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February 26, 2005

The Long View: Religion and Politics

Friedrich von Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards:

The more history I read, the more it strikes me that religion often functions as a sort of shadow politics. While the mixing of theological and political issues can be a very messy business, religious ‘politics’ often seems to offer a voice to points of view that would otherwise lack one. If you’re going to keep religion ‘out of politics’ as many have advocated since the Enlightenment, you should at least acknowledge that the first group you’re benefiting is the current political establishment.

Let’s look at two examples, which—described in purely ‘theological’ terms—probably strike most people as much ado about very little and prime examples of how ‘irrational’ religious passions can distract governments from rational activity.

The first example is the iconoclast controversy of Byzantium in the 700s. What, you may ask, led the Byzantine Empire during a period of military and political stress to devote its energies to removing religious pictures from its churches and public buildings? Oh, those religious zanies and their odd enthusiasms!

Well, perhaps not quite so odd. Throughout the seventh and during the early eighth centuries, two trends were very visible in the Byzantine Empire. The first trend was that militant Islam was kicking the empire’s tail, rapidly conquering many of its wealthiest and most populous territories. Eventually—in the late seventh century—Moslem armies and raiding parties came to threaten the empire’s heartland in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey).

The second trend was the ever-growing prestige of ‘icons’ (i.e., religious pictures) throughout all levels of Byzantine society. As Judith Herrin notes in her book, “The Formation of Christendom”:

The growth of icon veneration was stimulated by their “official” use as military ensigns and protective devices, during the 626 siege [of Constantinople] for example, and by a widespread popular faith in their intercessory powers…

The Byzantine Empire was a profoundly autocratic state, run by a tiny elite and—like the Roman Empire (of which it was an offshoot), extremely susceptible to military coups. A long-lasting, if ultimately rather impotent dynasty (under which Egypt, Palestine and Syria were lost to the Moslems) was brought to an end by the deposition of Justinian II in 695. A series of soldier-emperors, each of whom overthrew his predecessor, held office in quick succession for the next two decades. As Ms. Herrin describes it:

This persistent change of ruler reflected dissatisfaction with central government and frustration at repeated military defeats. But it was accompanied by a striking aimlessness and lack of preparation [for the omnipresent Moslem threat].

Although an Arab siege of Constantinople itself failed in 716-718, this piece of good Byzantine fortune did nothing to create stronger frontier defense. In the era following this siege, Moslem raiding into the Empire escalated into an annual event. The results for the rural population of the Empire were disastrous, with the rural population streaming to those fortified castles and Imperial garrison centers that were out of the path of the Arab invasion routes, abandoning their crops and homes and driving their flocks before them. Hardly anything is heard in the historical records of Byzantine military even attempting to restrain the invaders. Evidently, the soldiers of Byzantium sat in their castles and waited out the raids.

Moreover, this period also saw the birth of an explicit Moslem policy on the subject of the Christian religious imagery. In 721 an Islamic edict against Christian art was broadcast, explicitly promoting the notion that by fighting Byzantium, Moslem soldiers were making righteous war on idol-worshippers. This justification of Moslem aggression became well-known within the Byzantine Empire.

So what was the empire’s political elite up to during this disastrous situation? Despite the accession of a vigorous emperor, Leo the Isaurian (who had led the successful resistance during the siege of Constantinople), his efforts to systematically reform the Byzantine state and military machine only slowly made headway against entrenched political and military interests. (Leo spent a great deal of time putting down internal revolts led by members of the elite and trying to get aristocrats to pay their taxes.)

Faced by a situation where the average Byzantine subject had no way of being heard, a novel religious development popped up. According to Ms. Herrin:

During the 720s a certain bishop, Constantine of Nakoleia, from the ecclesiastical diocese of Synnada…not far north of Antioch [and thus in the path of repeated Moslem raids]…began to write and preach sermons against the veneration of icons. [Despite being reproved by his superiors, the] bishop persisted in his views; worse still…his example appeared to be approved and followed by others.

The theological reasoning may seem, well, a tad primitive. To wit:

…continuing Moslem success made the Christian survivors think that their world was coming to an end. They could only “explain” such a calamitous situation in terms of God’s anger, anger at their failure as Christians. But if God continued to favour the Arabs, the Byzantines were surely being punished for some dreadful sins. While they might not have been able to identify these offences, they may have begun to doubt their own faith in the divine protection previously attributed to [icons].

The situation came to a head in 726 when a huge volcanic explosion rocked the Mediterranean, causing massive tidal waves and a hail of pumice and ash that darkened the sky over the entire Aegean. Many ordinary and even elite Byzantines concluded that God was obviously chiding the Byzantines for some sin. Rather ingeniously, the Emperor himself—obviously keeping an ear to the ground—identified the offending sin as idolatry, represented by an excessive veneration of icons. And to prevent idolatry, the icons had to be removed.

By a strange coincidence, of course, adopting this very common point of view strongly reinforced the embattled emperor’s political position, as it brought many previous Byzantine practices into doubt and undercut the appeals to tradition of his well-entrenched opponents. Strangely enough, the ordinary Byzantine in the street—and particularly the ones who served in his army—seemed to have welcomed a boss who, unlike a century of his predecessors, didn’t intend to rely on holy intercession to protect the rural population, but rather intended to reorganize Byzantine border defenses so that they could successfully keep the Moslem raiders at bay. Leo’s military reforms ultimately stabilized the Byzantine military situation vis a vis Islam for two hundred years, and his religious reform—iconoclasm—was accomplished with fairly mild results (at least for the era), with only a small number of church leaders driven into exile or killed.

My second example of religious 'mania' having political results is from the Netherlands. I am referring to the bitter controversy between the hard-line Calvinists of the established Dutch Reform Church and the partisans of the theologian Arminius, who disputed Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. That’s a rather obscure basis, one would think, for a dispute that ultimately overthrew the Dutch republican government that had successfully waged a war of independence against imperial Spain for decades.

After nearly 40 years of war, Spain and the Netherlands negotiated a 12-year truce in 1609. The Netherlands paid the price economically by agreeing to give up their prospects for an extensive empire in Latin America, and by restraining their activities in the East Asian spice trade (where their competitors were the Portuguese, who had unwillingly become Spanish citizens a few decades previously.) On the upside, the Dutch got to resume trading with two of their major markets, Spain and Portugal, and they got unhindered commercial access to Southern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. Access to these lucrative regions reinforced Dutch dominance of pan-European trading and commerce.

With the pressure of the long war with Spain temporarily removed, internal frictions that had previously been repressed in the name of Dutch national unity could come into the open. These included the disappointment of hard-line anti-Catholic Calvinists with letting the Spanish ‘evil empire’ off-the-hook with the Truce, rather than doing everything possible to put the Spaniards to the wall. This group began to mobilize public opinion against their opponents in both the Dutch Reformed Church (i.e., the Arminians) and in government (i.e., the pro-Truce republicans headed up by the country’s dominant politician, Oldenbarnevelt.)

The Arminian party within the Church, backed by Oldenbarnevelt, decided to tackle the hard-line Calvinists head-on, and use the power of the national government to defeat the offending clerics and thoroughly remodel the established Church. In the words of Jonathan Israel in his book, “The Dutch Republic: It’s Rise, Greatness and Fall, 1477-1806,” their goal was to:

…eradicate confessional rigidity, thereby minimizing theological strife and its public consequences.

In short, they wanted to get religion out of politics.

Unfortunately, hostility to the Arminian-Oldenbarnevelt axis was shared by several groups that went beyond the Church or even the extremely devout who particularly cared about the doctrine of predestination. One was the ruling elite of the city of Amsterdam, who sponsored a group of particularly strident anti-Arminians. The Amsterdam city fathers could not forgive Oldenbarnevelt for his willingness to sacrifice long-distance trade and colonial empire to obtain a truce with Spain.

Another hostile group was the large immigrant community from the south Netherlands. These were Protestants who had fled to the north during the Dutch war of independence to escape from Spanish and Catholic domination. These immigrants, who had brought a great deal of capital and industrial skills with them, felt discriminated against in many areas of civic life. The fact that the leader of the hard-line Calvinists, Gomarus was Flemish (i.e., a southerner) and Arminius had been a native Hollander didn’t help matters with this group.

Finally, there was the working class of many Dutch cities, who were unhappy with economic changes brought about by the Truce. The years of the Truce were characterized by growing competition from the reviving industrial districts of the Catholic and Spanish Netherlands, due to the reduction of the Republic’s import tariffs and resumed flow of raw materials that had previously been interdicted by the Dutch during the war. This economic revival of the south suited Dutch merchants, who now had two sources of supply for the cloth and linen they exported while prices sagged. But for the Dutch working population in the cloth trades, the result was downward pressure on wages, combined with rising rents. All this, in the words of Mr. Israel:

…expressed itself, at least in part, in the form of a militant popular Counter-Remonstrantism [anti-Arminianism].

The result, of course, of the attempt by Oldenbarnevelt and the Arminians to crush their religious critics using the power of the state—including an ill-considered military initiative when it appeared that the political situation was turning decisively against them—was a political disaster. Among other things, it provided an entry for the power-hungry chief Dutch aristocrat, the Statholder Maurits, to seize control of the situation. The elderly Oldenbarnevelt ended up being tried for treason, sentenced to death and executed the next day (to his own astonishment). Maurits also proceeded with a purge of pro-Arminians from town councils and universities throughout the Netherlands. A National synod of the Dutch Reformed Church condemned the Arminians as heretics, disseminators of false doctrine, and disturbers of state and Church.

While my personal sympathies in this case don’t particularly lie with either the Stadholder Maurits or the hard-line Calvinists, obviously the political apparatus of the Netherlands in the early 1600s—despite its ‘republican’ structure—didn’t guarantee that the ruling faction led by Oldenbarnevelt accurately represented the wishes of his constituents. And trying to repress this fact by controlling religious discourse (the way he controlled political discourse) only ended up making the matter worse.

Just something to remember the next time somebody mentions how religion should be kept out of politics.

Cheers,

Friedrich

P.S. I'm adding this later, as early comments suggest that I wasn't sufficiently clear in my point. To wit, that in both these cases we had:

(1) a large portion of the public (in the case of Byzantium, virtually the entire public) who were disenfranchised by the political system and who were not happy about the direction things were going.

(2) the expression of this mass unhappiness via an ostensibly religious movement--that is, via inconoclasm in the case of Byzantium and via counter-Arminianism (actually known in history as counter-Remonstrantism, I believe) in the case of the Dutch.

I don't think these are isolated examples. In fact, I think any survey of history will quickly reveal that religion is commonly more responsive to popular opinion than politics, which is often structured by the group in power so as to prevent many questions from even being raised. Which is why I suggest that keeping religion out of politics always (and I mean always) reinforces the dominance of the current political establishment.

posted by Friedrich at February 26, 2005




Comments

Just as an aside, the Eastern Roman Empire never gets enough credit for how well it did for a thousand years after the Western Empire fell.

In what I've read, when you read of a whole nation being converted to Christianity, Islam, or some other world religion, it usually is a government act related to some kind of diplomatic move of alliance.

During the religious wars there was a Dutch faction called something like the "anythingists" because they declared in advance their willingness to practice whichever religion ended up being recognized. They were a powerful moderating force. I used to have documentation of this, but I lost it. (My Dutch ancestors, called something like "Separatists", left Holland in the XIXc because they thought the state churh was too lax, but my grandfather Hospers, the son of one of the emigrants, apparently developed a degree of laxness on his own. Like a recessive gene or something.

Separation of Church and State as we know it is a fairly recent thing, so it wouldn't apply to the past much.

Posted by: John Emerson on February 26, 2005 7:41 PM



a few points

1) separation of church & state is recent, but on a human time scale, church is also recent. in other words, the totemic gods of the near east, and their successors, the universal gods (who grew out of the totemic sky god el-of-the-mountain), are relatively new.

2) on byzantium and iconaclasm. there are many opinions about this, but do not forget that many of the 8th century emperors had origins in the borderlands of syria/anatolia as well as later on eastern anatolia. these were areas where icons had less power and strength even prior to islam than they did in the more hellenic north. the emperors might not have been heterodox in their religious beliefs by the time they ascended to the purple, but their cultural background (leo the isaurian is also known as leo the syrian) predisposed them to "think outside the box."

3) the later revival of byzantium under basil the bulgar slayer resulted in muslim syrian emirates submitting themselves to byzantine vassalage. people forget that ~10000 byzantium was probably the most powerful state in the world east of china. they had reconquered antioch and if basil was more adventureous (foolhardly?) he could have started a crusdade and driven his way all the way to jerusalem.

Posted by: razib on February 27, 2005 5:44 AM



That’s a rather obscure basis, one would think, for a dispute that ultimately overthrew the Dutch republican government that had successfully waged a war of independence against imperial Spain for decades.

Friedrich, you already wondered how it could be the Dutch don't teach their national history at schools, but it is even worse. Dutch historians don't even dare to write books like Israel's. [By the way, read his Pierre Bayle Lecture [pdf]]

When I was studying history there were two compulsory exams on "fatherlandic history", and the struggle between Van Oldenbarnevelt and Maurits, its preludes and the aftermath, takes up exactly 7 pages in a corpus of almost 1,200. I was trained in the gentle art of stamp collection, with each stamp exactly as beautiful as the other, and everybody seamingly afraid of grander gestures.

A book like Israel's couldn't have been written by a Dutchman, or perhaps only by one who has left the country and is not planning to come back.

Posted by: ijsbrand on February 27, 2005 1:25 PM



I don't know of any 20th century society that has truly separated church and state. Instead, religion is a smokescreen for what's really going on politically: the Arabs and Israelis are not fighting a religious war, they're fighting a territorial one; ditto for the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and the Moslems and Eastern Orthodox in what was Yugoslavia.The real issue is who's in control of the land.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on February 27, 2005 1:26 PM



the Arabs and Israelis are not fighting a religious war

but note that many of the arab activists (hannah ashrawi) are christian, and the "inside word" on yasser arafat (who was married to a christian) was that he was personally an atheist (i know someone whose family is close to the wife).

Posted by: razib on February 27, 2005 1:34 PM



I am a military history buff, and both Sweden and Holland have had great military successes, but as I've been told, they don't talk about them much.

Posted by: John Emerson on February 27, 2005 3:58 PM



I dunno, I would argue that even the Crusades weren't REALLY a religious war, that just sounded good as a justification. Europeans just didn't want those damn Saracens taking over.
The 20th century, it would seem, has been more concerned with wars of ideology: e.g. against Communism, fascism, Nazi-ism.
A good example of the church/state kerfuffle is Merrie England, where Charles is getting such flack for remarrying because the monarch (or potential monarch, in this case) is Head of the Church as well as the State.
RE Dutch affairs:
The father of someone I once rented from is an Anabaptist scholar in Canada, and made some interesting points in this study:

Anabaptism: Neither Catholic Nor Protestant
  Paperback, 118 pages, $13.80

A classic description of the Anabaptist movement. Walter Klalssen shows how Anabaptists combined elements of Protestantism and Catholicism into a third option that, he argues, has continuing relevance for the present. This is especially true in the areas of lay witness, peace and war, economics, and relationships with the state. Klaassen's hope that increasing numbers of Protestants and Catholics would enter into dialogue with the Anabaptist tradition has in fact been realized. Today Anabaptism is accepted as part of the common heritage of all Christians.
(available from mennolink.org, for Menno Simons, 1496-1561, the founder of Anabaptism).

Posted by: winifer skattebol on February 27, 2005 4:12 PM



JE: Then watch for A&E's new venture, "The Military Channel"!

Voltaire said something to the effect (I paraphrase) that the world will never be a safe place until the last king is hanged by the entrails of the last priest.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on February 27, 2005 4:25 PM



darn winifer beat me to the punch i too also think that religions are a variant of ideologies that human beings seem inclined to fight for. And while different ideologies don't have to be zero sum, they tend to be when there are crises of views and action.
Example in the fight over abortion, the all or nothing views and fights that ideologists on both sides dominate any sort of rational discussion of what's best for society and individuals.

Posted by: azad on February 27, 2005 5:27 PM



Friedrich, you write, "Strangely enough, the ordinary Byzantine in the street—and particularly the ones who served in his army—seemed to have welcomed a boss who, unlike a century of his predecessors, didn’t intend to rely on holy intercession to protect the rural population, but rather intended to reorganize Byzantine border defenses so that they could successfully keep the Moslem raiders at bay."

I don't think this is quite accurate. The average onion-farmer or customs inspector in Constantinople was still very much enamored of his icons (as Christians in formerly Byzantine regions still are) while the empire's professional soldiers were the ones who, for the reasons you cited, most strongly supported iconoclasm. If political considerations motivated the iconoclasm of Leo III, then his goal was probably to shore up the support of the military, but his motive may have been largely religious. Before he was "Leo" he was Konon, a warrior born on the Syrian frontier, where he may have been influenced by Islamic ideas about image-making and idols.

A better example of the phenomenon you're interested in is probably Leo's granddaughter-in-law, Irene, who married into the Syrian dynasty and eventually restored icons. The average Constantinoplite loved her for it. The military didn't, but she had built up sufficient power to disband, brand, and/or exile military units that rebelled. Thanks to her icon restoration--along with deep tax cuts, her patronage of key monasteries, and several key public-works projects--Irene managed to rule as "basilissa" for several years despite two significant strikes against her: the fact that she was a woman ruling alone, and the fact that she had gotten where she was by having her own son, the emperor Constantine VI, blinded. Now that's a politician who knows how to use religion...

I'm glad you brought up the Byzantines, though. John Emerson is right: They're not often given credit for surviving--and prospering--for so long after the infamous (and misleadingly named) "fall of Rome."

Posted by: Jeff on February 27, 2005 8:27 PM



I guess I blew it with this post, as nobody seems to be discussing what I hoped would be my main point. To wit, that in both these cases we had (1) a large portion of the public--in the case of Byzantium, virtually the entire public--who were disenfranchised by the political system and who were not happy about the direction things were going, (2) the expression of this mass unhappiness via an ostensibly religious movement--that is, via inconoclasm and via counter-Arminianism (actually known in history as counter-Remonstrantism, I believe.) In short, I think any survey of history will quickly reveal that religion is, quite simply, more responsive to popular opinion than politics, which is often structured by the group in power so as to prevent many questions from even being raised. Which is why I suggest that keeping religion out of politics always (and I mean always) reinforces the dominance of the current political establishment.

Sorry I wasn't clearer.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 27, 2005 9:14 PM



As for the Byzantines, I only partially agree. As long as the Byzantines remained, er, Roman, they had pretty much the same impact in the East that Rome had in the west--a bad one. The fact that the Arabs, who simply don't seem to have been a very tough foe militarily, walked all over the Byzantines in the 600s suggests to me that the end result of a Roman military-imperialist-piratical state is, paradoxically, military (and economic) weakness. (Also, the continual history of Eastern religious heresies and disunity suggests to me very large dissatisfaction with life under the sway of Byzantium--another illustration of how religion can pinch-hit for politics when the political arena is 'closed out.'

Granted, eventually the Byzantines by the 700s rebuilt their society into something much more feudal (i.e., castles and farming villages, as opposed to Classical cities and estates) and thereby insured their considerable subsequent survival. (Although their cultural contributions were pretty darn sparse--a development that I would also attribute to their toxic Roman inheritance.)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 27, 2005 9:23 PM



There was once a dude named "Basil the Bulgar-Slayer"? Sometimes history sounds like a lot of fun.

FvB, or anyone -- What do your readings suggest tends to be the direction of ... er, causality, or something? If popular sentiments find quicker and easier expression in religion than in politics, do the religious movements eventually show up and make their mark in politics? Do we get a better sense of the general mood of a population by looking at their religious convictions and controversies than by looking at political ups and downs?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 27, 2005 9:27 PM



Michael:

The answers to your questions are, I think, unarguably, 'yes' and 'yes.' I could go into a long song and dance in support of these positions, but I think the evidence is overwhelming.

Politics is usually one portion of the elite duking it out with another. Religion is a much more 'bottom up' phenomenon.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 27, 2005 9:37 PM



The fact that the Arabs, who simply don't seem to have been a very tough foe militarily

how do you judge this freddy? i mean, the arabs (or their federates) defeated first both the sassanid persians and byzantines in the mid 7th century. around by 700 byzantine africa (the maghreb) fell, then spain. in the mid 8th century the arabs expanded in the sindh in india, and defeated a the a tang chinese army in coalition with the tibetans. i mean, arab raiders pushed deep into france, had bases in the provence, the alps, sacked rome, pushed past the caucasus (to be repulsed by the khazars), and so forth. not to be repetitive, but to claim that a polity which at its unitary high state stretched from the indus to the atlantic, was not militarily tough seems to warrant some explaining.

Politics is usually one portion of the elite duking it out with another. Religion is a much more 'bottom up' phenomenon.

the first i agree with, but not necessarily the second. it depends on what you think 'religion' is. religion as an encapsulation of the beliefs, superstitions and practices of the masses is a bottom up affair, almost tautologically. religion as a creedal, heirarchal and philosphical affair is, i believe, a top-down process. there are many permutations that need to be elucidated here, but for example:

1) the christianization of non-roman areas of europe was mostly a top-down affair. even ireland, which seems to have been more decentralized, shows evidence of elite patronage of christianity as the primary vehicle of transmission. the populace of scandinavia was dragged into christianity by their monarchs (denmark was converted partly because of threats from the king of the saxons, the danish kind did the math, converted and used the church against his nobles).

2) the doctrinal disputes seem to be almost accidents of history. for example, the goths were proslyetized during the reign of constantius II, who by chance was a protege of the arian bishop eusebius, and so promoted arian churchmen and missionaries. this was likely a crucial factor in the persistence of gothic arianism for two centuries.

3) there is a great deal of evidence that even after the frankish conversion over clovis the rural peasantry were only minimally christianized even in name several centuries later. during the period of charles martel bishops scolded nobles for building magnificent funerary tombs, but neglecting the christianization of their own serfs. the magical paganism of the rural people was swept away quite often by fiat or will from the elite (though in large measure the substance of magical paganism was simply poured into a christian glass).

4) in the case of protestanism, it often succeeded where the nobility or ruler supported it. if you read the history of the english reformation, or the more sparse material about scandinavia, you note that royal fiat dragged the peasantry who tended to enjoy the familiarity of their smells & bells that the old church provided (which neither the anglican and lutheran dispensations totally did away with).

5) i can believe that the populace of constantinople hated monophysites and adhered to strict chalcedonianism. but, i don't believe that the populace really understood what the difference between chalcedonianism and monophysitism was on a substantive level. to me, this is illustrated by the fact that they accepted justinian's "compromise" of monothelitism, which was more heterodox than monosphysitism was on a philospohical level.

Posted by: razib on February 28, 2005 12:31 AM



well there's constant tradeoff between state and church, in services, goods and ideas. One economist at Duke wrote a paper using welfare reform in 96 to measure how much of substitutes church and state services were.

I am a huge believer that social movements espeically religious movements respond to people's needs in a historical time and place. Europe which has long had hierarchical/ state based religions which change too slow to meet peole's needs finds itself in a much more secular place than america where religious pluralism and thus competition lead to "more responsive service" from congregations.

But somehow, it always comes back to politics.

Posted by: azad on February 28, 2005 3:36 AM



I used to think of the Calvinist-Arminian conflict within a generally applicable framework: a populist leader (Maurits of Orange) supported by the urban poor against a republican oligarchy -- in this case, the rich merchants. Now I see there were other important actors such as regional interest groups. Still, the execution of Oldenbarnevelt (a septagenarian who deserved much credit for the conduct of the war), the imprisonment of Grotius (the only major Dutch political philosopher to this day?) and the purge of Arminians in general, were a setback for political liberty even though they might have been a victory for "democracy," whatever it means. (Even of that I am not sure: how universal was the franchise in the Provinces, and what exactly was Oldenbarnevelt's constituency?)

As for arcane religious dogmas inscribed on political banners, that was so common during the Reformation that one wonders whether there was non-trivial religious content to most Reformers' teachings. Regarding the doctrinal disputes of Byzantium, the answer is certainly yes, and, moreover, it was in those disputes that both small-o and big-o orthodox Christianity was defined. This is one of the reasons I can't control my eyebrows reading that the Byzantines' cultural contributions were "pretty darn sparse," for it can only be true if religious writings and art are excluded and secular culture alone gets counted.

Speaking of iconoclasm and the Arabs' military success, let us remember that the Arabs annexed primarily those areas of the empire that were both "ethnic" (Hellenized but not thoroughly) and monophysitic in doctrine.

Posted by: Alexei on February 28, 2005 4:20 AM



Speaking of iconoclasm and the Arabs' military success, let us remember that the Arabs annexed primarily those areas of the empire that were both "ethnic" (Hellenized but not thoroughly) and monophysitic in doctrine.

this is certainly correct as far as egypt goes, but far less so for syria-palestine, where greek and melkite factions were strong. and importantly, north africa was latin speaking and chalcedonian (and christianity disappeared in this area by the 10th century). additionally, the vast swath of eastern anatolia was primarily armenian and monophysite (as the armenian church remains to this day). nevertheless, quite often they served imperial interests, and eventually provided several emperors.

i simply offer that the historical sketches often oversimplify to buttress elegant narratives. we shouldn't buy into it.

Posted by: razib on February 28, 2005 4:37 AM



Razib, I quite agree but still it seems that monophysites only dominated in ethnic provinces. (Non-Egyptian North Africa, it can be argued, was not an organic part of the empire and was bound to secede anyway.)

Posted by: Alexei on February 28, 2005 8:42 AM



Razib & Alexei:

I appreciate your spirited defense of Arab military might in the 7th and 8th centuries, but I think we should defer that debate—which I would enjoy—for another day, as it is a tad off point.

My point was to illustrate that Byzantium politics was, er, dysfunctional (as politics so often is.) The Eastern empire was, despite the significant agricultural wealth and the millions of people it controlled, simply not very efficient at turning those resources into military might. If you want an example that doesn’t involve Arabs, consider the Byzantine difficulties holding onto the Balkans in the face of Slavic invaders, who don’t exactly appear to have been agents of any great, world-conquering power. (No slight on the Slavs intended, BTW!) In all these cases, just as earlier in the ‘Roman’ west, it was a case of the inability of the ruling elite to mobilize any kind of mass patriotism that permitted thousands of ‘barbarians’ (Germanic or Arab) to overrun territories (Gaul, North Africa, Syria, Egypt, etc., etc.) that were populated by millions.

My other point is not to claim that religion is exclusively a bottom-up affair, although I believe it has been fairly consistently more (and often, far more) of a bottom-up affair than politics tends to be.

I don’t think I’m the first person to point out that the ‘heresies’ of the East in the first millennium often look an awful lot like localist resistance to the Roman-Byzantine overlords. I don’t intend to denigrate anybody’s religious opinions here—I’m not saying that religion just boils down to secular concerns at all—but I do find it hard to understand how large numbers of illiterate people could ever have followed, let alone been all that passionate about the rather subtle philosophical nuances about the nature of Christ that formed the basis of these ‘heresies.’ I would also offer that the quick conversion of the conquered territories (constituting probably the numerical majority of Christians of that day) under Islam suggests that the locals probably found their new overlords quite a bit more palatable than their former, Byzantine masters.

Moving on to my immediate example, I don’t think it is overreaching to suggest that iconoclasm was in large part a reaction against the passivity and the disorganization of Byzantine military response to Islam. (The switches from iconoclasm to iconophilism and back were rather calm affairs, involving very, very few martyrs and almost no public violence, suggesting—to me, anyway—that the prime way the whole controversy was viewed was more political protest than religious controversy.)

Obviously, the Christianization of Northern Europe had a top-down element, but it was, um, correspondingly superficial. Rodney Stark makes the obvious, but little-remarked point that the Reformation occurred in exactly the areas that had been last-Christianized (and most top-down Christianized) as opposed to the areas that had been converted by persuasion during the Roman Empire. And as you get closer in time to the present, virtually all major religious upheavals—the Cathars, the Waldensians, the Hussites, the Reformation, the Mendicant and Cistercian Orders of the Catholic Church, Jansenism, Methodism, the American ‘Great Awakenings,’ the ‘High Church’ movement in Victorian England, the growth of Pentacostalism in the black community, etc., etc., have a strong political dimension that was not readily expressible via the political culture of their day.

(Sorry I can't tackle all your points one by one, but I'm at work...busy, busy, busy.)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 28, 2005 12:53 PM



While I can't really add anything to the historical discussionI find this absolutely fascinating. But hold on, your point (it's late) is saying that the areas that were the most top-down, before the reformation were exactly the ones which had the most bottom up counter-ideological response though as off-shoots of political conditions?

Since you mention the Great Awakenings, have you read Robert William Fogel's "The Fourth Great Awakening and hte Future of Egalitarianism"

he doesnt really get to the points that he sets out in the introduction, but he writes that religious movements at certain points move into the political sphere and act as "straightening" mechanisms when they find the moral order lacking or falling apart.

The knee-jerk reactionism against religiousity by the left, ignores the fact (as Fogel points out) that the egalitarian movements in the history of the country: (to see a wonderful graph of how he relates religious movements and their challenges to stagnant political paradigms, look up page 28, of Search Inside at amazon: I'm not sure if this link will work here

Posted by: azad on March 1, 2005 1:26 AM



One other point, you write: In fact, I think any survey of history will quickly reveal that religion is commonly more responsive to popular opinion than politics, which is often structured by the group in power so as to prevent many questions from even being raised. Which is why I suggest that keeping religion out of politics always (and I mean always) reinforces the dominance of the current political establishment.

But making religion part of the political structure, necessarily does the exact same thing as a irreligious political strucure. It entrenches those with power, now: say gentried clergy classes; and simply creates another form of dominant and unresponsive political establishment. And I think that can be seen again and again through civilizations. The emergence of eventual counter-religions/ideologies does nothing to change that.

The one thing that would make that break down, is the inclusion of religious pluralism within the political structure, to keep each religion "honest" so to say. But in this new pluralistic religious democracy, (if we're dealing with a democracy) we now get back to the same problems with um religious special interest groups.

Posted by: azad on March 1, 2005 1:35 AM



In fact, I quite agree with your points, Friedrich; I was only trying to draw everybody's attention to an earlier religious controversy with an ethnopolitical dimension: the aftermath of Chalcedon.

Posted by: Alexei on March 1, 2005 1:58 AM



Good god, but y'all know a lot about history. I've never even heard of most of the people and conflicts you're talking about.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 1, 2005 2:37 AM






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