The danger of bringing religious zeal to the political realm

In America today, many people treat politics, rather than religion, as the place to discover ultimate purpose and communion

The maxim is trite: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But this healthy mistrust of political power undergirds America’s system of checks and balances. There would be no king in the United States to merge church and state — the founders made sure of it. They understood that politics can corrupt religion. In recent years, however, a different threat looms larger. Religious yearning — when expressed in politics as a substitute for religion — can deform politics. 

Over the past 20 years, the U.S., long the redoubt of religiosity among Western democracies, has experienced the most precipitous drop in church membership in recorded history. Though mainline Protestantism has taken the biggest hit, few congregations have been spared. But just because so many have disaffiliated doesn’t mean they have lost the human desire for ultimate and transcendent meaning. 

If Christianity has become less attractive to Americans, then they will find other outlets to direct their passions — the most popular of which seems to be politics. But by turning politics into a place to discover ultimate purpose and communion, we have ironically made political power not something to be feared, but rather the worthiest of ends to be pursued with religious zeal. 

This is one of secularization’s many paradoxes. It has merely redirected the very passions that it claims to subdue.

In societies undergoing secularization, such passions in turn create a dangerous imbalance. The result is an ever larger gap between believers and nonbelievers, but also among believers themselves.

Sometimes this gap can lead to religious conservatives dominating politics, as in the Middle East. Because such societies remain religious, with large majorities saying that God is very important in their daily lives, even so-called “secularists” are often religiously observant and therefore still derive some meaning from their faith. Family structures largely remain cohesive and vibrant across the ideological spectrum. As a result, politics is less attractive or urgent as an outlet for the innate desire for belonging and community. Liberals and secularists in such societies simply don’t need politics quite as much. 

Islamists, on the other hand, believe that private religious devotion is inseparable from political action. Islam is to be applied in daily life, including in the public realm. And to fail to do so is to shirk one’s obligations toward God. Faith, or at least their faith, gives them a built-in political advantage. As Shadi Taha, an Egyptian activist and liberal parliamentary candidate, once put it to me: “You tell me how you can add faith to liberalism and I’ll build you an organization like the Muslim Brotherhood’s. That’s why religion always beats politics in any match.”

Interestingly, in Western democracies, this dynamic is almost entirely reversed. Lower levels of religious observance among Democratic Party activists — who are more likely to be atheists, agnostics or “nones” compared with their Republican counterparts — means that they must find meaning elsewhere. As the newly elected atheist chaplain of Harvard University put it in The New York Times: “We don’t look to a god for answers. We are each other’s answers.”

Intuitively, if members of one party are less religious and likely to have fewer children, they will have more time for and interest in political activism. And with high levels of education, they will know how to agitate and organize. 

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In an essay published in April, Richard Hanania argues that this excess of both passion and interest — that might have otherwise been directed to private pursuits but wasn’t — leads to a partisan imbalance. Today, Democrats dominate American culture so thoroughly that it feels less like a war was won and more like a surrender. Mainstream institutions and other producers of culture, whether in the arts, universities, bureaucracies, media outlets, television stations or film, almost exclusively lean left. 

There is nothing wrong with winning a culture war. Wars, even cold ones, must reach their own conclusions. What is odd about this state of affairs, however, is that an ascendant left, despite increasingly finding itself in power, continues to act as if it is the underdog in need of more power and protection.

And so liberals, after having won the culture wars, expanded them on new fronts, winning those as well. Corporations are increasingly “woke,” as well, even if this is the product of a cynical gambit to use the superficial politics of representation to distract from systemic economic inequality. 

What results, per Hanania, is a two-party system where one party “win(s) because they care about politics more.” This increasingly lopsided gap raises the existential tenor of politics; liberals cement their hold over cultural institutions and attempt to extend hegemony over public education. Conservatives, meanwhile, assume a defensive crouch. There is no way to understand the behavior of the Republican Party in recent years without appreciating the perception of cultural siege, which has spurred them to act in increasingly anti-democratic ways.

You don’t need to believe that this cultural siege is real to believe that conservatives believe it is real.

In the process, the political realm becomes theological, at least in one specific sense: It becomes the venue where ultimate judgments are made and where social opprobrium or even punishments are rendered on believers and disbelievers alike. 

Now that Americans no longer have common religious touchstones or a shared understanding of God and family — let alone even basic biblical literacy — it makes sense that they would fight their battles over transcendent meaning in the last remaining space where everyone speaks the same language: politics and power. 

What might be called “political theology” is not new. That it is in fact quite old and derives from such a dark provenance should give us some cause for worry.

Brilliance certainly offers little protection against extremism. Two of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century — Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt — were members of the Nazi Party. Hannah Arendt, Heidegger’s lover for many years, tried to explain his Nazism by pointing to “a spiritual playfulness that stems in part from delusions of grandeur and in part from despair.” 

Schmitt meanwhile wrote about the political as a kind of divine struggle, replacing religion as the domain where “the utmost degree of intensity of a union or separation, of an association or disassociation” is realized. In the religious and moral sphere, there is good and evil. In politics, this is not the relevant distinction, Schmitt posited. The primary distinction, and the only one that matters, is between friend and enemy. The political is not defined by the inevitability of conflict but by the ever present possibility of it, and thus one must ready oneself for such exceptional circumstances. 

In this political realm, “each participant is in a position to judge whether the adversary intends to negate his opponent’s way of life and therefore must be repulsed or fought in order to preserve one’s own form of existence.” Where in Matthew 5:44, Jesus says to “love your enemies,” Schmitt’s concept of the political allows him to argue that Jesus said to love your enemies but not to love your political enemies, and he offers the Crusades as an example. The “decisive act” to identify the Saracens as enemies in the political sense effectively sidelines Christ’s counsel in the Sermon on the Mount. Gershom Scholem once called the philosopher Walter Benjamin “a theologian marooned in the realm of the profane.” The same might be said of Schmitt, particularly with biblical readings such as this.

In the Schmittian mindset, we are defined by enmity, and this enmity is transcendent. Identity and belief come not from a loving God but from knowing who or what to hate. And to hate your adversary meant that he was transformed into an enemy, and to have an enemy meant to fight, because your very existence was on the line. And if you had to fight your enemies, it only made sense to win. 

At times, I feel this temptation to dislike, or even hate, building in my own mind and heart. When I do, I immediately grow fearful that I might one day let myself be defined not by what I believe to be true but by what my “enemies” believe to be false. 

Because we are broken by sin, and because we are living in history, it is difficult to imagine subduing an otherwise enduring human impulse. The impulse to have and define an enemy will remain with us as, in some sense, a testament to human deficiency.

As Kevin Rozario, author of “The Culture of Calamity,” has said in The New York Times: “We know we’re in the presence of history when things are blowing up. There’s an intensification of emotions when you’re living in historical times, as if it’s more real.”

Some societies have successfully desacralized politics, although it is unclear whether these cases can be replicated elsewhere. The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood points to Japan as an appealing alternative of lower-stakes competition. Countries that have experienced fascist rule, military defeat or both, are more likely to accept “normal” politics, Wood suggests. Since neither are particularly likely in the near term on our own shores, thankfully, Americans will have to look elsewhere for inspiration. 

At the same time, there is a danger in seeing excessive conviction as a character flaw. If America is a nation of believers — but one where citizens no longer agree on what exactly to believe — then this can be a source of strength and vitality. 

The solution isn’t to dispense with conviction. And it certainly isn’t to tell people to hide from public view what they believe strongly in private. To ask someone to hide who they are in the name of a greater good is to ask the impossible. 

We may be able to suppress our deepest commitments for a time, but not indefinitely. 

And even if we could, it is not clear that this would even work. After all, ideological polarization has risen at a time when a growing number of Americans say, according to one survey, that they are not comfortable “saying things they believe because others might find them offensive.”

This suggests something counterintuitive: It is not so much that there is too much belief in our politics but rather that we feel threatened either by other people’s beliefs or by what they might think if they come to know our own. To frame the problem this way is to shift the conversation from a problem of conviction in politics to a problem of how to manage conviction. 

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Not all problems have solutions, and to think that they might may itself be the bigger issue.

Resolutions to the fact of deep difference are necessarily coercive, because they view difference as something in need of intervention, either from individuals or the state. In this sense, resisting theological politics is a question of both public attitudes and public institutions.

On the institutional level, American life has continued to trend toward centralization. This is one of those issues that by now seems both self-evident and intractable. Debates that should be local — say around COVID-19 transmission rates and what precautions one should take — are primarily understood through a national lens. This might work fine in countries with five or 10 million people, where everything is in effect local. But it makes little sense for a country as large and unwieldy as the U.S.

A growing chorus of writers and analysts, such as Yuval Levin, Patrick Deneen and John Inazu, have suggested localism or subsidiarity as the way forward. The intuition here is clear enough. If we, as Americans, no longer agree on what it means to be American, then let us pursue our divergent conceptions of the good in our own way, on our own terms and in our own parts of the country.

But it is unclear how exactly this vision comports with the dominance of an educated elite that appears increasingly comfortable with the use of state — and corporate — power to promote progressive ideas. Moreover, for many, the state appears to be more compelling when dealing with pandemics and climate change — issues that appear to demand collective action. 

For now, institutional change on a massive, sweeping scale is unlikely. In this sense, the very thing that could address the crisis of polarization — reducing the centrality of the state, and therefore politics, in our lives — is made more unlikely by that very polarization. 

A more realistic place to start, then, is with ourselves — our communities, workplaces and local governments. It is one thing to think that living with deep difference is a good idea. But for the idea and the aspiration to have any import, the suspension of judgment needs to be modeled and practiced in everyday life.

This is quite different than professing the need for “civility” or seeking “consensus.” These are nice-sounding things to be sure, but their flaw is that they effectively narrow the range of ideas expressed in public life. Consensus is only possible when there is already a consensus, and there rarely is. As the Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe puts it, “All forms of consensus are by necessity based on acts of exclusion.” 

In theory, we could rid the public square of “objectionable” ideas, but we do not agree on what is objectionable in the first place. To arbitrate what is acceptable and unacceptable requires an arbitrator — which returns us to the problem of state power and coercion. The alternative is to expand the range of convictions and commitments that can be expressed in cultural and political life, without fear of retaliation. 

It is helpful, here, to distinguish between “unsettled” and “settled” issues. The latter category is made up of a small set of issues that don’t need to be relitigated and are effectively settled for debate, with a broad and near total consensus position forming over time. Whether slavery was good is an obvious example. These are mostly uncontroversial.

However, if a significant slice of the population objects to the notion that an issue is settled, then it isn’t settled yet, and it’s up to citizens to convince more of their countrymen of their position. Because very few of our most charged debates are likely to be settled anytime soon, it means that political debate can — and should — stay as unfettered as possible. 

In practice, for liberals, this would mean that the 74 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump might be wrong or misguided, but they are not beyond the pale and they are not any less American. Perhaps more controversially, conservatives who oppose gay marriage, as many still do, are not akin to thought criminals. While gay marriage may be settled by law, it is still something on which reasonable people of good faith can disagree. Orthodox believers of Christianity, Islam and Judaism will, as an article of faith, submit to what they hold as God’s teachings regardless of what secular notions of justice and equality demand.

There are obvious corollaries for conservatives. Liberals who support abortion are their fellow Americans. Abortion is perhaps the epitome of an “unsettled” issue in American public life. And it is unsettled for a reason — because fundamentally different conceptions of the good have existed and will continue to exist without a definitive resolution. 

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There is a certain freedom in letting go of the need to win an argument or claim victory over one’s opponents. Our fellow citizens do not need to be converted, and the world does not need to be made anew.

This, I believe, is a better way to live, even as I admit that it is not so easy to hold one’s tongue (or tweets) when matters get contentious. But we can at least start by resisting that very human urge to make enemies of those who might otherwise become our friends. 

Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the author of “Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World.” 

This story appears in the October issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.

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