Previously published at GBH News.
In the spring of 2016, as it was beginning to look like Donald Trump might actually win the Republican presidential nomination, I attended a talk at the Harvard Kennedy School by Michael Ignatieff, a prominent Canadian politician and academic. He was appalled by Trump’s rise, as were we all. But I was struck by his peculiarly Canadian analysis.
“Politics,” he said, “should be boring.”
American politics for the past half dozen years has certainly not been boring. Rather than simply voting (or not) and otherwise paying little attention to what’s going on in Washington, we have been riveted by the spectacle — elated when our candidates win, horrified when they lose.
You might even say we now approach politics with something approaching a religious fervor. And, in fact, that is exactly what is going on. As the country becomes increasingly secular, too many of us have turned to politics in our search for meaning.
“Americans overall are moving away from organized religion, particularly the mainline faiths,” writes Linda Feldmann in The Christian Science Monitor. “And that shift has dovetailed with the rise of an intense form of partisan politics that some see as quasi-religious, providing adherents with a sense of devotion, belonging, and moral certitude.”
This is not a healthy development. Political life is important. As Barack Obama once said, “Elections have consequences.” All kinds of issues depend on who wins and who loses — reproductive rights, public health, tax policy and whether children will be separated from their parents at the border and locked in cages, to name just a few.
But a society in which we can get along and work cooperatively with one another depends on keeping a certain distance from politics. If we come to believe that politics, like religion in its more fundamentalist manifestations, is a clash between good and evil, and that our side is always good and the other is always evil, then it becomes impossible to reconcile ourselves to defeat, to acknowledging that the other side is legitimate and has a right to wield power. No wonder we are so polarized.
Politics-as-religion comes in several different varieties. The most potent and dangerous can be seen on the Trumpist right, which has come to regard the former president as someone who is fulfilling God’s destiny. A poll cited by the Monitor found that the proportion of church-going white Protestants who believe Trump had been “anointed by God” rose from about 30% to nearly 50% between May 2019 and March 2020.
Now, this might seem like the opposite of a move away from religion. But I would argue that it’s part of the increasing secularization of society. Rather than embracing the purely spiritual, Trump-supporting Christians are finding meaning by rallying around a corrupt, womanizing charlatan because he makes them feel good about themselves.
Nor is that the only sign that this particular brand of Christianity is becoming more secular. The New York Times reported on Sunday that the leadership of the overwhelmingly white Southern Baptist Conference is facing a challenge from the right. Among the issues: the right-wingers are upset at the conference’s embrace of critical race theory. It’s hard to imagine a more worldly, less spiritual concern than that, but it’s certainly in keeping with evangelical Christianity’s alliance with the Republican Party.
What is happening on the left is quite different but nevertheless cut from the same politics-as-religion cloth. The left has been becoming increasingly secular for years, and many have turned to working on social-justice issues — not only because they believe in them, but because such work fills a space that religion once filled.
“A lot of people my age have found our spiritual home in the movement to restore and expand civil rights,” Bentley Hudgins, a transgender activist from Atlanta, told the Monitor. Then there is the left’s emphasis on language and the ideology of “cancel culture” — exaggerated by its critics, perhaps, but nevertheless a real phenomenon.
Now lest you think I’m engaging in bothsides-ism, painting the right and the left with the same brush in terms of their move away from religion and toward politics, let me assure you that I’m not. As Molly Worthen, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, writes in the Times, “It should be possible to hold one party responsible for voter suppression and the Capitol riot while recognizing that pseudoreligious ideologies and purity cults have multiplied on both ends of the political spectrum.”
But I do think we would all benefit if both sides turned down the temperature and stopped viewing politics in apocalyptic terms that are better suited to religion than to co-existing in a common culture.
Writing in The Atlantic, Shadi Hamid makes a provocative argument — that religion can offer a less fraught way of looking at the world than politics “by withholding final judgments until another time — perhaps until eternity.”
“Can religiosity be effectively channeled into political belief without the structures of actual religion to temper and postpone judgment?” he asks. “There is little sign, so far, that it can. If matters of good and evil are not to be resolved by an omniscient God in the future, then Americans will judge and render punishment now.”
The great gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson used to say that he would pull a Gideons Bible from the nightstand at whatever hotel he was staying in and page through Revelation looking for inspiration.
“I have stolen more quotes and thoughts and purely elegant little starbursts of writing from the Book of Revelation,” he once said, “than from anything else in the English language — and it is not because I am a biblical scholar, or because of any religious faith, but because I love the wild power of the language and the purity of the madness that governs it and makes it music.”
But though Thompson may have been melding politics, journalism and religion, he was aiming for a purely literary effect. Today, the politically engaged — let’s call them over-engaged — are moving past the religion but keeping the fervor. It’s not good for them, and it’s not good for us.