Being Buddhist is a political act

From the time of the European Enlightenment on there has been long-standing shared belief among many members of European and American societies that religion is a private matter, distinct from public matters such as politics, and economics. That is, of course, a particular way of organizing human existence and society, and it is important to recognize its constructed character. As David McMahan put it “the very categories of religious and secular are modern and co-constitutive, and do not simply refer to natural, unambiguous species of phenomena” (“Buddhism and Global Secularisms” Journal of Global Buddhism 18 [2017], 112–128: 113 <link here>).

The constructed character of these categories is important for research on Buddhist history, as presuming the two categories to be somehow natural distorts historical understanding. For example, the widespread importance of state-protection Buddhism seems to be taken by some people as evidence of the decadence of pre-modern Buddhism, and as a justification for the idea that only a private, meditative discipline of self-improvement constitutes true Buddhism.

I find it personally important, however, to distinguish the academic and scholarly issues involved in the study of Buddhist history, thought and practice from contemporary values. Today, in the US, the presumption that religion is private, individual and distinct from the political is under attack, and indeed has been for more than half a century by a movement known as Christian Nationalism.

Anyone under the impression that “being Buddhist” is their personal business, and not the business of the government should consider Attorney General William Barr’s recent address to the University of Notre Dame Law School. <full text here> Across the conservative blogosphere the speech is being hailed as a clarion cry for religious liberty. However, as Paul Krugman has pointed out <link here>, the “liberty” being asserted by Barr is the right to impose one’s own religious values on others. See also Jeffrey Toobin’s analysis <link here>, which describes the speech as  “historically illiterate, morally obtuse, and willfully misleading.”

While there are many aspects of Barr’s speech that are disturbing (or shocking, depending on your sensibilities) one in particular is the rhetoric of “natural law.” While to contemporary ears this may sound relatively innocuous, it is effectively code for the assertion of Christian values for everyone. Barr looks to “the guidance of natural law – a real, transcendent moral order which flows from God’s eternal law – the divine wisdom by which the whole of creation is ordered. The eternal law is impressed upon, and reflected in, all created things.”

There is no room here for alternative value systems, such as one that grows from ideas regarding karma, and the interconnectedness of all existing things. Instead it is the assertion of the superiority of Christian values and the legitimacy of imposing those on everyone in US society. Barr suggests that all the ills of contemporary society are due to secularists purposely undermining traditional Christian moral order–and I would suggest that we consider what such Christian moral warriors would think of Buddhists.

I have heard, not infrequently, the idea that “well, we’re religious too,” that Buddhists share the common category of “being religious.” I have long thought that this covertly distorts Buddhism to fit into a structure that is determined by Christian preconceptions. However, I would now add that “being religious” will not be enough to protect our rights to be Buddhist in a US dominated by Christian Nationalism, the ideology that Barr is spouting in this address.

So, yes, being Buddhist is a political act.

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