What's Tony Thinking

When Politics Becomes Religion, Part 2


In November I blogged on the way that politics has become a realm of religion-like ultimacy. In an early December post Andrew Sullivan at New York Magazine tackled the same topic brilliantly.

It is a longish article but worth it. Sullivan describes the way in which political liberalism has for a long time assumed the Christian tradition as a larger moral context. But now that this tradition has lost traction the result in an illiberal politics of cult-like intensity. (That qualifies as a stellar example of the law of unintended consequences as many on the left have believed that if we can only eliminate religion everything will be just fine.)

Here’s Sullivan:

“So what happens when this religious rampart of the entire system is removed? I think what happens is illiberal politics. The need for meaning hasn’t gone away, but without Christianity, this yearning looks to politics for satisfaction. And religious impulses, once anchored in and tamed by Christianity, find expression in various political cults.

“These political manifestations of religion are new and crude, as all new cults have to be. They haven’t been experienced and refined and modeled by millennia of practice and thought. They are evolving in real time. And like almost all new cultish impulses, they demand a total and immediate commitment to save the world.”

This new cults of politics mark both sides of the political spectrum.

“Now look at our politics. We have the cult of Trump on the right, a demigod who, among his worshippers, can do no wrong. And we have the cult of social justice on the left, a religion whose followers show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical. They are filling the void that Christianity once owned, without any of the wisdom and culture and restraint that Christianity once provided.”

I particularly enjoyed Sullivan’s take on PC language in the section below. He likens it to swearing in the old dispensation.

“For many, especially the young, discovering a new meaning in the midst of the fallen world is thrilling. And social-justice ideology does everything a religion should. It offers an account of the whole: that human life and society and any kind of truth must be seen entirely as a function of social power structures, in which various groups have spent all of human existence oppressing other groups.

“And it provides a set of practices to resist and reverse this interlocking web of oppression — from regulating the workplace and policing the classroom to checking your own sin and even seeking to control language itself. I think of non-PC gaffes as the equivalent of old swear words. Like the puritans who were agape when someone said “goddamn,” the new faithful are scandalized when someone says something “problematic.” Another commonality of the zealot then and now: humorlessness.

“And so the young adherents of the Great Awokening exhibit the zeal of the Great Awakening. Like early modern Christians, they punish heresy by banishing sinners from society or coercing them to public demonstrations of shame, and provide an avenue for redemption in the form of a thorough public confession of sin. “Social justice” theory requires the admission of white privilege in ways that are strikingly like the admission of original sin. A Christian is born again; an activist gets woke.”

Sullivan then returns to the other side of the spectrum, mulling the way in which many who self-identify as “Evangelical Christians” can support a President who may be “the least Christian person in America.”

“Yes, many Evangelicals are among the holiest and most quietly devoted people out there. Some have bravely resisted the cult [of Trump]. But their leaders have turned Christianity into a political and social identity, not a lived faith, and much of their flock — a staggering 81 percent voted for Trump — has signed on. They have tribalized a religion explicitly built by Jesus as anti-tribal. They have turned to idols — including their blasphemous belief in America as God’s chosen country. They have embraced wealth and nationalism as core goods, two ideas utterly anathema to Christ. (italics added)

“They are indifferent to the destruction of the creation they say they believe God made. And because their faith is unmoored but their religious impulse is strong, they seek a replacement for religion. This is why they could suddenly rally to a cult called Trump. He may be the least Christian person in America, but his persona met the religious need their own faiths had ceased to provide. The terrible truth of the last three years is that the fresh appeal of a leader-cult has overwhelmed the fading truths of Christianity. (Italics added)

“This is why they are so hard to reach or to persuade and why nothing that Trump does or could do changes their minds. You cannot argue logically with a religion — which is why you cannot really argue with social-justice activists either. And what’s interesting is how support for Trump is greater among those who do not regularly attend church than among those who do.”

Some will charge that Sullivan creates a “false equivalency” between the excesses of right and left. I don’t think so. The same impulse is at work. Politics, as I argued earlier, is the realm of proximate solutions not religious ultimacy — until now.

Postscript: The United Church of Christ

It is arguable that the United Church of Christ, particularly in its national offices, has become a social justice cult, to use Sullivan’s terms.

Ten years ago our slogan/ identity tag-line was, “God Is Still Speaking.” Today it is “A Just World for All.” In that transition, who’s gone missing? “A Just World for All,” while hard to disagree with as a sentiment, could be the tag-line for any number of secular NGO’s or for a political movement or party. There’s nothing about it that suggests church or Christian faith — which may be the point.

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