I want to shift my perspective for a second. I recently read a small article in the newspaper regarding a proposal to shift U. S. foreign policy from a posture of preaching to other countries to a posture of co-existence and/or collegiality. It said the U. S. should not try to tell other countries how to run their internal affairs provided the government is not engaged in genocide or other rampant human rights violations. In other words, the U. S. should respect the rights of other countries to govern themselves in accordance with the requirements of local culture and the will of the people in those countries.
Everybody say: DUH!!
For generations, United States foreign policy has operated on the theory that our way of doing things is "right" and other countries should do things our way. This is exactly what I was referring to when I said that prophets err seriously when they believe that revelation given to an individual should be applied to other people. Revelation may be shared with others, and, if it resonates with them, they may make use of it. When revelation speaks to a lot of people, there can be religious and political consensus which may result in local rules or even national (or international) legislation. That kind of consensus arises out of sharing information that resonates with many people over a long period of time. It does not arise from bullying.
For too long, the U. S. has seen itself in some kind of Messianic role in the world. America saw itself as the "City on the Hill" or "The New Jerusalem." We behaved like the self-righteous preacher yelling at people on the street corner. We incessantly bragged to all the world about how great we were, and contrasted our way of life with the "Evil Empire" of __(Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, Godless Russia, Islamist Iran - fill in the blank)___. That was bad enough, but after the fall of the USSR, which left America as the world's only superpower, America was the biggest, baddest kid on the playground, and it turned into a mean bully. No wonder the nations of the world view us with such disdain.
That's what happens when prophets are convinced the private revelation should apply to everyone. Look at Ayatollah Khomeini or Pat Robertson.
I don't think religion is a bad thing per se . I know for a fact that religious communities can be wonderfully supportive places, and they do enormous good for their members and for their communities. Where religious (and political) ideologues run into trouble is when they try to impose their personal revelation on others, who may have a totally different instructions from the Holy.
When religious revelation or even some kind of secular zealotry is translated into the political sphere, terrible things tend to happen.
Afghanistan. Iran. Uganda. Cambodia. China during the Cultural Revolution. Nazi Germany. Bolshevik Russia. France during the Terror. Russian pogroms against Jews. The Inquisition. The Crusades. The persecutions of the Christians in pre-Constantinian Rome. The persecution of the Jews by Rome.
Oh, that's enough.... I've made my point. I guess I didn't realize when I started this how ubiquitous this kind of thing is, and how deeply engrained in the human psyche. I'm afraid it will be very, very hard for us to stop.
But, stop we must.