Religion and spirituality, though related, aren’t the same thing. We have a deep distrust in the West of mixing religion and politics, a distrust that has only been reinforced and confirmed of late by the example of Islamic fanatics exerting dangerous influence over governments in the Middle East. (Those who think this is a problem with Islam, as opposed to one with religion in general, display their need to learn more about the history of religions, especially their own.)
Religion is in a peculiar place. Initially it emerges as an expression of spirituality, a way of communally expressing faith and love of the cosmos, a way to reunifying the divided on a social level. But a religious organization also develops business and political interests, and these compete with its spiritual imperative, sometimes eclipsing it altogether. The more a religion gains worldly power, the less spiritual it becomes. “Lay not up for yourselves treasures on Earth, where moth and rust corrupt, and thieves break in and steal,” said Jesus, “for where your treasure is, there will your heart be.” And yet within a few centuries after his death, the faith supposedly founded on his teachings had become the state faith of the Roman Empire, rich and powerful, with treasures aplenty on Earth. Within a century after that, Christian authorities were putting “heretics” to death and forcibly converting pagans to Christianity (more Christians by far were murdered for their faith by the Christian Roman Empire than by its pagan predecessor).
It’s taken the modern separation of church and state in the West to restore Christianity to a semblance of the diversity and creativity that it had prior to the Council of Nicaea and the creation of the Imperial Church. Denied political power, the Christian denominations have also been denied the ability to suppress heresy, and good things have resulted.
Islam, for its part, suffered a mixture with politics almost from the beginning, but managed to head off the danger for the most part until modern times. The Prophet Muhammad was a political leader and a war leader as well as a spiritual leader. After his death, leadership of the community of believers, which had become coextensive with most of the Arab people, passed by election according to Arab tradition, as if Muhammad had been a king — which in effect he was. A lineage of Caliphs — successors to Muhammad’s political authority — followed. While it was never asserted that the Caliphs had inherited Muhammad’s full religious authority as well as his political authority (none of them was ever considered a Prophet), the early Caliphs nonetheless tended to assert religious authority in all ways that they could argue were consistent with the Quran. This brought them into conflict with the ulema — the community of Islamic scholars and religious lawyers — which the latter eventually won, confining the Caliphs thereafter to a strictly secular leadership role. This created a sort of “separation of mosque and state” which stood Islam well for a long while, but this tradition appears to have been forgotten by a lot of Muslims today.
As is the case with Christianity, Islam today appears to express its potential best in the West, where separation of religion and state is the norm and often the law.
Even gentle Buddhism has on at least one occasion succumbed to the lure of political power, when the great King Ashoka converted to it and made it the official religion of much of India. This situation didn’t last long beyond Ashoka’s death, however, and the potential corruption of Buddhism never went as far as it did with some other faiths.
More examples could be given, but these suffice to illustrate the rule: the more political power a religious organization seeks and obtains, the less spiritual it becomes, and the more prone to violence. Religious organizations seek political authority, as does everyone, for a mix of selfish and noble reasons; it’s argued that temporal power helps religious teachers to bring people into alignment with the divine — but the more political power the religion amasses, the less in tune with the divine it becomes. No one can be brought to communion with the holy — the god sense cannot be awakened — by force. (That includes the force asserted by threat of Hell.) There is no bond that can unite the divided but love.
It would seem from a quick assessment of all this that the spiritual and the political are inherently incompatible. And yet, at the same time, there are examples of spiritual leaders who have brought about great changes in the world and had a huge impact on politics for the better. Muhammad himself is one; in more modern times, so are Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. So it really isn’t the case that spirituality and politics can’t mix (though the spiritual political activist must always be aware of the danger of political causes becoming more important than spirituality itself, the tail wagging the dog, and prepared to retire to solitude from time to time to prevent that happening).
But while Muhammad and Gandhi and King mixed spirituality and politics, none of them asserted political authority based on religion. That is to say, King’s influence did not derive from his position as the pastor of a church, from the temporal power that he wielded through the church’s organization, and neither Muhammad nor Gandhi possessed such temporal religious power, Muhammad initially, Gandhi ever. They made a change in the world not through the force of arms and wealth controlled by a religious organization, but through the force of their personalities, the rightness of their causes, the subtle strength of their magic, and the power of God.
In alchemy, there is an image of the sacred marriage that involves the merging of opposites to produce the Philosopher’s Stone. The impact of spirituality on politics is one manifestation of this. If we were to insist that politics remain spirituality-free, we would in that stroke eliminate all of the good spirituality could do in the world and much of the point of its existence. (In fact, there are ways that religious organizations use to try to keep genuine spirituality powerless, such as the seclusion of Christian mystics in monasteries or the Hindu tradition of renouncing the world.)
What we require is not separation of God and state, but separation of church and state. When organizations devoted ostensibly to spiritual purposes achieve temporal power, the assertion of that power is not itself spiritual but merely another political force, another interest group — by this measure, we can usually tell those religious organizations that have lost their way.