What's Tony Thinking

Desacralizing Politics and the State


Shortly after the 2016 election I was in Dallas where I was working with a congregation in the midst of a pastoral transition. Over lunch several members of that church asked what I made of the recent election.

I said, “Our politics have become too religious; and our religion too political.”

By which I meant that we were making politics into a religion or a pseudo-religious cause. Claiming for politics an ultimate status. Looking to politics, and politicians, for salvation.

And, as a a corollary, our religion, and the church, are increasingly politicized. This is clearest on the right. There was Trump’s manipulation of many self-identified evangelicals. That has morphed into the “Christian Nationalist” movement, which implies an unconstitutional merger of church and state.

Christians on the left, in the wake of the 2016 election, had their own version: the so-called Resistance. Now, everything was about resistance to Trump and Trumpism. In a UCC (United Church of Christ) meeting I attended, shortly after that election, the only question was, “How are we to respond to Trump?” Nothing else mattered.

These are not new challenges for the church or for a society. If you have been tuning into our current webinar, “Adventures in Barth,” you’ll know our discussions have been about the way that the theologian Karl Barth responded to a similar challenge in Germany in the 1930’s. Barth urged that Christians “deprive politics of its pathos.” That is, lower the temperature.

Barth was no quietist. He was politically engaged. As a member of the Socialist Party, and took part in marches on behalf of the working classes, many of whom were members of his congregation. He was the principal author of the Barmen Declaration, demarcating the church and Christianity from the Nazi’s. With the Declaration, The Confessing Church “confessed” the sole Lordship of Jesus Christ, and its rejection of Hitler as any sort of Messiah or as “Supreme Leader.”

Jason Micheli, the host of the webinar, wrote an excellent Substack piece on Barth’s position, titled, “Deprive Them of Their Pathos.” Boiled down, that means don’t get caught in the trap of turning something important, but of relative importance, i.e. politics, into absolutely everything. When something other than the true God becomes a god for us, it will — in the end — consume us. That is what idols do.

Here’s Jason:

By “pathos” Barth points back to his treatment of the word in Romans 7:5 where Paul uses the word to speak of “the sinful passions” to which we are all prone to fall captive.

The lesson is that we should not give to our party politics the passion they seek; that is, we should not invest them with eternal importance.

Once given the ultimate pathos it seeks, political ideology has the power to extract from us all sorts of self-justifications that lead us in directions contrary to the good. That this is a word of caution needed by leftist and Trumpist activists alike seems self-evident.

Jason adds this, referencing Angela Hancock’s book on Barth’s Emergency Homiletic:

Pathos — investing politics with all-encompassing meaning and identity — results, as Angela Hancock notes, “in an escalating exchange of the political propaganda. Because their respective political views are held with deadly eternal seriousness, neither critical distance nor reasoned dialogue about politics is possible any longer.”

That is both an apt description of our present situation and a warning. A final paragraph from Jason’s piece.

In 2016, 2020, and now in 2024, activists on both ends of the political spectrum have compared the voting booth to “a Flight 93 moment,” hearkening back to the brave, selfless passengers who did whatever was necessary on 9/11 to down the hijacked plane before it could wreak unimaginable devastation. To novice communicators of the gospel, in the thick of nationalistic propaganda and fascist demagoguery, Barth cautioned against exactly this sort of rhetoric that presently chokes our national discourse. It does not deprive the left of their pathos, Barth would likely say, but only ensnares them into responding in kind; likewise, seeing the defeat of President Trump at the polls this November as an existential crisis and an apocalyptic threat to America that does nothing to starve his MAGA-clad fans of their sense of belonging to something ultimate. It deprives no one of their pathos to call those in one party deplorable nor to identify your own side as “the coalition of the decent.”

I write all this as someone who is politically engaged — probably too much so. And it often feels to me as if politics and politicians (one in particular) are sucking all the oxygen out of the room, and out of our nation’s common life. So I write as someone, maybe like you, who is trying to keep an important part of life — politics — in its proper, and limited, place by de-sacralizing politics and politicians.



Categories: Uncategorized