Archbishop Couto’s Dog-Whistle: Why We Should Offer Our Own Prayers For His Soul And Question His Claims

by R Jagannathan - May 23, 2018 09:05 PM +05:30 IST
Archbishop Couto’s Dog-Whistle: Why We Should Offer Our Own Prayers For His Soul And Question His ClaimsArchbishop Anil J T Couto. (The Straits Times)
  • The right response to the Archbishop’s call for prayer is to hold a mirror to his pretensions, and recite a prayer on his behalf ourselves – Eswar Allah Tero Naam, Sabko Sanmati De Bhagwan.

    Give wisdom to all, including archbishops.

Delhi godman Couto, a.k.a. Archbishop Anil J T Couto, sent a letter to his flock a few days ago asking them to launch a prayer campaign for the country, more so “as we look forward towards 2019 when we will have a new government…”. He also made remarks on the allegedly “turbulent political atmosphere which poses a threat to the democratic principles enshrined in our Constitution and the secular fabric of our nation.”

Nobody was fooled by the Archbishop’s dog-whistle to his people to vote Narendra Modi out in 2019, though he himself claimed he did not have Modi in mind while appealing to the “Heavenly Father” for divine intervention. For good measure, he took up the anti-Modi opposition’s political drumbeats, including references to Dalits, tribals and the marginalised, the judiciary, the legislature, and the level of discourse on social media and TV channels.

That the Archbishop’s letter and prayer were to be read by all priests in Sunday masses in their churches tells its own story: it was less about spirituality and more about the church’s political positions in India. This Archbishop was the same godman who raised concerns over church attacks in 2014-15 in the early days of the Modi government – attacks that subsequently turned out to be random events unrelated to any hate ideology. But no apology came from him. This, despite the fact that the Prime Minister went out of his way to reassure the Christian community by attending an event to celebrate the canonisation of two Indian Keralite saints by the Vatican – Saint Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Saint Euphresia in February 2015. So, for the godman to pretend that his prayer had no political intent is disingenuous.

The predictable chorus of protest and support for the Archbishop’s call came from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the non-BJP opposition respectively, with the former calling for priests to stay away from politics, and the latter seeing nothing wrong in his remarks.

Both positions are nonsense: there is absolutely no need for the church to not reveal its political position on the Modi government, when it can do so through dog-whistles anyway. Inside mandirs, masjids and churches, godmen – and sometimes godwomen – make their political preferences known anyway, and no electoral code prevents them from expressing their opinions. It is better to do so openly and without hypocrisy.

The church’s calls to protect secularism, which had the opposition’s backing, is hypocritical, for not only is the church not a secular institution, but even the separation of church and state – which our intelligentsia wants to believe in – is a dead letter in much of the Western world, where the idea originated.

The best way to criticise Archbishop Couto is not by underlining the separation of church and state, but to question his claims and contradictions in his so-called “prayer” (read the full text here).

For example, he says, rather piously:

Let the people of all castes and creeds, all denominations and persuasions live in harmony and peace steering far away from hatred and violence.

Question: If the primary job of a Christian priest is conversion to his faith, is it logical to expect peace and harmony, since the very act of conversion involves separating a person from his family, caste or creed? If the church were to go easy on this goal, peace and harmony would result anyway. So why doesn’t the church practice what it wants to preach?

Another part of the prayer says:

Protect our legislatures as a place of discerning minds. Raise our judiciary as the hallmark of integrity, prudence and justice. Keep our print, visual and social media as the channels of truth for edifying discourses. Protect our institutions from the infiltration of evil forces.

Fine sentiments, these. But should the Archbishop not be applying the same desire for truth and integrity to the actions of the church and aggressive evangelical groups? When it was clear that the Delhi church attacks were random events and not orchestrated by Hindu groups, why did he not apologise for his earlier allegations? Is that not part of integrity? When evangelical and other church groups plagiarise Hindu cultural practices, including the “sthambams” that characterise many Indian temples, is this not cultural misappropriation tantamount to fooling the people? Should he not condemn evangelical groups that demonise Hindus as devil-worshippers? Above all, can the church stop claiming Jesus as the only true lord and all others as false when it cannot prove this claim? Where is truth and integrity in all this?

The Archbishop said:

Let the poor of our country be provided with the means of livelihood. Let Dalits, tribals and the marginalised by brought into the mainstream of nation-building. Let justice and integrity prevail in every sphere of our life.

These are fine sentiments, but isn’t this what the Modi government – and many a previous government – has been trying to do? Isn’t the North-East now closer to the mainstream than ever? There is no question that more needs to be done for Dalits and tribals and all marginalised communities, but when the current Prime Minister and the President themselves are from previously marginalised communities, what is the Archbishop trying to prove? And aren’t Dalits who have already converted asking for reservations? If the church, even after decades of conversion, has not been able to make Dalits feel equal, why blame governments for the slow rate of progress?

He added, for good measure:

May the ethos of true democracy envelop our elections with dignity and the flames of honest patriotism enkindle our political leaders.

Clearly, the Archbishop does not believe we are in a “true democracy”; maybe he could set an example by making his church a “true democracy” and not one run by Rome’s diktats. And what was the need to add “honest” to patriotism? Any patriotism that is not honest is a sham, unless he means to say that the current government’s patriotism is a sham. If he thinks so, let him say so.

The right response to the Archbishop’s call for prayer is to hold a mirror to his pretensions, and recite a prayer on his behalf ourselves – “Eswar Allah Tero Naam, Sabko Sanmati De Bhagwan.” Give wisdom to all, including archbishops.

Another takeout from this episode is this: it is pointless to ask religious people or institutions in general to separate religion from politics; it is equally pointless to ask politicians to keep away from religion. The two are joined at the hip, and the so-called separation of church and state is a complete myth even in the West. Only true suckers and deracinated Indians believe this separation exists.

Islam is at least honest in not pretending there is a separation; Hinduism makes no claim that the two realms are separate. Only the Christian West wants to believe in this manifest untruth. Arun Shourie, in his book Harvesting Our Souls, pointed out that the aims of the colonial British administration and evangelical organisations were not necessarily different; they only had differences on tactics. Both wanted India to be Christianised.

Nowhere is the non-separation of church and state more apparent than in the country that tomtoms it. The US constitution’s first amendment, which promises that the state will not interfere in matters of religion, was not prompted by fears of state intervention in religion, but by fears from rival denominations that the newly-created state may end up making one denomination the official religion of the state.

The Vatican is both church and state, complete with a representation in the United Nations and an embassy in New Delhi, among other capitals; Archbishop Couto’s church is a fully-owned subsidiary of the Vatican, not an independent Indian set-up. He should find out why his Pope is kowtowing to Beijing when it is busy slandering this country just because it elected an allegedly Hindu party. Soft India obviously can be bullied into submission; hard Beijing has to be wined and dined for minor concessions.

Contrary to popular assumptions, the US does not separate itself from meddling in religion. Uncle Sam has extra-territorial laws that seek to impose its own Protestant worldview of religious freedom, as Dr Jakob de Roover argued eloquently in this article in the context of the annual reports of the US Council for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). He is professor at the Department of Comparative Science of Cultures, Ghent University, Belgium.

Nor does the government keep its hands off even within the country. In 1993, the US Federal government enacted the Restoration of Religious Freedom Act (RFRA), and many states made their own versions of the law. What the RFRA laws do is insulate individuals who profess a religious belief, even if bigoted, from prosecution or censure. So, a marriage registrar can refuse to register a legal gay marriage, and he won’t lose his job. If RFRAs were legislated in India, in the extreme they could protect your right to immolate yourself as Sati (without external instigation) if you claim it is in line with your religious beliefs; you can covertly discriminate against Dalits by saying you are a true Hindu and believe in Manu Smriti; or you can continue with the practice of triple talaq, never mind what the Supreme Court has said in this regard.

Freedom of religion allows a restaurant chain like Chik-fil-A in Rome, Georgia, to hire largely Christians and its corporate mission is to Glorify God (no prizes for guessing which god is to be glorified). It polices its employees for morality and closes shop on Sundays to make them attend church services. Chik-fil-A had over 1,300 franchises at last count, and it is famous for its chicken-breast sandwiches. And how does Chik-fil-A avoid lawsuits by employees claiming discrimination? Its hiring practices involve deep dives into a job candidate’s profile, including his marital status, number of dependents, and – most importantly – his community and religious affiliations and activities. Put simply, only true believers get hired.

This is freedom of religion USA-style, where not just the state, but even businesses need not separate commerce from religion.

Europe, given its history of world wars and church-led inquisitions and crusades, is a little more careful in separating church from state, but only just. It does not prevent a British Prime Minister from describing himself as an “evangelical” Christian, or the European human rights courts from declaring crucifixes in state schools as legitimate cultural expressions. Another ruling of the court, which allows employers to ask employees not to wear their religious symbols to office, has been attacked by the Church of England as “troubling”.

Separation of church from state, and religious symbols from public life is troubling even in “secular” Europe.

It is time to drop our blinkers on the so-called separation of the spiritual and the temporal. The west is hypocritical on it. Why are we in thrall of the idea?

Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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