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Politics and Religion; An Interview With Huston Smith

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  Politics and Religion; An Interview With Huston Smith an interview with the world's leading author on world religions discussing Jihad, the rapture, the Left Behind Series, and the use of religion to influence politics

Interview by Rob Kall

It's difficult to miss encountering Huston Smith if you do a search on world religions, if you go to college and get textbooks.... he's the one who wrote the books. So it was a great honor and pleasure to meet him and interview him at the first mythic journeys conference. Here's a more complete bio from his website

Huston Smith is Thomas J. Watson Professor of Religion and Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus, Syracuse University. For fifteen years he was Professor of Philosophy at M.I.T. and for a decade before that he taught at Washington University in St. Louis. Most recently he has served as Visiting Professor of Religious Studies, University of California, Berkeley.

Holder of twelve honorary degrees, Smith’s fourteen books include The World’s Religions which has sold over 2 ½ million copies, and Why Religion Matter which won the Wilbur Award for the best book on religion published in 2001. In 1996 Bill Moyers devoted a 5-part PBS Special, The Wisdom of Faith with Huston Smith, to his life and work. His film documentaries on Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Sufism have all won International. awards, and The Journal of Ethnomusicology lauded his discovery of Tibetan multiphonic chanting as “an important landmark in the study of music."

Rob: I publish a news and opinion website. What I wanted to talk to you about is the connection between religion and politics that’s happening now. Before I ask you any specific questions have you had any thoughts or observations on what’s going on with this.

Huston Smith: I get asked that all the time since 9-11, so it’s uppermost in my mind. Let me lead into it with a true anecdote.

One of my friends-- I’ve been very blessed with the friends I’ve had, is Saul Bellow, and I brought him to Syracuse University, where I was teaching, in the seventies and Saul Bellow is a big fish and Syracuse University is a kind of small puddle, so the press corps in Syracuse mounted a press conference with him. And since I was his host for his visit, I was there.

The spokesperson for the press corps said, "Mr. Bellow, we’re all writers here. You’re a writer. What’s the difference between us?"

And without batting an eye, Saul Bellow said, "Reporters are concerned with the news of the day, novellists, if they are worth their salt, are concerned with the news of eternity."

Now that gives me a lead in for this, because when we’re talking about religion and politics we have to make a slight between between the news of eternity religion and the news of the day. By the news of eternity, that’s my short phrase for what the great founders of the religions taught and lived. Now let’s just take CHristianity. Jesus, the "price of peace" as he’s often referred to, taught that we should love even our enemies. And you can go just right down the line. I could put on my historian of religions cap and go through all the major religions and the founders all teach that in their own idiom.

I’ll give one more example-- Islam-- because jihad is used so much to denigrate Muhammed and Muslims. But it’s not true that Muhammed himself or the Koran-- the Jihad-- this word which those who want to downplay and scurrilize the Muslim, used so often, literally, it means holy war. They pick up the war part. But they take it out of context because in the ten year skirmishes that Muhammed in Medina fled and escaped from Mecca because they wanted to do him in because of his message of justice, and so they were fighting for a toehold in history and they came back from one of these skirmishes and Muhammed said that "we have returned fromt he lesser holy war to face the greater holy war-- the battle that is the evil that is in the heart of every one of us.

You wouldn’t know that from reading the newspapers and so-on. So I’ll rest my case for this round by saying that in their founding revelation they all preach peace.

Now, let’s go to the news of the day, and there religion comes in, in terms of violent enmity and things like that. But there’s an axiomatic formula for that. Because in a war, each side has to win. That’s what it’s going out for. And that takes power. Theyhave to outpower the enemy. Well, what is the greatest power in the universe? God or Allah. And so they want to lasso God and bring him down to our side, because if god is on our side, then victory is assured. As I say, you can almost put this, certainly in syllogistic form, almost in terms of an equation, becvause allthroughout history the equation remains the same. Okay we’re in a war, god is on our side and the corollary of that is that the oponent is the devil.

Demonizing the enemy is the corollary of this and that just monitors the news of the day. Columnists, if they’re good may nibble a little bit and blow the whistle on exagerations, but the formulation is like a stereotype and the language is identical on both sides. All you have to do, is, like in a crossword puzzle, is fill in the blanks. There was a cartoon a few weeks ago, I forget where, and there was a drawing of someone giving the nightly news and it said, well the news today is that a small band of viscious militants did major damage to a large group of ordinary people. Now the point of the cartoon is it doesn’t say who the small group was and who the big people who this was inflicted on. You can just put it in the way you want it. In short, that is the story of the relation between religion and politics. It’s the same story throughout history. We’re just living through it in its current form. .

Rob Kall: Well what have we learned from this?

Huston Smith: Well let’s hope. I don’t know that we’ve learned a darn thing. One can hope to defuse this vicious polarization and war is to puncture the stereotype and that’s what I’ve tried to do, we each try to do it in our own way. I understand that you are mounting a website to deal with vital issues and clue the public in on some things that they don’t get from USA TODAY, and I try to do it in granting interviews and the innumerable talks, because I’m still on the circuit, when I’m asked to address the issue.

Rob Kall What about the use of religion to polarize elections, what about this whole rapture story-- the LEFT BEHIND novel series and how that ties with the Middle East.

Huston Smith Now, let me think about that, I don’t recall anybody. Okay, now I’m going to fumble a little bit because I have to think out, talk out loud off the top of my head, so I’m going to just be asking myself how does it sound when I speak it.

People are scared. I think that’s a fair statement. For innumerable reasons, I mean you can list them. Our planet is in danger through global warming and other things. One think tank gives our planet only a fifty percent chance of surviving the twenty first century. That’s our planet, And then we have the growing gap between the haves and have-nots and what that’s going to do to our whole economy. You know I’ve been a teacher and the humanities are just dwindling in Universities, but I don’t blame the students, because they’re scared. We have our daughters are well enough along, they’ve got their own homes. But our grandchildren-- will they be able to float themselves so that they have a roof of their own to be in. And civil liberties are in jeopardy. People are scared. Okay. Now if you are scared, you reach for straws. And I think what’s basically behind this huge stampede is, okay, this world is scary, let’s be sure we have eternity on our side. And that points them in the direction of the more conservative religions that promise them happy eternity if they just sign on with born again.

Now I haven’t read any of the left behind series. I’ve read some reviews, but you know them firsthand. Does that address the series’ dominant motif?

Rob Kall: It makes sense what you’re saying. The LEFT BEHIND series is a series based on the idea that the biblical predictions that the antichrist is going to come to the middle east, that the messiah is going to come and show up in ISrael, conquer the Antichrist and all the people who believe in Jesus are going to go into the rapture and be taken up into heaven-- that’s the rapture-- and everyone else is going to die.

I think and other people think that this is why Bush supports an unfettered, uncontrolled Israel, giving basically approval to do anything they want in the Middle East because it accelerates the conflict and moves people further along on the clock towards reaching the rapture.

Huston Smith: Alright you know more about that than I do. I had assumed that Bush’s seemingly inflexible p[olicy to support Sharon was for political reason s of his getting elected. But as to whether he really believes his actions are going to hasten the day of the final conflict, I do not know.

Rob Kall: Neither of us can know that, but the speculation is that by taking the policy approach to Israel, he buys the approval of the fundamentalists who believe in the rapture.

Huston Smith I think that’s right. I can’t look into his heart enough to know how sincere he is in this appeal to the conservatives and the fundamentalists, but I’m sure at some level of understanding, he’s not going to overlook secure his base-- hhis political base to get re-elected. It’s come out from various sources, when he has his cabinet meetings, that he’s not much interested. His first point that’s dominant is "how can we secure our base?’ meaning, to get re-elected.

Rob Kall So, where does this kind of a relationship between the president and religious groups, how does it compare historically, with other presidents in the past?

Huston Smith I’m not enough of an American historian. I don’t th ink it’s ever been as gross as this. I have looked into the case of Abraham Lincoln who is one of the greatest and profoundest theologians in American history. With malice and charity towards all, with malice towards none, I mean, there is statesmanship. But I can’t give you a rundown of this and that. President Carter some say he was too indecisive to be a great president, but there seems to be unanimity that he’s the greatest ex-president we’ve ever had in terms of setting up the Carter foundation and just he’s right in there. You know, he would never have stooped to this sort of thing.

Rob Kall What sort of thing?

Huston Smith Well, the kind of thing that Bush is doing, in appealing and saying our first job, to his cabinet, is to secure our base-- to get re-elected.

I don’t know how the concensus comes out, but he (Carter) lost the second turn because he refused to go in militarily to try to free the hostages. Now, my recollection of that may be a little bit imprecise, but I do know that he said, in his memoirs, when he entered the presidency, his top resolve was to keep the United States out of war. And I think he’s the only one in this century that succeeded. Bu tit hmayhave cost him the second term. Now, whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, at least you have to honor the integrity of that. I think we’re seeing the opposite of that in Bush, in this administration. I mean, look at the difference-- keep our nation out of war-- and launch a war unilaterally...

Rob Kall Declaring "I’m a war president."

Huston Smith Yeah. You know, in the claim said that th is will protect us, but it has inflamed the world’s fire. The world is on fire today and it’s poured oil onto that passion rather than cooling it down.

Rob Kall What about the way that Bush is looking... he just sent out a letter, just in the state of Pennsylvania alone they attempted to contact 1600 churches. looking for contact people in each church to work on the Bush campaign. Just the close enmeshment of the politics with religion seems like something never seen historically before.

Huston Smith The bottom line of this relationship is, and the news of the day, is that politicians hijack religion for their purposes.

Rob Kall What happens to religion when it gets hijacked?

Huston Smith Terrible! It just turns over and becomes demonic. But not all, and by and large, the liberal churches won’t go for that and they are very adverse to what’s going on.

Rob Kall The churches that do go for it... how do they become susceptible to this? Are they bad people?

Huston Smith No... I don’t know them, and I don’t know. THey’re just misguided, if I use crude language.. they’re stupid and they get blandishments for throwing their weight around and having influence and "we put a third of the congressmen into office" and that makes them feel important. But these are the weaknesses in human beings that are coming out in their move.

Rob Kall It’s almost as though, if you’re going to follow the rapture story and the anti-christ, it’s almost like Bush could be the antichrist.

Huston Smith Well, I would think that could be if you want to set it up that way. I don’t think that scenario works and you can’t just flip it over, I think everything should work and probably, well, who knows, I can’t prophecy, with nuances and compromises and let’s see what we can do here and there and the other to move things in the right direction. But there’s polarization, which the LEFT BEHIND SERIES is a diabolical example is just wrong.

Rob Kall What do you mean it’s wrong.

Huston Smith Mistaken I mean unless you want to look at it as getting the political ends they want, but that would mean they are using this deliberately, self consciously for political ends. If you want to say that they’re sincere in believing that there’s going to be a final showdown, well we can’t tell if there’s going to be a final showdown in Israel in the forseeable future.

Rob Kall One last question, about Kerry. There have been two bishops who have said they are not going to give communion to politicians who approve of abortion. This is an I ntrusion of the Catholic church into politics that’s never been seen before, that I can recall.

Huston Smith I think it’s terrible. I am very disturbed about that. In fact I wrote a piece for the religious news service to get the other side across, faulting the pro-life people for the way they are going about this.

I just think this is a very ominous sign.

Rob Kall is editor/founder of   This article is copyright Rob Kall and originally published by but permission is granted for reprint in print, email, blog or web media so long as this credit paragraph is attached.  Over 100 other articles by Rob Kall including a series of articles on the need for progressive policy promotion think tanks.


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