Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s. (Matthew 22:21)
The US presidential election of 1864 came at one of the most divisive times in the nation’s history. Already three years into a bloody civil war that produced more casualties than any other war in the nation’s history, the patience of the Union and its leaders was waning. Originally thought to take one or two decisive battles, the long trail of months filled with tears, carnage, pain, and fracture was pushing many in the Federal government to talk of capitulation and peace with the Confederacy. To this end the Democratic party’s platform was based on a premise that the war was a failure and that a cessation of hostilities was needed, even if it meant making peace with and recognizing the Confederacy. Even though he personally believed fighting on to the end was the correct course of action, General George McClellan-former commander of the Union forces- was nominated as the party’s candidate to oppose Lincoln in the elections. However, with a series of recent Union victories including the Battle of Vicksburg and the Battle of Gettysburg, both Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant (a position not held since the time of George Washington) and President Lincoln were finally emerging with a clear path to total victory and preservation of the Union. An election loss would most likely have thwarted this momentum and put into jeopardy the very survival of the nation.
If there were any election in which someone’s vote counted and was necessary, it was the election of 1864. However, Grant, popularly known as “Unconditional Surrender” Grant, and now in charge of one the largest assembled armies in history, made it a point not to vote at all. Writing to the head of the Democratic Committee, Barnabas Burns, on December 17, 1863, Grant stated the following:
I shall continue to do my duty, to the best of my ability, so long as permitted to remain in the Army, supporting whatever Administration may be in power, in their endeavor to suppress the rebellion and maintain National unity, and never desert it because my vote, if I had one, might have been cast for different candidates.
Grant understood that he had to serve at the behest of his superior: The Commander-in-Chief and President of the United States, whoever he may be, whatever the course of action may be, whatever the political party he hailed from. To vote in a partisan way would and could cloud this very important relationship, especially at this most delicate time.
After the war, and largely in an effort to save the nation from further turmoil, Grant entered into partisan politics running for the presidency and winning. Yet, as a serving officer, as general and commander of the Union forces protecting the breakup of the nation, he understood that he had a higher calling and duty. In this decision Grant was differentiating between what we now call high politics versus low (or partisan) politics.
High Politics & Low Politics
Everything in our private and public life is in some way facilitated by the social and political fabric we live in. The multiple identities we carry, religious, civic, professional, etc., all require a body politic that is intact, secure, and protecting our rights to carry and express these identities. Without this support most, if not all, of our identities would cease to exist. We would revert to pure tribalism where our allegiance, right or wrong, and our very existence would rely completely on our tribe. The need for a body politic is such an essential concept that we rarely think about it or give it much thought or concern, as we are accustomed to doing with things so obvious. The State that we are in need of itself needs certain things for its own survival: its union, security, constitution (or other founding document), rule of law, etc. These are all the realm of high politics. This was Grant’s higher duty and loyalty and the reason behind his decision not to vote in the election of 1864, and to make this decision clear and public. He was acknowledging that certain people holding certain professions with certain responsibilities must always be clear in their obligation to serve high politics and never allow themselves to be compromised by the divisive nature of partisanship.
Low or partisan politics, on the other hand, is a reference to everything that happens below this level. It is the politics of political parties, agendas, platforms, and political rivalries. It is the object of lobbying efforts by both large corporate interests as well as foreign governments; the source of scandals, dramas, and intrigue. Don’t get me wrong, not all of partisan politics is necessarily negative, and it serves a very important part of our civic life. Any thriving democracy or republic is in need of such politics, but they are not as important and as timeless as the issues that make up high politics. We don’t have holidays celebrating the events of partisan politics, but we do have national holidays reminding us of the importance of the nation, its union, and its independence.
Defenders of the Republic
Ulysses S. Grant’s position in the 1864 election was not the only time that a senior member of the armed forces made such a stance or distinction between types of politics. During WWII General Marshall commented on the importance of protecting and defending high politics as a function of the military by saying, “We are a member of a priesthood really, the sole purpose of which is to defend the republic.” While serving as Secretary of State after the war, Marshall confirmed this stance by saying, “I am assuming that the office of Secretary of State is nonpolitical. I am going to govern myself accordingly. I cannot be considered nor can I be drafted for any political office. I am being explicit and emphatic in order to terminate once and for all any discussion of my name with regard to political office.”
Over time, Marshall’s reputation fared much better than Grant’s. As a matter of fact, Marshall was against General George Pershing running for the White House precisely because he thought his reputation would be tarnished the same way Grant’s was after he became president. Nonetheless, it took a principled stance by the likes of Grant and Marshall, and the countless other military personal who follow in their footsteps, to ensure the survival and continuity of the republic; the quintessential manifestation of serving high politics. This commitment can only really exist separate from and above partisan-low politics to ensure it is not swayed, influenced, cajoled, used, or compromised. We take it for granted, but there are people making sure the system goes on so as to provide the many benefits we enjoy and live with every day.
Religion & the Republic
One of the by-products of this stance is that the people who take it and stick to it tend to be the people we can trust, particularly during times of national crises and pain. Legacy notwithstanding, the Grants and Marshalls of the world are the heroes that preserve national cohesion; they stand up for the basic rights and truths that bind us all, without call for a particular political agenda. I am not saying that everyone in uniform carries this attitude and subscribes to the high-politic notions of people like Grant and Marshall, but we would all agree that these stances increase the likelihood of incorruptibility from partisan politics.
It is easy to see, perhaps, why a senior military officer would adopt such a stance as their duty to protect and defend the republic is part and parcel of their oath and day-to-day job. However, there is another class of people who share an even closer relationship with high politics that we often do not talk about; religious leaders.
The Roman statesmen Cicero argued in his work On the State that:
True law is a harmony of right reasoning and nature. It applies to everyone in all places and times, for it is unchanging and everlasting. It commands each of us to do our duty and forbids us from doing wrong. Its commands and prohibitions guide good and prudent people, but those who are wicked will listen to neither. It is not right to try to alter this law. We cannot repeal any part of it, much less of away with it altogether. No senate or assembly of people can free us from its obligations. We do not need anyone to explain or interpret it for us…There is one Divine Master and Ruler over all of us who is creator, judge, and enforcer of this law.
As professionals who seek to maintain and care for this particular aspect of our social/political existence, the role of religion and religious scholars and leaders is higher than high politics itself. It is a role that transcends boarders, nations, and political systems. One can be a Christian-Buddhist-or Muslim in any sort of body-politic and still expect that their pastoral needs be attended to by any priest-scholar of their community. Yet, and as I stated above, this type of identity is itself in need of a state and political system to operate in. It can’t happen in a vacuum. It can’t survive without a nation supported by an intact high-politics matrix. For this reason, it is necessary that religious leaders, like the examples from our senior military, should not in any way, shape, or form participate in, or be seen to participate in, any type of partisan politics. They must stay above the fray and be trusted by everyone. They must be able to cater to their congregation no matter the type of politics they uphold. And most importantly, they must be able to serve the republic when needed without fear of partisan stains and intrigue.
Islam & Politics
In describing the Prophet of Islam, Imam al-Dhahabi said, that “he loved is homeland.” From this sentiment there emerged a popular statement that “love of country is part of faith.” It is not a hadith, but rather a statement of fact that highlights a very important truth: Islam properly followed leads to a love of one’s nation, one’s union, and one’s country. Our belief and our practice of Islam should engender a patriotic spirit. It allows us to celebrate our political union as a blessing and reminds us that faith is not the only marker of association and ties. We do not live alone, but rather in a plural world as God has intended.
When Muslim jurists turned to the life of the Prophet, they gleaned certain lessons that speak to how and when certain actions are enforced, when certain rulings are valid, and when they can and must be withheld or suspended. From a macro-level, they noticed that certain freedoms are needed for Islam in its entirety to be practiced. To gather and pray; to teach and learn our religion; to marry one another; to bury one another; to prepare foods according to our laws, all of these require the freedom and safety to do so. And the jurists called this overarching condition “Dar al-Islam.” However, and here many people are mistaken, this is not a function of majority rule. Rather, it is a function of freedom; it is a function of liberty. When the Companions fled prosecution in Mecca, they took safety and protection under the rule of a Christian King in Abyssinia. They were given the freedom to assemble as Muslims, thus creating their own Dar al-Islam, despite the fact that they were a minority, and remained so. They were given a freedom they did not enjoy in Mecca that allowed many of them to stay even after the migration of the Prophet from Mecca to Madina. For this reason, Imam al-Mawardi states that when the conditions to practice Islam and assemble as Muslims exist, then Dar al-Islam exists, regardless of demographics. Indeed, this freedom is so fundamental and so necessary that when it is threatened, we are called upon to defend it, and as President Lincoln stated, to give the “last full measure of devotion.”
Since the role of high politics is quintessential to our practice of Islam, it is part of the role of Muslim scholars and religious leaders to ensure that their political allegiance is only to the high politics needed for their faith and religion to survive. For religious leaders to become involved with partisan politics is to subject religion to something that is beneath its calling and to push congregants and parishioners away from God and towards Caesar.
Religion in the Public Square
This does not mean that religious leaders should not comment on social issues and policies that are unethical. Unlike the military examples mentioned above, religious leaders are not following orders from the head of state. Therefore, while it is incumbent on them to uphold the importance of high politics, they also have an obligation to comment on these issues, using the moral and ethical strength of religion to add value to society. And through abstaining from partisan politics in an obvious, public way, religious leaders can avoid the stain of bias, the influence of lobbies, and the intrigue of political operatives in doing so.
The passage from the Gospel of Matthew that opens this essay is a reminder of the importance of power and religion. In his extensive survey of power, Robert Caro writes that, “power is not an instrument that its possessor can use with impunity. It is a drug that creates in the user a need to larger and larger dosages.” No one, not even a religious leader, is immune to this effect. John Dalberg-Acton said famously, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The worse thing that can happen to religion and religious leaders is to compromise the ethical and moral ground they occupy and give it away to the divisive nature of low politics. Whether it be by means of endorsing candidates, belonging officially to one political party over another, or encouraging their congregations to vote for a particular candidate; these are all means of corrupting religion and allowing religion to be used by strategists. The allure of power is strong and intoxicating, which is why it must be repulsed strongly and adamantly, even if unpopular. Religion is not without its own natural inborn power, but this is power that belongs to God, not that bestowed upon Caesar.