Can a “liberal” political leader who professes faith — even one who picks and chooses practices from various different religions — be truly tolerant? Or is there something inherent in every system of supernatural belief that causes its adherents to be enemies of those with differing worldviews?
As an atheist, and a student of history, I’d have to answer those questions, respectively, “no” and “duh!” If you’re a person of faith, it’s impossible for you to co-exist peacefully with those who have conflicting metaphysical notions. If your idea of god is the sun, then you can’t have a reasonable conversation with someone who insists that god is the moon. Assuming the two of you can manage to agree, in a begrudging and wishy-washy way, that god is “a light in the sky,” you may be able to strike a temporary accommodation with one another, and even, perhaps, forge a common bond with the guy who knows that god is the north star. But how do you get along with the believer who claims that god is a hole in the ground? And what do you do about the fanatic who threatens to kill you if you don’t accept that god is a giant dead toad who made the sky and the ground—and can change them both whenever he wants to?
This, in a grossly oversimplified nutshell, is one of the central conflicts in Gore Vidal’s Julian: Can a man of faith, enlightened and well-meaning though he be, concoct—and follow—a policy of universal tolerance?
For those of you who haven’t read the book: The title character is the Emperor Julian, who reigned from 361 to 363. Catholics to this day refer to him as “Julian the Apostate” because he was determined to reintroduce the pagan gods to an empire that had slowly but surely become Christianized. When the Emperor Constantine I found Jesus through a miracle (unfortunately not preserved on videotape), Christians had quickly gone from being victims to victimizers. Constantine was baptized shortly before his death in 337, and his successors were all—as Julian calls them—Galileans. Despite the fact that Christians waged some of their nastiest and bloodiest battles amongst themselves, the triumphant priests, once given an imperial toehold in Rome, did their best to eviscerate all other religions. Tolerance, as we atheists all know, is not in the official Christian playbook.
So along comes Julian. After having Christianity rammed down his throat as a young boy, he’s seduced by “philosophy.” For him, philosophy is a combination of neo-Platonism and mystery cults, commingled with a generous dose of old-fashioned superstition: entrails-reading, animal sacrifice, and the deities’ faces appearing, either literally or figuratively, everywhere. Julian is a pious sponge when it comes to learning about the gods. In fact, he could well have been the Stephen Prothero of his day, a vociferous proponent of Religious Literacy. If Julian were alive in 2007, he’d be a theology professor—but one with a dangerous political agenda.
Vidal’s novel is told mostly in the first person by Julian, through his memoirs. And what a liar Julian is, as all “true believers” are, although it’s not clear whether he’s lying to his eventual readers or merely to himself. Here’s my paraphrase of his life:
I definitely don’t want to be emperor. I’m a scholar, not a fighter. You know me and those books, eh? Well, OK, maybe I’d be a pretty good soldier. Um, damn good, actually, if I do say so myself. That’s what the gods seem to think, anyway. But I’m certainly no Alexander the Great. And did I mention: I don’t want to be emperor; I’ve never wanted to be emperor. Although, maybe the gods do want me to be Alexander the Great. You never know, right? I could be channeling Alexander the Great this very minute. I’ll admit, he was kinda like an emperor, which I don’t want to be, but stranger things have happened. And, really, who’m I kidding? I’d make a great emperor—not that I want to be emperor. Hey, wait a minute. Whaddaya know? I’m emperor!A conspiracy of mumbo-jumbo-spouting opportunists spoonfeeds poor Julian what he most wants to hear: that he’s special, a favorite of the gods. His sycophantic “tutors” tap into his secret, unstated ambitions, and one of them even becomes his spiritual/political adviser on the road to the White House ... um, emperorship. Julian, in short, is hooked on his faith. But he’s the picker and chooser I mentioned in the first paragraph, a little rite from here, a little ceremony from there. And oh so tolerant. Hilariously, he criticizes the Christians for assimilating elements of other religions in order to popularize their own; but Julian himself wants to be the greatest popularizer of them all.
“I plan a world priesthood,” he says, “governed by the Roman Pontifex Maximus.” (That Chief Priest would, of course, be him.) “Every god and goddess known to the people, no matter in what guise or under what strange name, would be worshipped, for multiplicity is the nature of life... We may not know this creator, though his outward symbol is the sun. But through intermediaries, human and divine, he speaks to us, shows us aspects of himself, prepares us for the next stage of the journey.”
Doesn’t this sound oddly like the ecumenical faith of, say, Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton?
Look, I believe, and I’m a far better person for it. But you don’t have to. You’re under absolutely no obligation. Still, you’ve gotta admit, it would be a much better world if you did believe. More compassionate. More moral. More democratic. And we all want to spread compassion, morality, and democracy, don’t we?Julian’s dream is not to spread democracy, but Hellenism. “The failure of Hellenism,” he says, “has been, largely, a matter of organization. Rome never tried to impose any sort of worship upon the countries it conquered and civilized; in fact, quite the contrary. Rome was eclectic. All religions were given an equal opportunity ... As time passed our rites became, and one must admit it bluntly, merely form, a reassuring reminder of the great age of the city, a token gesture to the old gods who were thought to have founded and guided Rome from a village by the Tiber to world empire.”
That paragraph, with a few minor substitutions— “Democracy” for “Hellenism,” “America” for “Rome,” “country” for “city,”god who was” for “old gods who were,” and “Potomac” for “Tiber”—could sit comfortably in the mouth of any anti-secularist rousing the rabble in the United States today. Remember, though: Julian, so he says, is open-minded. Of course, like John Edwards, he does believe that the state needs its deity. As Edwards puts it: “it is enormously important to look to God—and in my case, Christ” (in Julian’s case, the goddess Cybele, the god Apollo, and various other magical beings, with perhaps the sole exception of Christ)—“for guidance and for wisdom.” But Julian’s, like Edwards’, is a big-tent religion. In my case Cybele, in your case ... you name it. Come on in, and close the flap behind you.
Oh, but that generic faith proposed by Julian cannot absorb the zealotry of Christianity. And Julian, reasonably (most of us atheists would think), remains fundamentally hostile to the spiritual power grabs of the Galileans. They, on their part, adamantly refuse to be assimilated, as religious extremists have always done.
So ultimately, for Julian, it’s not possible to tolerate intolerance. The all-encompassing, mutual-respect state religion he hopes to set up turns out to be exclusionary after all. Julian is forced to single Christians out for unique forms of educational ostracism, as well as disciplinary actions. And in the guise of tolerance, he takes steps to reinvigorate their internal disputes. He even confiscates Christian treasures and closes a cathedral on a bogus charge of arson, but not without first torturing the suspected perpetrator. In short, the oh-so-broadminded Julian becomes, except in name, one of them: a Pat Robertson, a Bill Donohue, yes, and a Meir Kahane, Mullah Omar, and Ayatollah Khomeini, too.
But the emperor’s zeal to spread tolerance is not limited to Christians. In Julian’s lust to extend his hodgepodge Hellenism, he cooks up a phony dispute to make war against the Persians. After all, the god Mithras and the ghost of the dead prophet Zarathustra long for him to take their holy land so it can rightfully be added to the newly tolerant Roman empire’s voodoo stew. And doesn’t the spirit of Alexander himself urge Julian on to greater glory, even when the Persians sue for peace in a lopsided bargain that yields a tremendous earthly advantage to the Romans? Unfortunately, it’s not good enough for the Pontifex Maximus and his catch-all deities.
Long before Richard Dawkins reasoned it out, two generations before Sam Harris warned us about it, nearly half a century before Christopher Hitchens discussed it incessantly, Gore Vidal was telling those who would listen that religion poisons everything. His Julian starts out as a likable—if somewhat insincere—intellectual, but he evolves into a god-crazed monster. No, Vidal says, tolerance is not possible from a man of faith. Superstition, even a makeshift adaptive one, insists on exclusivity.
In the end, Julian is defeated by Christianity, as—Vidal implies—we all have been in the West. But despite any affection the author, or the reader, may hold for the hero, Julian’s success would have been equally disastrous. An allegedly tolerant theocracy is still a theocracy. As such, it cannot long endure religious differences. The lesson for all of us is clear: A political leader who is committed to his faith, however benevolent that particular version of faith may seem, is always on the ready to crush dissent.
Let the voter beware.