American politics and religion have a strong overlap, but in recent years it has been of noted that Christianity has taken a reduced place in politics while interest in politics remains as strong as ever:
As churches and other religious communities in the United States find themselves with declining membership and attendance, some have argued that a new religion, the political cult, has taken their place.
In a recent exchange of arguments, three social commentators tackled the argument of whether the declining influence of Christianity in western culture has fueled the rise of political extremism.
Andrew Sullivan, author and columnist with New York Magazine, had a piece published Dec. 7 titled “America’s New Religions” that argued politics was filling the “need for meaning” found with growing secularization.
“Everyone has a religion. It is, in fact, impossible not to have a religion if you are a human being,” wrote Sullivan, who defined “religion” as “a way of life that gives meaning, a meaning that cannot really be defended without recourse to some transcendent value, undying ‘Truth’ or God (or gods).”
“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.”
Sullivan went on to describe political cults as “new and crude,” saying that they lack refinement and experience, with examples being found on both ends of the spectrum.
“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,” continued Sullivan.
“They are filling the void that Christianity once owned, without any of the wisdom and culture and restraint that Christianity once provided.”
Sullivan warned that these cults, both left and right “threaten liberal democracy” due to their rejection of compromise, doubt, reason, and the “primacy of the individual.”
“They demonstrate, to my mind, how profoundly liberal democracy has actually depended on the complement of a tolerant Christianity to sustain itself — as many earlier liberals (Tocqueville, for example) understood,” he noted.
Ezra Klein, founder and editor-at-large at Vox, penned a Dec. 11 rebuttal to Sullivan’s piece, arguing that “Sullivan’s essay on political tribalism shows he’s blinded by his own.”
“Yet even as Sullivan decries political tribalism, here is his theory of it: A decline in people practicing his form of Christian faith has led to a rise in ‘political cultists’ who find their ultimate meaning in politics, who will stop at nothing to achieve their political goals, and who cannot be reasoned or compromised with,” wrote Klein.
“This is not an analysis of the thinking deepening our political divides, but a demonstration of it.”
Klein also argued that Sullivan’s analysis was “ahistorical,” pointing to past times when American politics was violent and disruptive even though Christianity was more widely practiced.
“The consensus is that American politics was far more illiberal in our past than in our present,” continued Klein.
“The era Sullivan looks back on fondly was, by almost any measure, more illiberal in its politics and more fundamental in its conflicts, in part because the meaning of America — who got to participate in it, and whose claims it heard — was so deeply contested.”
Warren Henry, contributor to the conservative publication The Federalist, defended Sullivan and argued in a Dec. 13 piece that Klein’s rebuttal was “grossly oversimplified.”
Henry quoted from influential seventeenth century philosopher John Locke’s “Letter Concerning Toleration,” which stated in part that the “toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion is so agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
“Locke’s principles were transmitted to Americans by pre-Revolutionary pastors. Thomas Jefferson took those principles to their logical conclusion in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which extended freedom to all faiths,” wrote Henry.
“Sullivan is not claiming that ‘Christianity lowers the stakes of political conflict.’ Rather, he is claiming the Lockean idea of tolerance allows political conflict to replace (or separate from) religious conflict in the philosophical sense.”
Henry went on to argue that the political cult intolerance Sullivan described can be seen on the Vox website itself.
“Fanatical intolerance also fuels the desire to destroy institutions protecting the heretics. This is why Klein’s website promotes ‘The case for abolishing the Supreme Court,’ and attacks the Senate and the Electoral College,” continued Henry.
“Moreover, elevating group identity over the individual leads to the left’s current disregard for the presumption of innocence and other basic tenets of due process. It leads to the illiberalism Sullivan describes.”
Sullivan also responded to Klein’s rebuttal, explaining in a Dec. 14 piece he took issue with Klein’s focus on tribalism, explaining that his original piece was meant to focus on “cults” not “tribes.”
“… they’re not the same thing. A tribalism based on race or region or gender or partisanship, for example, is not a religious phenomenon,” responded Sullivan.
“At best, Klein seems to be saying that all politics and life is tribal, and that every political argument is ultimately a tribal one. And I profoundly disagree. So, I might add, would every leading light of the liberal philosophical tradition. Was Locke tribalist? Montesquieu? Constant? Tocqueville? Rawls? Please.”
“The core subject of the column was what happens to politics once God is dead and my point is far from new or original,” Sullivan continued. “It is that the religious impulse will always be part of human nature, and it will occupy politics if it no longer finds expression in a spiritual space. Think of Soviet communism as a replacement religion for Orthodox Christianity, or national socialism for Protestantism. These were, in many ways, atheist theocracies, with all of the mind control and none of the occasional acts of mercy. They saturated politics with the question of ultimate meaning; and, in that feverish quest, they killed tens of millions of people and enslaved the rest. Red-blooded religious fanaticism has no time for liberalism.” (source)
It is true that there is a “political cult” that operates in the US in that many Americans have an unhealthy obsession with political parties instead of looking at the principles espoused by said parties. A major part of the reason for this is because of the Protestant roots of America, which naturally lead to a separation not only between faith and reason, but between the practice of one’s religion in private and its practice in society.
The concept of “fundamentalism” has always had roots since the English settlements in the US. In recent times “religious fundamentalism” has been propagated to the public as such to conjure images of foolishness, ignorance, and blind obedience. With respect to the people who say this, much of this is indeed true, as there are many people, including people with good intentions, who act in ways that propagate ignorance or are just plain wrong but insist on doing so because they believe something is true without understanding why it is true outside of “I was told so.” Now while religion is always in part an act of faith- believing that something is true because God has said so- it is also inseparable from reason and the consequences of the belief can be deduced by reason and proved or disproven by taking a systematic look at how one belief accords or does not accord with another belief.
Simply put, this is the union of “faith and reason” that the Catholic Church so often speaks about. The purpose of this is to demonstrate not only how Faith is a real thing that can be proven, but that a man’s actions are a direct product of his beliefs, and how to follow God more closely by belief one must also accord his actions as well. Likewise, and very importantly, the union of faith and reason provides a means for well-meaning people who may lack the intellectual capacity to understand detailed theology to execute the tenets of their faith in a way that is easy to understand, practical, and morally consistent. The proper union of faith and reason inevitably generates two results- one one hand it will allow for limitless commentary and explanation about matters of faith and being, and on the other hand as mentioned above, it distills complex ideas into easy to follow, fundamental beliefs and practices. Indeed, true fundamentalism- teaching and following the fundamentals of one’s religion- is not a product of ignorance, but of very detailed and specific beliefs made simple to understand.
This idea was the inspiration for the title of the Fundamentals, a series of American Protestant essay that were first published in 1909 meant to outline the fundamentals of Protestant Christianity. This was published around the same time the Popes were writing in similar ways. Both were meant to combat the idea of “modernism,” which is essentially Darwinian philosophy applied to religion, stating that divinely revealed truth can and does change and that it is for religion to “update” its teachings in order to be more “modern.”
This is not to say that certain changes were not necessary in so far as disciplines were concerned. Indeed, it is well known there were many problems in the Church and its ability to relate to the contemporary world, which was becoming increasingly hostile towards it. However, this is not a new problem at all, as the Church has always been disliked even at the height of Christendom. This was foretold in Sacred Scripture and will persist until Christ returns. Discipline, or the instruction of the Faith, can and has often times changed. It is dogma, or divinely revealed truth, that cannot change because it has been revealed from God.
The essence of the decline is about matters of truth- how we know truth, how we understand it, and what is the authority from which we define our understanding. Modernism is simply an attempt to justify in current times what men have been trying to do since the fall of Adam and Eve, which is to re-define moral truth on their terms and set themselves up as an authority based on their own assertions. This takes many different forms, but as far as the last 500 years of Christian history are concerned, this is over the issue of whether or not doctrine can change or not, and it goes directly to the ideas the built up and manifested during the Protestant Revolution and was brought to America with her founders during the 18th century.
The idea that divinely revealed truth can change is a heresy, but it is a heresy that has been a characteristic of Protestantism and has been with America since its earliest days. While it is an issue for both Catholics and Protestants, the Catholic issue is actually far easier to deal with because the Church merely has to articulate the positions she already possesses. Any deviations or disagreements with this done persistently and without a genuine attempt to understand is just heresy and can be easily labeled as so and dealt with accordingly. The problem that the Catholic Church in America has is that many of her people and bishops want to “assimilate” their faith into the American philosophy, and since this is impossible because America is based on an anti-Christian, Freemason philosophy, people who persist in attempting to do this find themselves placed into a Hegelian dialectic where they compromise parts of divinely revealed truth and if followed far enough, simply abandon the Faith in the name of “fitting in.” The biggest problem for the Catholic Church today is either simple ignorance due to decades of absolutely poor catechesis on one hand, or cowardice or apathy from whose who are aware of what the teachings are out of fear of social ostracism on the other hand.
The Protestant Churches have a far bigger problem in the USA because there is absolutely no unity among the sects except in their rejection of the Catholic Church. This has been the situation with Protestantism for centuries, and since Protestantism by its very nature has to first define itself in terms of its rejection of THE POPE and the authority of the Church, it has to likewise reject or ignore the history of Christianity itself from Constantine until around the time after the Black Death because it is, like every heresy, a heretical anomaly that left the Church and attempted to start its own cult acting as its own independent authority. Since all of the different sects that left the Church based their heresy on differences with divinely revealed teaching, each heresy will naturally disagree with the Church while at the same time being unable to doctrinally reconcile with each other, and thus creating even more division. For centuries Protestants fought wars against each other and still viciously debate with each other to this day about basic matters of Christian belief that were settled well before the fourth century. In the name of “FOLLOWING THE BIBLE” and “REJECTING THE EVIL POPE,” these sects simply dug up old heresies, put new clothes on them, gave them new names and are parading them around as though they are teaching something unique. While they may be “unique” in terms of they have not been seen for centuries, such as the infamous Judaizing heresy that is common today among certain Protestants (and is the only Christian heresy explicity mentioned by the Bible too), the fact is that the ideas are nothing new, both their opposition to the Faith as well as their particular heretical ideas.
Heresy has always been a problem in Christendom, but just like with weeds in a garden, heresy needs to be rooted out when it appears in order to prevent them from taking over and destroying the garden. Heresy becomes a major problem when it remains unchecked because it attacks the philosophical and moral underpinnings of a society, through which the subsequent structural weakening will cause a social collapse or decline if not fixed. It is the reason why notorious, unrepentant, and persistent heretics were put to death, not because it was THE EVIL CHURCH TRYING TO SILENCE BIBLE TRUTH, but because these people were, whether they were intending to or not (and often times they were intending) to cause a social and political revolution using religious discontentment just as the National Socialists today use racial discontentment or the International Socialists use economic discontentment to achieve the same end.
Heresy is always rooted in the rejection of authority, namely of the Church. But since heretics cannot clearly identify who is the replacement authority, the natural result of heresy is first a “spiritual anarchy” in which different sects fight with each other for power. This can go on for a time, but eventually the fighting will subside, and after which in order to make any kind of peace between their irreconcilable views, they will submit their difference to a mutually agreed upon third party to act as a broker, which for centuries always has been the government. As such, the churches are surrendering their traditional role as the “second estate” in society- the buffer between the people and the government- and make themselves vassals of the government itself, in which obedience to the Churches becomes obedience to the state. This has been a signature problem of Protestantism and all of its previous movements, including the heresies of old, because by rejecting the Church each heresy either lead to fighting with other heresies or attempted to make herself a “national church” based on some form of identitarianism, but with both paths leading to the same end of subjugation to the first estate. In the case of Luther, it was the creation of a “German church” with “a German god for a German people.” The English under King Henry VIII did the same, as the English did not per se see themselves as “separating” from Rome, but rather King Henry declaring himself the head of the Church in England.
It is only natural that if being a “Christian” means obedience to the state, then in time one will naturally reason that there is no reason to actually go to Church because since worship of God is tied to social obedience, then one only needs to be “a good person” as far as the society is concerned and all will be well.
There is a tremendous amount of criticism today about the “church of nice” and the people who want to “good people” and not go to church. However, it is wrong to say the people who do this are simply malicious, because whether they understand it or not, these people see themselves as “good citizens” based on their following the social commands of the day. They see themselves as no different than Christians, except that Christians have a particular “club” they go to called “church,” whereas they want to go to a different “club.”
Likewise, there is another issue that Protestantism causes, which is the private interpretation of moral truth. I do not use the word “Scripture” here because that is automatically implied. What I speak of is the idea that all heretics promulgate, which is that individuals or groups can make moral proclamations outside of the teaching of the Church. This is a consistent theme throughout all of Christian history but is a veritable tenet of Protestantism and again feeds into the reason why they have to ignore most of Christian history and that which they do pay attention to they have to meticulously re-write to fit their own conception of of the past, because they have absolutely no way to justify their beliefs in the same way that no amount of of lipstick on a pig can hide the fact that it is a pig wearing lipstick and not a person.
Just as with the issue of nationalism, it is only a matter of time that if a sect can say they can define moral truth independently, then others will say they can do the same too. This is the reason behind the explosion of the “evangelical” movement in the USA, because as the mainline Protestant churches began to decline and finally be forced to face the fact that they cannot hide or reconcile their differences, that individuals would appear and attack the institutions, creating their own “churches” to take their place. What happened in Europe simply replicated itself in the USA and with the same vitriol against the Catholic Church, except the evangelical movement is formed around cults of individual personalities. People do not go to the Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopal, or Presbytarian churches so much any more as they go to see “Pastor Bobby Ray” or “Brother Jimmy Earl” at churches with names like “Cinema Church” or “The Gathering.” The reality is that these are for the most part Baptist and Pentecostal churches, and to a far lesser extent the Presbytarians that have re-named and re-branded themselves to try and make themselves relevant and attract new members, but as we have noted above are still in terminal decline long-term because, using the same structure of logic, if a “Christian minister” can make himself an independent authority for moral teaching, why can’t some random non-Christian man on the street do the same? If as noted before the obedience to the “church” was obedience to the government, and if a man sees himself as a “good person” who conforms to the social tendencies of his day but does not go to Church, why can’t he, in his own mind, become his own “church” that he worships at, for as long as he understands that he is not “harming” anybody according to his own defined moral code, he is philosophically at liberty to do so?
The final results can manifest in a variety of ways, but they all result in the substitution of God and religion for a private religion that, whether the person calls it a religion or not, functions with the same spirit and zeal they would have for God but instead directed toward the object of their desire. Politics is but one of a variety of substitutes for religion and faith, but on a deeper level it is the pursuit of power based on a shared ethos rooted in the spirit of the times that attracts men to it as their politics is an outgrowth of their philosophy. If one does not believe in revealed truth from God, one naturally tends to raise one’s own opinions up to the level of prime importance, in essence divinizing the self and then attempting to project that onto others through the pursuit of power in politics.
It is why one should be less concerned with “politics” before philosophy, because politics is but a manifestation of a man’s philosophy that he holds internally.
Religion is both a uniting and separating agent in politics and society, partaking of both but never being enveloped by both, separating both and yet remaining distinct while adapting to a society. Anything else is to place power over philosophy, over the revelation of God, and to inevitably set the decline of a people towards anarchy and social disarray.