Organized religion can support personal piety very nicely. Ditto when it comes to performing good works. But then there's the flip side. Religion can also serve as a fig leaf for nationalism, political schemes and militarism.
We see this last dynamic at work today primarily within the Islamic world. However, it's certainly not confined to Islam. And its certainly not just a contemporary phenomenon. (Check your Bible, Qur'an or any number of history books about Europe, Asia and the Americas for ample examples.)
Moreover, we know the damage done by these dark-side impulses can linger in religious memories for decades and even centuries. And not just in connection with today's headline grabbers, such as when Islamists refer to Christians as crusaders. They're also there behind the scenes, providing the heat for simmering historical conflicts that can flare up without clear warning.
Take Japan's refusal to fully face up to it's shameful treatment of the so-called "comfort women," a euphemism for the women from occupied nations that World War II-era Japan forced into sexual slavery. (I'll get back to this below.)
What I view as the downside of organized religion is, I'm sure, no surprise to anyone who reads GetReligion.
However, it's always worthwhile to remember how easy it is for organized religions -- as well as the journalists who cover them -- to become part of the the home team cheering squad. That's a compromised position to be in when home team managers are engaged in highly dubious or destructive activities, in the view of others.
A recent example of this popped up just last week when the Russian Orthodox Church lent its support and domestic prestige to President Vladimir Putin's latest military adventures in Syria. That the church backed Putin is no surprise, though it is worthy of being reported as a footnote to the larger story.
Here's a piece on the church's support for Putin's policy from the French news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP) via Yahoo. It includes this interesting sentence:
"The fight with terrorism is a holy battle and today our country is perhaps the most active force in the world fighting it," Vsevolod Chaplin, head of the church's P.R. department, was quoted as saying.
Here's another more analytic take on the situation from The Washington Post's website.
I can imagine the Russian church has many reasons for doing this. For starters, there's the hard-to-argue-with reality that Orthodox Christians continue to be at great risk in Syria from not only the Islamic State (remember their habit of raping and killing those they consider infidels), but from other Muslim militias as well, including some the U.S. looks upon more favorably.
Weak minorities have historically fared poorly in the Middle East, and survival has often meant seeking protection from otherwise odious regimes. Hence, for Syria's Orthodox, and by extension the Russian Orthodox Church in solidarity with its fellow religionists, Assad is the far-lesser evil. It follows that the Russian church would support Putin in supporting Assad. The Orthodox don't want to see another Nineveh Plains bloodbath in Damascus, another ancient center for early Christianity.
Secondly, even if the Russian church disagreed with Moscow's Syria policy, not to support the autocratic Putin -- who has made a public show of embracing Orthodoxy in his bid to enhance his domestic popularity -- would be politically dangerous, perhaps even suicidal.
The church's support surely also results from its central role in shaping Russian Slavic national and personal identity. It's estimated that about 75 percent of Russia's population self-identifies, at least culturally, as Russian Orthodox. That's about 145 million people.
Simply put, the state and the church constitute two parts of the whole that is the prevailing Russian, or at least the Russian elite's, worldview. So why wouldn't the church leadership embrace Putin's Syria strategy? Call it the home-team syndrome.
Now what do Japan and the tragedy of the comfort women have to do with this? Again, it's about religious tradition coinciding with political realities. It's the home team syndrom again, at least according to one observer I'll quote after this next background graph.
South Korea, in particular, but also China, contend that Japan has done far too little to atone for its mistreatment of the women it forced into sexual slavery to service its military forces, as this BBC story points out.
But over at Sightings, a web publication of the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Akiko Yamashita argues that Japan is psychologically unable to apologize further because of constraints imposed by its traditional religious culture
Here's the heart of what Yamashita, a Japanese academic and writer on her nation's religious outlook, as well as an activist on behalf of the comfort women, has to say:
Why doesn’t Japan respond to the victims’ demands even under the pressure of the international community? There are several religion-based reasons. In brief:
First, given the religious roots of the imperial state ideology that continues to prevail in post-World War II Japan, it is not possible to criticize the emperor’s orders as the head of the Japanese military during the war. When it comes to the emperor, democracy does not function properly.
Second, Japanese religious culture disdains the concept of “women’s human rights.”
Third, the Imperial system continues its efforts to instill, in the Japanese people, a sense of the Emperor’s special religious status. This system, propped up by taboos, is vulnerable to criticism from the outside and it is too easily inclined to adopt historical revisionism.
So there it is again: religion influencing culture and politics and vice versa, for good but also for bad.
Here in the U.S., we can see this playing out in the presidential campaign and other domestic trends. When looking for valid news hooks, reporters won't go wrong by assuming that, unless proven otherwise, religious issues are a part of just about every international story as well.
Just peel the onion.