allows. God is therefore not all powerful or even self-governing.

Is there a resolution of this paradox? No. Christianity, western philosophy, and related religions have wrestled with it for more than two millennia, but the paradox still stands. Usually it is ignored and most believers remain unaware of its existence. Many simply adhere to the evangelical saying, "God said it and that settles it." End of story.