Saturday, April 8, 2017

Politics as a Religion and Religion in Politics

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            If politics are about how we conduct public affairs and religion is about our beliefs, the two cannot be kept separate.  The relationship between politics and religion has always been muddled, but today politics seem more like a religion, and there is more religion in politics.

            Politics take on the sanctity of a religion when a political cause becomes sacrosanct to its advocates and immune to reason and compromise.  Unbelievers are condemned as sinners, and political zealots seek to banish their heretical political beliefs from the public square.

            In 1967 Robert Bellah characterized Dr. M. L. King’s opposition to the Vietnam war as a moral imperative of the American civil religion, a secular belief system with standards of legitimacy that transcend those of traditional religions.  Ending the war became a sacrosanct political cause that divided Americans even more than conflicting religious beliefs.

            Racism is another example.  In The Spiritual Shape of Political Ideas, Joseph Bottum described the leftist trope of racism as a form of sin endemic in all white people; and Mark Hemingway affirmed Bottum by asserting that “ethnicity has become a matter of original sin.”

            Andrew Sullivan has described intersectionality as a “neo-Marxist theory…of social oppression” that applies to race, gender, sexual orientation, class…in an interlocking system of hierarchy and power that prohibits the expression of objectionable ideas.  Like a communist manifesto condemning freedom and democracy, it sounds like a description of religious heresy.      

            George Will has observed that competing versions of truth in the fact-free zones created by intersectionality in academia and by Trump’s alternative facts have gone mainstream in the social media and allowed everyone with a smartphone to create their own “custom-made reality.”        

            Politics as a religion is found at both extremes of the political spectrum.  On the left it is preached by secular intellectuals promoting fact-free zones and on the right by Christian preachers promoting alternative facts.  It is about politics as a religion and religion in politics.

            Politics as a religion is a form of secular fundamentalism similar to that of religious fundamentalism.  Both are based on exclusivist beliefs that advocate sacrosanct standards of legitimacy (what is right).  Reason is rejected and compromise condemned to protect true believers from apostates and blasphemers.  The result is political and religious polarization.

            In 1834 Alexis DeTocqueville saw America’s diversity as a strength rather than a weakness.  He did not foresee the coming apocalypse of civil war, which remains a vivid and terrible example of what political and religious polarization can do to a libertarian democracy.

            Can there be a politics of reconciliation in a nation of polarized political and religious beliefs?  Since most Americans are Christians, it is unlikely that secular intellectuals will have more political influence than charismatic preachers who offer salvation from eternal damnation.

            But thoughtful Christians who reject the plastic Jesus and cheap grace of exclusivist Christianity and others who want to restore compromise and reason to their politics can make a difference.  Many are now motivated to rectify the damage done by so-called evangelical Christians who elected Donald Trump as their president.

            The remedy is simple in a nation founded on Judeo-Christian values.  The greatest commandment is a common word of faith and politics for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.  It requires that we love God and our neighbors—including those of other races and religions—as we love ourselves.  In today’s divided America that love command may require a revolution.

            There is hope for a politics of reconciliation that can counter the polarization that plagues America’s politics and religion.  It requires that Americans rediscover the moral common ground of loving God and our neighbors as we love ourselves.  That will require major changes in what Americans believe, and how they practice their politics as a religion and their religion in politics.

Notes and Related Commentary:

On how Robert Bellah helped Martin Luther King oppose the Vietnam war. see

On Joseph Bottum’s The Spiritual Shape of Political Ideas at

On Mark Heminway’s, How the Left Is Transforming into a Religion, Maybe a Bit too Literally, asserting a “smelly little orthodoxy” that defines the sinful by their identity groups (e.g. being white or being male), see

On Andrew Sullivan’s concept of intersectionality as a fundamentalist secular religion in academia that seeks to purge dissenting views by shouting them down, see  For a recent example at Claremont McKenna College, see
On George Will’s observation that Trump’s alternative facts and the fact-free zones of academia have gone mainstream, see

On the muddled relationship between religion and polarized partisan politics, see a Virginia Democrat visits a mosque at; and on Trump’s church politics idea to repeal the prohibition of tax-exempt religious organizations to engage in partisan political activities, see

On the greatest commandment as a common word of faith, see

On how religious fundamentalism and secularism shape politics and human rights, see

On standards of legitimacy in morality, manners and political correctness, see

On religious fundamentalism and a politics of reconciliation, see

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