Learning from the Aztecs on Independence Day

My Independence Day reflections are influenced this year by three factors: 1) the muddled debate about social values in the American electoral campaign; 2) the struggle in Middle Eastern countries between secular governments and religiously-controlled governments; and 3) Jacques Soustelle’s exposition of the ways that religion functioned in the Aztec civilization, which was discovered by Spanish invaders in the early 1500s.

“It was by religion,” Soustelle says of Mexico City in Aztec times, “that the city and tribe were one, and by religion that variety was unified. It was religion that gave this town (so strangely modern in many ways) its mediaeval face: for the life of the Mexican, within his social and material compass, makes sense only if one perceives the degree to which an all-powerful religion told him his duty, ruled his days, coloured his view of the universe and of his personal destiny” (pp. 93-4).

This all-embracing religious factor of Aztec life can be summed up in five features:

1)    It integrated two earlier socio-cultural patterns into one integrated system.

2)    It defined and controlled social relations for families, economic activities (including occupational choice), education, and social mobility.

3)    It prescribed and performed human activities that directly influenced the regularity of natural processes.

4)    It shaped the physical structure of urban communities, including the design, construction, and maintenance of lavish ceremonial spaces.

5)    It required and justified public rituals of human sacrifice that legitimated and energized war and cultivated a willingness among citizens to participate in a social system in which its own members were regularly volunteered as victims.

Much of this was possible, Soustelle makes clear, because public power and religious ideology and practice were intertwined. The coercive power of government and the justifying theology of religion were tightly bound together so that each supported the other.

Soustelle reminds his readers that western civilizations have their own horrendous histories and ideologies. He also points out how vulnerable Aztec society was because of this integration of culture, politics, and religion.

“In any case, one thing is certain, and that is that this religion, with its scrupulous and exacting ritual and the profusion of its myths, penetrated, in all its aspects, deeply into the everyday life of men. Continuously and totally, it moulded the existence of the Mexican nation…It was this religion which, like a powerful frame, upheld the whole edifice of Mexican civilization: so, when once this frame was broken by the invaders, it was not surprising that the entirety should have fallen in ruins” (119).

These historical references to Aztec culture lead me to these conclusions about the role that religious leaders in my own country should take on this Independence Day.

1)    It is important that we continue to support the clear separation of powers—political authority and religious institutions—in the United States, especially during this election season when there is a strong tendency to use government to enforce religious convictions and practices.

2)    It is also important that we encourage American political leaders in their efforts to support a similar separation of powers in other parts of the world, including the Middle East.

3)    We can acknowledge and support the function of religion as providing an explanatory metaphor to explain the world and describe healthful human communities, but we need to acknowledge that any religious metaphor, including one’s own has significant limitations.

4)    We can affirm the benefit to a society, including our own nation, when more than one metaphorical system is actively engaged in the public debate.

5)    We can exercise great care in how we include patriotic materials in public worship. While it is appropriate to express gratitude for the land we enjoy and to affirm certain religious themes that have characterized the American mythos, it is important that we avoid the close integration of Americanism and Christianity.

On this past Sunday (July 1, 2012), worship in the church I attended used a hymn that illustrates practice that can be affirmed: “This Is My Song” with text by Lloyd Stone and Georgia Harkness, set to the tune Finlandia. The characteristic to be commended is the combination of religious language (God understood as ruler of all nations) and love of one’s own country with the recognition that similar sentiments fill the hearts of people elsewhere. The universalism of the message and international character of the sentiments provide the proper context within which a particular group of people can sing their praise and affirm their own way of life.

Note: Quotations are taken from Daily Life of the Aztecs by Jacques Soustelle (London: Phoenix Press, 2002; first published in French in 1955; English translation by Patrick O’Brian copyright 1961).

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