Politics as Religion

John Hart, founder of Mars Hill Strategies, a public affairs and public relations firm, wrote an interesting article for Forbes magazine last November on the growing ideological divide among Americans and the growth of religious “nones” in the country.

In 2007, 16.1% of Americans identified themselves as being either atheist, agnostic, or having no particular religious affiliation. In 2014, that number rose to 22.8%. By comparison, in 2007, 23.9% of Americans identified as Catholic, while in 2014 that number was only 20.8%. That’s an amazing shift in only seven years. There’s nothing about the last three years, in my mind, to recommend that the trend has not continued.

At the same time that the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans has increased, so has the gap between Democrats and Republicans. In 1994, the gap between the median Democrat and the median Republican was 15 percentage points. In other words, though Democrats and Republicans certainly disagreed on many issues and how to address them, there was also a great deal of common ground the two parties shared, as Americans. In 2017, however, the “partisan gap” has increased to 36 percentage points. What this means is that the parties have become much more polarized, and there is much less ground Democrats and Republicans share in common.

John Hart doesn’t think these two phenomena are unrelated. He believes that ideology has largely replaced religion as that which gives meaning to many American’s lives. Turning to Blaise Pascal and Carl Jung, he points out that the human spirit requires a guiding light to answer the big questions of meaning and purpose in life. Unfortunately, while politics is the process of banging out how we will live together in a workable society, it offers little in the long run toward answering questions of ultimate meaning and purpose. As such, in the end, those who turn to political ideology to fill the “God hole” in their spirit will be disappointed, sometimes catastrophically so.

It also means that, as political ideology becomes the thing that gives ultimate meaning to a person’s life, they become much more protective of their ideology and much less interested in compromise. How can one compromise one’s ultimate truth, after all? That’s like a Christian community believing that Jesus is God, but being willing to deny Him the worship that is His due in their Sunday service in order to accommodate anyone who might traverse their doors who thinks or believes otherwise. Can one imagine a Catholic parish announcing that they were no longer going to celebrate Mass on Sundays or at all as a compromise so that the larger society can provide necessary services to the poor? For one thing, it’s a false dichotomy. For another, it’s simply unreasonable to ask people to compromise their deepest held truths for supposed political progress. Yet, that’s exactly how many today interpret what is being asked of them when political compromise is recommended.

Today, Democratic and Republican leaders are meeting at the White House with President Trump to discuss immigration reform. There are priorities each party brings to the table in terms of what they want to see in any immigration reform bill. Will they be able to compromise in order to bring about what everyone wants, a fair and just immigration policy that both protects America’s borders and treats well those who, by no fault of their own, have been in this country and contributed to our communities for years without the protection of citizenship? Let’s hope and pray so. But, there will be ideologues on both sides who will consider no compromise whatsoever, because to do so would be tantamount to surrendering their most cherished beliefs.

The trends that Hart points out in his article are not good for the future of religious faith in the United States. But, neither are they good for political progress. There is a place for faith and a place for politics. Faith can and ought to inform our politics. But we ought never turn to politics as a substitute for faith, or for the answers to those questions that transcend mere political realities and temporal orders.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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