Here’s a bold pronouncement:
The fastest growing “religion” in America isn’t Buddhism, Islam, or that age-defying voodoo powder that Tom Brady’s trainer sprinkles in his Gatorade. Not even close. Over the past decade or so, America’s fastest growing religion has been the all-consuming pull of politics.
A recent article in The American Conservative suggests something like this – and it isn’t limited to just the “Right” or “Left.”
Looking back to 2008, Timothy P. Carney argues that one thing many of the chanting, fainting, I-will-never-wash-this-hand-again supporters of Barack Obama had in common with the reddest of “red hats” is that they had abandoned church and transferred their religious fervor to political messiahs.
Politics replaced religion.
Based on research by the Pew Research Center, Carney states that:
The best way to describe Trump’s support in the Republican primaries […] would be: white evangelicals who do not go to church.
They came to Trump seeking what they had lost because they had lost church.
This claim is muddied by the fact that some of these devotees still claimed the label “evangelical,” though they had long since left church. In fact, the subset of Trump voters dubbed “the Preservationists” was the group most likely to say that religion was “very important” to them even while they were least likely to attend religious gatherings.
What meaneth this?
One way of reading the statistic would be to say that for some of these folks, it was not so much a case of politics expressing their faith as it was political fervor becoming their faith. (Read the whole thing here to see if you agree.)
It would be wrong, however, to say that this is just a MAGA phenomenon. My hunch is that something similar could be said of the far Left.
ET TU BERNIE?
It is widely known that this demographic is less likely to attend church regularly, or to claim a religious affiliation. The “Nones” are on the rise, we hear repeatedly. But is “None” really the most accurate religious descriptor for some of the most vocal members of the secular Left?
How many of these marching, chanting, constantly posting anti-Trumpists might also be said to have transferred their “faith” to America’s new national religion?
After all, a quick gander at the leading “news” sites (whether Right or Left) shows a form of ideological purity and boundary-policing that would normally be reserved for the harshest of fundamentalist sects. Heresy is a live category here, as is excommunication and the social media equivalent of burning at the stake.
WHAT IS RELIGION?
The first point to be made in response to my argument is that it would be unfair to accuse all passionate voices (on the Right or Left) of having adopted a new religion.
Theologians like myself should be careful about turning everything into a “religion,” as if my kids’ passion for fruit snacks and animal crackers should be read through the lens of Dionysius and animal sacrifice.
“Some” is the key word above.
Still, I stand by my claim that we sometimes define “faith” and “religion” too narrowly.
In my usage, religion (or “worship”) is the assigning of ultimate, transcendent value to a particular object, person, or idea. Along these lines, even famous atheists like Christopher Hitchens have long referred to Soviet Marxism as a de-facto religion. (Hitchens knew this from experience; as a young Communist, he had gone to live in Castro’s Cuba.)
My contention is that we sometimes fail to define “worship” and “religion” broadly enough. As Nietzsche rightly saw, there are more idols in this world than one thinks.
WHAT TO DO?
But what should Christians do in the face of America’s fastest growing quasi-religion?
An initial move should be to examine our own hearts and habits. How much time do I spend perusing political news versus reading Scripture? Would a quick scan of my Facebook posts indicate that I am most passionate about? How often do words like “Left” and “Right” pepper daily my daily vocabulary? Do I spend hours a week listening to acerbic talk radio or other forms of highly biased political content?
Then, three quick applications for the church at large:
1. Don’t baptize rival kingdoms.
An initial step would be a refusal to baptize the political dog in the ecclesial manger, regardless of the color of its collar.
In American politics, both sides have had tendency to care selectively about certain sins, while conveniently ignoring others. Both sides have tended to “bundle” issues strangely at certain points (e.g., justice for all and abortion on demand). And both sides have found church leaders willing to “baptize” their moves in exchange for access to power. I’ll forgo the examples.
In the words of evangelical historian, Thomas S. Kidd:
we should never want our church leaders to become partisan campaigners, regardless of the party in question. [This move] disrupts the unity of the church, and invariably turns the church into a servant of temporal power rather than the kingdom of God.
2. Don’t retreat to private faith.
On the other hand, it would be equally disastrous to respond to our hyper-politicized moment with a retreat from social engagement altogether.
“Religion as a private matter.”
~Said no one in the Bible, ever.
A “private” faith is an irrelevant invention of the modern world. Thus Christians ought to care about the issues God cares about.
For me, that includes pressing matters of justice like abortion, racial reconciliation, and many others topics.
At the same time, we must be sure to take our cues from Scripture more than from the talking heads of Cable News, or the self-interested bosses of party politics.
3. Don’t lose interest in the “seed” growing slowly.
My sense is that some Christians have simply grown tired or bored with the difficult and unheralded work of soul-care and The Great Commission.
And strange as it sounds, I get it.
On every news site and every social media platform, we are told repeatedly that political realities are the most important, most interesting, and most cringe-worthy aspect of life. Who isn’t tempted to believe it?
Politics is the laser pointer, and we are the frantic cats that jump to and fro at the whims of “owners” after ad revenue. Politics is the fast-moving, shiny object from which you can hardly look away.
By comparison, the “seed” growing slowly beneath the soil doesn’t seem as exciting. If the Kingdom of God is like leaven mixed with dough (doing its work in secret, without headlines, and without a 12-hour news cycle), then politics is like gunpowder. It turns more heads, makes more noise, and sucks up all the oxygen. But that doesn’t mean it’s where the actions is.
The challenge of Christ’s strange kingdom is to trust that the “seed” growing slowly is what really matters.
The gospel is the treasure buried in the field; it is worth selling everything to have; and it is more fulfilling than our new national religion of political fixation.
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