For this roundtable, Ashley the Editor wants us to write about whether religion is an appropriate basis for political belief. Of course, there is no such thing as generic religion; however, in the United States, there are lots and lots of very specific religions. But since I cannot answer for the Sufi Muslims or the Zen Buddhists or the neo-pagans out there, I’m going to address the question from the perspective of Orthodox Christianity. And from the perspective of this Orthodox priest, there is currently way too much religion in our politics.
Yeah, I know: that’s not what you were expecting to hear from a clergyman—especially an Orthodox clergyman. But hear me out: Even though there is no such thing as generic religion, there are basic religious needs that we all share. And, even if we are not involved in any sort of formal, organized religion, we still have these basic needs. For example, we all yearn to believe; we all want to hope; we are all drawn to worship. Those cravings are a big part of what makes us human, but, ultimately, they can only be satisfied through a healthy relationship with the Most Holy Trinity.
Nevertheless, in 2016 America, a great many people try to get their religious needs met through politics.
Just think about all those energized Progressives: These people firmly believe that there simply isn’t a problem that cannot be solved by the government, so they put their faith in experts and policies and the legislative process. And notice how the religious language in that last sentence doesn’t seem out of place at all—because Progressive folks really do have faith in our system of government, and they really do believe that, if the right people are in office, and if the right laws are passed, and if the right initiatives are funded, then the world is going to become a better place.
Or think about all those enthusiastic Conservatives: They trust the long-term performance of the free market. They believe in a strict interpretation of the Constitution, limited government, and a strong, national defense. The reverence that Conservatives have for these principles is positively religious because they genuinely have faith in the capitalist system, and they sincerely believe that, if we can successfully defend our country and uphold our heritage and keep the government out of the way, then the market will generate prosperity for everyone, and the world will become a better place.
And think about how much pageantry and ceremonial have started creeping into our politics over the last few decades. This is especially obvious in the way we have started treating our Presidents: At the State of the Union Address, during the Inaugurations—even during the average press conference—there is a great deal more formality and ritual than there has been in the past. And when you’ve got that kind of solemnity going on, then what you’ve got is worship. And where ever you find worship, you’ve also got religion.
So a lot of Americans are attempting to get their religious needs met through politics. In fact, it has got to the point where, for many folks, politics has simply become their religion. Unfortunately, the mainstream media is totally oblivious when it comes to this dynamic. When MSNBC or FOX do a story about religion and politics, they focus on the influence of the Evangelical Right, or they wonder how the Mormon vote is going to skew. But they haven’t yet caught on to the fact that, for a great many Americans, politics has simply replaced religion.
And the odd thing is that the data is pretty much staring them in the face. Just think back over the last couple of years: how many stories have you seen or heard about all the Americans who no longer identify with any major religion? According to some reports, it’s as high as 23%. But, again, just because a person no longer wishes to be a Quaker or a Christian Scientist or a Rastafarian, that doesn’t mean their religious needs somehow go away; it just means that person has to get those needs met in some other fashion. Some folks are going to try to get those needs met through a career or a relationship or through a hobby. But a great many people are now making politics their new religion.
And here’s why that data and that dynamic are so important: One of the biggest stories this year is the dissatisfaction that voters are expressing. Voter frustration has been a theme through the last several election cycles, but it has reached record proportions during this current presidential race. In fact, both of the major candidates have had overall unfavorable ratings approaching 60%, and many commentators are predicting that the election will be, as the Washington Post recently put it, “a contest of negatives”.
So why are Americans so ticked? Part of it certainly has to do with the fact that the major candidates are two of the most morally compromised individuals who have ever run for our country’s highest office. Nevertheless, in the past, we have willingly entrusted the Presidency to liars and sexual predators and slave owners and incompetents—why, then are voters currently so disgruntled?
It’s because they feel let-down. And the reason they feel let-down is because they have been trying to substitute politics for religion. But those basic religious needs that we all have—the hunger to believe, the thirst for hope, the appetite for worship—those needs cannot finally be fulfilled anywhere outside of an intimate relationship with the Most Holy Trinity. And if we try to replace that relationship with an activity like politics, then we are only going to end up disillusioned and disappointed.
Which is why I say that, right now, there is way too much religion in our politics. If you feel like you have become tangled up in that mess, and you would like to know how to get untangled, I would be more than happy to talk to you about that process.