When Politics Replaces Religion
Shortly after the 2016 election the pastor of church in Dallas, where I was then consulting, asked me what I made of the election. Because we were in a noisy restaurant I tried to be succinct.
“Our politics has become too religious, and our religion too political.”
I was not saying politics and religion have nothing to do with one another. Nor was I invoking the old, “Keep politics out of the pulpit” canard — which has been directed at me on more than one occasion.
What I was saying is that religion is, by definition, the realm of ultimacy. Ultimate values, ultimate truth, and an ultimate God — whom we know, at best, in part, in a limited way.
Politics, on the other hand, is the realm of proximate justice that will never completely fulfill our ideals. Nor should it. Politics is the place of compromise, an arena in which the best can become the enemy of the good.
My perception is that as religion recedes in importance or becomes a branch of identity politics (another form of recession), politics is becoming for many the realm of ultimate truth and values — a new religion. When that is the case, compromise and proximate justice become not only difficult but wrong. We must stand, so those who turn their politics into religion imagine, for absolute truth and complete victory.
Which is why I am skeptical about Knute Berger’s plea, in Crosscut, this week that Seattle politics needs to get less nasty. The plea is fine. I just think it unlikely to happen anytime soon. Berger notes and itemizes the way that politics, mostly from the left, has become more ideological, given to ad hominem attacks, and an arena in which anyone who deviates from the true and received creed is persecuted.
“One effect in a political monoculture is that Seattle is at risk of becoming a place where orthodoxies are publicly enforced and shame emphasized: I sometimes think we’ve reverted to Puritan roots, where the stocks and the dunking pool have made a comeback. Stray from Seattle consensus and you are not simply an outlier, but you can be cast as evil, an enabler, a collaborator with dark forces.”
For those with a taste for irony, this is real feast, though the flavors are mostly bitter.
I am currently reading a brilliant historical novel, The Holy Thief, which is set in Moscow in 1936. With religion banished, in Stalin’s Russia, the political becomes religion. There is no higher truth or loyalty beyond the Party and the State.
Another spin on this, from a national perspective, is yesterday’s column by David Brooks on a political generation gap. Brooks sees a huge gap between liberal Boomers and their more radical children. (A recent case-in-point has been Washington’s Evergreen State College.)
“Two great belief systems are clashing here. The older liberals tend to be individualistic and meritocratic. A citizen’s job is to be activist, compassionate and egalitarian. Boomers generally think they earned their success through effort and talent.
“The younger militants tend to have been influenced by the cultural Marxism that is now the lingua franca in the elite academy. Group identity is what matters. Society is a clash of oppressed and oppressor groups. People who are successful usually got that way through some form of group privilege and a legacy of oppression.”
Understandings and expressions of “virtue” are also radically different.
“In the age of social media, virtue is not defined by how compassionately you act. Virtue is defined by how vehemently you react to that which you find offensive. Virtue involves the self-display of a certain indignant sensibility, and anybody who doesn’t display that sensibility is morally suspect.”
This is how it goes when, as in Moscow in 1936, religion loses it role and legitimacy and is replaced by politics. “Anybody who doesn’t display that sensibility is morally suspect.”
So does this mean that if your stock-in-trade is religion, you get to be nasty and wage religious wars on heretics because, well, religion is about ultimate truth and value? That has obviously happened.
But despite frequent, and frequently tedious, contemporary denunciations of religion — Christianity in particular — for such sins and failures, there’s another side to the story. Religion can be an area in which we are reminded that while there is ultimate truth, we mortals don’t fully comprehend it, still less do we own it. Functioning in a healthy way religion tends to make people less arrogant and more humble. (See Lincoln’s Second Inaugural speech.)
Years ago, when I was the pastor in the small town of Carnation, there was a school teacher’s strike. As the days went by, the strike become bitter, verging on violent. “Scab” labor was bussed in daily to teach. Rocks were thrown at buses. Tempers flared, language was hot.
In the midst of all this, I invited the community to a Friday afternoon service of prayer. The reviled superintendent and suspect principals sat in the same pews with angry teachers. Parents, on both sides, mingled with both. We prayed. Faith, in this case, reminded all of us that our opponents were also human, that no one had the complete truth, and that all of us had a responsibility to the whole community and its children. That’s how the relationship between religion and politics can work when it’s working.
But now it’s not working. Religion has been sidelined. Or it takes one side in the culture wars, simply another column in the blue and red brigades. Or people turn their politics into a new religion. But it is a faith without charity, without mercy.