The HBO Series ROME has a scene in which Julius Caesar makes it clear that he is considering providing the priest with a very large cash contribution. In the same conversation, Caesar mentions that he will be in a better position to make such a gift if the church were to declare that Jupiter approves of Caesar’s actions.
The augury was performed at the Temple of Jupiter, where the priest determined that Jupiter did, in fact, approve of Caesar’s actions.
When a priest or other religious leader tells his followers what God wants, what are the odds that he has not auctioned off the gullibility of those who listen to him to the highest bidder? "If I tell the people in my flock that God wants them to support your candidacy, what will I get out of it?" Consequently, we should expect to discover that God will be most interested in whatever will help the candidate that pays the highest price for His support.
How much of what we call "religious values" are, instead, the things that serve the interest of some political or economic interest who has provided some "generous contributions" as a result?
My current project is to defend an uncompromising form of secularism that says that religious reasons ought never be used in policy debates. I am illustrating my reasons for this principle by looking at a situation in which uncompromising secularism is already the rule of the day – the question of the guilt or innocence of the accused in a court of law. In a court of law, non-secular arguments are strictly prohibited without exception. Noting the reasons why they are prohibited in this case helps to understand why they ought to be prohibited in matters of policy as well.
One of the reasons for this is the corruptibility of religion.
What would happen if we were to allow religious testimony in court?
That is to say, we were to allow priests to enter a courtroom and declare, "I have talked to God and God has told me that the accused is guilty."
Or, "Jesus told me in a dream last night that the tire that exploded was, in fact, an act of god and not a result of any negligence on the part of the tire manufacturing company."
One of the immediate impacts of this would be the corruption of the church. Priests and others who claim to speak to God will be able to sell their services to the highest bidder. We find the Temple of Jupiter in Caesar's pocket (or Caesar in the pocket of the Temple of Jupiter as it threatens to use its ability to determine God’s will against the political leader who does not pay appropriate compensation).
Religion is particularly corruptible in this sense precisely because religious claims are not backed up by any type of verifiable facts. We have no neutral source that we can appeal to in order to determine that the religious leader is accurately reporting what God wants. We are told to accept his claims on faith.
The corruption of religion by those with money and interests to advance by influencing religious messages is already going on. Religious leaders are almost certainly tailoring their interpretations of scriptures to serve the interests of those with political and economic power. The message that we get is, in many cases, the message that those with power and money want us to hear - which, in turn, will tend to be messages that will help them to keep or enhance their power and money.
This is certainly not a universal law. We can find exceptions. Yet, the existence of exceptions does not change the fact that religious messages and the people who deliver them are always and forever subject to the influence of political and economic power.
Even if no religious leader were consciously pursuing such a corrupt path, we would still see the same effect. The invisible hand of the market place does not lift up the church that makes the truest and most accurate claims about what God wants. The invisible hand of the market place lifts up the church that has the most marketable message, and that collects the largest rents (payments) for that message.
In short, religious messages are an economic commodity. People shop for a religious message, and pay more for the messages that they like. However, please note that the messages they like are not necessarily the messages that any God would like.
Furthermore, the market place is a place of "one dollar, one vote." People who control 51 percent of the dollars also control 51 percent of the votes in the market place. Consequently, we can expect the religious market place to sell its most popular religious products to the people who have the most economic and political power.
There should be absolutely no surprise to discover that the messages the people get from the most economically successful religious businesses are those that serve the interests of the wealthiest people. That is precisely why they are the most economically successful religious businesses - they serve the interests of those who can afford to make the biggest charitable contributions.
Again, I am not accusing every religious leader of this type of corruption. SOME are almost certainly guilty - and those who are guilty will tend to be more financially successful than those that are not. However, even if NONE were guilty, we would still see this type of relationship develop. It is still the case that people will buy the religious messages they like the best, and the people with more money will have more market influence than the people with less money. So, it is still the case that the more successful religious messages will tend to be those that the people with power and money like the best. That is how the free market works.
We know what will happen the moment that we allow attorneys to bring into the court people who will report on whether, as a matter of faith or augury or divination, their god or gods favor one verdict over another. Some will acquire a stronger record of success than others. Those that are more successful will be able to command higher prices than those who are less successful. The messages themselves will be those that serve the interests of those with the power and money to pay for them.
We also already know what happens when religions can bring their faith-based testimony into policy discussions. Again, religious leaders tend to deliver whatever message best serves the interests of those with the ability to make the largest contributions. Their message will not serve God so much as they will serve the interests of people with money and power.