Thursday, July 02, 2009

Who Is Capable?

The fourth of July approaches and today my favorite local columnist, an Anglican bishop, has a column about patriotism, working with the question of what makes us feel "patriotic" and what, therefore, are we celebrating on the fourth?

It coincides with me picking up, for the first time in years, Nikki Keddie's modern history of Iran, Roots of Revolution. Professor Keddie has updated her book under the new title Modern Iran even though the older volume, which appeared shortly after the 1978-9 revolution itself, holds up pretty well.

In any case, one of the interesting developments Keddie traces in Iran's history is the evolving role of the ulama, the Islamic clerical leadership, alongside state power. A certain question arose implicitly and sometimes explicitly: who is fit to govern?

When the 13 American colonies declared their independence in 1776, ours was a world of monarchies and ruling elites. The concept of a people governing themselves, electing representatives to conduct public affairs, accountable to their constituents, and routine peaceful transitions of executive power, were all radical concepts. This is something Win Mott addresses in the column mentioned above. "[The revolution] put in place a democratic republic in a world of despotic monarchs at a time when the ruling classes believed they alone were capable of governing. The thought that people were created equal was beyond their imagining."

Mott acknowledges that the concept of equality was not fully implemented during the revolution. It has never been fully implemented. The equality of humankind under God is still a challenging concept for us and the world, and at times we struggle against it as if this concept were not part of our nation's identity.

We restrict meaningful participation in politics to two political parties, creating a derivative and unsatisfactory politics. Citizens express anger at the system but do little to open it up, and the parties enjoy a stranglehold on power.

We have permitted unaccountable corporate power to rule over our natural resources, the disposition of our land, and popular culture. Many citizens are too bored, distracted, or "busy" to bother complaining about this, much less to resist.

We have not been challenged to extend this concept of equality to citizens who are different than us, evolving very slowly on the issues of slavery, civil rights, full political and professional equality for women, and a right of civil marriage for homosexuals. Here, at least, is a tendency toward progress, even if it is slow and grudging.

Just last month, I had a piece in the paper rebutting a Christian nationalist who had argued that only Christians "
had a better understanding of what was right and what was wrong in the affairs of mankind."

Which reminded me, unsettlingly, of the rise of the ulama in Iran, culminating in the religious republic. There is a parallel in Iran to the kind of revolution Christian nationalists envision. Ayatollah Khomeini was, and still is, a very popular figure there, viewed as a positive embodiment of an Iranian person of faith and character. His charisma and righteousness made him fit to rule, in the eyes of his people. The idea of a theocratic republic is still popular: the people who took to the streets last month were not demanding a secular republic.

Would not a Christian state resemble theirs in some aspects? The Bible would officially become the basis of our law, as the hadith and sharia are used in Islamic states. Would not a class of Christian pastors and scholars, a body of religious experts, rise in prominence and perhaps cross over into executive power, officially commingling religion and state? We would participate in elections and be permitted a degree of political choice somewhat more limited than the limited choice we already are left with. The concept of equality would fall before the intrinsic superiority of Christians. Anything viewed as contradicting or questioning the true faith would eventually be contained or suppressed, for the good of the people. This would extend to limiting participating in politics to those who would not challenge the Christian state (similar to Iran's system of approving candidates for election). Executive power would be removed from accountability to the public, and answer to a religious elite beyond our touch.

Iran's history is unique, and so is ours. These parallels only go so far. Even so, as we struggle with the character of our own nation, there are lessons for us in the Islamic Republic of Iran. There is a movement that strongly favors a Christian Republic of America and all it lacks is a very prominent, charismatic figure.

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Related reading: a talk by Michelle Goldberg on the rise of Christian nationalism.

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