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The Political as Religion

The Political as Religion October 16, 2021

This trend has been long in the making but it was amplified by the advent of the internet, social media, and the propensity of many religious people, especially fundamentalists and evangelicals, to believe in conspiracy theories. The trend I note is toward the political becoming or replacing religion as the single most important motivating factor in many people’s lives when it comes to a comprehensive worldview, the metaphysical, theology, and core values.

Obviously, if we asked most Christians which was more important to them, God, or their political identity, whether a democrat, republican, independent, green or what have you, I’m sure the great majority would say, “God.” This is the deceiving nature of idols; we are rarely (ever?) aware what we worship is an idol; the whole point is that on some level, conscious or not, we mistake such for God or the highest end.

No one is going to admit to idol worship. To learn one has been worshipping an idol, something fake, something that doesn’t really exist would, I imagine, be an extremely disconcerting experience, to say the least (any atheist reading this just raised an ironic eyebrow). Thus, most defend the idols they worship. The security they draw from them is comforting and gives meaning, direction, and community.

What we have seen over the last several decades, however, is almost a slow-motion movement toward the idea of where God and country becomes more Country than god. This was accelerated from 2016 forward due to Donald Trump, the former reality television personality and general lecher. He blurred the lines so boldly, God morphed into Country and republican morphed into… “Christian.” And he morphed into a “son” given to us…which is blasphemy. Yes, that is where we are now.

Since that time, we have Christians sitting next to each other in pews or fold-up chairs, singing together, praying together, and taking communion together who doubt the other’s faith (or maybe just their wisdom/maturity/intelligence) because of their differing political views. This is probably somewhat less common over time, as each, by now, has probably found a place to worship that shares or reinforces their already held political views. There is either the perpetual situation of an uncomfortable awkwardness or each has found a secure and comforting echo chamber of their own views.

Gone are the days when most arguments, conflict, and separation within the church (Protestant/Catholic/Orthodox) occurred over theological, doctrinal, church polity, and basically religious or philosophical differences in matters of faith and practice. There are many Christians who may share very similar views in theology and philosophy, but who are now estranged or separated due to political differences. Isn’t that a sign, perhaps, in and of itself, that the political now trumps religion—and has morphed into the other?

One use to think this a pitfall of only the modern political left. From the French Revolution forward, the modern left seemed to make the political into a religion, the end, the goal, the desire above all desires. The political was…God. Salvation, bringing heaven to earth, being ethical, meant forgetting about any life after death and bringing justice, equality, fairness, peace, and goodness in the here and now, especially for those who had least experienced those aspects of life. And this was the work of the secular state (the new church); the civic leader was now the priest mediating the gifts of God (tax revenue) to the people. So many Christians use to point this out as the weakness of the left. And yet, here they are, demonstrating the very same mindset and hubris.

Before getting to more concrete examples of the political becoming religion for many fundamentalists/evangelicals/conservative Catholics/Orthodox, let me just give some anecdotal examples of what I’m talking about.

I still have connections to many people on social media from my days as an evangelical. Perusing their postings occasionally (I consider it a form of self-flagellation), it’s fairly obvious their primary passion and interest is the promotion of a political ideology and politicians/candidates/Trump who support that ideology. I’ve come across several memes they’ve posted that come very close to almost idolizing Trump as a savior of sorts.

I’ve also seen posts that are borderline racist and in support of a white nationalism. Many are a blizzard of conspiracy-theory informed disinformation, just basic nonsense masquerading as some sort of reasoned political/religious opinion. And there is a type of patriotism displayed that is also borderline worship of country. There’s a clear view of the United States as special in God’s eyes and due the sort of reverence and awe one might show toward a church or sacred site.

They even demonstrate a tendency to evangelize more for political candidates and their ideology than they do the gospel. It’s probably because more and more, they see them as synonymous.  While they may post a Bible passage every now and again, or something religious, or something innocuous/neutral, one can see where their true devotion, passion, and concerns are directed. And it is not their faith, religion, or theology. It is their political views.

I can hear an objection at this point: “But don’t you also write about Trump, the radical right-wing, and the political as well?” Yes, I do. I post political stuff on social media too. But I do so as a witness to the very thing I’m noting is dangerous, unwise, and idol worship. I don’t idolize politicians, candidates, or any modern, Western, political ideology. Government, state-craft if you will, is important. However, it is not to be idolized (for the Christian anyway) or treated as a means of salvation, or, as Tillich put it, our “ultimate concern.”

I don’t push such either unless one thinks advocating for the poor, widows, orphans, and the least of these is political. If they do, then they prove the very point of this post. Anyway, there is a big difference between why I address the political and why conservative right-wing fundamentalists/evangelicals do so. I do it to warn and address the inherent problems with such; they do it because for many of them, it has indeed become their religion.

Putting aside the anecdotal examples given for my thesis, there is more substantive research that also seems to confirm its veracity and is noted here. Conservative evangelical David French has also addressed the results of this research and notes this:

“But setting aside the instances of individual conversions, what seems to be happening at scale isn’t so much the growth of white Evangelicalism as a religious movement, but rather the near-culmination of the decades-long transformation of white Evangelicalism from a mainly religious movement into a Republican political cause.”

I believe such to be true. Are there any good reasons to believe that a significant part of white evangelicalism hasn’t become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party? I don’t see any.

I think many nominal, non-church going, white Americans have merged whatever religious beliefs/faith they might have held (probably what they learned in vacation Bible school) into a form of political ideology, which has actually now become their religion and faith. Unfortunately, I think the same thing has happened to far too many active, serious, and very church-going Americans.

It is certainly the most disappointing development in my lifetime, relative to my journey as an American Christian. It is an evangelical disaster. I address it out of no joy whatsoever, but rather out of a deep sadness.

They made kings, but not through me. They set up princes, but I knew it not. With their silver and gold, they made idols for their own destruction. -Hosea 8:4

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