Our Anxious Age Seeks Religion in Its Politics

October 26, 2020 Updated: October 27, 2020

Commentary

The reason politics is so envenomed right now—so anxious, so cruel, so all-consuming—is that it’s not really about politics. It’s about religion.

The religiosity of the “woke” left is an old topic. I may have been one of the first to focus on it, when I offered an explanation for contemporary radicalism as the central thesis of my book “An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America” six years ago. But I wasn’t alone at the time, and the idea has become almost commonplace in the months since the apparently never-ending riots began this summer.

As Ross Douthat pointed out in The New York Times this July, my point about the origins of the radical left in the breakdown of the mainline Protestant churches “was plausible but somewhat abstract when the book came out in 2014.”

“But the palpable spiritual dimension of so much social justice activism, before and especially after the George Floyd killing—the rhetoric of conversion and confession and self-scrutiny, the iconoclasm and occasional anti-Catholicism, the idealization of communities of virtue and the accusatory frenzy of online witch hunts—has made that religious lineage impossible to ignore,” Douthat wrote.

My thesis was that the catastrophic collapse of the mainline churches (50 percent of America in 1965, well under 10 percent today) was driven by the Social Gospel movement, which saw sin as societal structures rather than personal failings. In fairly short order, the Social Gospel became a social movement without the gospel, with Jesus left behind.

But the tone and mood of high moralism remained. Escaping the old denominations that used to constrain and shape it, the new faith flooded into politics with our new religiously elect: the protesters in the streets as members of the Church of Christ Without Christ (to borrow Flannery O’Connor’s felicitous phrase).

Existential Concerns

I still think this analysis is right, but you needn’t accept it all—as long as you at least see that something religious is going on.

Think, for example, of the 1920 election, with the inept Warren G. Harding trouncing the proto-progressive James M. Cox. Sure, it featured high emotion: torchlight parades, a fistfight or two, shouting in the streets, and weeping in the backrooms.

But that’s politics in any genuine electoral contest. From ancient Athens to modern Australia, politics has always been a wild, messy, heartfelt festival—like a medieval marketplace crossed with a NASCAR rally—and your best bet is just to try to enjoy the show.

Now consider the 2020 election, which seems only incidentally about politics. The emotion in this election doesn’t feel joyous and loud and vulgar, the way an election should. It feels anxious and unpleasant and so self-important it makes your teeth ache. We’re constantly hectored that this isn’t a vote for president. It’s a vote for the existential condition of humankind.

We have a name for existential concerns about the human condition. We call it religion.

Original Sin

The wise old Samuel Johnson once told Boswell: “I would not give half a guinea to live under one form of Government rather than another. It is of no moment to the happiness of an individual.” It is “nothing to a private man.” An odd line, and probably true only within a narrow range of possible governments. But the important thing to remember is that there was a time when politics was understood to concern primarily the political. Not the soul. Not the self. Not the highest things.

Man, is America past all that, here in 2020. We are living in the end times, the environmentalists rage. The majority of Americans are born inescapably evil with the original sin of “white guilt,” and there is no redemption except the small expiation of rioting in the streets.

The wicked must be shunned and banned from public life. Maybe banned from jobs at all. Error has no rights, in our new “Index Librorum Prohibitorum,” and bad books—from “Huckleberry Finn” to insufficiently woke young-adult fiction—must not be allowed into print.

Mostly, though, you are expected to express your religious fervor in voting for the Democrats and hating President Donald Trump. Only then can we begin to heal the fallen condition of humanity, and several Democrats have called for South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (or even Nuremberg Trials) to convict Trump’s enablers after the presumptive Biden election.

The key here is to understand that these people think support for Trump is evil. Not merely politically wrong, but religiously sinful. In politics, we throw our defeated opponents out of office. In religion, we consign them to the hell where we are certain, in our righteousness, that they belong.

The primary danger here is the blending of church and state by those who don’t recognize that they belong to a church—the Church of Christ Without Christ—and so feel unconstrained by any of the old jurisprudence that limits religion in politics and legislation.

But there’s another danger conservatives need to see: the danger that we will become like those who express their religious anxiety in politics. The danger is that we enter into a sort of mimetic contagion: These people are so bad for thinking us evil that we need to understand them as evil, making ourselves into the mirror-image religious fanatics. Once politics starts to be religionized, it’s hard for any side to refuse to join the parade.

Still, we can try. I know how I’m going to vote come Election Day—and it isn’t about either love or hate for Trump and the Republican Party. My vote will be about refusing power to those who believe themselves so righteous, and their opponents so evil, that they have ceased to see politics as, you know, politics. Most of us have enough religion in our lives already. We don’t need to find more on an election ballot.

Joseph Bottum, Ph.D., is director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University. His most recent book is “The Decline of the Novel.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.